Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Flight of Rudolf Hess

Sixty-six years ago today – May 10, 1941 – Nazi Party Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, apparently in the hopes of negotiating peace with the British in light of the coming war with the Soviet Union.

Hess had been born to German parents in Alexandria, Egypt, but returned to the Fatherland as a young teenager. He wanted to be an astronomer, but his business-minded father insisted that he attend school in Switzerland at a business college. Already 20 at the outbreak of World War I, Hess took the opportunity to escape the rule of his tyrannical father and joined the infantry. He served at the battle of Ypres in 1915, and later in Romania. He was wounded twice, earning an Iron Cross 2nd Class. He later transferred to the air service and flew Fokker D.VII’s for JG 35 in the last few weeks of the war, though he was not credited with any kills.

After the war, Hess, like so many other embittered German veterans, joined the Freikorps, a right wing paramilitary outfit that sprang up in post-war Germany, fighting, among other things, to put down Communist uprisings. He was also reputed to be a member of the Thule Society, an anti-Jew and anti-Communist occult group that later gave Hitler the basis for such Nazi ideas as the primacy of the Aryan race, the use of the swastika as a party symbol, and Jewish extermination.

Hess first met Adolph Hitler in 1920, after hearing Hitler speak. He soon joined Hitler’s budding organization, officially as the 16th member. He took part in the Bier Hall Putsch of 1923, and served 7 and a half months in prison as a result. About this same time, he began serving as Hitler’s secretary, and was the primary editor for Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. He very quickly rose to become Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party and third in command after Hitler and Hermann Göring. Göring, of course, was another former World War I aviator.

Although he maintained his high position in Hitler’s inner circle, he grew increasingly disenfranchised during the 1930’s as others began to grow more powerful within the Nazi hierarchy.

Be that as it may, by May of 1941, Hess was still a right hand man to Hitler and a devoted Nazi to the core.

Hitler and Hess

To this day, the exact circumstances surrounding Hess’s flight on May 10th of that year are unknown. Ostensibly, Hess decided, on his own, to solve the problem of the coming 2-front war for Germany by flying to England to negotiate peace. This, he apparently believed, would help to restore his influence within the Nazi hierarchy. His plan was to meet with the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, who was an influential commander in the Royal Air Force (he was in charge of the air defense of Scotland), but was suspected, by the Germans anyway, of being a Nazi sympathizer. The Duke had visited Germany a number of times during the 1930’s and had rubbed shoulders with many of the Nazi leadership, including Hitler and Göring. Göring, in fact, had given him a personal invitation to inspect the newly formed Luftwaffe only several years prior to the outbreak of war.

So, presumably acting completely on his own, Hess took off on the evening of May 10, 1941, bound for Scotland. Knowing he would have nowhere to safely land, he parachuted from his plane over southern Scotland, landing on a farm in Eaglesham, just south of Glasgow.

The wreckage of Hess's Messerschmitt in Scotland

Apparently believing he was at or near Dungavel House – the summer estate of the Duke, which was in the same area – Hess limped on a broken ankle to the door of the workman’s cottage nearby and asked to be taken to the Duke, providing the name “Albert Horn” to the dumbstruck farmer.

Instead of taking him to the Duke, the farmer, a man named David McLean, transported him to a local hospital, promising to summon the Duke for him. When Hamilton arrived, Hess admitted to him who he was and told him why he had come. He outlined a plan of peace with England that included returning all European lands to their original nationality, but keeping German police located throughout. Germany would agree to pay to rebuild these countries, but England would have to support the German war against the Soviet Union. Hamilton, realizing that Hess did not, apparently, represent the official German government, and realizing that Hess appeared to be mentally unstable, immediately contacted Winston Churchill. Hess was taken into custody of the British, where he remained a prisoner of war until 1945.

Shortly after his imprisonment, Hitler publicly announced that Hess had not been on any sort of official mission, and that he had gone insane. He arrested and imprisoned most of Hess’s staff and replaced Hess with Martin Bormann – who would later become another influential Nazi figure. Upon hearing of these things, Hess told his interrogators that Hitler’s statements and actions were part of a pre-arranged plan in case the mission failed, in order to save face for the Nazi party. Hess was seen throughout his time in England by a British psychiatrist who determined that he was not, in fact, insane, but was mentally ill and was severely depressed.

Tried with other Nazi criminals at Nüremberg, Hess appeared to go in and out of lucidity, though many believed it was an act. At one point he claimed to have amnesia. During one particularly lucid moment, Hess proudly proclaimed his devotion to the Nazi party, assuring the court that, if he could do it all over, he would not change a thing. His behavior was so disconcerting that Hermann Göring asked for a seat away from him. This request was denied.

The Nüremberg trial, Hess seated 2nd from left, next to Göring

Hess was found guilty of crimes against peace, as well as conspiracy, and sentenced to life in prison at Spandau Prison, in West Berlin. He was found not guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Spandau Prison

Hess lived well into the 1980’s, spending the last 10 years or so of his life as the jail’s only prisoner, before finally committing suicide at the age of 93, in 1987.

A rare photo of Hess at Spandau on one of his daily walks

Even his death is shrouded in mystery, as many, including his son, believe the British secret service actually assassinated him. For many years, there had been talk of pardoning him, due to his mental illness and old age. Even Winston Churchill and other prominent British leaders expressed publicly that they felt his lifetime incarceration was unjust. By 1987, such a pardon seemed imminent. It is believed by many – though not supported by any hard evidence – that the British killed him to ensure that no embarrassing secrets were revealed upon his release. Many believe the British were, in fact, involved in peace talks with Germany during that period of 1941, and many believe that the British, in fact, had known that Hess was coming, but later balked at making peace with Germany, instead plunging England into another 4 years of war.

After Hess’s death, Spandau Prison was demolished, to keep it from becoming a neo-nazi shrine.

As a postscript, Greg Illes’ excellent novel Spandau Phoenix (Barnes & Noble Link) is centered around the Hess conspiracy, and follows one theory that has suggested the prisoner in Spandau all those years was not Hess at all, but a double. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes thriller novels centered around World War II intrigue.


deine schwester :) said...

Very, very interesting stuff. And why would a guy wait all those years, until he was so old he was bound to go soon, and THEN decide to off himself??? I have heard the conspiracy theories about it not really being him. People say he didn't have the correct scars and such....that he really was one of those living it up in South America.

I also find it ironic how nonchalant most of those monsters look sitting in the box in that picture of the trial. Like it's all no big deal.

Scott said...

The odd decision, after all those years, and at such an old age, to hang himself is the prime reason for the theories that he did not commit suicide at all, but was killed before he could be pardoned, to keep secrets safe. It's an intriguing idea. It's fictionalized in detail in the Illes novel I mentioned. In the novel, a double was used from the start by Hitler to attempt peace with England. When things went awry, Hitler proclaimed that Hess was insane. It was the double, then, who spent 4 years as a POW, and then another 40 incarcerated at Spandau. He was then killed in 1987 to keep him from telling the truth of the conspiracy upon his impending pardon. It's a great novel.

And yes, the picture of the Nazi leaders on trial is disconcerting. Goring, in particular, looks like he's sitting at the park admiring flowers.

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