Commentary Magazine

Prisoner #7: Rudolf Hess, by Eugene K. Bird

Prisoner #7: Rudolf Hess: The Thirty Years in Jail Of Hitler’s Deputy Führer.
by Eugene K. Bird.
Viking. 270 pp. $10.00.

As a young student in Munich in 1920, Rudolf Hess joined the fledgling Nazi party, attracted by its strident policy of anti-Semitism and the charismatic personality of its leader, Adolf Hitler. Within three years Hess had become Hitler’s closest associate. Following the Munich beer-hall putsch in 1923, they served prison terms together in Landsberg where Hitler began discussing and dictating portions of Mein Kampf to his adulating factotum. As the National Socialists grew in power, Hess assumed greater responsibility, moving from head of the party’s central political commission to the post of Deputy Fuhrer after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Just a decade earlier he was hawking anti-Semitic pamphlets, playing at revolution, dreaming of Germany as the master of Europe. For a time, history gratified his wildest fantasies. In 1935, Hess signed the Nuremberg Decrees, revoking the civil rights of Germany’s Jews. A few years later, he participated in the takeover of Czechoslovakia, the annexation of Austria, and after the invasion of Poland, he authorized the Gestapo to enter Warsaw.

Then suddenly, in May 1911, he flew to England, hoping to persuade the British to accept a settlement with Germany. The British, however, refused his offer to negotiate while the radios of Germany denounced him as a lunatic. For the rest of the war Hess remained in England. His mind grew steadily more unbalanced, he suffered periods of amnesia, and once he attempted to kill himself with a bread knife. After the war, he was brought to Nuremberg, and though questions were raised about his sanity and fitness to stand trial, the judges decided that Hess understood the charges against him and was capable of defending himself. Nine months later he was found guilty of conspiracy to wage aggressive war and of crimes against peace. The court, however, acquitted him of crimes against humanity and of war crimes, deciding that his involvement in the persecution of Jews was not sufficiently connected with their annihilation to warrant a finding of guilty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and soon after, entered Spandau prison in Berlin where he remains to this day.

Eugene K. Bird is a former American commandant of Spandau who took it upon himself, against prison regulations, to offer Rudolf Hess the chance to resolve “the enigma that has caught the curiosity of the world for so many years.” Presumably, Bird means by this the reasons for Hess’s flight to England and whether or not Hess has completely deteriorated after thirty years of imprisonment. Following numerous discussions with Hess, Bird decided to publish this book in order “to rally public sympathy throughout the world” for Hess’s release. But in spite of Bird’s motives, his book is so confused by redundant detail and further weakened by his obsequious approach to his subject, that it hardly advances Hess’s cause.



Seven Nazi criminals were confined in Spandau prison after the Nuremberg trials. Only Albert Speer, Baldur von Schirach (the former leader of the Hitler Youth), and Admiral Karl Doenitz (one-time head of the German Navy who became head of state after Hitler’s death), served their complete terms before they were released. Konstantin von Neurath, Hitler’s first Foreign Minister, sentenced to fifteen years, was freed after eight years when his. heart condition deteriorated. Walter Funk, the former President of the Reichsbank, and Erich Raeder, former Grossadmiral of the Navy, were released because of advanced age and serious illness, although both of them had been condemned to life imprisonment. For years, the Western allies have wanted to release Hess also, but the Russians continue to insist that he die in prison.

Like all accounts of prison life, Bird’s narrative not only evokes the distinctive responses of the inmates to their humbling experience, but also explores the peculiar character of the jailers. According to the Legal Committee of the Allied Kommandatura, representatives of the four powers—France, England, the United States, and the Soviet Union—have had to reach unanimous agreement about any matter (whether Funk could be released or whether Hess could sit in the garden for an extra hour) before the established prison routine could be modified. Apparently, the Russians have had difficulty understanding Western attitudes on the treatment of prisoners. Time after time, as when von Schirach suffered a detached retina or Funk required surgery to relieve a kidney ailment, the Russians refused to permit them the best medical attention until the Western allies threatened to intervene with force.

Since the Nuremberg trials, the treatment of Rudolf Hess in particular has generated much controversy. Winston Churchill opposed his imprisonment, believing he should be regarded as a medical, not a criminal, case. In the 1950’s, there were rumors Hess would be moved to an insane asylum and three years after the release of Speer and von Schirach in 1966, when Hess, now alone in Spandau, nearly died of complications from a perforated ulcer, numerous efforts were made to release him altogether. Lord Oaksey, the British judge who had sentenced Hess at Nuremberg, suggested that clemency be extended to him because of his age and ill health. And Sir Hartley Shawcross, the British prosecutor of Hess, stated that at the time of the trial, he regarded Hess’s life sentence as “subject to the sort of commutation recognized in civilized systems of criminal justice, and . . . not literally . . . for life.”

Although the Western allies have urged that Hess be freed, the Russians regard him with particular malice. His pious protestations of a longing for world peace not-withstanding, Hess flew to England in order to forestall a war on two fronts once the German invasion of Russia commenced. Unquestionably, he was aware of Hitler’s plans to attack the Soviet Union and the Russians properly suspect he even invited the British to join Germany in the struggle against Bolshevism. Moreover, during his trial at Nuremberg, Hess’s counsel, Dr. Seidl, produced evidence of the secret protocol which accompanied the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 when Stalin and Hitler arranged the dismemberment of Poland into “spheres of influence.” Dr. Seidl attempted to show that one of the powers conducting the trial was guilty of a crime allegedly committed by his client—conspiracy to wage aggressive war. The move infuriated the Russians.

Still, the court sentenced Hess to life imprisonment. In a world where innocent people are condemned to torture and years of abject living conditions, it cannot be said that Rudolf Hess has received cruel treatment at the hands of his jailers. For many, he remains the last living symbol of Nazi brutality and as such should remain in Spandau until his term of life imprisonment expires. Hess, however, is now eighty years old. Unless the allies succeed in freeing him before he dies, according to the honorable custom of commuting imprisonment when a man becomes elderly and helpless, one can only conclude, with a nod at the Russians, that Hitler not only corrupted his friends but corrupted his enemies as well.


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