Last Prisoner at Spandau

MOTIVE FOR A MISSION by James Douglas-Hamilton St. Martin’s Press, $8.95

HESS: THE MAN AND HIS MISSION by J. Bernard HuttonMacmillan, $6.95

One of the great sensations of the Second World War was that caused by the news in May, 1941, that Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuehrer of the German Reich, had flown to Britain. The purpose of the flight and the question whether it was authorized by Hitler or invited by the British were the subjects of intense debate in Washington and Moscow and Rome, and neither Hitler’s announcement that his associate had gone mad nor Churchill’s intimation to the Americans and the Russians that Hess’s visit was unexpected and unwelcome succeeded in clarifying the matter to everyone’s satisfaction. Nor did Hess’s formal statement at Nuremberg, which touched only briefly on his mission and said nothing of the antecedent circumstances. With little evidence to go on, historians have simply had to speculate about what prompted Hess’s action or to pass over the incident in silence.
They will now be spared that awkward choice, thanks to the hard work of James Douglas-Hamilton, the second son of that Duke of Hamilton to whom Hess asked to be taken when he parachuted into Scotland. The young historian has, in a sense, lived with the Hess mystery all his life, and when he went down from Oxford, he decided to do what he could to untangle it, not only by reconstructing the British part of the story but by investigating the German background as well. The result of his efforts is a fascinating book and a surprising one, for it turns out that Hess, without Hitler’s knowledge, was making his own attempt at personal diplomacy. Having fallen in rank in Der Fuehrer’s hierarchy, he hoped to regain his ascendancy by effecting a peace between England and Germany, thereby facilitating the invasion of Russia which he knew was well into the organizational stage. The main figure in the story, however, and the key to many of the problems that have troubled historians, is not Hess but a rather more obscure person. Albrecht Haushofer.
In 1919, Rudolf Hess was demobilized in Munich after four years of war. Like many other Frontkämpfer, he was restless and disoriented, in Douglas-Hamilton’s words, “a fanatical young man in search of a fathersubstitute and a cause.” The latter he found in National Socialism, and in the turbulent days that followed the fall of the Soviet regime in Munich, he became one of Hitler’s first and most ardent followers. At the same time, he enrolled as a student of economics in the University of Munich, and it was here that he found a paternal counselor in the person of Karl Haushofer, a former major general in the imperial army who had begun in 1919 to give lectures on a new science that he called geopolitics. This was a kind of political geography seen from the German point of view, which, at least by implication, sought to explain the directions that German policy must take in order to repair the losses of the recent war. It fascinated Hess and inspired him with reverence for the man who professed it, a feeling that deepened in the days that followed the collapse of Hitler’s attempted coup d’état in November, 1923, when, as a fugitive from the police, Hess was given shelter in Haushofer’s home in the Bavarian Alps and then was helped by him to slip across the Austrian border.
Hess never forgot these things. During the next ten years, he remained on terms of intimacy with the Haushofer family, particularly with the professor’s elder son, Albrecht, who was only nine years younger than Hess; and when Hitler came to power in 1933 and Hess was in a position to grant favors, he granted two of some importance to his friend. He protected him from the application of the Nuremberg Laws (Albrecht’s mother was half-Jewish), and he made him his unofficial adviser on foreign policy. Later, he secured an academic post for him and a position in Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry.
Like his father, Albrecht was a geographer by academic training, and with him he edited the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik. He considered himself to be an expert on England, although this seems to have been based on little more than a few visits, the possession of a number of English friends and acquaintances (including the Duke of Hamilton, whom he had met at the Olympic Games in 1936), and a deep admiration of the English way of life, which he saw in romanticized terms. Haushofer believed in any case that Britain and Germany were natural allies, and for that reason he was profoundly disturbed by the tendency of Hitler’s foreign policy after 1936, which he felt would lead inevitably to conflict with the island power. Such a clash, he thought, would almost certainly bring the United States into the field, for, in his words, “the British Empire is just as important for America’s security as the other way round.” He tried to persuade his superiors in the Foreign Ministry that Hitler’s course was dangerous and, when the Western cave-in at Munich seemed to prove him wrong, argued in print that another British surrender could not be expected and that “the whole of British history. . . would have to be rewritten if one wanted to believe that presentday British armaments are merely bluff.” This warning was also disregarded, and the conflict he feared came remorselessly on.
Its outbreak left Haushofer in a state of despair, which deepened when he learned, after the fall of France, that Hitler was planning an attack on Russia, to take place in May, 1941. Certain that a two-front war would destroy Germany and deliver Europe over to Communism, Haushofer became convinced that an accommodation with Great Britain was the only way to stave off that future. Since the spring of 1940, he had been in touch with Ulrich von Hassell, Johannes Popitz, and other members of the resistance, who were seeking to promote a military coup against Hitler. In talks with them, Haushofer urged that the best way to galvanize the generals to action would be to secure a British promise to cease hostilities if a soldiers’ Putsch were successful, and he supplied the names of English friends who might serve as intermediaries with their government for that purpose.
Haushofer gave the same names to his protector, Rudolf Hess, when the Deputy Fuehrer, perhaps with Hitler’s knowledge, consulted him in September, 1940, about the possibilities of peace with Britain. And it is here that Haushofer’s crucial role in the Hess affair becomes apparent. For, as he wrote later, among other possible contacts, he “mentioned . . . the young Duke of Hamilton who has access at all times to all important persons in London, even to Churchill and the King.”
