Rudolf Hess, Nazi Who Claimed to Bring Peace Offer From Hitler

photograph of Rudolf Hess saluting Hitler
Rudolf Hess, at right, saluting Adolph Hitler.

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Rudolf Hess was a top Nazi official and close associate of Adolph Hitler who shocked the world in the spring of 1941 by flying a small plane to Scotland, parachuting to the ground, and claiming when captured that he was delivering a peace proposal from Germany. His arrival was met with astonishment and skepticism, and he spent the rest of the war in captivity.

Fast Facts: Rudolph Hess

  • Birth: April 26, 1894, Alexandria, Egypt.
  • Death: August 17, 1987, Spandau Prison, Berlin, Germany.
  • Known for: High-ranking Nazi who flew to Scotland in 1941, claiming to bring a peace proposal.

Close Hitler Associate

There has always been considerable debate about Hess's mission. The British concluded he had no authority to negotiate peace, and questions about his motivations and even his sanity persisted.

There was no doubt that Hess had been a longtime associate of Hitler. He had joined the Nazi movement when it was a tiny fringe group on the edge of German society and during Hitler's rise to power he became a trusted aide. At the time of his flight to Scotland, he was widely known to the outside world as a trusted member of Hitler's inner circle.

Hess was ultimately convicted at the Nuremberg Trials, and would outlive the other Nazi war criminals who were convicted alongside him. Serving a life term in grim Spandau Prison in West Berlin, he ultimately became the prison's sole inmate for the last two decades of his life.

Even his death in 1987 was controversial. By official account, he had committed suicide by hanging himself at the age of 93. Yet rumors of foul play circulated and still persist. After his death the German government had to deal with his grave in a family plot in Bavaria becoming a pilgrimage site for modern day Nazis.

Early Career

Hess was born as Walter Richard Rudolf Hess in Cairo, Egypt, on April 26, 1894. His father was a German merchant based in Egypt, and Hess was educated at a German school in Alexandria and later at schools in Germany and Switzerland. He embarked on a business career which was quickly interrupted by the outbreak of war in Europe when he was 20 years old.

In World War I Hess served in a Bavarian infantry unit and eventually trained as a pilot. When the war ended with Germany's defeat Hess was embittered. Like many other disgruntled German veterans, his deep disillusionment led him to radical political movements.

Hess became an early adherent of the Nazi Party, and forged a close association with the party's rising star, Hitler. Hess served as Hitler's secretary and bodyguard in the early 1920s. After the abortive coup in 1923 in Munich, which became famous as the Beer Hall Putsch, Hess was imprisoned with Hitler. During this period Hitler dictated to Hess part of what became his notorious book Mein Kampf.

As the Nazis rose to power, Hess was given important posts by Hitler. In 1932 he was appointed head of the party's central commission. In the following years he continued being promoted, and his role in the top Nazi leadership was evident. A front-page headline in the New York Times in the summer of 1934 referred to his likely position as Hitler's closest subordinate and successor: "Hitler Understudy Likely To Be Hess."

In 1941, Hess was officially known as the third most powerful Nazi, after only Hitler and Herman Goering. In reality his power had probably faded, yet he was still in close contact with Hitler. As Hess hatched his plan to fly out of Germany, Operation Sea Lion, Hitler's plan to invade England the previous year had been postponed. Hitler was turning his attention eastward and making plans to invade Russia.

Flight to Scotland

On May 10, 1941, a farmer in Scotland discovered a German flier, wrapped in a parachute, on his land. The flier, whose Messerschmitt fighter plane had crashed nearby, first claimed to be an ordinary military pilot, giving his name as Alfred Horn. He was taken into custody by the British military.

Hess, posing as Horn, told his captors he was a friend of the Duke of Hamilton, a British aristocrat and noted aviator who had attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Germans, or at least Hess, seemed to believe the Duke could help broker a peace deal.

