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.

It seems certain that it was through Haushofer that Hess got the idea that the traditional Conservative leaders of Britain could be persuaded to call off the war. Why the Duke of Hamilton was chosen as the contact remains uncertain. After writing to the Duke by way of Lisbon and getting no answer, Hess seems twice to have been on the point of flying to see him before he actually made the journey. Wolf Hess appears to believe that his father’s trip was the result of an ingenious trick on the part of the British secret service, who exploited the ambivalent Haushofer and the young Duke for their purposes. The evidence for this does not amount to much more than the fact that Hess flew all across Scotland and back again to the Duke’s castle without anyone firing a shot at his plane, and that the Duke himself, an RAF officer on duty at Turnhouse Airfield, Edinburgh, might have been one of the people responsible for not intercepting him. The British Government imposed a more or less total news black-out on what had occurred, and after waiting for some announcement from Britain the German Government acted first and announced that Hess had recently shown ‘signs of mental derangement’.

Even if Hitler had known about the mission this would have had to have been the story in the event of its failure. There is, however, no credible evidence at all that he did know, and the German announcement was surely made before Hess or Hitler knew or could reasonably be expected to have known the ultimate outcome of his mission. If he was not on an official mission from the Führer why would Hess have decided to do such a thing? He did it, his son claims, because he personally wanted to bring the war with Britain to a just and dignified end and avoid the coming war with the Soviet Union. It’s also possible that he’d been given hints of the plans of the German resistance to replace Hitler in order to make peace and that he’d decided to save his Führer by negotiating a peace in which the dictator could achieve some of his aims and keep his place. Woken in the middle of the night after his arduous flight and parachute jump by his first interrogator Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, he made a three-hour speech. Its gist was that peace could be made at once if Germany’s current position in Europe were accepted, and the colonies taken away by the Treaty of Versailles restored, and if Churchill were to resign. Churchill subsequently voiced the opinion that Hess was more of a medical than a political problem.

Wolf Hess suggests that the British secret service had tricked his father into believing that these peace terms might be acceptable so as to frighten Stalin into war by making it appear that Britain and Germany were on the point of a deal which would leave the Soviet Union at Germany’s mercy. Churchill did at first, it’s true, want to publish Hess’s proposals so as to show the USSR how threatened it was, but he was overridden by Anthony Eden, the Cabinet and the Civil Service. In fact, Hess is said to have revealed virtually nothing of Hitler’s plans for Russia. But it is precisely at this point that the iron laws of British official secrecy descend: the files remain closed. It is impossible that Hess did not know something of the impending attack on the Soviet Union. His son’s claim that his father’s trip was intended to bring peace to Russia too has to be set against his nonchalant remark that all that was needed was for the Soviet Union to cede some territories; it stinks. British silence, whatever its cause, only increased Russian mistrust and poisoned the alliance when it came. The Russians tortured Hess’s captured adjutant, in the hope of finding out what had really happened in that strange week and of discovering evidence against both Hess and the British.

The British are also accused by Wolf Hess of systematic propaganda under Churchill’s inspiration to defame his father by making the world believe, on the one hand, that his flight was an early sign of incipient madness and, on the other, that he was a political failure making a last, desperate play to become once more an important man in Berlin. Certainly, if there were signs of mental derangement before Hess flew to Scotland no one noticed them and they were not such as to disbar him from major political office. He arrived with his pockets full of pills and a small phial of Tibetan elixir and filled his time before the end of the war by compiling 15 notebooks on his health: but this behaviour seems no more bizaare than that of the British consultant-general to the prison who in 1978 achieved media fame by publicising his medical certainty that the man in prison was not Rudolf Hess at all. In January 1944 Hess first complained in a letter home that he was losing his memory, a message which could have been intended as much for the censor as for his wife, and he then persisted in not remembering. In Britain and afterwards in Spandau he frequently claimed that he was being poisoned, and in his first years in prison would produce violent symptoms of stomach cramp which all the doctors attributed to hysteria and which were relieved by placebos. In 1944, when the war was irretrievably lost, and again in 1977, when it became clear he would be kept in gaol until he died, he made suicide attempts.