Haushofer agreed to try to arrange a meeting with the duke on neutral soil, but the letter that he sent to Hamilton, by way of Lisbon, was intercepted by the British Secret Service and never delivered. Hess, however, was not prepared to leave things at that. By the beginning of 1941 his influence with Hitler was declining as a result of the emergence of new rivals like Bormann and Hitler’s preoccupation with military matters. He desired to retrieve his fortunes by an act of individual daring that would serve his country and the Fuehrer. He resolved, therefore, to go to Hamilton himself, and through his good offices, to arrange a peace with England that would assure the success of the pending invasion of Russia.
Douglas-Hamilton pays appropriate attention to the planning ability, the aeronautical skill, and the personal bravery that were needed to put this resolution into action, but he also makes it clear that there was never any chance of the mission succeeding. Leaving aside the naïveté of Hess’s belief that dukes were still so important that they could change national policy by means of a few words with the monarch (the Duke of Hamilton was in fact an RAF wing commander on active duty and had no political influence to speak of), his great mistake was in thinking that anyone with political responsibility in Britain in 1941 was willing to make peace with Hitler, or, for that matter, even with a non-Nazi Germany that did not couple its offer with a withdrawal of its troops from the territories occupied by them. When Winston Churchill, who learned of Hess’s arrival during a showing of a Marx Brothers film, decided to continue watching it, he was making an appropriate comment on Hess’s mission: as far as the course of the war was concerned, it was irrelevant. The Deputy Fuehrer’s disjointed proposals of peace on Hitler’s terms were listened to with scant patience by officials far less exalted than he had expected to meet, and he was then—justly, one must conclude, in view of his increasingly erratic behavior—handed over to psychiatrists until it was time for him to go to Nuremberg and Spandau.
For Albrecht Haushofer the results were no less calamitous. What Albert Speer has described as Hitler’s “inarticulate, almost animal shout” when he heard the news of Hess’s escapade spelled doom in the long run for everyone connected with it. The first to suffer were Hess’s personal aides, who had known of the flight but believed that it was authorized by Hitler; some of the staff at the Augsburg Airport, the point of departure; and any number of astrologers, nature therapists, and anthroposophists with whom Hess had been associating in recent months. Haushofer avoided the fate that befell most of these people for some time, largely by the nimbleness with which he sidestepped the snares set for him in Gestapo interrogations and by a colossal piece of bluff. While denying any complicity in Hess’s flight, he was entirely candid about his letter to Hamilton and about his other connections with Englishmen in high places. Indeed, he exaggerated them in such a way as to give the impression that he would be the indispensable man if ever a new approach to the British government should be considered advisable. His persuasiveness was so great that Hitler ordered him to be set at liberty in July, 1941; and even after he was arrested again in the wake of the attempt on Hitler’s life in July, 1944. he was—although by this time his ties with the resistance were pretty well known—saved from summary trial and execution by Heinrich Himmler, who had a fantastic notion that, with Haushofer’s help, he might save his own neck by making a deal with the English.
But all this was mere respite. After months of imprisonment, during which he wrote those Sonnets from Moabit which are among the most moving of the documents that survived the Nazi holocaust, Albrecht Haushofer was shot to death by the SS a month before the war’s end.
Compared with Mr. Douglas-Hamilton’s fine study, which, with impressive documentation, gives what will probably be generally regarded as the most plausible explanation of its subject, J. Bernard Hutton’s book on Hess is an altogether less considerable work. It does not, to be sure, lack liveliness, much of which is derived from verbatim conversations between the actors in the drama, but since no sources are given for these, one suspects that most of them have been constructed by the author for dramatic effect. There are frequent inaccuracies (Hess was not, for example, the man “who plotted and commanded” the Blood Purge of 1934) and some exaggeration that borders on the ludicrous (a comparison of Karl Haushofer with Karl Marx, for example, which concludes: “Karl Marx had his Lenin. Haushofer had his Hess”). Mr. Hutton insists that Hess told Hitler of his intention to fly to England—indeed, he gives us the conversation in which he did so, again without citing the source—and intimates that Hitler did not demur. He says that if only Hitler had kept quiet about his deputy’s disappearance for two more days, and if only Hess had not “insisted that Winston Churchill should be deposed before Hitler’s peace terms were discussed, it is possible Mr. Churchill, in secret conference with Hess, could have made decisions of great importance.” These may, in short, “have been fateful hours for many who died later!” Neither this, nor his additional statement that Churchill “feared that if Hess’s mission became widely known throughout Britain there would be public resentment that the British government had not given more consideration to the peace offer,” is very persuasive.
The greater part of Mr. Hutton’s book is devoted to Hess’s detention in England and his mental deterioration (which he hints may have been caused by his treatment there), to his trial at Nuremberg, and to the long years of imprisonment in Spandau. He is the last prisoner in Spandau, and his sentence drags on because of the Soviet government’s refusal to consider an abbreviation of it. Mr. Hutton suggests that this intransigence is due to lingering suspicion that an Anglo-German arrangement and a common drive against Russia were real possibilities in 1941, and to the additional fact that Hess’s lawyer at Nuremberg embarrassed the Soviet government by revealing the existence of a secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression treaty of August, 1939, which provided for a division of spoils in Eastern Europe in the event of war. Whether he is right on this score or not, most people will probably not dispute his contention that, after thirty years of confinement, Hess has paid for his crimes and should be allowed to live out in freedom what remains of his life.