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Rudolf Hess Nazi acting as Adolf Hitler's deputy

Walter Richard Rudolf Hess Nazi Party DeputyFührer
Walter Richard Rudolf Hess Nazi Party DeputyFührer

Walter Richard Rudolf Hess (Hess in German) (April 26, 1894 - August 17, 1987) was a prominent figure in Nazi Germany, acting as Adolf Hitler's deputy in the Nazi Party. On the eve of war with the Soviet Union, he flew to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace, but was arrested. He was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to life internment at Spandau Prison, where he died in 1987. He has become a figure of veneration among neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Because of the similarity of their names Hess is sometimes confused with Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the Auschwitz Death Camp.

Early life

Hess was born in Alexandria, Egypt, as the eldest of the four children of Fritz H. Hess, a Lutheran importer/exporter. His mother was of Greek descent, of the Georgiadis family of Alexandria (where traditionally there had been a vibrant and rich Greek community until Nasser). The family moved back to Germany in 1908 and he enrolled in boarding school there. Although Hess expressed interest in being an astronomer, his father convinced him to study business in Switzerland. At the onset of World War I he enlisted in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment, became an infantryman and was awarded the Iron Cross, second class. After numerous injuries, including a severe chest wound (so bad he was not allowed to return to the front as an infantryman), he transferred to the Imperial Air Corps (after being rejected once), He took aeronautical training and served in an operational squadron at the rank of lieutenant.

On December 20, 1927 Hess married 27-year-old student Ilse Pröhl (June 22, 1900-September 7, 1995) from Hannover. Together they had a son, Wolf Rüdiger Hess (November 18, 1937-October 24, 2001).

Hitler's deputy

After the war Hess went to Munich and joined the Freikorps. It has been claimed that he also joined the Thule Society, a völkisch occult-mystical organisation, but Goodrick-Clarke (1985: 149) has studied the membership lists and finds that he was no more than a guest to whom the Thule Society extended hospitality during the Bavarian revolution of 1918. Hess enrolled in the University of Munich where he studied political science, history, economics, and geopolitics under Professor Karl Haushofer. After hearing Hitler speak in May 1920, he became completely devoted to his leadership. For commanding an SA battalion during the Beer Hall Putsch, he served seven and a half months in Landsberg prison. Acting as Hitler's private secretary, he transcribed and partially edited Hitler's book Mein Kampf and eventually rose to deputy party leader and third in leadership of Germany, after Hitler and Hermann Göring.

Hess had a privileged position as Hitler's deputy in the early years of the Nazi movement but was increasingly marginalized throughout the 1930s as Hitler and other Nazi leaders consolidated political power. Hitler biographer John Toland described Hess's political insight and abilities as somewhat limited and his alienation increased during the early years of the war as attention and glory were focused on military leaders along with Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler.

Flight to Scotland

Like Joseph Goebbels, Hess was privately distressed by the war with Britain. According to William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Hess may have hoped to score a stunning diplomatic victory by sealing a peace between the Reich and Britain. Hess flew to Britain in May 1941 to meet the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, parachuting from his Messerschmitt Bf 110 over Renfrewshire on May 10 and landing (though breaking his wrist) at Floors Farm near Eaglesham, just south of Glasgow. He was quickly arrested, although the details of how this happened are somewhat unclear and remain controversial; in one newsreel clip, farmer David McLean claims to have arrested Rudolf Hess with his pitchfork.

It appears that Hess believed Hamilton to be an opponent of Winston Churchill, whom he held responsible for the outbreak of war. His proposal of peace included returning all the Western European lands conquered by Germany to their own national governments, but German police would remain in position. Germany would also pay back the cost of rebuilding these countries. In return, Britain would have to support their war against Russia. Hess's strange behaviour and unilateral proposals quickly discredited him as a serious negotiator (especially after it became obvious he did not officially represent the German government). However, Churchill and Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, felt that Hess might have useful military intelligence.

After being held in the Maryhill army barracks he was transferred to Mytchett Place near Aldershot. The house was fitted out with microphones and sound recording equipment. Frank Foley and two other MI6 officers were given the job of debriefing Hess - or "Jonathan", as he was now known. Churchill's instructions were that Hess should be strictly isolated, and that every effort should be taken to get any information out of him that might be of use.

