Hess, Rudolf

Sentence and imprisonment

The Nuremberg trial

On October 10th, 1945, Hess was transferred to Germany. In 1946 he stood trial along with other Nazi leaders before the Internationl Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Prior to the trial, he was examined by psychiatrist Douglas Kelly. Kelly concluded Hess was mentally sane, although he did label him as a very neurotic, hysteric person. About Hess he declared: "If you consider the street healthy and the sidewalk unhealthy, then Hess is standing on the kerbside most of the time." During the trial, Hess often seemed mentally absent. During the proceedings he usually read a book or he just sat staring into space. He usually answered questions by the judges by saying he could no longer remember. He gave the impression he was suffering from amnesia. Later on he contradicted this and claimed that this simulated amnesia had been just a tactic of his. He hoped to be declared unanswerable to his actions and so evade the death penalty. Confronted with the atrocities that had taken place in the concentrationcamps, he claimed that this was Allied propaganda. He later claimed campguards had been hypnotized by Jews and so had come to their actions.

During the proceedings, the main prosecutor at the trial, Robert H. Jackson, described Hess as follows:"The fanatic Hess was the engineer of the party machine before he succumbed to an appetite for travel (he flew to Scotland in May 1941). He passed orders and propaganda to the partyleadership. He directed all aspects of party activities and maintained the organization as a loyal instrument of power."

The judges of the tribunal recognized that Hess displayed erratic behaviour and that he deteriorated mentally. Nothing indicated however that he did not understand the charges or that he, at the time the crimes he was charged with had been committed, was unanswerable for his actions; consequently, the court saw no reason whatsoever to assume Hess could not be held accountable. In the end he was found guilty of two of the four charges of the indictment, namely: Conspiracy to wage aggressive warfare or crimes against peace and waging of an aggressive war.

The fact that Hess showed no repentance whatsoever for his actions probably did not do his situation any good. In his closing statement he said for instance:"It was granted to me to work many years of my life under the greatest son my people have ever produced in its thousand years of history. Even if I could, I would not want to eradicate this period from my memory. I am happy to know that I did my duty on behalf of my people, my duty as a German, as a Nationalsocialist, as a true follower of my Führer. I regret nothing". In the end, Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Spandau and his death

To serve his sentence, Hess was transferred to Spandau prison in Berlin on July 1947 where he was henceforth designated as prisoner number 7. In Spandau, a rather strict regime was maintained, especially during the first years. A strict daily routine was enforced, one letter was allowed to be sent only once every four weeks and contact between prisoners was limited to a minimum. During his imprisonment, Hess occupied himself with reading (mainly historic and scientific works), writing letters and working in the prison garden.

Prisoner number 7 continued to behave as a paranoid. He was convinced people wanted to poison him and therefore he often refused his own portion of food. He also often complained he suffered from unbearable pains. Initially he was treatd for this, later on he was administered only placebos. He often started yelling in the middle of the night, very much to the discomfort of his fellow prisoners and the guards. Furthermore, he refused to receive his family for years because he did not agree with the circumstances under which these visits should take place. He also was afraid that this reunion would be emotionally too heavy a burden for both parties. On November 26th, 1959, Hess tried to committ suicide by cutting his wrists with a piece of broken glass from his spectacles. He was left with only slight injuries.

Although others who had been sentenced in Nurnberg, such as Konstantin von Neurath (1954), Erich Raeder (1955, (Bio Raeder) ) and Walter Funk (1957) were released rather soon, all pleas for the release of Rudolf Hess by his lawyer, Dr. Alfred Seidl were rejected each and every time.

As early as 1950, Churchill declared that he was happy not to be responsible anymore for the way, Rudolf Hess was treated; after all he was no longer Prime Minister. Even if he had taken on a moral guilt by standing next to Hitler, Hess had already atoned for this "devoted and thoughtless action by a benevolent insane. He came to us of his own free will and although without any power, he had some of the qualities of an envoy. His case should be treated as a medical case and not as a penal case."

