Berlin, Germany · May 12, 1941

On this date in 1941, two days after Deputy Reich Fuehrer Rudolf Hess had em­barked on his his­toric “peace mis­sion” to Eng­land, Adolf Hitler finally con­firmed June 22 as the start date for Oper­a­tion Barba­rossa, the inva­sion of the Soviet Union. Among Hitler’s goals was the eradi­ca­tion of the “Jewish Bol­shevik” regime along with its sup­posed under­pinnings (i.e., the Jewish “race”), com­bined with the aim of gaining a huge area for living space (“Lebens­raum”) in the East suit­able for German (“Aryan”) coloni­za­tion and for exploi­ting raw mate­rials to sus­tain the war. The decla­ra­tion of war, which Ital­ian dicta­tor Benito Mus­so­lini and Hitler’s Axis mili­tary part­ner read before it was announced pub­licly and with which he was in com­plete agree­ment, was full of typi­cally delu­sional Hitlerian rhetoric: it stated that Nazi-hold­out Eng­land had already lost the war; like a drowning man fumb­ling for a branch to save him­self, British “war­mongers” sought to save them­selves by grabbing hold of the Soviet Union. Defeating the Soviets in eight weeks would make Ger­many the unri­valed domi­nant power in Europe, dash Brit­ish hopes for sus­taining their war against Nazi Ger­many (Eng­land was an enemy Hitler did not want in the first place), and cause the United States to hesi­tate before entering the con­flict on Eng­land’s side. Hitler thanked the Duce for his offer to dis­patch an Ital­ian expedi­tion­ary corps to the East­ern Front but saw no urgent need for additional men and arms. One month later, impa­tient to move off the side­lines and join Hitler in the war against Russia, Mus­so­lini dis­patched air­craft, cars, trucks, horses, and 62,000 men, the first of over 200,000 Ital­ian service­men to fight the Red Army. By the time war-weary Ital­ians deposed Mus­so­lini on July 25, 1943, 64,000 of their country­men had been killed or wounded on the East­ern Front and another 54,000 would die in Soviet cap­ti­vity. Worse yet, per­haps, was Hitler’s reaction to Italy’s announce­ment of an armis­tice with the West­ern powers on Sep­tem­ber 8–9 that year: 600,000 Ital­ian soldiers, humi­li­ated and disor­ganized in defeat and with­out orders, offered little resis­tance when a venge­ful Wehr­macht gathered them up and delivered them as slave laborers to the German Reich later in month.

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Rudolf Hess, Deputy Fuehrer to Adolf Hitler and Deputy Head of the Nazi Party, April 1933–May 1941

Rudolf Hess greeting Hitler at Nuremberg Party Rally, 1938Hitler and Rudolf Hess at a Nazi party meeting, circa 1939

Left: After hearing Adolf Hitler speak in a small Munich beer hall, Hess joined the Nazi Party on July 1, 1920, becoming the six­teenth mem­ber. After his first meeting with Hitler, Hess said he felt “as though over­come by a vision.” Hess was granted titles such as Reich Minis­ter with­out Port­folio, mem­ber of the Secret Cabi­net Coun­cil, and mem­ber of the Minis­terial Coun­cil for Reich Defense. In 1939 Hess was even desig­nated Hitler’s suc­ces­sor after Reich Marshal Her­mann Goering.

Right: Once among Hitler’s constant com­panions until 1933, by the mid-1930s Hess was estranged from the Nazi cen­ter of power, viewed by many in Hitler’s inner sanc­tum as an eccen­tric loner with ob­scure inter­ests. Hoping to regain im­por­tance and redeem him­self in the eyes of his Fuehrer, Hess flew a Ger­man fighter plane alone to Scot­land on a “peace” mis­sion, May 10, 1941, just before Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, the Nazi inva­sion of the Soviet Union. Recent evi­dence sug­gests Hitler was in the know regarding Hess’s effort to “neu­tralize” England prior to the invasion.

Rudolf Hess’s Wrecked Messerschmitt Bf 110D, Scotland, May 1941Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Karl Doenitz, Nuremberg, November 1945

Left: The wreckage of Hess’s Messerschmitt Bf 110 after crashing in Scot­land on May 10, 1941. When Hitler met Mus­so­lini in early June 1941, he teared up, con­fessing he had a “Hess prob­lem.” Hitler and the Nazi pro­pa­ganda mill went into a full court press, describing Hess as men­tally ill. One theory is that Hitler was worried lest Hess spill the beans to the Brit­ish about his impending liqui­da­tion of the Soviet Union, so the Nazis made every attempt to trash Hess’s image inside and outside Germany.

Right: Defendants former Reich Marshal Her­mann Goering, former Kriegs­marine chief Adm. Karl Doenitz (dark suit), and former Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess con­fer during the Nurem­berg Trials, 1945–1946. Hess was found guilty of crimes against peace (plan­ning and pre­paring a war of aggres­sion) and con­spiracy with other Ger­man leaders to com­mit crimes. He was handed a life sen­tence and incar­ce­rated in Ber­lin’s Span­dau Pri­son until his death, maybe by sui­cide, maybe not (see video), at age 93, in 1987.

Rudolf Hess: His Trial at Nuremberg and the Controversy Over His Death