Rudolf Hess (Germany, 1883-1987)



Figure 1.--Here NAZI Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess inspects a group of older Hitler Youth boys. We do not know who the other NAZI figures are. The man in the trench coat may be Martin Borman. The uniforms show that they come from a variety of different NAZI organizations. The photograph is undated. We would guess it was taken in the early War period, sometine around 1939-41. Put your cursor on the image to zoom in on Hess.

NAZI Deputy-Führer Rudolf Hess was born in Egypt where his father had established an import-export business. Growing up in a villa surrounded by a luxurious garden, Rudolf received a disciplined, Teutonic upbringing that clashed with his romantic temperament and the exotic Near East setting. He was an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and during the early years his closest associate. His loyalty brough Hitler's affectionn and appointment as the Deputy-Führer. His power base was in the Party as he vied for power. He gradually lost influence within the NAZI hierarchy. He id not know for any major program or policy other than absolute loyalty to Hitler. The one issue where he differed with Hitler was on the East abd the decesion to attack the Soviet Union. It was not that he did bot want the Soviet Union defeated. He simply felt that England should be defeated or peace made with England so German would not be caught in a two-front war. His insistence on the matter simply further distanced him from Hitler. He is as a result, best remembered for a dramatic flight to Britain (May 1941). Having failed to convince Hitler, he hoped in the run-up to Barbarossa to convince the British to make peace. The British were stunned and not at all sure what to do with him. Aftervthe War, he was tried and found guilty at Nuremberg. He did not receive a death sentence because he was not directly involved in the Holocaust.

Parents

Rudolf's father, Fritz H. Hess, was a wealthy German merchant who established an import-export business in Alexandria, Egypt. His mother was Klara Munch. At the time, Egypt was a British protectorate. The Suez Canal made it a major trading center between Europe and Asia.

Childhood

The NAZI Vice-Führer was born in Alexandria, Egypt because his father was running an export-import business there (1883). He was the eldest of four children. Growing up in a villa surrounded by a luxurious garden, Rudolf received a disciplined, Teutonic upbringing. His father ws staunchly Lutheran and veryvstrict. His unbringing clashed with his romantic temperament and the exotic Near East setting.

Education

Rudolf's father sent his son at age 12 back to Germany where he was educated at the Godesberg boarding school. Rudolf was interested in studying astronomy. His father insisted that he study business in Switzerland.

Business

After graduating, Hess joined his father's export-import business in Hamburg.

World War I (1914-18)

Hess when World War I broke out he enlisted in the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment (August 1914). He fought as an infantryman with considerable bravery. This was a very different combat recordcthan that if Hitler. He was wounded twice. He was awarded the Iron Cross secind class. He was seriously wounded at Verdun (August 1917). The chest would was so severe that he was not returned to frint-line duty. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. At the end of the War he became an officer pilot. He volunteered for the German Army Air Force (1918). In the last few months of the War, he fought in the fighter squardon 35 at the western front. This was very dangerous because by this time the Allies had achieved air superiority.

University Studies

Hess after the War moved to Munich. Here he began to study at the University of Munic, focusing on history and economics. While at university he was influenced by Karl Haushofer, a geo-politcal theorists. Haushofer's central thesis was that every political state is in effect a biological organism which either grows or contracts over time. He saw the life of a state as a struggle for space with other states. In this struggle the strong nations take land from the weaker. While at university he wrote an essay for which he won a prize, "How Must the Man be Constructed who will lead Germany back to her Old Heights?" He wrote, "When necessity commands, he does not shrink from bloodshed .... In order to reach his goal, he is prepared to trample on his closest friends."

Freikorps (1919)

Gemany was in chaos after the War. The new German Republic had little support within the Army which was largely monarchist. Communists attempted to seize power. Freikorps were organized from veterans to put down the Communists with considerable brutality. There were several different Freikorps. Hess joined the Freikorps organized by Franz Epp. Epp played a central role in supressing the Spartakist (Communist) uprising (1919).

Hitler and Early NAZI Organization (1920-22)

Hess first heard Adolf Hitler speak a year after the Spartakist Uprising. Hess who was studying at the University of Munich attended a right-wing political meeting. Hess' initial reaction was mixed. He wrote, "Was this man a fool or was he the man who would save all Germany". He quickly made up his mind. Hess was one of the first men to join the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP/NAZI) (1920). He developed a personal relationship with Hitler, becoming an ardent supporter. It is at this time that Hess seems to have influenced Hitler with Haushofer's theories which became central to his new Führer's thinking. In a notabke speech, Hess he acoylte enthused, "Do not seek Adolf Hitler with your mind. You will find him through he strength of your hearts! Adolf Hitler is Germany and Germany is Adolf Hitler. He who takes an oath to Hitler takes an oath to Germany!"

