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Rudolf Hess by Sefton Delmer

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Rudolf Hess. Image Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0313-507 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons
Rudolf Hess

Frau Ilse Hess had been talking to me for about an hour and a half about her imprisoned husband.

She had been telling me about the letters she had received from him during his imprisonment by the British during the war, about the others he had written from the 'Allied Prison' in Spandau, the strange quirks of the war time censors and how they sometimes slipped up.

She told me too how she had been interrogated by the Gestapo about her husband's flight to Scotland. She talked of her own internment by the allies in the camp at Göggingen, and of her struggle to make a living for herself and her son after her release. How she had started a boarding-house up here on this lovely mountainside at Hindelang in the Allgäu and had gradually built it up from a modest one guest room affair until she had been able to acquire this larger house she now owned and where we were now talking.

"I am getting it ready," she said "for the time when Rudolf will be home with us again."

All the time she talked I admired the straight­forward frankness of this obviously highly competent woman. She was utterly unpretentious too. Over a simple dress of some greenish cotton material she wore a short sleeved white housekeeper's overall. Her grey-white hair was artlessly brushed in a tousled hairdo vaguely reminiscent of the way in which the BdM girls used to wear their hair in the days of the Third Reich.

And then suddenly this plucky and very likeable woman fixed her candid eyes on mine and popped a question at me which must have been bothering her since I first telephoned to ask her whether I might come and see her.

"Mr. Delmer, it is said of you that you are a fanatical German hater. Are you sincere when you say you want to see my husband released?"

"Of course I am sincere. I have been pleading for the release of Rudolf Hess for many years now, not because I am either pro-German or anti-German — incidentally I am not anti-German! That is just a convenient propaganda lie spread by those section in the German establishment whose actions and political attitudes I criticise. I want Rudolf Hess and the two others set free because I am pro-British! I do not want my country to be associated with what I hold to be an offence against humanity and justice."

What I did not tell Frau Hess is that I have long had a kind of guilt complex about Rudolf Hess. I feel that for one reason and another we British have been bungling our handling of Hess ever since the night of May 11th 1941 when he parachuted from his Messerschmitt fighter near Eaglesham in Scotland, broke his ankle, and was taken prisoner.

First we bungled the political and intelligence exploitation of this unexpected gift from the skies. Then when the war was won we bungled again by handing him over to be tried by the Allied War Crimes tribunal at Nuremberg. No-one who saw Hess sitting listless and apathetic in the Nuremberg dock, unable to take the slightest interest in the proceedings, can have failed to form the conclusion, as I did, that if ever there was a prisoner unfit to plead, this prisoner was Rudolf Hess.

I am all the readier to put forward the charge of bungling with regard to the war-time handling of Hess because though only a very minor cog in Britain's war machinery I played a small part in it myself and therefore have a share in the blame.

It began when on the morning of May 12, 1941, Valentine Williams, the number two in the hush-hush department of the Foreign Office I had recently joined called me up on the telephone.

"Tom" he said in his ever husky voice, "would I be right in assuming that while you were flying around Germany with Hitler you ran into Rudolf Hess?"

"Yes, quite a number of times. Why?"

"Would you be able to recognise and identify him if you met him again?"

"I don't see why not — always assuming of course he has not had a facelift or something. Why?"

"Would he recognise you?"

"I should think so. But why, Valentine? What's all this about?"

"Never mind that now. Just pack a bag and come to my office. I'll explain when you get here."

For the sake of extra secrecy the tiny team with which I was preparing to launch the clandestine radio 'Gustav Siegfried Eins' had been put into a secluded house in a Bedfordshire village, while Valentine Williams with his staff was installed in the centuries old mansion of the Dukes of Bedford at nearby Woburn Abbey.

When I arrived in his office Valentine told me with many injunctions to disclose to no-one what he was now going to tell me that a German Luftwaffe officer who had crashed with his plane in Scotland was claiming that he was Rudolf Hess and that he said he had come to make peace.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his colleagues suspected the whole thing of being a hoax. Lord Cadogan, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, wanted someone who knew Hess well to fly to Scotland to see this German and decide whether he really was Hess, and if he was, to find out what it was he wanted.

"Cadogan," said Valentine "wants to send Ivone Kirkpatrick. Kirk saw quite a bit of Hess while he served with our embassy in Berlin. Unfortunately he is on leave at the moment and so far they have not been able to contact him. So you and I may have to travel up to Scotland to have a chat with your old pal. What do you say to that?"

"Marvellous! If this chap really is Hess, he is a gift from heaven — for us in psychological warfare, for the deception chaps, and of course above everything also for M.I.6. What an opportunity! But he is going to require some really subtle handling."

"Don't worry yourself about that, my lad. That will be attended to once they know the chap really is Rudolf Hess and not some impostor."