The Soviet Union insisted however that where Hess was concerned, a life sentence should be a real life sentence. One of the possible reasons for this was that Hess, at the time of his flight to Scotland, already knew about the imminent attack on the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) and that he had approved this. Another point was that Hess had held a high position within the Nazi regime, making him a role model in the eyes of the Soviets.

The regime of Hess’ imprisonment however became more relaxed at the end of the sixties. He moved into a larger cell, he did not have to work anymore and he gained much freedom within the prison. On October 1st, 1966, Albert Speer and Baldur von Schirach (Bio Von Schirach) were discharged from Spandau prison. From that moment on, Hess was the sole prisoner in a jail with 600 cells. The cost for his imprisonment rose to 800,000 Mark a year. In Decembver 1969, his wife Ilse and his son Wolf Rüdiger visited him for the first time. At that moment, he had been admitted to a British military hospital in West-Berlin to be treated for a perforated ulcer and intestinal complaints. In January 1970, he returned to Spandau. Despite many persons speaking out in favour of the release of Hess, including Winston Churchill, Willy Brandt (German federal chancellor at the time) and Hartley Shawcross (the prosecutor for Great-Britain during the Nurnberg trial), the Soviet Union remained adamant.

On February 22nd, 1977, Hess made yet another attempt at suicide. This time he cut his wrists with a knife and again he survived. In the end, on August 17th, 1987, 93 year old Hess was found dead in a garden house on the premises of the prison. He had hung himself with a power cable. The official version was suicide which became apparent, among other things, from a letter of farewell that was discovered near his body. A number of people, including his son, claimed he had been murdered on orders from the British because he allegedly knew too much about the negotiations between Germany and Great-Britain during World War Two. However, despite two post mortems and other intensive research, nothing was ever discovered to corroborate this theory.

At his own request, Rudolf Hess was buried in the graveyard of Wunsiedel, the town in Bavaria his family originally came from and where in the past his parents had owned a summerhouse in the neighbourhood. Hess’ grave evolved into some sort of place of pilgrimage of neo Nazis who organized large manifestations there on August 17th, each year, the day of his death. Owing to these events his grave was cleared on July 20th, 2011, when the rent had almost expired. With permission from the family, the remains were cremated and the ashes dispersed over the sea.

In 1992, the larger part of the British files on Rudolf Hess were declassified. His wife Ilse, who had been arrested on June 3rd, 1947 and released on March 23rd, 1948, passed away in 1995; her funeral was attended by Gudrun Himmler, Ilsebill Todt, Wolf Rüdiger Hess and Martin Bormann junior. Wolf Rüdiger Hess passed away on October 24th, 2001.


German word for leader. During his reign of power Adolf Hitler was Führer of Nazi Germany.
Middle Eastern people with own religion that lived in Palestine. They distinguished themselves by their strong monotheism and the strict observance of the Law and tradition. During World War 2 the Jewish people were ruthlessly persecuted and annihilated by the German Nazis. . An estimated 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated.
The will of the troops/civilians to keep fighting.
Abbreviation of a national socialist.
Often misleading information used to gain support among supporters or to gain support. Often used to accomplish ideas and political goals.
Soviet Union
Soviet Russia, alternative name for the USSR.

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Hess (center), with co-defendants Göring (left) and Von Ribbentrop (right) during the Nurnberg trial.
(Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

Hess during his imprisonment in Nurnberg.
(Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

Spandau prison in Berlin in 1951 where Hess was held prisoner for many years.
(Source: U.S. Army in Germany. )

Prisoner Hess (right) takes a walk in the courtyard of Spandau prison.
(Source: Yad Vashem.)

The grave of Rudolf Hess which has been cleared in 2011.
(Source: Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Translated by:
Arnold Palthe
Article by:
Wesley Dankers
Published on:
Last edit on:
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