Military history

THE FLIGHT OF RUDOLF HESS

The first report late that evening of May 10 that Rudolf Hess had taken off alone for Scotland in a Messerschmitt-110 fighter plane hit Hitler, as Dr. Schmidt recalled, “as though a bomb had struck the Berghof.”83 General Keitel found the Fuehrer pacing up and down his spacious study pointing a finger at his forehead and mumbling that Hess must have been crazy.84 “I’ve got to talk to Goering right away,” Hitler shouted. The next morning there was an agitated powwow with Goering and all the party gauleiter as they sought to “figure out”—the words are Keitel’s—how to present this embarrassing event to the German public and to the world. Their task was not made easier, Keitel later testified, by the British at first keeping silent about their visitor, and for a time Hitler and his conferees hoped that perhaps Hess had run out of gasoline and fallen into the chilly North Sea and drowned.

The Fuehrer’s first information had come in a somewhat incoherent letter from Hess which was delivered by courier a few hours after he took off at 5:45 P.M. on May 10 from Augsburg. “I can’t recognize Hess in it. It’s a different person. Something must have happened to him—some mental disturbance,” Hitler told Keitel. But the Fuehrer was also suspicious. Messerschmitt, from whose company airfield Hess had taken off, was ordered arrested, as were dozens of men on the deputy leader’s staff.

If Hitler was mystified by Hess’s abrupt departure, so was Churchill by his unexpected arrival.* Stalin was highly suspicious. For the duration of the war, the bizarre incident remained a mystery, and it was cleared up only at the Nuremberg trial, in which Hess was one of the defendants. The facts may be briefly set down.

Hess, always a muddled man though not so doltish as Rosenberg, flew on his own to Britain under the delusion that he could arrange a peace settlement. Though deluded, he was sincere—there seems to be no reason to doubt that. He had met the Duke of Hamilton at the Olympic games in Berlin in 1936, and it was within twelve miles of the Duke’s home in Scotland—so efficient was his navigation—that he baled out of his Messerschmitt, parachuted safely to the ground and asked a farmer to take him to the Scottish lord. As it happened, Hamilton, a wing commander in the R.A.F., was on duty that Saturday evening at a sector operations room and had spotted the Messerschmitt plane off the coast as it came in to make a landfall shortly after 10 P.M. An hour later it was reported to him that the plane had crashed in flames, that the pilot, who had baled out and who gave his name as Alfred Horn, had claimed to be on a “special mission” to see the Duke of Hamilton. This meeting was arranged by British authorities for the next morning.

To the Duke, Hess explained that he was on “a mission of humanity and that the Fuehrer did not want to defeat England and wished to stop the fighting.” The fact, Hess said, that this was his fourth attempt to fly to Britain—on the three other tries, he had had to turn back because of weather—and that he was, after all, a Reich cabinet minister, showed “his sincerity and Germany’s willingness for peace.” In this interview, as in later ones with others, Hess was not backward in asserting that Germany would win the war and that if it continued the plight of the British would be terrible. Therefore, his hosts had better take advantage of his presence and negotiate peace. So confident was this Nazi fanatic that the British would sit down and parley with him, that he asked the Duke to request “the King to give him ‘parole,’ as he had come unarmed and of his own free will.”85 Later he demanded that he be treated with the respect due to a cabinet member.

The subsequent talks, with one exception, were conducted on the British side by Ivone Kirkpatrick, the knowing former First Secretary of the British Embassy in Berlin, whose confidential reports were later made available at Nuremberg.86 To this sophisticated student of Nazi Germany Hess, after parroting Hitler’s explanations of all the Nazi aggressions, from Austria to Scandinavia and the Lowlands, and having insisted that Britain was responsible for the war and would certainly lose it if she didn’t bring a stop to it now, divulged his proposals for peace. They were none other than those which Hitler had urged on Chamberlain—unsuccessfully—on the eve of his attack on Poland: namely, that Britain should give Germany a free hand in Europe in return for Germany’s giving Britain “a completely free hand in the Empire.” The former German colonies would have to be returned and of course Britain would have to make peace with Italy.

Finally, as we were leaving the room [Kirkpatrick reported], Hess delivered a parting shot. He had forgotten, he declared, to emphasize that the proposal could only be considered on the understanding that it was negotiated by Germany with an English government other than the present one. Mr. Churchill, who had planned the war since 1936, and his colleagues who had lent themselves to his war policy, were not persons with whom the Fuehrer could negotiate.

For a German who had got so far in the jungle warfare within the Nazi Party and then within the Third Reich, Rudolf Hess, as all who knew him could testify, was singularly naïve. He had expected, it is evident from the record of these interviews, to be received immediately as a serious negotiator—if not by Churchill, then by the “opposition party,” of which he thought the Duke of Hamilton was one of the leaders. When his contacts with British officialdom continued to be restricted to Kirkpatrick, he grew bellicose and threatening. At an interview on May 14, he pictured to the skeptical diplomat the dire consequences to Britain if she continued the war. There would soon be, he said, a terrible and absolutely complete blockade of the British Isles.