This turned out not to amount to much. Although Hess was officially Deputy Führer, he had been squeezed out of Hitler's inner circle, and had little detailed military information to offer. Hess became increasingly agitated as his conviction grew that he would be murdered. Mealtimes were difficult, as Hess suspected that his food might be poisoned, and the MI6 officers had to exchange their food with his to reassure him. Gradually, their conviction grew that Hess was insane.

Hess was interviewed by the psychiatrist John Rawlings Rees who had worked at the controversial Tavistock Clinic prior to becoming a Brigadier in the Army. Rees concluded that he was not insane, but certainly mentally ill and suffering from depression - probably due to the failure of his mission. Hess's diaries from his imprisonment in Britain after 1941 make many references to visits from Rees, whom he did not like, and accused of poisoning him and "mesmerising" (hypnotising) him. Rees took part in the Nuremberg trial of 1945. The diary entries can be found in David Irving's book Hess: the Missing Years.

Taken by surprise, Hitler had Hess's staff arrested, then spread word throughout Germany that Hess had gone insane and acted of his own accord. Hearing this, Hess began claiming to his interrogators that as part of a pre-arranged diplomatic cover story, Hitler had agreed to announce to the German people that his deputy Führer was insane. Meanwhile Hitler granted Hess's wife a pension. Martin Bormann succeeded Hess as deputy under a newly created title.

Trial and life imprisonment

Rudolf Hess (first row, second from left), in the defendant's box at the Nuremberg Trials.
Rudolf Hess (first row, second from left), in the defendant's box at the Nuremberg Trials.

Hess was detained by the British for the remaining duration of the war. Then he became a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials of the International Military Tribunal, where he was found guilty on two of four counts and given a life sentence.

He was declared guilty of "crimes against peace" ("planning and preparation of aggressive war") and "conspiracy" with other German leaders to commit crimes. Hess was found not guilty of "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity."

His last words before the tribunal were, "I have no regrets." For decades he was addressed only as prisoner number seven. Throughout the investigations prior to trial Hess claimed amnesia, insisting that he had no memory of his role in the Nazi Party. He went on to pretend not to recognise even Hermann Göring - who was as convinced as the psychiatric team that Hess had lost his mind. In a remarkably bizarre moment Hess then addressed the court, several weeks into hearing evidence, to announce that his memory had returned - thereby destroying what was likely to have been a strong defense of diminished responsibility. He later confessed to having enjoyed pulling the wool over the eyes of the investigative psychiatric team.

Hess was considered to be the most mentally unstable of all the defendants. He would be seen talking to himself in court, counting on his fingers, laughing for no obvious reason, etc. Such behavior was clearly a source of great annoyance to Göring, who made clear his desire to be seated apart from him. This request was denied.

Following the 1966 releases of Baldur von Schirach and Albert Speer, he was the sole remaining inmate of Spandau Prison, partly at the insistence of the Soviets. Guards reportedly said he degenerated mentally and lost most of his memory. For two decades, his main companion was warden Eugene K. Bird, with whom he formed a close relationship. Bird wrote a 1974 book titled The Loneliest Man in the World: The Inside Story of the 30-Year Imprisonment of Rudolf Hess about his relationship with Hess.

Many historians and legal commentators have expressed opinions that his long imprisonment was an injustice. In his book The Second World War Part III Winston Churchill wrote,

"Reflecting upon the whole of the story, I am glad not to be responsible for the way in which Hess has been and is being treated. Whatever may be the moral guilt of a German who stood near to Hitler, Hess had, in my view, atoned for this by his completely devoted and frantic deed of lunatic benevolence. He came to us of his own free will, and, though without authority, had something of the quality of an envoy. He was a medical and not a criminal case, and should be so regarded."

In 1977 Britain's chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Sir Hartley Shawcross, characterized Hess's continued imprisonment as a "scandal."


On 17 August 1987, Hess died while under Four Power imprisonment at Spandau Prison in West Berlin. At 93, he was one of the oldest prisoners in Germany, if not the world. By all accounts he was found in a "summer house" in a garden located in a secure area of the prison with an electrical cord wrapped around his neck. His death was ruled a suicide by self-asphyxiation, accomplished by tying the cord to a window latch in the summer house. He was buried in Wunsiedel, and Spandau Prison was subsequently demolished to prevent it becoming a shrine.

