In 1974 Richard Nixon, the United States president, was ready to support the release on humanitarian grounds of prisoner number seven, but his efforts were thwarted by unwavering Soviet opposition. So Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s former deputy, dubbed ”the loneliest man in the world” as sole occupant of Spandau prison, remained locked up, according to secret documents released today by the National Archives at Kew.
The files cover a period when there was an international campaign to free Hess as his 80th birthday approached. It included an application to the European commission of human rights by his wife, Ilse, and public demands by his son, Wolf.
The papers show deep disagreement between the four powers running the Berlin prison — usually the British, French and Americans against the Soviets. The issues included how to handle his death, and whether to give him a new notebook and either destroy the old one, leave it with him, or lock it up.
Nixon’s view was reported to the United Kingdom, French and US authorities and summarised in a memo sent from a British legal adviser to the other two.
It says: ”The letter says that President Nixon shares the view that there are humanitarian reasons for releasing Hess, notes the repeated refusals of the Soviet Union since 1964 to agree to his release, and ends with an assurance that the US government is ready to join in a further approach to the Soviet Union ‘at any time there is an indication that such an approach holds a reasonable chance of success’.” The Allies concluded there was no chance of succeeding.
The files hold scores of memos, letters and telegrams on the impossibility of persuading the Soviets to release Hess: a letter to the MP Airey Neave, a former PoW and official at Nuremberg, who campaigned for Hess’s release, calls the Soviets intransigent and says Hess’s jail life was not that bleak.
A telegram signed ”Callaghan” is pragmatic: ”We should leave the Russians in no doubt about continuing Allied concern. We wish also to be in a position … to demonstrate we have made a recent effort to secure [the] release.”
In fact Hess would die in the prison 13 years later, his life, imprisonment and death wreathed in conspiracy theories.
In May 1941, just before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Hess had flown alone to Scotland on a ”peace mission” to meet the Duke of Hamilton in Lanarkshire. He landed near the Renfrewshire village of Eaglesham. It was an act apparently not authorised by Hitler, and then and later, people suggested he had been lured there by the British secret service. Churchill was rumoured to be there on the night of May 10, and the Duke of Kent was perhaps involved.
Hess was arrested and became a PoW. After the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946, he was convicted as a war criminal and sentenced to life at Spandau prison.
The authorities which shared administration of the jail were usually at odds with each other. In November 1973, a letter from the British legal adviser, DM Edwards, reports the Soviet governor complaining about his French counterpart. ”I expressed amazement … said Mr de Burlet was only trying to keep the prison running smoothly, practically and humanely until such time as the Soviets reached the sensible conclusion that the prisoner be released and the whole charade closed down.”
A British memo says: ”Hess has shown no remorse and has not renounced his Nazi faith. To release Hess in these circumstances could stimulate a Nazi revival.” But the Nazi could be made more comfortable, with a radio and TV, ”an armchair and a rug”. It was suggested that he get extended visits and almost uncensored letters.
Poignantly, given that he was to be found dead in a garden shelter, the memo proposed that ”Hess be allowed to spend as much time as he likes in the garden, subject only to [coming] inside before dark”. One memo talks of taking ”the prisoner’s spectacles away at lights out … and return them at 0630 hours”.
The files include good wishes from civilians, one from a Nottingham man with a photo of his young sons carrying a model Zeppelin. In April 1974 a German lawyer, Manfred Roeder, told the Allies that German citizens would bring flowers for Hess’s birthday. ”I assume … [you are] just as sickened by your government’s decisions as is the whole of civilised humanity … if however you should decline to [have a jail ceremony] … this simple act of chivalry … then I demand to be locked up with Hess, for he was not sentenced to solitary confinement!” If this request was rejected, they would pray that ”God punish England”.
Hess died at Spandau in 1987, aged 93, apparently by strangling himself with a cable. The jail was demolished. – Guardian Unlimited Ã‚