LONDON (Reuters) - Britain regarded the 40-year imprisonment of one-time leading Nazi Rudolf Hess as a “charade” but knew it would never be able to convince the Soviet Union to set him free, newly declassified documents show.
Hess, Adolf Hitler’s close ally and deputy in the Nazi Party before he parachuted into Britain in 1941 in an apparent peace bid, was tried at Nuremberg for war crimes and sentenced to life in Berlin’s Spandau prison.
He was the only prisoner in the vast complex for the last 21 years and was guarded by jailers from Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union until he committed suicide in 1987 aged 93.
Documents released by the National Archives on Friday reveal the true extent of the petty squabbling that went on as the Western powers, aware of public opinion, tried to make Hess’s imprisonment more humane and bring it to an early close.
But Britain, France and the United States knew that whatever attempts they made to secure Hess’s freedom would be rejected out of hand by the Soviets, who were determined to see him die in captivity.
In November 1973, David Edwards, a British legal adviser, wrote a memo to the government explaining how the Soviets had criticised the British prison governor for his management.
“I expressed amazement at this and said that Mr de Burlet was only trying to keep the prison running smoothly, practically and humanely until such time as the Soviets reached the sensible conclusion that the prisoner be released and the whole charade shut down,” Edwards wrote.
“Long may he continue to needle the Russians.”
In the run-up to Hess’s 80th birthday in April 1974, when even U.S. President Richard Nixon was calling for his release, the Western powers agreed that they would make another push to get Hess freed, even though they knew it was pointless.
“We expect little practical result from such an approach but we think we should leave the Russians in no doubt about continuing allied concern,” a British memo explained.
“We wish also to be in a position publicly to demonstrate that we have made a recent effort to secure Hess’s release.”
Bickering among the four nations was often petty beyond belief — it took weeks of meetings to win Soviet approval for Hess to have a second visit from a doctor after a health scare, and there was absolute Russian refusal to increase his visiting hours from 30 minutes to one hour each month. The Russians were also irate whenever Hess was not spoken to in German.
But there was also squabbling among the supposed Western allies. British diplomats were frequently exasperated by the line the Americans took on issues, and seemed to regard the French as a junior partner in the decades-long affair.
The Americans too, were sometimes none too pleased with the British. U.S. soldiers complained in August 1973 that pigs the British kept in their barracks were causing them “discomfort”.
“Apparently they smell and the snortings and snufflings disturb the soldiers’ peace,” Edwards wrote in a memo.
“Believe it or not, the U.S. governor may be asked to raise this matter at a governors’ meeting and you might like to have an answer ready,” he urged the British governor.