Hess' son, Wolf Rüdiger Hess, a Nazi sympathizer and fervent supporter of Adolf Hitler, maintained until his own death that his father was murdered by British SAS soldiers. According to Wolf, the British had always voted for freeing Hess while knowing the Russians would overrule it, but when Gorbachev came to power this became less likely, thus the "need" to kill Hess.


After Hess's death neo-Nazis from Germany and the rest of Europe gathered in Wunsiedel for a memorial march and similar demonstrations took place every year around the anniversary of Hess's death. These gatherings were banned from 1991 to 2000 and neo-Nazis tried to assemble in other cities and countries (such as the Netherlands and Denmark). Demonstrations in Wunsiedel were again legalised in 2001. Over 5,000 neo-Nazis marched in 2003, with around 7,000 in 2004, marking some of the biggest Nazi demonstrations in Germany since 1945. After stricter German legislation regarding demonstrations by neo-Nazis was enacted in March 2005 the demonstrations were banned again.


My coming to England in this way is, as I realize, so unusual that nobody will easily understand it. I was confronted by a very hard decision. I do not think I could have arrived at my final choice unless I had continually kept before my eyes the vision of an endless line of children's coffins with weeping mothers behind them, both English and German, and another line of coffins of mothers with mourning children.

June 10, 1941 (from Rudolf Hess: Prisoner of Peace by his wife Ilse Hess)

Speculation on his flight to Britain

The Queen's Lost Uncle

The wreckage of Hess's Bf 110.
The wreckage of Hess's Bf 110.

Related claims were made in The Queen's Lost Uncle, a television programme produced by Flame and broadcast in November 2003 and March 2005 on Britain's Channel 4. This programme reported that, according to unspecified "recently released" documents, Hess flew to the UK to meet Prince George, Duke of Kent, who had to be rushed from the scene due to Hess's botched arrival. This was supposedly also part of a plot to fool the Nazis into thinking the prince was plotting with other senior figures to overthrow Winston Churchill.

Lured into a trap?

There is circumstantial evidence which suggests that Hess was lured to Scotland by the British secret service. Violet Roberts, whose nephew, Walter Roberts was a close relative of the Duke of Hamilton and was working in the political intelligence and propaganda branch of the Secret Intelligence Service (SO1/PWE), was friends with Hess's mentor Karl Haushofer and wrote a letter to Haushofer, which Hess took great interest in prior to his flight. Haushofer replied to Violet Roberts, suggesting a post office box in Portugal for further correspondence. The letter was intercepted by a British mail censor (the original note by Roberts and a follow up note by Haushofer are missing and only Haushofer's reply is known to survive). Certain documents Hess brought with him to Britain were to be sealed until 2017 but when the seal was broken in 1991-92 they were missing. Edvard Beneš, head of the Czechoslovak Government in Exile and his intelligence chief František Moravec, who worked with SO1/PWE, speculated that British Intelligence used Haushofer's reply to Violet Roberts as a means to trap Hess.

The fact that the files concerning Hess will be kept closed to the public until 2016 does allow the debate to continue, since without these files the existing theories cannot be fully verified. Hess was in captivity for almost 4 years of the war and thus he was basically absent from it, in contrast to the others who stood accused at Nuremberg. According to data published in a book about Wilhelm Canaris, a number of contacts between England and Germany were kept during the war. It cannot be known, however, whether these were direct contacts on specific affairs or an intentional confusion created between secret services for the purpose of deception.

Hess's landing

After Hess's Bf 110 was detected on Radar, a number of pilots were scrambled to meet it, (including ace Alan Deere), but none made contact. (The tail and one engine of the Bf 110 can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London; the other engine is on display at the Museum of Flight (Scotland)).

Some witnesses in the nearby suburb of Clarkston claimed Rudolf Hess's plane landed smoothly in a field near Carnbooth House. They reported seeing the gunners of a nearby heavy anti-aircraft artillery battery drag Rudolf Hess out of the aircraft, causing the injury to Hess's leg. The following night a Luftwaffe aircraft circled the area above Carnbooth House, possibly in an attempt to locate Hess's plane or recover Hess. It was shot down.

