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Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), Deputy Führer and considered to be the number 3 man in Hitler's Germany after Göring. Hess was a somewhat neurotic member of Hitler's inner circle best known for his surprise flight to Scotland on May 10, 1941 in which he intended to negotiate peace with the British, but which resulted in his capture and long term imprisonment.
Hess, born into a wealthy family of wholesalers and exporters living in Egypt, did not live in Germany until he was fourteen years old. He volunteered for the German Army in 1914 and was wounded twice in World War I. After the war he joined a group of right-wing ex-soldiers and was active in putting down Communist uprisings in Germany. He studied political science at the University of Munich where he was influenced by the Thule Society and by Professor Karl Haushofer, and came to hold ideas of Nordic supremacy and the concept of Lebensraum.
After Hess heard Hitler give a rousing speech in a beer hall in Munich he joined the Nazi Party (he was #16 on the party rolls). Hess wrote that he was “overcome by a vision” in the presence of Hitler, and became a devoted disciple who often fought with Marxist para-military who tried to disrupt the Nazi meetings. He took part in the failed Beer Hall Putsch in which the Nazis tried to take control of the government. He was arrested and put in prison along with Hitler where he had a hand in the development of the manuscript for Mein Kampf. After serving two years he was Hitler’s secretary in the Nazi Party and was later appointed Chairman of the Central Political Commission of the Nazi Party and SS General. He would be made Deputy Fürhrer in 1933.
In a 1934 speech Hess argued for a sort of divinity for Hitler, “With pride we see that one man remains beyond all criticism, that is the Fürhrer. This is because everyone feels and knows: he is always right, and he will always be right. The National Socialism of all of us is anchored in uncritical loyalty . . . in the silent execution of his orders. We believe the Fürhrer is obeying a higher call to fashion German history. There can be no criticism of this belief.” In the Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will Hess can be seen announcing the Fürhrer with a fanaticism that sets the stage for the appearance of Hitler. Although loyal to Hitler he lost power over time to others in the Party, and in an attempt to regain importance in the eyes of his Fürhrer he donned a Luftwaffe uniform and flew a German fighter plane alone toward Scotland on a peace mission where he intended to meet with the Duke of Hamilton and hammer out a peace agreement between England and Germany.
When Hess crash landed his Messerschmitt 110 into a field some thirty miles from the Duke’s home in Scotland a number of conspiracy theories were born. Did he have Hitler’s approval? Why the Duke of Hamilton? What was Hess really up to? Was he a lunatic? Were there British officials complicit? One source argues that, “Hess wanted to convince the British Government that Hitler only wanted Lebensraum for the German people and had no wish to destroy a fellow 'Nordic' nation. He also knew of Hitler's plans to attack the Soviet Union and wanted to prevent Germany from getting involved in a two-front war, fighting the Soviets to the east of Germany, and Britain and its allies in the west.”
Later Hess would be tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 1987. Winston Churchill wrote of Hess, “He was a medical and not a criminal case, and should be so regarded.”
McGinty’s book is a detailed report of the interrogations of Hess while he was held as a prisoner of war at Camp Z, a country house near Aldershot where Hess would be the only prisoner. McGinty had access to recordings and documents, letters, diaries and is able to make an absorbing account of those days in prison. The material includes reports of first hand conversations between Hess and his captors, Hess and his doctors, as well as letters Hess wrote to his family and proposals he submitted to British officials. MI6 officer Frank Foley interrogated Hess and those recorded conversation give a sense of the paranoia Hess suffered, constantly claiming he was being poisoned by the food or by the drink provided him. Foley, who, as head of station in Berlin before the war, had saved thousands of Jews, wrote of his former prisoner: "He was a nasty piece of ignorance, but he was not as cruel as some of those who are now free."
In this readable, well-crafted book we learn that Hess did not divulge any significant German secrets, that he seemed to be sincere in his notion that some sort of peace arrangement between Germany and the UK was possible, and that he was very probably mentally disturbed. The book is quite compelling as the reader is present for the interviews, the attempted suicide, and the doctors’ puzzlement as they try to determine Hess’s mental status. McGinty knows how to tell a story with skill and dramatic tension.
Camp Z is a compelling insight into one of the still fascinating characters of that devastating war of the twentieth century.
© 2012 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.