“Rudolf Hess has met with an accident”, announced the newspaper “Der Führer” on May 13, 1941. “On Sunday, May 10, at 6 pm, Party Comrade Hess started on a flight from Augsburg from which he has still not returned. He has left a letter which shows his confusion and it appears that he is the victim of delusions. Hess, a trained pilot, had been strictly forbidden by the Führer to fly a plane due to a progressive illness. Hess’s adjutants have been arrested as they apparently knew about the flight. The NSDAP must assume that he has either crashed or had an accident”.

The following day, it was announced that Rudolf Hess had been living under the delusion that he could negotiate peace between Germany and England. Apparently, he had parachuted out of a plane in Scotland and been found injured. The office of the Deputy Führer now passed to the Party Chancellery under the leadership of Martin Bormann. Hess was never mentioned again in any newspapers.

Hess, otherwise known unfailingly as the Deputy Führer, was referred to here by the generic National Socialist designation of “Party Comrade”, even before his whereabouts were officially known. With immediate effect, he appeared to have been stripped of all privileges and entitlements. It was instantly clear that he would never return.

Hess' early career in the Nazi party

From the beginning of their relationship, Hess subscribed to building a myth around Hitler to confer him with a charisma on which he could later build his power. In 1923, he spent 18 months in Landsberg prison with the future Führer, where they enjoyed a close relationship. Hess transcribed Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” by typewriter.

Rudolf Hess (second from right), pictured with Hitler and other Nazi party members after their release from the Landsberg prison, c. December 1924.
© IWM NYP 68040
Rudolf Hess (second from right), pictured with Hitler and other Nazi party members after their release from the Landsberg prison, c. December 1924.

In 1925, Hess became Hitler’s private secretary. He had a deep sense of devotion and a submissive nature, and there were even rumours that he was homosexual. To quell these he married Ilse Prohl, at Hitler’s behest, in 1927. When the National Socialists came to power, he became Reichsminister without a portfolio and Hitler’s deputy.

Utterly loyal to the Führer, Hess was described in the newspaper “Der Führer” in April 1934 as an exemplary model of Hitler’s National Socialism. His decisions were apparently based on artistic intuition, and a deep understanding of politics. Inspiration was the key with Hess, claimed the newspaper – his willpower, originality and clarity in distinguishing good from bad – were those qualities which made him the ideal deputy. He was self-assertive and yet calm and controlled, and was known for his warmth.

Hess decided on which issues were important for the Führer to know, especially matters that were crucial for Party, Reich or People. His workload, the complete organisation of Party tasks, was enormous. And he ensured that in the nation, only one belief existed – the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler.

Rudolf Hess, pictured in the newspaper “Durlacher Tagblatt”, 27 March 1936
Rudolf Hess, pictured in the newspaper “Durlacher Tagblatt”, 27 March 1936

Beliefs and ideology

The Nationalist Socialist ideology was based on the Volksgemeinschaft, the national community. In the Third Reich, this promised social community, overcoming the class system, political unity and an upsurge in the national economy. Throughout his time in office, Hess propagated these concepts, defining Adolf Hitler synonymously with the spirit of Germany.

Nazi Germany was a military state and over the preceding one hundred years, war had played a decisive role in its unification. During the 1860s, Bismarck engineered three wars to unify military-oriented Prussia and the south German states. In 1871, Germany was united under Wilhelm I, and World War I was the first war which Germany entered as the German nation.

Not only was the German Army humiliated at the capitulation in 1918, but it lost its Kaiser and thus its political system, leading to the rise of extreme left- and right-wing parties, and sentiment ran high that so much bloodshed had been in vain. Germany was further humiliated by the crippling Treaty of Versailles, all of which was seen as the dishonour of Germany and the German Army. The goal of the National Socialist Party was to avenge and rectify this humiliation and dishonour.

In a speech in July 1934, Hess spoke in Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, which was still isolated in and cut off from the Reich by Poland. Appealing to the old “frontline fighters” throughout Europe, Hess argued that a bond still existed between all European frontliners of the World War. He emphasised that Germany does not want the politicians to stumble into disaster but build a bridge of understanding between peoples. Hitler was trying to save the world from a catastrophe, said Hess.

