The Life (and Death) of Hitler's Deputy Rudolf Hess Is a Total Mystery

The Life (and Death) of Hitler's Deputy Rudolf Hess Is a Total Mystery

The former deputy Führer of the Third Reich spent most of his life in prison after a supposed peace-seeking flight in 1941 and died under mysterious circumstances.

Key Point: Hess's bizarre behavior and even stranger continuing fervor for his dead Führer marked him apart from the other defendants at Nuremberg.

In October 1939, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same could be said of Rudolf Hess, the Nazi leader and Nuremberg war criminal who spent the last four decades of his life in Spandau Prison in Berlin. In the 15 years following World War I, he rose from being a shy and introverted but brilliant university student to the height of power in Nazi Germany as deputy Führer, second only to Adolf Hitler himself. He ended his life at age 93, a feeble, captive, old codger.

On May 10, 1941, only weeks before Operation Barbarossa, the planned German invasion of the Soviet Union, he flew from Augsburg to Scotland, apparently on a freelance diplomatic mission. He planned to make peace with Great Britain and avert the age-old German specter of a two-front war. Needless to say, he was singularly unsuccessful and imprisoned until transferred to Nuremberg for the war crimes trials held after the war. Since that fateful Saturday, the first anniversary of the German invasion of France, myths and misinformation have shrouded this undeniably eccentric Nazi.

Hess’s Obsession with Astrology, Ghosts, Telepathy, and Mesmerism

His curious diplomatic mission is only the tip of the inexplicable iceberg that is Hess. Prior to his flight, his companions regarded him as extremely odd, even mentally unbalanced. Herman Göring described him as “mad,” and Hitler often mocked his reliance on astrology, ghosts, telepathy, and mesmerism. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a German-American businessman close to Hitler, recalled that Hess “would not go to bed without testing with a divining rod whether there were any subterranean water-courses which conflicted with the direction of his couch.” Others remembered watching him hang magnets over his bed. Even in the Führer’s circle of “bohemians and condottieri,” to use Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw’s colorful turn of phrase, Hess stood out for his peculiarities.

Dr. Kelley S. Douglas, the official U.S. government psychiatrist who examined Hess during the war crimes trials, concluded pithily, “Diagrammatically, if one considers the street as sanity and the sidewalk as insanity, then Hess spent the greater part of his time on the curb.” In all seriousness, Hess asserted to Lt. Col. Eugene K. Bird, U.S. commandant of the Spandau Allied Prison from 1964 to 1972, that if his mission had succeeded, he would have received the Nobel Peace Prize! In this century, psychiatrist Dr. Joel E. Dimsdale reassessed the accused at Nuremberg, concluding Hess exhibited “consistently abnormal behavior, which extended over years, spanning events before, during, and even after the trial.”

Questions arise, thus, such as who was Rudolf Hess? What were his beliefs and intentions? What were the forces that animated his psyche? His personality? These questions must also be considered in an existential sense, because it has been posited that the prisoner in Spandau was not the man born Rudolf Walter Richard Hess in Alexandria, Egypt, on Thursday, April 26, 1894. Only recent research published earlier this year has resolved this fundamental issue.

Finally, and as is only fitting, there are significant questions surrounding his death on August 17, 1987, at the age of 93. It was ruled a suicide. However, as is always the case with Hess, questions remain. Many, including his late son Wolf Rutiger Hess, believed it was a politically motivated assassination. Even in death, Rudolf Hess remains a mystery.

Finding Relief in War in 1914

Hess was born in Egypt, his father operating an import/export business in Alexandria. He was raised in an affluent environment and educated at the Protestant School in Alexandria. At 14, he was sent to the Evangelical School in Bad Godesberg in northern Bavaria, close to the family’s summer home in Reicholdsgrün.  His father insisted that he prepare to join the family business, Hess & Co. Against his will and the recommendation of his teachers, his father compelled him in 1911 to study at the École Supérieure de Commerce in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and then apprentice himself at a trading company in Hamburg.