It was fruitless [Kirkpatrick was told by Hess] for anyone here to imagine that England could capitulate and that the war could be waged from the Empire. It was Hitler’s intention, in such an eventuality, to continue the blockade of England … so that we would have to face the deliberate starvation of the population of these islands.

Hess urged that the conversations, which he had risked so much to bring about, get under way at once. “His own flight,” as explained to Kirkpatrick, “was intended to give us a chance of opening conversations without loss of prestige. If we rejected this chance it would be clear proof that we desire no understanding with Germany, and Hitler would be entitled—in fact, it would be his duty—to destroy us utterly and to keep us after the war in a state of permanent subjection.” Hess insisted that the number of negotiators be kept small.

As a Reich Minister he could not place himself in the position of being a lone individual subjected to a crossfire of comment and questions from a large number of persons.

On this ridiculous note, the conversations ended, so far as Kirkpatrick was concerned. But—surprisingly—the British cabinet, according to Churchill,87 “invited” Lord Simon to interview Hess on June 10. According to the Nazi deputy leader’s lawyer at Nuremberg, Simon promised that he would bring Hess’s peace proposals to the attention of the British government.*88

Hess’s motives are clear. He sincerely wanted peace with Britain. He had not the shadow of doubt that Germany would win the war and destroy the United Kingdom unless peace were concluded at once. There were, to be sure, other motives. The war had brought his personal eclipse. Running the Nazi Party as Hitler’s deputy during the war was dull business and no longer very important. What mattered in Germany now was running the war and foreign affairs. These were the things which engaged the attention of the Fuehrer to the exclusion of almost all else, and which put the limelight on Goering, Ribbentrop, Himmler, Goebbels and the generals. Hess felt frustrated and jealous. How better restore his old position with his beloved Leader and in the country than by pulling off a brilliant and daring stroke of statesmanship such as singlehandedly arranging peace between Germany and Britain?

Finally, the beetle-browed deputy leader, like some of the other Nazi bigwigs—Hitler himself and Himmler—had come to have an abiding belief in astrology. At Nuremberg he confided to the American prison psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, that late in 1940 one of his astrologers had read in the stars that he was ordained to bring about peace. He also related how his old mentor, Professor Haushofer, the Munich Geopolitiker, had seen him in a dream striding through the tapestried halls of English castles, bringing peace between the two great “Nordic” nations.90 For a man who had never escaped from mental adolescence, this was heady stuff and no doubt helped impel Hess to undertake his weird mission to England.

At Nuremberg one of the British prosecutors suggested still another reason: that Hess flew to England to try to arrange a peace settlement so that Germany would have only a one-front war to fight when she attacked the Soviet Union. The Russian prosecutor told the tribunal that he was sure of it. And so was Joseph Stalin, whose mighty suspicions at this critical time seem to have been concentrated not on Germany, as they should have been, but on Great Britain. The arrival of Hess in Scotland convinced him that there was some deep plot being hatched between Churchill and Hitler which would give Germany the same freedom to strike the Soviet Union which the Russian dictator had given her to assault Poland and the West. When three years later the British Prime Minister, then on his second visit to Moscow, tried to convince Stalin of the truth, he simply did not believe it. It is fairly clear from the interrogations conducted by Kirkpatrick, who tried to draw the Nazi leader out on Hitler’s intentions regarding Russia, that either Hess did not know of Barbarossa or, if he did, did not know that it was imminent.

The days following Hess’s sudden departure were among the most embarrassing of Hitler’s life. He realized that the prestige of his regime had been severely damaged by the flight of his closest collaborator. How was it to be explained to the German people and the outside world? The questioning of the arrested members of Hess’s entourage convinced the Fuehrer that there had been no disloyalty toward him and certainly no plot, and that his trusted lieutenant had simply cracked up. It was decided at the Berghof, after the British had confirmed Hess’s arrival, to offer this explanation to the public. Soon the German press was dutifully publishing brief accounts that this once great star of National Socialism had become “a deluded, deranged and muddled idealist, ridden with hallucinations traceable to World War [I] injuries.”

It seemed [said the official press communiqué] that Party Comrade Hess lived in a state of hallucination, as a result of which he felt he could bring about an understanding between England and Germany … This, however, will have no effect on the continuance of the war, which has been forced on the German people.

Privately, Hitler gave orders to have Hess shot at once if he returned,* and publicly he stripped his old comrade of all his offices, replacing him as deputy leader of the party by Martin Bormann, a more sinister and conniving character. The Fuehrer hoped that the bizarre episode would be forgotten as soon as possible; his own thoughts quickly turned again to the attack on Russia, which was not far off.

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