This story is weird because its subject is weird.
Hess, a WWI veteran, was one of Adolf Hitler’s earliest kool-aid drinkers. You might say that he was even a kool-aid taster, helping develop Hitler’s kool-aid vintages and varietals. Hess would have swallowed fishing sinkers and jumped into the Rhine if Hitler jumped first. While Hitler did time for the Beer Hall Putsch, Hess typed up the manuscript that became Mein Kampf. Call him whatever else you will, with just cause, but Hitler was very loyal to those whose loyalty to him never flinched. Hess rose to the position of Deputy Führer.
Hess’s brain wiring was unlike that of others. He was definitely an anti-Semite and instrumental in the rise of the Nazi party as well as the persecution of Jews, so he fits my definition of scumbag. He had a streak of hypochondria. Today, he would probably be an anti-vaccine activist. It seems reasonable to suppose that he was prone to mental illness. But for a plane trip, he would have stayed in Hitler’s shadow throughout the war. He would have continued to lose influence due to Martin Bormann’s machinations, and would not have cared, so long as he retained Hitler’s personal affection. As one of the few men Hitler addressed in the familiar form ‘du’ and called “Hessrl” (‘Hessie’), Hess could do whatever he wanted provided it never ran counter to Nazi aims. By war’s end, surely he would have accumulated enough wrongdoing to hang. I am not alone in believing it a poor form of justice that he did not.
He would eventually correct that injustice himself, if indeed he did hang himself in Spandau all those many years later.
The official version is that on 12 May 1941, in defiance of Hitler’s orders and perhaps due to a decline in sanity, Hess jumped in his Bf-110 aircraft and flew to Scotland. He behaved as though he expected to be able to return. His goal was to broker peace between Germany (which he knew would soon be at close quarters with the Soviet Union) and Britain. The British heard him out, but did not find his proposals compelling. (Short version: “Herr Hitler never wanted to destroy you and still does not. If you get out of the war and give him back our African colonies, he will let you live.”) They debriefed him, but kept him under comfortable yet strict confinement for the duration of hostilities. At one point he attempted suicide and failed. The British made sure that didn’t happen again.
Came war’s end, Hess was among the high-profile Nuremberg defendants. He had behaved strangely in captivity, and put on a convincing display of missing marbles in court. Despite this infirmity or act, the tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment. He would be the final prisoner held in Spandau Prison, West Berlin, purportedly hanging himself on 17 August 1987. My own weird connection to the situation is that my college days ended just one year before that, and I happened to know a young woman (I delivered mail to her dorm and she would chat with me while I stuffed the boxes) who was a distant relation of Hess. I once tactlessly asked, “Any relation?” Best I can describe it is that a shadow passed over her eyes as she said, simply, sadly, “Yes.” Perhaps that is why the case has interested me.
Anyway, not everyone swallows the official version. Did you really think they would? When have they ever? All right, let’s consider Team Tinfoil’s claims. It may surprise you that I believe they at least have a couple of valid insights.
The real Hess died in a flying boat crash in Scotland during the war. This story goes that a double replaced him, acting the fool at Nuremberg, then spending decades in Spandau. Far as I’m concerned, this is stupid. Who would agree to do this? Where would they find such a person who also resembled the very distinctive-looking Hess? When Hess finally agreed to start seeing his wife and son again in the late 1960s, they seemed to think he was the real deal; in what universe could a double have manufactured the shared memories to fool them? What on earth could they gain from being in on some cover-up?
And those questions don’t even touch on why the British might cover up Hess’s death in such an accident. It’s not a war crime to fly prisoners around, especially important ones. This theory is so goofy it impairs the credibility of anyone who advances it.
Hess had Hitler’s permission and encouragement to go. In the past, I thought this was likely because of the problematic nature of stealing an escort fighter in the notoriously fascist Third Reich, but I have learned that Hess had his own Bf-110 on permanent assignment and knew how to fly it. There are reliable reports that Adolf chucked a trademark Hitlertantrum when he heard the news, which at least suggests the flight was unauthorized. A better reason to doubt Adolfian approval is that the odds were high of an outcome involving propaganda adverse to Nazi interests. How would it look to the Italians, at grips with the British in North Africa, if Nazi Germany seemed likely to make a deal with the Allies? What if Italy were to react by abandoning a war in which they had so far gained little and lost much? Nah, I don’t think Adolf sent him. It does, however, look very weird that Hess flew his mission on the very day after the Blitz ended. Whether or not the British knew that the concentrated raids were over, the Nazis did.
The British expected him. I strongly doubt that the Churchill government in power expected a visit from Hess. That some members of the upper classes might have been defeatist, and hoping for a substantive peace proposal…I am distrustful enough of ruling elites to imagine that possible. I can easily see where, after months of bombing and lost shipping, with no evident end in sight and no Americans riding to the rescue, wealthy elites might seek to act so as to save themselves and their riches above all.