Forced into a career path he resented, driven by a distant and domineering father, Hess greeted the declaration of war in 1914 with relief. He immediately enlisted in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment, and on November 9, 1914, transferred to the 1st Infantry Regiment. In January 1918, he transferred to the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force) and completed training, earning promotion to Leutnant der Reserve, although the war ended before he flew any combat missions. He survived the war and was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, having suffered multiple wounds. (Read more about the exploits of WWI—from both sides of the fighting—inside the pages of Military Heritage magazine.) 

Most importantly, Hess felt crushed, shamed, and angered by Germany’s defeat in World War I and believed that his country had been humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. According to his future wife, Ilse Pröhl, he “was a string taut to the point of snapping, on which the fateful song of Germany’s distress was unendingly played.” He joined the Aryan fantasists in the Thule Society, many of whom were future Nazis, and on May Day 1919, while fighting Spartakusbund (Communist) paramilitaries with Freikorps Epp in the streets of Munich, he was wounded again.

Slavish Submission to the Führer

His impotent rage became transformed when the young veteran, now a student of geopolitician Karl Haushofer at the University of Munich, heard his fellow veteran Adolf Hitler speak for the first time. He raved about the man to his fiancée. Contemporaries report that his entire demeanor changed. Unrelievedly somber, they noted that he smiled again and voiced optimism for Germany’s future. After a single dose of Hitler’s oratory, Hess was enthralled, so on June 30, 1920, he joined the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP). His membership number was 16, immediately preceding Julius Streicher, the infamous Nazi Jew baiter and publisher of the racist newspaper Der Stürmer.

In terms of submission to the Führer, Hess quickly emerged as number one, and the Führer reciprocated. In September 1920, Hess wrote ecstatically to his parents, “I spend nearly every day with Hitler.” The next spring, he told a cousin, “A splendid person!… He comes from a humble background, and has acquired a vast knowledge on his own, which I greatly admire.” Universally, his Nazi contemporaries commented on his slavish submission to the Führer.

German historian Volker Ullrich describes Hess as one of the first “Hitler disciples.” British historian Ian Kershaw asserts that Hess was “besotted” by Hitler. Still a student, he entered a University of Munich essay contest in the fall of 1922 in which he asked, “What qualities will the man have who leads Germany back to the top?” Hess’s answer to this question won by his descriptions of Hitler’s “deep knowledge in all areas of the life of the state and its history, the ability to learn lessons from them, belief in the purity of his own cause and in ultimate victory, and an untamable strength of will that give him the power of captivating oration that makes the masses celebrate him.”

Even during his imprisonment in Landsberg after the failed Munich Putsch in 1923, he maintained an almost religious belief in his Führer, writing to his wife, “Hitler is the man of the future in Germany, the dictator whose flag will fly sooner or later over public buildings in Berlin. He himself has faith enough to move mountains.” At Nuremberg a quarter century later, American psychologist Dr. G.M. Gilbert characterized his hyperbolic loyalty as “doglike devotion.”

For a future dictator already fully dedicated to his own personality cult and who valued loyalty and obedience above all else, Hess was the perfect acolyte. Winnifred Wagner, the granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner, wrote, “Wolf [Hitler’s nickname] is so attached to Hess—he’s constantly singing his praises.” Hitler would stand as best man at Hess’s wedding and become godfather to his son, Wolf. Significantly, he allowed Hess to address him with the intimate “du” rather than the more formal German form of address “Sie,” a familiarity Hitler extended to very few.

The 1923 Munich Putsch attempt and its aftermath illustrates their closeness. Hess played a leading role in the attempted coup. He was assigned to make the arrests in the Bürgerbräukeller, including Bavaria’s ruling triumvirate of State Commissioner Gustav Ritter von Kahr, Generalmajor Otto von Lossow, and Munich police chief Hans Ritter von Seisser. He held them hostage while the putsch collapsed, briefly hid out at Karl Haushofer’s apartment, and then fled to Austria. He only surrendered to German authorities after Hitler was sentenced to Landsberg Prison, where he happily joined him.

Despite the spurious but widely repeated myth, Hitler did not dictate Mein Kampf to Hess. This erroneous report by a guard is easily explained. Often on Saturday evenings, Hitler would read completed chapters to his fellow Nazi prisoners. He was not dictating to Hess. That said, Hess played an important role in the book’s genesis.