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. Moving toward the frontier of Soviet-occupied Poland were 3.6 mil­lion sol­diers, 2,000 Luft­waffe pilots, 3,350 tank com­manders, supported by 7,200 pieces of artil­lery, ready to do Hitler’s bidding. Among the Fuehrer’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 food­stuffs and stra­tegic natural resources to sus­tain the war. (By mid-1940 the Soviet Union had become Germany’s most important trading partner.)

Germany’s unannounced act 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 entering into some sort of mili­tary alli­ance with the Soviet Union. Defeating the Red Army 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. Battle-weary Red Army survi­vors, ill-trained, poorly led, many equipped with out­moded wea­pons, 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, 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 fledg­ling 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.” As a reward for his slavish sub­mis­sion Hitler granted Hess titles such as Reich Minis­ter with­out Port­folio, mem­ber of the Secret Cabi­net Coun­cil, mem­ber of the Minis­terial Coun­cil for Reich Defense, and, three months after taking national power in January 1933, Deputy Fuehrer (Stell­ver­treter des Fuehrers), with respon­si­bil­i­ties confined to Nazi Party matters, not those of the state. In 1939 Hess was even desig­nated Hitler’s suc­ces­sor after Reich Marshal Hermann Goering.

Right: Once among Hitler’s constant and closest com­panions until 1933 (Hitler was best man at the Hess wedding and the two men con­versed using the inti­mate pro­noun “du”), by the mid-1930s Hess was becoming estranged from the Nazi cen­ter of power, viewed by many in Hitler’s inner sanc­tum (including Hitler and Goering) not only as an eccen­tric loner with ob­scure inter­ests but a person who lacked the cunning and intel­li­gence required to be a force with­in the ruth­less Third Reich pecking order. (Hitler mocked his deputy for his fixa­tion with the occult, astro­logy, and tele­pathy; Goering thought Hess “mad.”) Hoping to regain im­por­tance and redeem him­self in the eyes of his beloved Fuehrer, Hess, who had been a pilot in World War I, flew solo in an un­armed German twin-engine Messer­schmitt Bf-110 fighter from Augs­burg, Bavaria, to Scot­land on a bizarre, one-man “peace mis­sion” on May 10, 1941, just weeks 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.

Rudolf Hess’s wrecked Messerschmitt Bf 110E, Scotland, May 1941Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and (in rear) Karl Doenitz, Nuremberg, November 1945

Left: Desperate flight of fancy: the wreckage of Hess’s Messer­schmitt Bf 110 after the self-chosen peace emis­sary para­chuted into Scot­land on May 10, 1941, and was taken pri­soner, first by a pitch­fork-wielding local farmer who took him to his farm­house, then by the autho­ri­ties. 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, an opin­ion shared by British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill, who dismissed Hess as “a dis­ordered mind” and derided his naïve “peace mission.”) One theory explaining the Nazis’ full court press is that Hitler was worried lest his deputy 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. During the trial and his imprison­ment, Hess seemed unin­ter­ested in the pro­ceedings, rarely talked but when he did he rambled, was mostly avoided by his fellow pri­soners, and showed signs of amne­sia and mental ill­ness. Hitler’s Deputy Fuehrer 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 (con­spir­acy theories abound; see video), at age 93, in August 1987. He was Spandau’s last inmate.

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