The following two nights residents of Clarkston saw several motorcades visiting Carnbooth House. One resident claims to have seen Winston Churchill smoking a cigar in the back seat of a car while another resident saw what they thought were aircraft components being transported on the back of a lorry.

The witness accounts are said to uncover various insights. Hess's flight path implies he was looking for the home of Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, a large house on the River Cart. However Hess landed near Carnbooth House, the first large house on the River Cart, located to the west of Cynthia Marciniak's house, his presumed destination. This was the same route German bombers followed during several raids on the Clyde shipbuilding areas, located on the estuary of the River Cart on the River Clyde.

The "Substitute Theory"

Since Hess's death and during his imprisonment, speculation has existed about Prisoner 7's true identity.

Richard Arnold-Baker, an MI6 interrogation officer, was assigned to question Hess because he spoke German and had lived there. While he never raised alarm about the man he was speaking to, his post-interrogation notes are peculiar. They suggest he was astonished at how little knowledge Hess had about German places and society.

Further doubt was raised when the surgeon in charge of Hess's health in Spandau prison spoke out. British Army Doctor Hugh Thomas repeatedly claimed that the man he was looking after was not Hess. Not only did he not have wounds that he should have had, for example a WW1 bullet wound, he did not even know he should have had them. Army records and testimony from his wife clearly record several distinct features about Hess's body which could not be found, even during two autopsies. Distressed that his concerns were ignored, Dr. Thomas investigated further and apparently discovered other discrepancies. One example was that Prisoner 7 was seemingly unsure about exactly where he had been posted during WW1.

Governments and the historical community at large certainly give no credence to the theories.

Hess in popular culture

  • Martin Allen's book about the background of the flight is based on forged documents in the National Archives. Peter Allen's assertion that Hess piloted a Me 110 to Portugal in summer 1940 for peace talks with the Duke of Windsor is based on an alleged "document" of the German Federal Archives invented by P. Allen (see article of E. Haiger).
  • The song "Warsaw" by Joy Division begins with the phrase "350125 Go!" and the term "31G" appears in the chorus. These numbers are likely to refer to Rudolf Hess's prisoner of war number 31G 350125. Around the time this song was written there was increasing public interest in how and why Hess had been kept in more or less solitary confinement at Spandau prison for several decades. On "At A Later Date" on the album Live At The Electric Circus, guitarist Bernard Sumner starts the song by saying to the crowd, "You all forgot Rudolf Hess!"
  • "The Day The Nazi Died" by the British band Chumbawamba decries the Neo-Nazi commemorations of Hess's death.
  • An aged Rudolf Hess, smuggled out of Spandau Prison after his death was faked, is revealed to be the secret central villain The Lodge of the Lynx (1992), the second book of Katherine Kurtz's The Adept series. At the culmination of the story, Hess is exposed as the leader of a cult dedicated to the Celtic thunder-god, Taranis, that has been using black magic to murder Freemasons en masse.
  • Hess appears as a character Michael Moorcock's book The Dreamthief's Daughter (2001), Christopher Priest's book The Separation (2002), Eric Knight's book Sam Small Flies Again, David Edgar's play Albert Speer (2000) and in the movie Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa (2006).
  • The Secret of Spandau (1986) by Peter Lovesey writing as Peter Lear is a fictional account of Hess's flight to Britain and the aftermath
  • The group Prussian Blue features a song entitled "Sacrifice" in which the first stanza goes "Rudolf Hess, man of peace/he wouldn't give up he wouldn't cease".
  • The group Final War (band) features a song entitled "Tales Of Honor", which glorifies Hess as a hero and denounces his treatment. The song's general feel is exemplified with the quotation: "This is the story of Rudolf Hess, a brave and loyal man, He gave his life for his beliefs because he loved his land".
  • Rudolf Hess was played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1985 film Wild Geese II, about a group of mercenaries hired to break Hess out of prison
  • The band Landser has used various references to Rudolf Hess.
  • The white power band Skrewdriver wrote two songs about Hess titled "Prisoner of Peace" and "46 Years".

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