Walter Richard Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was Deputy Reichsführer for Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1941. He lived longer than any other major war criminal.
Rudolf Hess was born April 26, 1894, in Cairo, Egypt, eldest son of Fritz H. Hess and Klara Münch. He was educated in a German school at Alexandria and also in Germany at Godesberg am Rhein. In World War I Hess served in the Bavarian infantry and trained as a pilot. In 1919, he attended Munich University briefly and was a student of geopolitical professor Karl Haushofer. In 1920 Hess joined the Nazi Party and soon after became a private secretary to Adolf Hitler. Following the 1923 Munich putsch and 1924 trial, Hess was imprisoned at Landsberg, where he helped Hitler in preparing the book Mein Kampf. In 1927 Hess married Ilse Pröhl, and one son, Wolf Rüdiger, was born in 1937. In 1933 Hess was chosen by Hitler as a cabinet member and deputy reichsführer.
Hess oversaw the employment, promotion, and training of Nazis in government, party, and business positions; had significant responsibility for administering the Nuremberg Laws on citizenship; and adjudicated claims and appeals on a broad range of subjects. Hess's administration was honest in that he did not profit financially or build a following. Presumably it suited Hitler to have a deputy who was politically neutral and ethically "decent, " but adamant in upholding authoritarian and anti-Semitic principles. Hess "saved" a few victims of persecution, but his administration established categories of people later sent to labor camps and extermination camps. In September of 1939 Hermann Göring was named war-time "successor" to Hitler, with Hess as a successor to Göring.
During the French campaign of 1940 Hitler discussed with Hess and others his wish for an Anglo-German "good will" peace settlement giving the Germans a free hand in Eastern Europe. Hitler's speech of July 19, 1940, and his "peace feelers" via Switzerland, the Vatican, the United States, and several private channels put his broad ideas in clear enough terms. In September 1940 Hess began air pilot practice and related preparations of his own for a flight to Britain as an emissary of Hitler's peace policy, but without Hitler's consent or knowledge. On May 10, 1941, Hess flew an ME110 fitted with auxiliary gas tanks from Augsburg to Scotland, landing by parachute south of Glasgow. Hitler expressed surprise and displeasure and was concerned as to what and how much Hess might tell the British about "Barbarossa, " the projected invasion of Russia. Hitler ordered death for Hess should he return to Germany, but made no effort to have Hess rescued or killed and later spoke of him as a loyal but misguided "Old Comrade." Martin Bormann succeeded Hess as deputy with malign efficiency.
The surprised British confined Hess to varying forms of comfortable imprisonment and much highly-publicized censorship. According to Hess's own later account he early on asked to see the Duke of Hamilton and then explained to the duke that he came to offer peace and asked for the king's "parole" to protect and assist his efforts. Hess's subsequent interviews with Ivone Kirkpatrick of the Foreign Office and Sir John Simon, then lord chancellor, were entirely fruitless. Hess later wrote "things as I apparently imagined them are not possible in England." However, the central defect of Hess's "mission" was its lack of practical meaning. He brought no new proposals and had no authority to negotiate or even to be in Britain. In Churchill's later words, "this escapade … had no relation to the march of events."
In 1946 Hess was tried at Nuremberg as one of the major war criminals. The record of his suicide attempts and amnesia while in custody led to examinations and reports by psychiatrists who agreed that Hess was sane in terms of criminal law—that is, he could distinguish right from wrong and understood the consequences of his actions. Apart from this legal issue, Hess's amnesia was never complete, with no fixed temporal "bloc" associated with any sudden trauma. His active delusion that his failures were caused by the secret powers of his "Jewish enemies" was not unique among Nazis. The Nuremberg Tribunal confined itself to the counts of the indictment, convicted Hess of committing aggression and conspiracy to commit aggression, and imposed a sentence of life imprisonment. It seems possible that a better memory and mental condition would have increased Hess's chance of being hanged.
After 1946 Hess was kept at Spandau Prison in West Berlin. The Western powers and many Western leaders made efforts for his release, chiefly on grounds of age and time served. The Russians, however, appeared to believe Hess morally responsible for "Barbarossa" and its 20 million Russian victims. Rudolf Hess died in 1987.
The uncertain possibilities of the Hess case compelled the attention of national leaders at the time, and the combination of sensational elements continued to attract speculative pens. As Hitler's deputy Hess could wield great power over others, but without Hitler's authority Hess's own role was humiliatingly inconsequential.
Further Reading on Walter Richard Rudolf Hess
No extended biography of Hess has so far been published. Hess (1973) by Roger Manwell and Heinrich Fraenkel is the most judicious work available. Brigadier J. R. Rees's The Case of Rudolf Hess (1948) includes medical reports and Hess's own short account of his mission. J. Douglas-Hamilton's Motive for a Mission (1971) covers Haushofer's role. Other memoirs, medical reports, or studies of the period relate in part to the Hess case, and Wolf Rüdiger Hess has published his own account. However, Peter Allen's The Windsor Secret (1984) is not convincingly documented, and W. Hugh Thomas's The Murder of Rudolf Hess (1979) presents an impersonation theory of massive improbability. Alfred Seidl's Der Fall Hess (1984) summarizes arguments in international law at Nuremberg and since.
Additional Biography Sources
Allen, Peter, The crown and the swastika: Hitler, Hess, and the Duke of Windsor, London: R. Hale, 1983.
Bird, Eugene K., The loneliest man in the world: the inside story of the 30-year imprisonment of Rudolf Hess, London: Secker & Warburg, 1974.
Bird, Eugene K., Prisoner #7, Rudolf Hess: the thirty years in jail of Hitler's deputy Führer, New York: Viking Press, 1974.
Brenton, Howard, H.I.D.: (Hess is dead), London: N. Hern Books, 1989.
Costello, John, Ten days that saved the West, London; New York: Bantam Press, 1991.
Costello, John, Ten days to destiny: the secret story of the Hess peace initiative and British efforts to strike a deal with Hitler, New York: W. Morrow, 1991; 1993.
Douglas-Hamilton, James, Motive for a mission: the story behind Rudolf Hess's flight to Britain, New York: Paragon House, 1986, 1979.
Douglas-Hamilton, James, The truth about Rudolf Hess, Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1993.
Gabel, Charles A., Conversations interdites avec Rudolf Hess: 1977-1986, Paris: Plon, 1988.
Hutton, Joseph Bernard, Hess: the man and his mission, New York, Macmillan 1971, 1970.
Kilzer, Louis C., Churchill's deception: the dark secret that destroyed Nazi Germany, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Manvell, Roger, Hess: a biography, New York, Drake Publishers 1973.
Padfield, Peter, Hess: flight for the Fuhrer, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991.
Schwarzwaller, Wulf, Rudolph Hess, the last Nazi, Bethesda, Md.: National Press, c1988.