The capital of the Reich laughed - if only behind closed doors. On May 12, 1941, the Reichsrundfunk broadcast a communiqué from the Fuehrer's headquarters, according to which Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy in the party, had flown to England on a long-haul plane on the night of May 10-11 and probably crashed. There was talk of the pilot's “mental breakdown”, that he was a “victim of delusions” - uttered rare words in the German ether when it came to high representatives of the NSDAP, and accordingly the cheeky Berlin vernacular produced a joke after that other.

"There is a song in the whole empire / We drive against Engeland / But if someone really drives / This is how he is declared crazy", an unknown joker rhymed the refrain of the "Sailor song" by Hermann Löns, one of the most sung at the time Propaganda songs.

Another said succinctly: “We've known that our government is crazy for a long time.

But it admits that it is new. "

Rudolf Hess, recorded in 1940/41

Source: picture alliance / Heritage-Imag

The whispering grew when the BBC announced on May 13, 1941 that Hess had by no means "had an accident".

This was announced by the Nazi newspaper “Völkischer Beobachter”.

In reality it is well in British hands.

Now whispered jokes were circulating that, according to Nazi standards, not only scratched the "defeat of military strength".

Such a joke referred to the sober war reports of the German service of the BBC, which was still secretly heard: "Radio London announces: There were no more infiltrations by German ministers tonight."


The propaganda and suppression apparatus reacted helplessly.

"At the moment I don't know a way out," noted the chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who is rarely embarrassed to reply, in his diary: "We will have a hard time biting on this matter." As a first measure, Goebbels left the pictures of Hess from the most recent, Remove the not yet published edition of the “Wochenschau”.

"Reuter is still reporting very peacefully," he noted.

"But the storm will start in the next few hours."

All possible higher party functionaries, “Reichsleiter, Gauleiter, etc.” wanted to speak to the Propaganda Minister - they needed language regulations that they could pass on downwards: “Nobody wants to believe this madness at all.

It also sounds so absurd that one could take it for a mystification. "

What happened?

Rudolf Hess, born in 1894 in the British-influenced Alexandria and part of the inner circle around Hitler since the early 1920s, had risen to become Reich Minister without a portfolio in 1933 and at the same time, as "Deputy Leader", became the actual managing director of the NSDAP.

But although he continued to fanatically exemplify the cult of Hitler, after the beginning of the war he had become more and more estranged from the dictator.

From the summer of 1940 onwards, Hess developed the crude idea that he could personally end the war between Great Britain and Nazi Germany.


It was very likely the concrete preparations for the attack by the Wehrmacht on the Soviet Union since July 31, 1940 that brought Hess to it. For if the war in the West were not ended beforehand, that would have to lead to a two-front war again, as in 1914. As the head of the party apparatus, the “deputy” was concerned that the resources of the Third Reich would not be sufficient.

Hess got into the idea of ​​being the right man to mediate. Of course, he did not count on Winston Churchill, who was and always would remain a figure of hatred for all National Socialists (and who, incidentally, never met Hess personally), but believed he knew the contact person in Duke Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, a Scottish duke. He is the "leader of the British peace movement" and opponent of the prime minister. The Third Reich could make a peace with him - on German terms, of course.

In the early evening of May 10, 1941, Hess took off in a Messerschmitt Bf-110 with additional tanks heading northwest.

At around 11 p.m. local time, he climbed out of the cockpit of his machine while flying over Scotland - the first and only parachute jump of his life.

The Messerschmitt shattered and Hess was captured by the home guard less than half an hour later - a couple of farmers had picked him up on his farm.

These Scottish farmers took Hess into custody late in the evening of May 10, 1941

Source: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images


Hess posed as the German "Captain Alfred Horn" and asked to inform the Duke of Hamilton, allegedly his friend. On May 11th around ten o'clock in the morning Douglas-Hamilton appeared, to whom Hess introduced himself by his real name - but the British aristocrat had no memory of the man with the deep-set eyes under thick, dark brows and the piercing gaze he probably had met once in 1936 on the occasion of the Olympic Games.