Hess left Germany when his son was three. Five years later at Nuremberg he refused to see his family and continued to refuse all visits from them, in spite of their public efforts on his behalf, until Christmas 1969. Then, on recovering from a serious illness from which he thought he would die, he relented and saw his wife and son for the first time in 28 years. Fishman, who has spent many years collecting information in every way he could about what was happening in Spandau – on one occasion Selwyn Lloyd threatened him with prosecution for breaking the Official Secrets Act – subscribes to the view that Hess’s flight was a flight from reality and that all his subsequent behaviour has been a hysterical refusal to see the world as it now is. In his first year in Spandau he is said to have been busy with plans to take over as Führer of a new Germany.

No psychiatrist regarded him as unfit to plead, however, and none has since thought him deranged. He made no effort to defend himself at his trial, remaining silent and apart, but was responsible for its most dramatic moment when he interrupted to make a speech in which he clearly and firmly insisted on his perfect fitness to stand trial and said that his loss of memory had been feigned. His only other speech of note was at the end when he stood up to profess his loyalty to the dead Führer and his contempt for some of those whom he regarded as renegades. That a man who has been shut away for 45 years, 20 of them on his own, should on occasion have given way to hysteria and despair is hardly an indication of mental derangement. With remarkable courage he has continued to live and to live consistently with his unaltered beliefs.

Are we in our turn now morally in the wrong for keeping this very old man in gaol? He was found guilty on only two of the four charges. The first was that of conspiracy to commit the other crimes with which he was charged, the second was that of ‘crimes against peace’. On the two charges of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ he was acquitted, although the two British judges and one Russian thought he was guilty. Von Schirach and Speer, who served only 20 years, were both found guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’, the charge which covered deeds so awful that even opponents of the Nuremberg trials must have felt that punishment was appropriate. The charge of conspiracy has not exactly been looked on with favour and enthusiasm by defenders of civil rights over the last years. The charge of ‘crimes against peace’ was made to look its hypocritical self when someone, perhaps from a larger secret service, slipped a copy of the secret protocols of the August 1939 Soviet-German pact, with its details of the planned annexation of the Baltic states, into the hands of Hess’s defence lawyer while he walked the corridors of the court. The judges had to censor his speech for the defence before he could be allowed to give it. The claim of the ‘Freedom for Rudolf Hess’ Movement, however, is not that the sentence was too harsh, but that there were no crimes, because the law on which the charges were based was invented by the victors.

This argument was already being made for political reasons by the Government of the Federal Republic in the first years of its existence. Equality of rights for the new country, they said, entailed an acknowledgment by the Allies that the Nuremberg sentences had been passed under the unequal law of the victor and that it was up to the Germans themselves to determine what should be done – an argument which was firmly rejected. The American Commander-in-Chief in Germany at the time of the Berlin Blockade, General Lucius Clay, argued that the blockade had reopened all options: if the Soviet Union could stop access to West Berlin, the other countries could do what they wanted with the seven Spandau prisoners. It was they, after all, who had captured all but one of them. Clay wanted to move them out of Berlin and break the agreement. But the only thing that happened was that inside the gaol the American governor during his month in charge unilaterally imposed a more humane regime. The Russians ignored it and when their turn came reduced the rations again, reimposed the rule of strict silence, forbade work in the garden, and woke the prisoners up every 15 minutes through the night. The same Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick who ten years earlier in Scotland had listened to Hess’s nocturnal speech, having now become British High Commissioner in Germany, announced his readiness to review all the sentences. His paper powers to do so were smartly taken away by the Prime Minister urged on by Denis Healey. When the Berlin airlift ended without there being any change in the status of Germany or Berlin, the fate of Hess was sealed for a very long time, perhaps for ever.