Valentine handed me the departmental file on Hess and told me to make myself comfortable in his big armchair while we waited for further instructions from Lord Cadogan. As I read my mind travelled back to the Hess I had known during my time as the Daily Express man in Germany.

I remembered how I had found him closeted with Hitler the very first time I had gone to interview the future dictator of Germany in his newly built 'Brown House' in Munich's Brienner Strasse. That was in April 1931. Hess I was told then was a kind of personal assistant to the Führer.

I had found that like the other members of Hitler's entourage - with the solitary exception of little Dr. Goebbels and Albert Speer - Hess was a man of mediocre ability who would never have come to the top but for Hitler. But where the others intrigued and fought each other for promotion Hess effaced himself. His part was that of the abject slave, the man who would obey his master unquestioningly no matter what he was ordered to do. And when the Nazis took power Hitler rewarded him. He gave him cabinet rank as 'Party Minister' in charge of coordination between the governmental administration and the party machine. Hess, despite his fine new rank and title, remained the slave, seemingly content to do the minor chores that others more ambitious thought beneath them.

But he was the intimate of Hitler. And there was every reason to believe that the man whom Goebbels's newspaper Das Reich had praised - as I could see from the files I was reading - as recently as December 1940 for 'his ability to keep secrets', had access to the Reich's most important plans. For though his assistant Martin Bormann had been pre-empting some of his power recently on the favourite pretext of all civil servants plotting to supplement their master, that 'the boss must not be overburdened with petty detail', he was still a member of the Reich Defence Council. It was going to be a top priority task to make Hess talk, - and even if he did not talk to make Hitler and his ally Mussolini believe he had talked.

The best way to get at Hess in my view was to flatter him. I suspected that in all those years of self-effacement Hess must have been suffering consider­ably from what to adapt a famous phrase of my friends in the advertising business one might call 'ego starvation'. I reckoned it was up to us to feed that ego a bit if we wanted to rid him of his inhibitions and loosen his tongue.

But was I the right man to massage Hess's ego? I, whom Hess knew only as a reporter, not as a government servant. And as a reporter what was more who had been the first to dash Hitler's hopes of a negotiated peace with Britain after the fall of France. For within an hour of Hitler having made his triumphal Reichstag speech after the fall of France (July 19, 1940) I had answered him in German over the German service of the BBC. I had told him with all the vulgar Berlin epithets at my disposal, exactly what he should do with his appeal to Britain - a turn-down which the Germans in the euphoria of victory had found utterly incredible.

I was just telling Valentine of my misgivings when his telephone went. It was a message from Lord Cadogan. Ivone Kirkpatrick had been found. There was no need now for us to travel to Scotland. I was relieved.

But that did not end my involvement with Hess and the grotesque bungling by us British that now followed - bungling that caused us to miss completely this never to be repeated opportunity in the war of wits. It was almost as though Churchill feared that Hess was some kind of mysterious time-bomb that would explode in our faces if we started playing around with it. He gave orders that neither for home consumption nor for propaganda to the enemy countries should anything but the barest facts be revealed concerning the arrival and incarceration of Hess. On no account was there to be any sort of speculation. How relieved Hitler and Goebbels must have been - particularly Goebbels! For when he heard about Hess's flight Goebbels had torn his hair and declared it was a worse blow to the Reich than the loss of an army corps.

There was worse blundering to come. For when it came to softening up Hess and getting him to talk our methods were amateurish in the extreme. I can say so without inhibition for this was where I made my entrance on the stage of this farce.

Two days after our expedition to Scotland had been called off Valentine Williams once more summoned me to his office in the Abbey.

"The interrogators don't seem to be getting anywhere with your pal Hess." (Valentine could never mention any Nazi to me without referring to him as my 'pal'). "How would it be if we produced a bit of news from home which made him feel so bitter against his Führer that he chucks him over and comes clean?"

"Odd sort of chap Hess, you know, Valentine" I said. "He was brought up in Alexandria and has all sorts of British complexes about what's done and what's not done and he's rather a stickler for loyalty and all that. If you don't want to try my ego massage treatment for him why not just give him a truth drug. That'll make him come through quick enough."

But Valentine Williams had been a Guard's Officer in the First World War and was just as much a stickler for what was done and what was not as Alexandria-educated Hess.

"Can't use drugs. That's absolutely out!" and he glared at me as if to say 'None of your continental ruthlessness here, my lad!'

"No," he went on "I have another idea. It might conceivably do the trick."

Valentine's scheme was that we should print a counterfeit page of the Völkischer Beobachter which except for one item written and inserted by us was a perfect replica of the genuine original. This should then be served up to Hess with the rest of the pages from the same number, and Hess having accepted our bit of poison would rise in rebellion against the man whom he had slaved for and adored so long and whom he now recognised as a snake!

