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Deputy Führer Rudolf Walter Richard Hess

A close friend of Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess was figuratively second in line to the Führer and his Deputy in the Nazi Party

TK Tim Kirsten Updated
Deputy Führer Rudolf Walter Richard Hess

The saga of Rudolf Hess is strange indeed. A devoted follower of Hitler from the very beginning, Hess had a tremendous future in the Nazi Party. In 1941 he threw it all away by flying to Scotland in a cockeyed attempt to work out an unauthorized peace treaty. The stunt landed him in prison for the rest of his life.

Son of a German business owner, Hess was born in Alexandria, Egypt, but from the age of 14 was educated in Germany. He served in the same regiment as Adolf Hitler during World War I and he completed training as an officer pilot in October 1918. His noticeably right-wing views led him to take part in the street fighting against the postwar Communist state government in Bavaria, and he served in the “Freikorps” (Free Corps). In 1920, he became an adult student at Munich University. In April of the same year, he joined the embryonic Nazi Party, this being the period in which Hitler was taking control. He was drawn to Hitler from the start and became his close aide and confidant from 1921.

He played a prominent part in the Munich Putsch of November 8, 1923. Following its failure, he voluntarily submitted himself for trial in order to share Hitler's confinement in Landsberg Prison in 1924. There he assisted Hitler in the composition of “Mein Kampf” in an advisory but not as commonly alleged secretarial capacity. His influential teacher, Prof. Karl Haushofer (the tutor of geopolitics) was among Hess's regular visitors. Hitler undoubtedly merged his own geopolitical views in conversation with Haushofer and Hess.

During 1925-32 Hess acted as Hitler's confidential aide, using his administrative ability to further the conspiracy for power. He was inseparable from Hitler, believing completely in his leader's destiny. He was cold and somewhat withdrawn, essentially a back-room man, though he could take his place effectively on a platform. His face was stern and handsome, his eyes fierce and penetrating. He was a vegetarian and a nonsmoker, with his own unorthodox ideas about health. He was also a firm believer in astrology.

In 1927, he married Ilse Pröhl, another of Hitler's dedicated supporters. His son, Wolf Rüdiger, was not born until 1937. He acted as Hitler's contact man with the upper-class layer in German society, dealing, for example, with the banker Fritz Thyssen, who became one of the party's wealthy supporters. In December 1932 Hess was placed in charge of the central party commission to control the political activities of the party and in April 1933 after the seizure of power, he became Hitler's “Stellvertreter” (deputy) as party leader (not, as commonly thought, his deputy head of state) and in December Reich Minister Without Portfolio. In 1938-39 he was to become a member of the Secret Cabinet Council and the Council of Ministers for the Defense of the Reich. He was also a member of the Reichstag from 1933.

The affairs of the party and the state became increasingly integrated. Hess's administrative duties involved supervision of all laws and decrees of the Reich, and he was also in charge of political relations between the Reich and ethnic Germans living abroad. The purpose being to foster pan-German feeling and loyalty. His headquarters were the Brown House in Munich and from 1933, his chief aide was Martin Bormann. Hess was signatory to much punitive legislation and decrees which led to persecution of Jews and later of Poles, including the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.

During his career, Hess had maintained his interest in flying and, although forbidden to fly by Hitler once war was declared, he secretly trained himself (with the help of Willy Messerschmitt) to pilot the new Messerschmitt Me 110. With the Russian campaign in secret preparation, Hess (who shared Hitler's view that Anglo-Saxon England ought to be party to the attack on Russia) flew to Scotland in the Messerschmitt on a mission, entirely of his own devising, to bring about peace with Britain. He landed by parachute in Scotland on Saturday the 10th of May 1941, around 11 o'clock at night.

All known evidence points to the fact that Hitler knew nothing of this wild adventure until receiving a letter Hess left in which he explained the mission and suggested, if it failed, the Führer should announce that he had lost his reason. Hitler, consumed by rage and anxiety at what he held to be Hess's betrayal of faith, dismissed him from all his offices and purged his name from Nazi records, announcing in the press that Hess had indeed lost his reason. Bormann, ever power-seeking, took Hess's place as Hitler's confidant.

Churchill played the affair coolly. Hess was kept in custody and interviewed by various persons, including the Duke of Hamilton (whom he wrongly claimed to have met during the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936), Ivone Kirkpatrick (a former senior staff member at the British embassy in Berlin) and Lord Beaverbrook. When he realized his mission was to no avail, Hess adopted the tactic of pretending amnesia to be repatriated. He accused his captors of trying to poison him and twice attempted suicide while in British hands.

By the time he was put on trial at Nuremberg in 1945 (Nuremberg Trials) he had become the most celebrated psychiatric case in medical history, examined by teams of British, American and Russian psychiatrists. While sending perfectly rational and affectionate letters to his family, he adopted in public the distracted air of the amnesiac, though he caused an instant sensation in Nuremberg when on the 30th November he declared his loss of memory to have been simulated.

He later relapsed into his normal state of indifference to the trial, however, only reviving to make a baffling, rambling statement which the president of the court was forced to interrupt. It would appear this was a further maneuver to gain mercy. Hess was found guilty only of conspiracy and crimes against peace and not of war crimes. Against the wishes of the Soviet representatives who urged his execution, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Hess was to remain confined in Spandau Prison in the British sector of Berlin after all those other convicted Nazis sentenced to various terms of imprisonment had either died or served their time and been released. Renewed pleas for remission of his sentence on account of his age only met with Russian obduracy.

Hess died on 17 August 1987 at age 93 in a summer house that had been set up in the prison garden as a reading room. He took an extension cord from one of the lamps, strung it over a window latch and hanged himself. He was initially buried at a secret location to avoid media attention or demonstrations by Nazi sympathizers but was re-interred in a family plot on the 17th of March 1988.

Deputy Führer Rudolf Walter Richard Hess - Quick Facts

  • German Empire (1866-1918)
  • Germany - Weimar Republic (1919-33)
  • Germany Nazi (1933-1945)
Other Position/s:
Deputy Führer to Adolf Hitler
  • WWI (1914-1918)
  • Weimar Republic (1918-1933)
  • WWII (1939-1945)
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