Remains of Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess exhumed

Thursday 21 July 2011 17.22
Rudolf Hess - Grave to be destroyed
Rudolf Hess - Grave to be destroyed

The remains of Adolf Hitler's one-time deputy Rudolf Hess have been exhumed in Germany and his grave destroyed after it became a shrine for neo-Nazis.

The bones were removed and the monument razed early yesterday morning ‘in an operation not open to the public,’ said Roland Schoeffel, deputy mayor of the small town of Wunsiedel, southern Germany.

His remains, removed along with the headstone with the epitaph ‘Ich hab's gewagt’ (‘I dared’), which will be destroyed, were placed in a new coffin and burnt immediately, with the ashes due to be scattered at sea.

Hess had been laid to rest according to his wishes in Wunsiedel churchyard in Bavaria after his 1987 suicide aged 93 in Spandau Prison in West Berlin, where he had been the jail's only prisoner for two decades.

But his final resting place became Germany's top pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis, with hundreds of skinheads marching in the 10,000-strong town on every 17 August anniversary of Hess's death until a 2005 ban.

But Nazi sympathisers still come from all over Germany and beyond, not just on the anniversary but all year round, laying flowers and performing Hitler salutes in the cemetery, church council member Peter Seisser said.

With the lease on the plot coming up for renewal, the Lutheran church took the opportunity of telling Hess's descendants, who had wanted a 20-year-extension, that they wanted the grave removed.

After initial objections, letters were written to the family explaining how the grave was becoming a shrine. Hess's granddaughter came to Wunsiedel and held talks with the council, and consented to it being removed.

‘She said she wanted nothing more to do with it,’ Seisser said. ‘We were all very relieved.’

In one of the more bizarre episodes of World War II, Hess had in May 1941 flown solo in a Messerschmidt fighter plane to Scotland, parachuting into a field near Glasgow and breaking his ankle.

By then Hess, who was a close ally of Hitler's from early on, playing a leading role in the abortive 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch and helping the future Fuehrer on ‘Mein Kampf’, had become sidelined in the Nazi leadership.

The apparent peace mission took place without Hitler's approval, although this has been repeatedly questioned, including in an article in May this year in the Spiegel weekly.

The Nazi dictator sacked Hess and ordered him shot if he ever returned, appointing Martin Bormann in his former deputy's place.

Hess was promptly arrested, reputedly by a local farmhand armed with a pitchfork, and spent the rest of the war in captivity, initially in the Tower of London. He attempted suicide and suffered from a nervous complaint.

After the war he was tried along with other top Nazis including Hermann Goering, who cheated the gallows by swallowing cyanide on the eve of his execution, at the Nuremberg trials.

Hess was sentenced to life behind bars in 1946 and found hanged in Spandau Prison in West Berlin 41 years later.

The building itself was then destroyed in an attempt to stop it too becoming a Nazi shrine.