Beer Hall Putsch and Mein Kampf (1923-24)

Hess played arole in Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch (November 1923). His assignment with other Stormtroopers was to arrest Jews and left-wing politicans. After the Putsch failed, Hess managed to escape. He sought refuge in Haushofer's country home--Hartschimmelhof. This was located in the beautiful e Bavarian Alps. From there he escaped to Austria. The German police eventually managed to arrest and he was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. While in Landsberg Prison with Hitler, he helped write Mein Kampf. Haushofer's theories and even certain phrases are clearly reflected in the end product. [Douglas-Hamilton] This shows Hess' influence. Haushofer's theries provided a coherent structure for ideas that had begun crystalize in Hitler's mind.

Family

Hess married 27-year-old Ilse Pröhl (1900–1995) from Hanover (1927). They had one child, a son, Wolf Rüdiger Hess (1937–2001).

NAZI Rise to Power

The NAZIs emerged as one of the major right ing paries in Germany. Hitler, after the failure of the Putsch, concluded that he could only gain power by competing in German political elections. When Hess was released from prison, Hitler's made him his private secretary. In that role, Hess was constantly at Hitler's side and was at his side on almost all of his political travels all over Germany. It was the Depression that enabled the NAZIs to emerge from a fringe party to the single most imporant party in the country, replacing the Social Democrats. Even so, this was well short of a majority party. Hess through his relation with Hitler rose in the NAZI hierarchy. Hitler just before seizing power appointed him head of the Central Political Committee and deputy leader of the party and minister without portfolio (December 1932). He got on well with Joseph Goebbels who described him as "the most decent, quiet, friendley, clever, reserved... he is a kind fellow." Given Goebbels character, this can be interpreted basically that he did not see Hess as a threat. He appears to have had a better reputation than many oher NAZIs. One eminent historian focusing on Hitler and the NAZIs writes that he was an "honest man" and "the conscience of the Party". [Fest]

NAZI Government

Hitler was appointed Chacellor (January 1933). Hess played a prominent role in the first years of the NAZI Goverment. When after the death of President Hindenburg (1934), Hitler became Führer. He made Hess his deputy Führer. Gradually Hitler began to rely more on other NAZI leaders, especially Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Martin Bormann. Perhaps because of their long association, Hitler kept Hess as Deputy Führer, but never gave him any major assignment. He played a prominent role in the development of the Nuremberg Laws (1935). It was Hess who conceived the slogan, "Guns instead of butter". He was, however, given no manegerial duties. His major duty durung the NAZI years was to announce the Fuhrer at mass meetings. He did this with a wide eyed fanaticism that can be seen in period newsreels. Hitler trusted his loyalty, but apparently had no confidence in his abilities. He thus was never given any actual responsibilities. This explains his title of Reich Minister without Portfolio. Other titles included that of member of the Secret Cabinet Council, and member of the Ministerial Council for Reich Defense. Hitler presumaably trusted Hess, designated him as his successor after Goring (1939). But over time, his limited power was further undermined by the political intrigue of the top Nazis around Hitler who were constantly scheming for personal power. Hess had only one desire, to serve the Fuhrer, and thus lacked the will to engage in self serving struggles. Hitler seems to have used him to some extent as atrouble shooter, to resove squables between NAZI officials. Of course his position as deputy head of the party helped here. Apparently Hitler slowly came to believe that Hess was aman of limited capabilities. He slowly lost out not only to the other top NAZIs, bt to his subordinate and eventual successor, Martin Bormann. As a result, Hitler gradually distanced himself from Hess.

Medical Quackery

Hess had a range of unconventinal ideas. The most bizare was his distrust of conventional medicine. He supported various natural healers, essentially medical fakes and confidence men. He tried to have Hitler legitimize them. Hitler ignored his efforts, but in fact emoloyed just such a fake as his own doctor. It has been argued that Hitler's quake doctor had a role in his deteriorating medical condition late in the War.

