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Scumbag studies: Reichsleiter Rudolf Hess

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.

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Scumbag studies: SS-Oberführer Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger

When you go rooting around in the scumbag files, WWII Nazi Germany is fertile ground. Therefore, to achieve historical notice as one of the most loathsome officers to serve the Third Reich, that person must be abnormally messed up. While he lacked the level of authority to match crime for crime with the likes of Adolf Eichmann, or Rudolf Höss, Dirlewanger was a war criminal of a different sort. He commanded an anti-partisan unit held in low esteem by many even in the Waffen-SS: what began as SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, and ended as the 36th Waffen-Grenadier Division-SS “Dirlewanger,” carrying out his own personal Holocaust in command of some of the worst cutthroats ever to wear the uniform of any German army in history.

At least on paper, the Waffen-SS eventually fielded thirty-eight divisions. Some were elite, some were failures. Some have no record of atrocities; some existed only to commit atrocities. Many weren’t even German. But of them all, what became the 36th Division has few rivals for the title of worst of the worst.

The histories of Dirlewanger himself and his signature military unit are not quite the same, and this is about the man, so let us dispose of the Dirlewanger Brigade and its successors. Nazi Germany had a partisan problem in its occupied Soviet and Polish territory. Simply put, the locals had decided against accepting consignment to the status of ‘Slavic subhumans,’ and were resenting this designation in arms. The Nazis, always eager to wring maximum value from human resources, had decided to release enough convicted poachers to form a military unit. It soon expanded to incorporate SS men convicted of crimes not quite vile enough to warrant the gallows.

The Dirlewanger Brigade soon became the Waffen-SS penal unit. It made the French Foreign Legion look like a Mormon Boy Scout troop. In time, a fair number of recruits came from concentration camps. The unit spent much of the war hunting partisans and committing atrocities in eastern Europe. In May 1945, a flood of Soviet flame and steel wiped out Dirlewanger’s unit.

Thanks, Premier Stalin. That nullifies at least a small portion of the other things you did in life.

As for Dirlewanger, one might best describe him as a harmonic convergence of awful. Born in 1895 in Würzburg, he served with distinction in World War I. Rising from the enlisted ranks to Leutnant, Dirlewanger suffered six battle wounds on the way to the Iron Cross 1st Class. That’s the only good part. By then, he was already an alcoholic, a predatory sexual brute with a taste for minors, and a sadist with a tendency to run amok. Even then, twenty-five years before his WWII infamy, one may very reasonably suppose that atrocities were done under his leadership.

War changes most who see it, and especially those who fight in it. In Dirlewanger’s case, war made a bad mind worse. He spent the 1920s and early 1930s fighting in nationalist/fascist militias while embezzling from his employer and, somehow, obtaining a Ph.D in political science. When a court convicted him in 1934 of raping a fourteen-year-old girl, the Nazi party kicked him out. He even spent time in a concentration camp. What saved him then, and would save him later, were connections. His old army buddy Gottlob Berger had since risen to high rank in the SS, and sprang Dirlewanger from confinement. Finding the Spanish Civil War most convenient, Dirlewanger volunteered for the Spanish Foreign Legion. When Germany intervened, Berger got Dirlewanger transferred to the ground component of the Condor Legion. Cowardice was never one of Dirlewanger’s many deficiencies. His performance in combat gave Berger the necessary ammunition to reinstate Dirlewanger in the Nazi party.

Then came the outbreak of war, and in 1940, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler assigned Dirlewanger to the battalion of paroled poachers that represented the beginnings of the Dirlewanger Brigade. What we learn from his conduct at the helm of this unit, or at least what I take away from it, is what can occur when a man with a perverted code of morality receives absolute power in a situation where nothing he can do in the enemy’s general direction will earn him reproof. Dirlewanger spent the remainder of the war leading the most loathsome unit in the German armed forces with ferocious bravery, and committing rape, arson, torture, and murder with equal ferocity.

There is no evidence Dirlewanger ever asked a trooper to do a thing Dirlewanger would not do himself. What would normally be a commendable military leadership virtue, in this case, becomes one of the few ways to make a bad record worse. As bad as some of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian SS police were–and if you do not know how bad, you have no idea how much currency Premier Putin’s accusations against modern Ukraine carry in the minds of those who know anything about eastern Europe–Dirlewanger’s polyglot force of condemned criminals, failed officers, and conscripted POWs was worse than any. The unit spent minimal time in frontline combat until very late in the war. It made war upon partisans and defenseless civilians in the occupied western USSR and Poland. All that they did, they did under the orders of SS-Obf. Oskar Dirlewanger.

After the German military collapsed, and his eponymous unit fell to broken bits, Dirlewanger tried to hide out. Acting on a tip, French occupation authorities detained him. Considering that the French knew exactly who they had, and considering that the detention camp had Polish guards, and considering that the French are not fundamentally naïve, I find it asking too much for us to believe that the French ever intended Dirlewanger to face a trial. While some of the details are murky and disputed, there seems no reasonable doubt that sometime around 5 June 1945, Polish guards beat Dirlewanger to death.

Merci. Dziękuję.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for rumors to begin that Dirlewanger had escaped beyond justice. A 1960 exhumation put those to rest in most evidence-oriented minds. Fifty-five years on, and seventy after his death, the modern mind often forgets Dirlewanger. At least, until one sees a photo of his gaunt, high-cheekboned face, with deep-socketed eyes that gaze out at the viewer to warn: if you’re soul-searching, don’t bother looking here. If you found one, you’d wish you hadn’t.

Every time someone does something truly awful–a school massacre, for example, or a day in the life of ISIS/ISIL–a number of wonderful, kind-hearted, truly decent folk will lament: “How can people DO that? WHY?” I understand that they do not understand. Their inability to see the world from the perspective of a Dirlewanger, or a Joseph Kony, or their like, is an enviable virtue. I hope they preserve it. One suspects that you rarely hear such a question from, for example, a Supermax guard, because they work in surroundings saturated by evil. As for me, I have never seen evil on that scale, but I’ve seen and felt enough of the real deal to answer the innocent lamentation. The answer’s simple:

“You wouldn’t understand. Rejoice in that. I wish I didn’t.”