I saw difficulties ahead of us. Did we have the right newsprint and the right type, not to mention the right rotary press? Valentine thought all that could be arranged. So I wrote out in a reasonable imitation of German police reporter jargon a little item to suggest that Rudolf's wife Ilse and their son were having a rough time.

"The General Staatsanwalt announces" said the item "that Frau Ilse Hess has made a complete confession. She confirms that she smuggled nerve drugs believed to be of British origin into her husband's food. These drugs made Party Comrade Hess subjective to hypnotic suggestion by British directed traitors and produced the mental fog in which he flew to Scotland. Frau Hess is now being confronted with other members of this sinister ring who have been taken into custody."

But I was right in my misgivings. In June 1941 the department did not dispose over the resources to counterfeit the V.B. So in the end we had to print a similar item on the main news page of one of Fleet Street's national dailies. It was a special edition of not quite a hundred copies only. Most of them were immediately destroyed. None were sold to the public.

In due course the newspaper was served up to Hess with his breakfast. The effect? Not what we had hoped. All that happened was that Hess accepted the bit about the British having drugs that could make him subject to hypnotic suggestion. From that moment on he refused to eat or drink anything unless he had seen someone else eat and drink it first. And even then he surreptitiously switched plates whenever he could.

The odd thing is that Frau Hess, as she told me during our talk at Hindelang, was in fact treated harshly by Hitler and when Hess got to know about this it made him very angry. It was not the melodramatic harshness Valentine and I dreamed up but something much simpler! Hitler cut off Hess's salary with the effect that his wife and son were left penniless.

The news of this reached Hess in a copy of another letter which Frau Hess had quite unintentionally included with her own letter to him. If only we had thought of something like that!

Later when the German Abwehr read the letter in which Hess showed how angry he was over this the German authorities relented sufficiently to grant Frau Hess the allowance due to the wife of a prisoner of war.

As I have said, I believed that to break Hess an indispensable preliminary was to flatter him. This would best be done, I had suggested, by going through the motions of taking his mission seriously and negotiating with him - preferably through a cabinet 'plenipotentiary' or an interrogator disguised as that.

The government did indeed make one effort to play Hess in this way. They sent a genuine cabinet minister to visit him in the rambling Victorian mansion of Mytchett Place near Aldershot to which Hess had been moved. Alas, the minister whom they sent — on June 10, 1941, a month after Hess had taken off from the Messerschmitt Airfield at Augsburg - was that frigid inhibited lawyer Lord Simon. It was a pathetic choice. For brilliant as Lord Simon undoubtedly was at the cross-examination of witnesses this was not the talent called for now. What was needed was a man of warmth, authority, and charm who would build Hess's self-confidence, make him feel that he could achieve great things on his own without being tied to the apron strings of the Führer, and thus prepare him for the intelligence men.

The ludicrous fiasco of Lord Simon's meeting with Hess could have been foreseen. Simon began promisingly enough by telling Hess that he was "able to receive his mission with government authority." Hess, obviously pleased, launched into a long and lucidly argued account of his reasons for coming to Britain.

Lord Simon listened with admirable courtesy, called Hess 'Herr Reichsminister,' was beautifully suave, but then, alas, when Hess had finished, ruthlessly and quite unnecessarily disillusioning. Item by item he took the unfortunate Hess through the implications of his proposal that the continent of Europe should be a German sphere of interest in which Britain had no say.

With every question from the Lord Chancellor Hess became more and more tied up, more and more hostile and defiant. He was reduced to making threats. If Britain did not accept the terms he offered now, Hess blustered, the terms she would be compelled to accept when she was brought to her knees would be much worse. Much, much worse.

As Hess bullied, Lord Simon completely forgot his intelligence mission. He fell into the role of the heroic British Statesman refusing to capitulate before a tyrannical enemy.

"I don't think jour argument will be very good for the British Cabinet" he said with an hauteur which would have been magnificent had he been faced by a victorious Hitler in Berlin instead of the defenceless prisoner Rudolf Hess in well guarded Mychett Place.

"You know" added Simon in his high, prissy voice "There is a good deal of courage in this country and we are not very fond of threats."

All this could still have been useful from a propaganda point of view had it been recorded to be broadcast to Hitler and to Europe by the BBC, which it was not. As it was, the only effect of Simon's visit was that when he had left, Hess collapsed in despair. His plans, his hopes of achieving a great and glorious coup on his own, all had crashed about him. He determined to kill himself.

And, indeed, five days later, on June 15, 1941, dressed in his pale blue uniform of a Luftwaffe captain, he plunged over the banisters from the landing outside his rooms into the basement three floors below.