After the departure of Speer and Von Schirach from Spandau the ‘Freedom for Rudolf Hess’ Movement acquired more momentum. Hess’s defence lawyer has energetically supported it and a prominent politician, Ewald Bucher, a former FDP cabinet minister, took its presidency. More than fifty members of the Bundestag have been members. Presidents and chancellors of the Federal Republic have pleaded Hess’s case. In 1975, Roy Hattersley said he would be released ‘tomorrow’ if the Russians would only agree.

We are asked to accept his release either because he is very old, or because he has expiated his crimes and deserves remission, or because his detention is counter-productive, or because it has become absurdly expensive in relation to the purpose which it now serves. At least that seems to be the mixture of motives which led 190 MPs, led by the late Airey Neave, to petition for his release. It is certainly most unusual for such an old man to be in gaol. On the other hand, what does it mean to say that he has expatiated his crimes? Certainly he is in no way contrite and perhaps some crimes are not expiable. All confinement is cruel, but he is probably confined more comfortably than any other prisoner in Europe. The expense is not to be considered if his confinement is the symbol that we all agree to keep the kind of peace we have had since 1945. And if the prisoner of Spandau is a guarantee of that, his imprisonment cannot be counterproductive.

Almost all those agitating for his release have had more or less concealed motives; practically no one has taken up his case out of a pure heart. Rudolf Hess was and still is a rabid anti-semite. The son’s offhand remark that ‘in many instances’ his father advocated a ‘properly balanced treatment of the Jews’ strikes chill to the heart. Of all Nazi leaders it is he who best fits the descriptions of a ‘typical’ Nazi produced by social scientists and historians. Born in Alexandria to a merchant family at the height of German commercial expansion, he developed into an ardent nationalist and fought bravely as a soldier in the First World War. Typically, he believed that the Army had been stabbed in the back by socialists and pacifists. Typically, the family fortune was lost in the war and the peace settlement. Typically, after the war he found himself part of the educated unemployed with a deep sense of the loss both of military comradeship and of the shared sentiment of struggle in a common cause. He was a very early party member, perhaps even recruited as a result of hearing Hitler speak in the Munich streets. His political loyalty to the Party admitted neither deviation nor eccentricity. He was and is the perfect representative of the National Socialist movement and it is impossible to blur the picture.

The truth of the matter is that the best grounds for releasing him are precisely those we cannot accept: the weakness of the charges and the law under which he was found guilty. All other grounds are confused and even dishonest. The Nuremberg tribunal, like historians since, was unable to find one conspiracy to wage aggressive war. The evidence pointed to several, involving different groups of people. As for aggressive war itself, however desirable it may be that it should be proscribed by an effective international law, it never has been, before or since. This charge was a political act, as is war itself, and Hess’s imprisonment can only be justified as a continuation of that political act.

There is something that must be added to this. In the light of subsequent historical research was the Nuremberg tribunal right to acquit him of ‘crimes against humanity’? The prosecutors and judges seem, at least from the retrospective comments which a few of them have made, to have been much influenced by the fact that Hess was no longer in Germany after spring 1941 and thus could not have been involved in the racial slaughter which then took place. They may, too, have been swayed by something on which contemporaries and historians agree: Hess’s power and influence in the Nazi Government are difficult to demonstrate and even to understand. Is it not very odd that when the printed materials on the Third Reich are numerous enough to fill a substantial research library virtually nothing at all has been written about the man who was Deputy Führer? Even some Nazi leaders were baffled by his role in the Government and explained him away either as Hitler’s loyal stooge or as a survival from the early years of the Party, kept there by Hitler because of the Führer’s loyalty to a man who had marched and been fired on with him in the Munich putsch. ‘A mooncalf’, the Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank, called him. Even in the thickest books on the Nazi regime the name Rudolf Hess has few entries in the index and most of them are there by chance.

