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 (see story below), Adolf Hitler finally con­firmed June 22 as the start date for Oper­a­tion Barba­rossa (Unter­nehmen Barb­arossa), the German 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 new sources of raw materials to sustain the war.

Germany’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union, which Italian dicta­tor Benito Mus­so­lini and Hitler’s Axis mili­tary part­ner had 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 hither­to neutral United States to think twice before entering the conflict on England’s side.

Hitler thanked Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) for his offer to dis­patch an Ital­ian expedi­tion­ary corps to Germany’s East­ern Front but saw no urgent need for addi­tional men and arms. The Wehr­macht (German armed forces) had enjoyed success from Day 1 in rolling up one Soviet forma­tion after another, so much so that the Soviet western border­lands were turning into a ribbon-long grave­yard for Soviet com­bat­ants and non­com­ba­tants, armored vehicles and artil­lery, and air­craft. In just 18 days, relent­less German pres­sure had cost the Soviets over 3 million men, 6,000 tanks, and most of their air force. Exhausted Red Army survi­vors, ill-trained and poorly equipped, wandered around aim­lessly. Inex­peri­enced volun­teer defenders were mowed down. A month later Mus­so­lini, impa­tient to move off the side­lines and join Hitler in the war against their common enemy, dis­patched air­craft, cars, trucks, horses, and 62,000 men, the first of over 200,000 Ital­ian service­men to fight the Soviets. 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 enemy 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.

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, 1938 Hitler 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 an unarmed German fighter plane alone to Scot­land on a bizarre “peace mis­sion” on May 10, 1941, just days before Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, the Nazi inva­sion of the Soviet Union. Under British inter­ro­gation Hess pro­posed that if the British would allow Germany to domi­nate Europe, then the British Empire would be spared further moles­ta­tion by Hitler. Recent evi­dence sug­gests Hitler was in the know regarding Hess’s effort to “neutralize” England prior to Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

Rudolf Hess’s Wrecked Messerschmitt Bf 110D, Scotland, May 1941 Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and (in rear) 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. (British psychi­a­trists who treated Hess during his incar­cer­a­tion in England con­cluded that their patient was mentally un­stable but not in­sane.) One theory explaining the full court press 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