And Adolf Hitler, he said, merely wanted equality in all areas for Germany, including armament. A country without a military presence, Hess emphasised, presented a danger for peace, therefore the prerequisite for peace was the assurance of a competent army. The French had been building their Maginot Line since 1930 and the Germans were about to build their counterpart to it, the Siegfried Line. They had already started military armament and would soon be remilitarising the Rhineland. Hess’s words, with hindsight a forecast and an explanation, would resonate when German armament commenced in earnest.

Hess, who always kept a low profile, was considered one of the most reasoned leaders of the new Germany. From his speech, it appeared that the Führer himself was holding out his hand to the world for peace, friendship and reconciliation.

Hess as Hitler's Deputy

Often the highest official at events of the greatest importance, Hess, a man who preferred to stay in the background, was constantly in the limelight. At the celebrations for the return of the Saarland in 1935 following a plebiscite, and on the eve of the 1936 elections, the Führer’s Deputy again talked of peace and of the incredible boost in the Germany economy since the National Socialists had come to power. There was only one man to thank for all of this – Adolf Hitler. Hess motivated and roused the masses through intelligent speeches which not only addressed political, economic and social issues but provided meaningful solutions and explanations to them. “Germany is the backbone of the peace movement!” proclaimed Hess.

Construction of the Siegfried Line had now started and the Rheinland had been remilitarised. “We need to counter France’s fortresses with unity in order to preserve our society”, explained Hess. At a Nuremberg rally in 1936, he described how Germany lay as a powerful anti-Bolshevist block in the center of the continent. The consequences of this terrible threat could be seen in the ongoing Spanish Civil War.

Rudolf Hess at Karlsruhe Province Day, pictured in the newspaper “Der Führer”, 19 April 1937
Rudolf Hess at Karlsruhe Province Day, pictured in the newspaper “Der Führer”, 19 April 1937

In 1937 in Karlsruhe, his message was similar. His applause was enormous, unending. “National Socialism has turned Germans back into people with decent morality”, said Hess. “We thank the man who gave us freedom from Bolshevism and made Germany into a strong, healthy nation again”.

At the rally in Nuremberg in 1938, Hess spoke to tens of thousands, introducing Hitler with the words: “Your heart, my Führer, beats only for Germany, and so our hearts beat towards you. Our faith is in you, you are ours and we are yours!” Hitler was becoming gradually more god-like and increasingly remote.

However, it was Hess who performed the change of province command in Vienna in August 1940, and Hess who handed over the flag of Germany to the Generalgouvernement following the invasion of Poland. In May 1940 he honoured 98 National Socialist “model companies” in Essen (companies awarded this prize receive special privileges).

Messerschmitt at Augsburg was one such company. Hess, a brilliant pilot, regularly tested new planes here when they left the production line – particularly the Messerschmitt Bf 110, with which he ultimately flew to Scotland. He was thus able to continue flying on a regular basis.

At Christmas 1940, the Deputy Führer chose an air base in France to hold his Christmas address. From a hall filled with Christmas trees, the speech was broadcast throughout Germany. Stopping at each table to discuss raids over England with the young German fighter pilots, Hess said that he could not have wished for a better Christmas. During the first few months of 1941, he was conspicuously absent from newspaper reports.

Hess’s power in the Party should not be underestimated. He held a strong position – inspecting the ideology of all state activities, responsible for all legislature and naming representatives of the NSDAP in all municipalities, thus ensuring that all offices were occupied by NS officials. From 1936, however, Hitler took more interest in foreign policy, and Hess’s power began to dwindle, as did his health. He had the many symptoms from which he suffered treated by homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine. However, as proved by the numerous events and ceremonies in which he participated, he held a very active role in the foreground of the political arena.

On May 10, 1941, Hess arrived at Messerschmitt in Haunstetten to fly a Messerschmitt Bf 110. He was not wearing proper flight clothing and pilot Helmut Kaden, who was around the same size, offered his spare brand-new flight wear to Hess. According to subsequent statements by Kaden, Hess had already attempted to leave three times before. This time, he arrived.

Read Linda Parker's accompanying blog post, to find out what happened next in Hess' story