Yet Hess was not just a pillar of National Socialist ideological orthodoxy and loyalty: until he left he was privy to every decision on the method of translating ideology into practice. The memoranda which began to turn Nazi thought into the deeds that made this government so abhorrent to the outside world passed across his desk; it was in committees under his chairmanship that the relevant decisions were taken. Some historian soon is going to make the case that Hess was the major political figure his captors assumed him to be when they put him on trial. A man whose job entails turning ideas into action can hardly shrink from the consequences if the world judges the ideas unacceptably criminal. Nor has Hess sought to do so.

One example of what it meant even before 1941 to turn the ideas in which he so firmly believed into action will suffice. It is analysed in the interesting book by Gisela Bock. Six months after it took power, the Nazi Government passed the law of 14 July 1933 on ‘The Prevention of a New Generation Affected with Hereditary Illness’ – a law which gave the state the power of compulsory sterilisation in certain circumstances. The decision to pass this law was taken at the same time as it was decided to pass a set of laws discriminating against Jews and political opponents. Its purpose was the ‘elimination of a biologically less-valuable patrimony’. About 1 percent of the women of child-bearing age originally resident in Germany were sterilised under the law. For those deported to Germany or living in occupied territories, people more frequently of ‘less-value’, less careful records were kept. Perhaps a million people altogether, women and men, were sterilised. In the sterilisation programme itself the line which determined ‘value’ was always subjective, no matter how much jargon went into defining it.

Professor Bock wants to show that sterilisation was not neutral between the sexes, that its impact on women was greater and of different consequence, that it was only one example of the invasion of the lives of the women by the Nazi state, and that even the Nazi ‘pro-natal’ policies, designed to produce more children of ‘greater value’, actually depended on a cult of fatherhood, not motherhood, fostered by a male state. A state which could set out on such an invasion of life on the basis of its ideological assumptions was hardly likely to shrink in the later period from what has usually been called Nazi ‘race-policy’. Hess was as important in finding the political machinery by which these laws could be made effective as he was in the case of laws based on more acceptable conceptions of government. This first detailed study of the Nazi sterilisation programme demonstrates that compulsory sterilisation and the later mass-murder of ‘ethnic undesirables’ were closely linked intellectually, juridically and administratively. Experiments in different sterilisation techniques were tried on Jews and gypsy women, as though they had been rats.

If we then consider that for 12 years before the sterilisation law Hess had been intimately concerned in developing the virulent anti-semitic electoral propaganda in which the Nazi Party indulged, our minds might become even clearer on the matter of his role and hence of his guilt. Taylor devotes 60 pages of his book to a translation of this propaganda. It is a pity he did not give up almost the whole of the space to this purpose, for most of his own text turns on the idea, fashionable in Prague in 1938 and now reaching Liverpool, that Hitler and the Nazis co-operated with industrialists and bankers to divert the class struggle of the German labour movement into racial struggle and substituted the Jew for the capitalist as the exploiter who was to be driven out by revolution. To sustain this view it is necessary to ignore almost everything written on the subject in the last ten years, as Taylor does. Furthermore, it is stretching the argument beyond what it will bear to claim that this stream of racial propaganda would necessarily end in a massacre.

The point of Taylor’s books for us is that almost every single poster and broadsheet which he cites would be illegal today, here and in Germany. We now legislate against the public expression of Rudolf Hess’s ideas, whereas in the days when he was an active politician we only disapproved of it. His electoral efforts on behalf of the Nazi Party would now be considered cause for a prison sentence. On 6 June this year the Bundestag formally agreed to declare the law on sterilisation of 14 July 1933 ‘invalid from the beginning’, instead of merely not in force. It will become an Unrecht, an injustice, an anti-law, and those who suffered from it and are still living may get extra compensation. The public discovery at Nuremberg and since of what ‘crimes against humanity’ could amount to has had a lasting impact on our sensibilities and the memory is not fading.

There must be a large number of people in the world who, given the chance, would haul Mr Botha and the South African Government before an international tribunal under the very same law that was applied in Nuremberg, charge them with ‘crimes against humanity’ and find them guilty. If Botha, why not Hess? Were he to be tried now, Rudolf Hess’s sentence might well be more severe.