You Are There: Season 1, Episode 20

The Escape of Rudolf Hess (14 Jun. 1953)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama | History
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14 June 1953 (USA)  »

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A Mysterious Mission - and a Mysterious Aftermath
2 December 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

The flight of Hitler's chief aide, Rudolf Hess, from Germany to Scotland in May 1941 is still a mystery. There are several theories about it, but nobody can pin it down. It left many rumors (and some frictions) in it's trail, but it did one thing - it gave Hess an unfair advantage at the major Nuremburg Trial in 1946.

We really have to go back to November 1923. That year Hitler and Field Marshall Ernest Ludendorff lead a right wing coup attempt in Bavaria. The Munich Putsch was a bloody fiasco, but it gave Hitler a nationwide forum (his treason trial) where he denounced the Weimar Government and the Treaty of Versailles. In one of Weimar Germany's less wise decisions, instead of trying to execute Hitler they allowed the Judge in charge to give him a relatively light prison sentence. Hitler, at this time at least a master of opportunistic timing, used the sentence to write his political testament: MEIN KAMPF. His secretary was Hess, who was fanatically devoted to him. After Hitler's release from prison, Hess became one of his closest associates in the Nazi Party, and remained so up to 1941.

In dealing with political parties (like the Nazies and Communists)when they take over states they develop a kind of duality that is not quite met in the democratic countries. All political parties have a chairperson, but that person is mostly involved in keeping the party strong in national or local elections. But the chairpersons of the Democrat, Republican, Tory, Labour, or Liberal parties have opposite number heads that balance them off. The actual heads of the parties are either the elected President or Prime Minister, and his/her chief political rivals in the other parties.

But in countries which allow only one major party this is not the case. There the Chairperson of that single party is usually the head of state, although that title may be a separate one. Mao, for example, was "Chairman" Mao of the Chinese Communist Party when he ruled China. Hitler made himself the head of the Nazi Party and was the elected Chancellor of Germany as well. And this duality led to some problems.

Everyone who has studied Nazi Germany has wondered what would have happened to the leadership if Hitler had left the scene. In the end he appointed Admiral Doenitz to be his successor as Chancellor, and Joseph Goebbels as second-in-command. But for most of the 1930s and 1940s, his heir apparent was Field Marshall Herman Goering. Yet it was not an assured thing. All during his rise to power Hitler broke and destroyed others he considered rivals. The most notorious one he destroyed was Ernst Roehm, head of the "Stormtroopers" (S.A.) in the "Night of the Long Knives" purge of 1934. Goering had abilities (especially regarding air power), but he was an extreme sybarite and a drug addict. Goebbels was a firmer type. Later the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler, was a potential successor (as was Himmler's assistant and ambitious rival Reinhard Heydrich). Still later Albert Speer (who had the benefit of a friendship with Hitler) was suggested. And there was also Hitler's deputy as assistant head of the Nazi Party: Rudolf Hess.

Hess had gained his position by Hitler's rewarding his devotion in prison and since, and was the perfect "yes-man". And through the 1930s he was involved in German planning. But Hess had mental problems...and they were becoming obvious. Also, Hess had an ambitious assistant too: Martin Bormann. Whether Hess's growing irrational behavior or Bormann's cunning underhanded tricks convinced Hitler to gradually freeze Hess out of his inner circle is still debated. Probably a combination of these did. By May 1941 Hess was aware of his fall from grace and looking for a quick solution.

He flew in a private plane, without any warning, and went to Scotland (landing on the estates of the Duke of Hamilton). Naturally he was arrested, but the Churchill Government did not know what to make of this (Churchill, hearing of it, suggested it was a Marx Brother movie plot). Soon Hess explained why he came: he wished to offer a peace between Britain and Germany. Churchill, seeing the advantage of this for propaganda, released this to the world.

Hitler was furious. He said that Hess was a lunatic who never got any go-ahead to do this. He was read out of the Nazi Party, and his post of Deputy given to Bormann (who may have pushed Hess's action).

Was it a deluded error? That's the problem. In May 1941 there were many powerful British leaders who were interested in a separate peace with Germany. They even toyed with replacing Churchill with former Prime Minister Menzies of Australia (then working in London). Hamilton was connected to the Royal Family, so Hess landing on his estate was curious. Also, although Hitler did not mention it, Hess's actions were timed just before the invasion of Russia. It would have been quite a success if Hess had gotten a peace at that moment. A sense that there was more than met the eye here poisoned Anglo - Russian relations considerably after Russia was attacked. Stalin was paranoid enough to wonder if Hess reacted to a secret British peace feeler.

Hess spent the war in the Tower of London, and went to Nuremburg for the 1946 trial. But unlike his co-defendants, most of the atrocities that led to death sentences were due to plans and actions and orders post May 1941 (including the "Final Solution"). Hess could not be tried for these. As a result of being active in Nazi planning in the 1930s, Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment.

His death in the 1980s, the last of the Nuremburg defendants to be in prison, is officially a suicide, but there remains questions about whether he hanged himself or was murdered.


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