While detained in a hospital shortly after his capture, Hess got to meet the Duke of Hamilton and revealed his true identity. The Duke immediately contacted Prime Minister Winston Churchill and informed him that he had met Hess years earlier and the man who had landed in Scotland was indeed the high-ranking Nazi.

British authorities expressed astonishment as the peculiar story of Hess's arrival in Scotland made headlines around the world. The earliest dispatches about Hess's flight from Germany to Scotland were full of speculation about his purpose and motives.

One theory in the early press accounts was that Hess feared a purge was coming of top Nazi officials and Hitler might be planning to have him killed. Another theory was that Hess had decided to abandon the Nazi cause and help the British.

The official story which was ultimately put out by the British was that Hess claimed to be bringing a peace proposal. The British leadership did not take Hess seriously. In any event, less than a year after the Battle of Britain the British were in no mood to discuss peace with Hitler.

The Nazi leadership, for its part, distanced itself from Hess and put out the story that he had been suffering from "delusions."

For the rest of the war Hess was held by the British. His mental state was often questioned. At one point he seemed to attempt suicide by jumping over the railing of a staircase, breaking a leg in the process. He seemed to spend most of his time staring into space and began to habitually complain that he believed his food was being poisoned.

Decades of Captivity

Following the end of World War II, Hess was put on trial at Nuremberg along with other leading Nazis. Throughout the ten months of the 1946 war crimes trial, Hess often seemed disoriented as he sat in the courtroom along with other high-ranking Nazis. At times he read a book. Often he stared into space, seeming to have no interest in what was happening around him.

Photograph of Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg Trials
Rudolf Hess, with arms extended, at the Nuremberg Trial. Getty ImagesĀ 

On October 1, 1946, Hess was sentenced to life in prison. Twelve of the other Nazis on trial with him were sentenced to be hanged, and others received sentences of 10 to 20 years. Hess was the only Nazi leader to be sentenced to a life term. He escaped the death penalty mainly because his mental state was questionable and he had spent the bloodiest years of the Nazi terror locked up in England.

Hess served his sentence in Spandau Prison in West Berlin. Other Nazi prisoners died in prison or were released as their terms ended, and from October 1, 1966, onward, Hess was Spandau's only prisoner. His family periodically sought to have him released, but their appeals were always refused. The Soviet Union, which had been a party to the Nuremberg trials, insisted that he serve every day of his life sentence.

In prison, Hess was still mostly a mystery. His peculiar behavior continued, and it wasn't until the 1960s that he agreed to have monthly visits from family members. He was in the news at times when he was taken to a British military hospital in Germany for treatment of various ailments.

Controversy After Death

Hess died in prison on August 17, 1987, at the age of 93. It was revealed that he had strangled himself with an electrical cord. His jailers said he had left a note indicating a desire to kill himself.

Rumors circulated that Hess had been murdered, supposedly because he had become a figure of fascination for neo-Nazis in Europe. The Allied powers released his body to his family, despite fears that his grave would become a shrine for Nazi sympathizers.

At his funeral in a Bavarian graveyard in late August 1987 scuffles broke out. The New York Times reported that about 200 Nazi sympathizers, some dressed in "Third Reich uniforms," scuffled with police.

Hess was buried in a family plot and the site did become a gathering place for Nazis. In the summer of 2011, fed up with visits by Nazis, the cemetery administration exhumed Hess's remains. His body was then cremated and his ashes scattered at sea in an unknown location.

Theories about Hess's flight to Scotland continue to emerge. In the early 1990s, files released from Russia's KGB seemed to indicate that British intelligence officers had lured Hess to leave Germany. The Russian files included reports from the notorious mole Kim Philby.

The official reason for Hess's flight remains as it was in 1941: Hess believed he could, on his own, make peace between Germany and Britain.

Sources:

  • "Walter Richard Rudolf Hess." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2004, pp. 363-365. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Rudolf Hess Is Dead In Berlin; Last of Hitler Inner Circle." New York Times 18 August 1987. A1.