The Prisoner of Spandau

Alan Milward

  • My Father Rudolf Hess by Wolf Rüdiger Hess, translated by Fred Crowley
    W.H. Allen, 414 pp, £14.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 491 03772 4
  • Long Knives and Short Memories: The Spandau Prison Story by Jack Fishman
    Souvenir, 474 pp, £15.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 285 62688 4
  • Zwangssterilisation im Nationalsozialismus: Studien zur Rassenpolitik und Frauenpolitik by Gisela Bock
    Westdeutscher Verlag, 494 pp, April 1986, ISBN 3 531 11759 9
  • Prelude to Genocide: Nazi Ideology and the Struggle for Power by Simon Taylor
    Duckworth, 228 pp, £19.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 7156 1872 5

In one week in July 1947, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, walked out of discussions with his British and French counterparts about the American offer of Marshall Aid; Europe was divided, east and west; and the seven surviving major Nazi war criminals who had been tried and condemned by the victorious allies at Nuremberg were moved, the subject of a special four-power agreement, into Spandau Prison in what was to become West Berlin. Guarded turn and turn about by platoons of American, British, French and Russian soldiers and warders, they began to serve out their sentences, a sign that there was still sufficient agreement about the past for neither side to wish to see the division as irrevocable. Always guarded by 58 people, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, now 92, still lives, the lone prisoner of Spandau. Without Russian agreement the others are not prepared to release him from his life sentence. Whenever this last vestige of four-power control of that great city from which the war was launched has been challenged, no one has had the confidence that the rules could be changed without the final destruction of Europe. Rudolf Hess still remains as a symbol that complete disagreement with the Soviet Union has never been reached and may not be possible. The only occasion on which the Soviet Union seems seriously to have considered releasing him was in 1974 when the Bishop of Berlin suggested that he be replaced by an anti-Fascist museum designed and operated by the same four powers who run the gaol.

Hess has been alone since October 1966. In that month his last two companions, the former Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer, and the head of the Hitler Youth Movement Baldur von Schirach, served out their twenty years to be released at midnight in the last legal minute of their confinement. He has slowly progressed from a convict’s cell, and brutal guards who turned on the light every 15 minutes all round the clock, to a suite of rooms, a choice of menus, a daily newspaper and colour television. From that newspaper every item relating to the Third Reich and the Second World War is still carefully cut out by the prison guards before he is allowed to read it. When the television news comes on, the guards switch off the set. Because he is detained to show that there are some things about which West and East must agree, he may not see how they disagree over almost everything else. Spandau Prison has become the temple of the basic law of Europe’s long peace and Rudolf Hess the temple god, whose life reminds us of the law, like the Thou Shalt Nots written on the walls of churches from one end of the continent to the other.

It is said that the Russians would have exchanged him for the museum had the political organisation in Germany which has long agitated for his release, the Hilfsgemeinschaft ‘Freiheit für Rudolph Hess’, been prepared to disband itself, and had Hess and his family been prepared to guarantee their own future political silence. Hess, however, gave instructions at his trial that there should be no future appeal for clemency unless it took the form of an appeal against the injustice of the law under which he was sentenced, so that his release would acknowledge that injustice. He has remained an unrepentant Nazi, his opinions still what they were when, over sixty years ago, in another gaol, he helped Hitler to edit Mein Kampf. His wife has written two books of unabashedly Nazi persuasion. The ‘Freedom for Rudolf Hess’ movement has always been on the far right of German politics. Wolf Hess, his son, Hitler’s godson, for whom his father’s release has become a lifetime’s crusade, believes that history since the Second World War has been deliberately falsified by the victorious powers and that British governments are deeply committed to concealing the truth about his father and keeping him locked up so that this false version of history can be preserved. Were our history not a pack of lies, his father, he believes, would not only be released but would be the best candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, while Winston Churchill would become the object of universal loathing as a war-mongering dictator who handed Britain and its Empire as satellites to the Americans and much of Europe to the Soviet Union.

Should such opinions now seem bizarre, consider the event which inspires them. On 10 May 1941, when Hitler, recognising his inability either to defeat or to make peace with the United Kingdom yet determined to launch his war of annihilation against the Soviet Union, was in the middle of a set of complex twists and turns of foreign policy which he still hoped would make it possible for him to avoid a war on two fronts, his deputy, a man of the deepest loyalty, commandeered a military plane and flew alone to Scotland. Hess was seeking the young Duke of Hamilton in order to present peace proposals to the British Government. Hess had met the Duke through their mutual acquaintance Albrecht Haushofer. Haushofer was an ardent German nationalist who devoted much of his activity in the inter-war period to fostering links with the ‘lost’ German-speaking communities outside the German frontier. A conservative and not a Nazi, he nevertheless accepted an academic position from Hess, who had briefly studied under his more famous father, Karl Haushofer. In the cause of German nationalism he had given much time and energy to making friends with upper-class Conservatives in Britain with whom he shared an anachronistic belief that a privileged elite with common rules of social conduct, their own, was the only satisfactory basis for government. Because he had these links with the one group in Britain which might not be entirely hostile to German ambitions, he was cultivated by and showed some sympathy with the German conservative resisters who eventually made the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944. However, he was also officially mixed up in using irredentist groups to support Nazi foreign policy. The same ambivalence ran through his relationship with Hess.

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