Instead of negotiating with Hess, as soon as he was certain of the unexpected visitor's identity, Douglas-Hamilton informed the Prime Minister's staff.

According to an anecdote, Churchill found out about Hess's flight while watching a film during one of the rare moments of relaxation that remained for him as a war premier.

“Hess or no Hess”, he is supposed to have said, “I want to see the Marx Brothers now.

Martin Bormann and Rudolf Hess in the 1930s

Source: picture-alliance / akg-images

Hitler reacted anything but relaxed.

On the morning of May 11, 1941, a Sunday, two adjutants from Hess, Karlheinz Pintsch and Alfred Leitgen, reported to Hitler's alpine residence Berghof and asked to be allowed to personally deliver a sealed letter to the “Führer”.

The dictator, who was still asleep, came down into the hall, took the letter, read it - and fell into a fit of rage.

He had Pintsch and Leitgen arrested, sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and only released in 1944 for “frontline probation” (both survived, Pintsch even ten years as a Soviet prisoner of war).

At the same time, Martin Bormann, who had been increasingly replacing Hess as NSDAP organizer since the late 1930s, hastily informed the most important members of the regime.

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May 11th was an "unforgettable experience" for Christa Schroeder, one of Hitler's secretaries.

She was called to dictate, but according to her 1985 memoir, the dictator tried “many times, always in vain”, to “formulate a plausible reason for his deputy to fly to England”.

Schroeder went on to write: “Hitler explored the most diverse possibilities that could have been the reason for this flight and tried to put them into words.

Nothing wanted to succeed.

Only when he portrayed the flight as the act of a mentally ill person did he seem satisfied. "The secretary, who had belonged to the closest circle since 1933 and knew Hess just as much as all the other members of the entourage, was astonished:" So far I had never seen it, that Hitler found it difficult to dictate. "

Hess on December 15, 1945 in the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal

Source: Getty Images


All speculations that Hess might have flown with knowledge or on behalf of Hitler are completely unfounded. However, the Würzburg historian Rainer F. Schmidt showed in his habilitation “Errand eines Toren?” In 1997, based on the now practically completely released Hess files, that there was an intrigue behind it. However, one of the British secret service.

Since the end of September 1940 his agents had been correspondence with Hess on behalf of Douglas-Hamilton, but without his knowledge. The aim was probably to launch disinformation at the top of the regime and thus trigger discord and mistrust. The secret service officials had not seriously expected that the second man of the NSDAP (but only the NSDAP, not the Third Reich; that was clearly Hermann Göring in 1941) would take these letters seriously and come to Scotland personally: that was something like for them the jackpot.

We can look forward to the new biography about Hess by Manfred Görtemaker announced for 2021/22.

The Potsdam contemporary historian wants to present the first comprehensive, serious biography of the man surrounded by myths.

Amazingly, such a book is missing so far, just as it was only in 2017 that the Vice Director of the Institute for Contemporary History Munich, Magnus Brechtken, published a really convincing biography of Albert Speer

Hess in the courtyard of the war crimes prison in Berlin-Spandau in the 1980s

Source: picture alliance / dpa

It remains to be seen whether Görtemaker has gained new knowledge about the mysterious flight.

Because Schmidt has already worked very thoroughly here.

This means that in May and early June 1941 the British used their advantage in three ways: first, openly - with the result of countless whispered jokes.

Second, semi-publicly, by fueling concerns in the US that Britain might make peace with the Third Reich, which led Congress to step up aid supplies.

Thirdly, in secret: through Stalin's ambassador in London, Ivan Maiski, Churchill fueled fear in Moscow that Great Britain and Germany might ally against the USSR.

It became one of the main factors that made Stalin ignore the warning signs of the attack by the Wehrmacht on June 22, 1941.

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