World War II (1939-45)

Hess' role declined even further after Hitler launched the War. The role of military leaders along with Göring, Goebbels, and Himmler took center place around Hitler. Hess had no important role in the War. Given his attachment to Hitler, this must have affected his thinking. Like Göring, Hess was privately concerned about the inability to reach an arrangement with Britain. This weighed on his mind as it became clear that Hitler was intent on invading the Soviet Union even if Britain continued to fight. This violated Hess's geo-political vision acquired from Haushofer. It is unclear to what extent he discussed his views with Hitler. By this time in the War he was not an adviser whose opinion Hitler sought. And Hitler was not one who suffered people with different opinions.

Flight to Britain (May 10, 1941)

Rudolph Hess in one of the most bizzare events of World War II flew to Britain (May 10). He was worried about Hitler's upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union and desperately wanted Hitler to make peace with Britain so as to preclude a two-front war. Hess had studied under German geopolitical theorist Karl Haushofer and ideas of geo-politics were prominent in his thinking. He seems to have influenced Hitler along these lines in the early-1920s. A great deal of speculation exists on this episode. Most historians believe that Hess made the flight without Hitler's approval. Hess was the NAZI Deputy Führer and handled NAZI Party administration. He had been Hitler's closest associate, but his place in the NAZI hierarchy had in the early years been eclipsed by Goebels, Göring, and Himmler. A successful mission to Britain would have reestablished his position in the NAZI hierarchy. Hess in an impressive piece of flying came very close to the loction in Scotland that he was trying to reach, the home of a British airistocrat that he felt would be sympathetic to NAZI peace feelers. While the event was a curiosity in Britain and America, it was of much more pressing interest further east. Stalin saw it a confirmation of what he feared most--that the British would seek an arrangement with the NAZIs and end the War. It was one of many reasons that he dimissed warnings about the German buildup in eastern Europe received from the Americans and British. He was conviced that the British in particulrly were trying to draw him into a war with Germany. He was confident that Hitler would not strike east until Britain had been defeated. [Kershaw, pp. 281-82.] A great deal has been written about this incident, basically centering on the idea that Hitler was behind it. Most historians dismiss this. Hitler seems to have been concerned about Hess devulging NAZI secrets. Some believe that he was especially concerned anout secret assessments of NAZI allies. This is what Hitler apparently feared. [Goebbels, p. 477.] And it is notable that immeditely after the flight, Hitler dispacted Foreign Minister von Ribbontrop to see Mussolini. [Ciano, p. 351.] Hitler may have also been concerned about devulging plans to attack the Soviet Union.

Nuremberg International Military Tribunal (1945-46)

While in British prisons, Hess began to behave bizarly. In particular he developed a paranoid obsession that his food was being poisoned. After the War, the British returned him to Germny to stand trial with the other top NAZIs before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg. He was clearly disoriented in the courtroom. He seemed to stare off vacantly into space. He also claimed amnesia. There were periods of lucidity when he was one of the few defendents who remained loyal to Hitler. In his final statement he proclaimed, "It was granted me for many years to live and work under the greatest son whom my nation has brought forth in the thousand years of its history. Even if I could I would not expunge this period from my existence. I regret nothing. If I were standing once more at the beginning I should act once again as I did then, even if I knew that at the end I should be burnt at the stake." The court ignored his mental condition, he was sentenced to life in prison. Although a high-ranking NAZI official, the IMT recognized that he was not a major decession maker. He also flew to Britain before the mass killings began.

Spandau Prison

The NAZI war criminals were housed in Berlin's grim Spandau Prison. Those given the death penalty were executed here. Those given prison terms served their tme here. They were garded by American, British, French and Soviet military guards who rotated their duty. After a time there were attempts to have Hess released as a result of his mental disordrs. The Soviets rejected all attempts at early release. For several years he was the only NAZI war criminal left at Spandau. He committed suicide at age 92 (1997).

Sources

Ciano, Count Galeazzo. Hugh Gibson, ed. The Cano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City: Garden City, 1947), 582p.

Douglas-Hamilton, James. Motive for a Mission.

Fest, Joachim C. The Face of the Third Reich.

Goebbels, Josef. Louis P. Lochner, ed. The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943 (Doubelday: New York, 1948), 566p.

Kershaw, Ian. Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941 (Penguin Press: New York, 2007), 624p.







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Created: 11:13 PM 2/18/2009
Last edited: 4:51 AM 3/19/2011