Anniversary of a bizarre WWII mystery

Anniversary of a bizarre WWII mystery

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One of the more curious footnotes to World War II occurred 75 years ago this week. On a May evening in 1941, Rudolph Hess, deputy führer of the Third Reich and No. 3 man in line of succession after Hitler and Hermann Göring, flew solo from Germany to Scotland and parachuted into the waiting arms of the British.

So who was Hess and why did he make this bizarre wartime flight? He was born into a prosperous German merchant family living in Egypt just before the turn of the 20th century. The oldest of three children, he was by inclination a warrior and immediately after World War I broke out, he joined the infantry. He was wounded several times during the war, always returning to the front when he recovered and earning medals that included the Iron Cross in 1915. Toward the end of hostilities, he trained as an aviator.

In 1919 he continued his education at the University of Munich and attended a class taught by Karl Haushofer, a proponent of the principle of lebensraum (“living space”), which urged the need for more land. Postwar life in Bavaria at that time was chaotic, with fights erupting between right-wing groups and Communists, and Hess was drawn to battles in the streets as a member of the Thule Society, an extreme anti-Semitic gang.

In 1920, after hearing Hitler speak at a Nazi rally in Munich, Hess became totally devoted to him and joined the Nazi Party. From then on Hess was almost inseparable from Hitler, being at his side in the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 when Hitler tried to stage a coup d’état, and was in prison with him subsequently where he talked to Hitler about the lebensraum idea that became a pillar of the Nazi platform and justification for conquering lands in Eastern Europe. And while in prison, Hess helped Hitler write his “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”). After they were released, he was even subsequently injured protecting Hitler from a bomb planted by a Marxist group.

When Hitler and the Nazis finally did seize power in 1933, Hess became a cabinet member and was frequently the one who would introduce Hitler at rallies and speaking engagements. If Hitler could not attend, Hess would be his surrogate, addressing the crowds. Part of his cabinet responsibilities was to cosign every law decreed by Hitler, including the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their rights as German citizens and set the stage for the Holocaust.

Meanwhile Hess regularly took lessons, becoming ever more skilled as a pilot. When war broke out in 1939, he asked Hitler if he could join the Luftwaffe but Hitler forbade it, telling him he couldn’t fly again until the end of the war but eventually limiting the ban to one year. Hess had been Hitler’s private secretary for years but was replaced by Martin Bormann, who gradually surpassed Hess in his relationship to Hitler.

About the time his flying ban was lifted, Hess confided to his son that he wanted to arrange peace negotiations between Hitler and Churchill. He talked about flying to meet with the Duke of Hamilton in Scotland, who was known to Albrecht Haushofer, the son of Hess’ professor and with whom Hess had become a good friend. They believed, mistakenly, that Hamilton was a leader of the opposition against the war. Hess began outfitting a sophisticated airplane with the necessary equipment to reach Scotland, including auxiliary fuel tanks, and after abortive tries due to weather or mechanical limitations, finally took off on May 10, 1941. That was six weeks before Hitler planned Operation Barbarossa, the surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. Hess was distressed at the prospect of two fronts and was determined to get Britain to sit out the rest of the war.

Hess was able to get to the coast of Britain before the radar picked him up, and before fighter planes sent up to intercept him could shoot him down. He flew at extremely low altitude and when he was near his destination, he parachuted out of his plane and landed within a few miles of Hamilton’s home. Churchill was not interested in his plan and the British held him as a prisoner of war. Hitler was reportedly enraged by Hess’ action and, disavowing any such knowledge on his part, stripped Hess of all his offices and decorations, fearing the response of Mussolini and the Japanese to such a unilateral move. Ultimately Hess was tried in the first round of prisoners at the Nuremberg trials and sentenced to life. He died in Spandau Prison in 1987 at age 93 by suicide.

The question will always remain for historians to argue: Did Hitler send Hess on his doomed mission?