Poor Hess. He made a mess of this too. Instead of leaping head first he went feet first. So he did not kill himself, but merely smashed his pelvis and broke a leg.

There was one minister in Churchill's cabinet who could have cast a spell over Hess. That was Lord Beaverbrook. Had Beaverbrook been given the job of softening up Hess, he would in two or three interviews have laid all the psychological foundation the interro­gators needed. Regrettably Lord Beaverbrook, who at that time was Minister of Supply, did not see Hess until September, 1941. And then the two of them talked for only an hour. But even in this short talk Lord Beaverbrook put the moody Hess into a state of euphoria which the Intelligence Officers could have exploited had they tried.

Hess had several times met Beaverbrook in Berlin before the war when he had been present at conversations between Hitler and Beaverbrook. And Beaverbrook had been one of the men whom he had wanted to meet when he set out for Britain. For he believed Beaverbrook to be a member of the 'Peace Party' which German agents claimed was important behind the political scenes in London. When however Beaverbrook's visit was announced to him Hess was filled with nervousness and apprehension. He complained of pains in his stomach and demanded morphine.

Lord Beaverbrook did not allow himself to be put off by any of this. As he strode into Hess's sick room he flung his soft black hat on the table and advanced towards Hess with the outstretched hand and cheery smile of an old friend. He was the direct opposite of the frozen formality of Lord Simon.

"How's it getting on?" he inquired pointing to Hess's leg suspended from the Balkan Beam over his bed.

In no time they were talking not as wary negotiators, but as the cabinet ministers of two governments with conflicting views, each of whom was anxious to hear the other's opinion. Soviet Russia was the subject of their talk.

Hess now stated that the object of his flight to Scotland had been to make peace with Britain "on any terms", providing that Britain would then join Germany in attacking Russia. It was an odd statement since he had not mentioned the coming attack on Russia with so much as a word when he had his talk with Simon. And to Ivone Kirkpatrick he had denied point blank that Hitler meant to attack Russia. Nor had the terms he put down in writing at the time of his talk with Lord Simon suggested Germany's readiness for peace with Britain 'at any price'.

But Beaverbrook unlike Lord Simon did not hold him up with argument or quibbling. He wanted to hear what Hess had to say. And he heard plenty. He listened to him with every show of sympathy and encouraged him to believe he had a potential convert before him. When the meeting was over Hess was a changed man. Grinning cheerfully he told Captain Johnson, the officer looking after him, that he felt much better now.

I say that if Beaverbrook could have given Hess just one or at most two more doses of his magic he would have had this valuable prisoner in a state where he would have begun to talk. But there was no further meeting. And Hess was allowed to relapse into a state of apathy, bordering on insanity.

Was he in fact insane? Was he already insane when he was Hitler's deputy and a minister of the Reich? Was he sane enough to go for trial?

I am no psychiatrist. But psychiatrists have told me that Hess may at first have been miming amnesia to escape interrogation, but that he carried on miming for so long that it ceased to be miming and became a genuine affliction - a form of schizophrenia in which lucid periods alternate with periods of apathy.

What particularly depresses me however about the Hess case is a report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry vol.11 of October 1964. It is by an American psychiatrist Dr Maurice M. Walsh of Beverley Hills, California. Dr. Walsh states that after he had examined Hess in Spandau just before the Berlin blockade in 1948 and had diagnosed schizophrenia he was asked by the Surgeon of the U.S. garrison in Berlin to suppress this diagnosis out of deference to the sensibilities of the Russians. The Russians wanted no evidence to go forward suggesting that Haas was not fully responsible for his actions. The Americans in their turn did not want to antagonise the Russians with whom relations were already tense.

I cannot help wondering whether similar political pressure may not have been brought on the psychiatrists who declared Hess fit for trial. For there is no question about it that the Russians have always had it in for Hess, the man who tried to prevent Hitler's attack on Russia from becoming a two front war.

Today Hess lies on his narrow trestle bed in the 'Allied Prison', a victim of our Western anxiety not to upset the Russians. For long periods he remains silent and brooding. And he refuses to have his wife or his son visit him though he writes to them.

"He has written to say that he has succeeded in establishing his mental equilibrium" said Frau Ilse Hess. "If we were to visit him that would upset him, he says. Of course I would dearly love to see him - I have not seen him for twenty four years - but I quite understand what he means. When friends came to visit me in the camp at Göggingen it was always terrible after they had gone away again. Much better for us not to visit him."

According to the letter of the Nuremberg judges' sentence Rudolf Hess, now seventy-one, must remain in Spandau until he dies. For his was a life sentence.

I reckon that this man has already served more than a life sentence. Let him go. The pretty house at Hindelang awaits him. And even if he does act a little strange, no-one need be afraid. He has long ceased to be a danger to anyone.



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