We aren’t supposed to believe that. We’re supposed to believe that the wealthy deliberately stepped up for the noble sacrifices. Experience suggests I shouldn’t accept that comforting assumption so readily. Certainly our own wealthy elites in the modern USA would sell out Mom, country, Constitution, and people if it meant saving their own butts. Hell, they’d do it for a tax break. I do suspect that at least some in the British aristocracy were ready to see a way out of the war. Did Hess travel there in answer to back-channel communications of such nature? I don’t know. What one conspiracy book says, and not unconvincingly, is that an unspecified source got a look at the file folders still being held back from public release, and that each contains a single sheet stating that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. If so, that puts it in a place beyond any force in British law save one: the personal command of the reigning monarch.
If that’s where the actual material has gone, why put it there? If isn’t true, why invent that story? My suspicion is that there was indeed some evidence that at least some of the aristocracy weren’t as committed to the ultimate victory as public morale demanded that the public believe. If that were true, wouldn’t it suck for them to have that become public knowledge? Where could such an multi-generational embarrassment be stashed where it could never come back to haunt anyone? That would be the place.
I am reminded of a passage from John T. Molloy’s Live for Success, in which the author talked about a study his company did regarding chief executives’ résumés and potential fiction therein. Short version: so many of the résumés were so loaded with bullshit that Molloy ordered the report destroyed. Inexact quote: “It wouldn’t kill them; it would kill us.” I have little difficulty imagining a highly placed peer in the British intelligence community saying to an underling: “Give me that. Understand that you never worked on it, for it never existed.” And then taking it to Churchill, and it then being passed along to the King, who would have had the power to sequester it. But I do not know.
Hess was murdered, and thus did not hang himself. Possible. The usual reasoning advanced is that it was to prevent him from revealing WWII secrets. If so, I wonder what secrets he had not yet found a way to share with his now-adult son and aging wife, but it’s possible. I consider “they would never stoop to such a thing” as a terribly naive statement to make about any intelligence agency when it comes to perceived national interests. Some of the claims on both sides are facile, though it would not shock me if he were murdered to prevent any possibility of his being released if the Soviets finally relented on their longtime commitment to make sure he would die behind bars.
Hess didn’t expect to become a POW. To me, this is obvious. Toward his family, before departure he behaved as though he would be back within a few days. He expected that the British would grasp at any chance to make peace. To grasp this, we need to try and view the world from Hess’s rather muddled perspective.
Suppose you’re Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s BFF. Hitler = bae. The Adolf Hitler you know–and you believe, with cause, that you know him as well as any living man–is all-powerful, yet a kinder and more merciful man than the cruel, intolerant, blinded world can be allowed to see. You have often heard him say that he never wanted to crush the British. As things stand, obviously he will destroy them because obviously no one can stand against the obviously insurmountable Third Reich when led by such an incredible mind. However, the Führer is planning to invade the USSR soon. You fought in a two-front war just a generation ago; you were wounded there. You know that the Blitz is about to end, but the British don’t; all they will know is that a day will soon come when they aren’t being bombed.
Your BFF might lose face if he approaches the British now, but you can see he urgently needs a loyal friend to help him out by getting Churchill’s stubborn Spitfires and enormous Royal Navy out of the war. You’ve gotten word that the British aristocrats are beginning to see reason, thanks to the fierce might of the German Blitzkrieg and a good pounding by the Luftwaffe. Of course they do. Neither you nor Hitler ever imagined the British stupid or cowardly. In a sane world, of course, they would have sided with their Aryan brethren to begin with. Only after a pummeling could the British consider honorable terms, and they have had a rough lesson in German dominance. They’ve been softened up nicely.
Is not now your moment to be your BFF’s hero, by doing that which he can not? You can ensure that there will be no two-front war, win peace without giving up anything Germany has taken, get the hated obstinate wiseass Churchill pushed aside, avoid the need for a potentially disastrous cross-Channel invasion, and be the Fatherland’s man of the hour. Since it is obvious Germany will triumph, surely it is impossible that the British will be so suicidally stupid as to do anything like throw you in a POW camp. After all, you are a very important person, high in the favor of the Führer. You are responsible for the spilling of pages of adverbs. You are no one to trifle with. The British may have been foolish enough to be drawn into the Jewish conflict, but surely they would not show indignity to an important plenipotentiary entrusting his life and future to them as a sign of the Führer’s good faith. They are misguided, but they aren’t animals. Surely they have manners and are still sane. They will fall all over themselves in haste to do the only logical thing, and in gratitude for the magnanimity that lets them retain empire and honor.
If you were Rudolf Hess, with Hess’s experiences and his years in the Nazi rabbit hole of fascism, egotism, and delusion, might your thought process have worked that way?
We don’t know, but I have heard far less plausible scenarios that do far less to explain the known facts.
So no, I don’t believe it was a fake Hess at any time. I strongly doubt his Baedolf encouraged him to go, or knew about it. I think he saw his chance to be the big hero, and misjudged British resolve based on hints about Lord Fothersail or the Duke of Flatbroke having some doubts about the war effort. I don’t think he realized that the Allies already considered his people brutal barbarians led by a serial liar and bigot with whom the only peace could be had at the point of an Enfield barrel–or an air-dropped avalanche of fire and steel.
Summed up, I believe that the best way to understand more about this situation is to toss away idealistic wishful thinking about our side, and overtly myopic assumptions about the subject himself, and ask ourselves why each event might happen. Then dismiss those that are too stupid to dignify.
What remains is at least possible until we have trustworthy reason to reject it.