Rudolph Hess exhumed to stop Nazi pilgrimage
Grave of Hitler’s deputy had become a shrine for neo-Nazis, even though he tried to stop World War 2
The grave of Hitler's deputy, Rudolph Hess, has been destroyed – and his remains cremated – after it became a focal point for German neo-Nazis, who had taken to marching there on the anniversary of his death.
Hess's body was exhumed yesterday, 24 years after his suicide at the age of 93, and his ashes will now be scattered from an airplane over the sea after the priest of the Lutheran church which was his final resting place decided the grave had become a liability.
Hess's surviving relatives are understood to have been unhappy when the church, in the Bavarian town of Wunsiedel, decided not to renew the lease on the family plot. However, after talks with church and town officials, they were persuaded to drop their objections.
The exhumation comes as just the latest strange twist in an extraordinary and rumour-fogged story.
Hess became friends with Hitler during his university days, awed by his oratory. He stayed by his side, eventually becoming the Fuhrer's second-in-command.
From a rich and powerful family, Hess made an urbane counterbalance to the rest of the Nazi top brass, seen by other European leaders as vulgar and crude. His loyalty to Hitler seemed unquestionable.
But it is for the extraordinary events of May 10, 1941 that Hess will always be best remembered. On that day, Hess flew his own plane, apparently without authorisation from Hitler and with no ammunition in its machine guns, from Germany, across the north sea, into Scotland.
German and British planes tried to intercept him, but failed. Hess ditched his plane over Renfrewshire, landing by parachute. He broke his ankle in the process (though a different report claims he landed smoothly and his injury was sustained when farmhands dragged him from his cockpit).
On the Pathe newsreel shortly afterwards, farmhand David McLean demonstrated how he had arrested Hess with his pitchfork. The high-ranking Nazi was taken prisoner by the amateurs of the Home Guard.
It then emerged that Hess was making an unauthorised, solo mission to propose a peace treaty between the UK and Germany. He had been trying to reach the stately home of the 14th Duke of Hamilton, who he believed to be an opponent of Winston Churchill.
Hitler was publicly furious – stripping Hess of all his honours – but said he had no doubt his loyal deputy had lost his mind. This opinion was shared by Hess's British captors (he was held first in the Tower of London, the last political prisoner ever locked up there) and, later, by his old colleague, Hermann Goering.
Goering was so appalled by Hess's strange behaviour as they sat in the defendants' dock together at the Nuremberg trials to face war crimes charges that he asked to be seated elsewhere. The request was denied, and Goring had to tolerate Hess's twitching, unexplained laughter and habit of counting on his fingers.
Hess was found not guilty of war crimes, but guilty on lesser counts, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was held in Spandau jail - since demolished for fear it might become a shrine - until his death in 1987.
Hess was found dead on August 17 that year in a summerhouse in the Spandau Castle grounds. An autopsy found he had committed suicide by hanging himself with a piece of electrical wire.
Of course, the rumour mills started turning immediately. It was claimed that, at 93, Hess was far too frail to have taken his own life and it was alleged that British agents had murdered him.
Why? Hess made his disastrous solo flight to Scotland on the eve of Russia joining the war. Even after the war was over, Stalin still believed that the British had indeed been negotiating a peace settlement, to Russian disadvantage, with Hitler.
For decades after he was imprisoned, the Soviets were not keen on any clemency being shown to former Nazis. However, when Hess died, communism was starting to crumble and – the theory goes – Russia might have been close to allowing Hess's release.
Faced with the possibility of embarrassing secrets emerging from Hess, the story goes, the British decided to silence him.
Whether or not the outré theory has a scrap of truth, it is hard not to feel some pity for a man who seems to have suffered so much after having tried to end the war – and after having being found not guilty of war crimes.
In his memoirs, Churchill wrote: "Whatever may be the moral guilt of a German who stood near to Hitler, Hess had, in my view, atoned for this by his completely devoted and frantic deed of lunatic benevolence."