In December 1932, Hess became head of the Central Political Committee of the National Socialist Party. He had the reputation of being a slavish follower of Hitler. Power mattered little to him; Hitler's approval was all. In April 1933, three months after becoming German chancellor, Hitler named Hess deputy Führer. A member of the Nazi inner circle, Hess was nonetheless not up to the tasks demanded of him. Traces of madness surfaced, and he was not well physically.
On 10 May 1941, six weeks before the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation barbarossa), Hess, having learned to pilot the Me-110 long-range German fighter, flew solo from Germany to Scotland. In a rather extraordinary feat of navigation, he piloted the aircraft to within 10 miles of his goal, the estate of the Duke of Hamilton, where he bailed out and was taken prisoner. Much speculation remains as to the reason for Hess's flight. Most likely, Hess hoped to broker a peace agreement between Britain and Germany, but this had no authority from Hitler. The German government admitted the event but denied any official backing. In any case, Hess was immediately taken prisoner by British authorities.
Hess remained in prison in Britain for the remainder of the war. One of the major defendants before the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg, Hess was found guilty of conspiracy to wage aggressive war and crimes against peace. He was sentenced to life in prison. During his trial, Hess revealed to the world the secret agreements of the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact of 23 August 1939 that had provided for a partition of the Baltic states and Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets never forgave Hess and refused repeated British requests that he be released on medical grounds, especially when he was the only inmate of Spandau Prison in Berlin. Hess served the longest time of any of the Nuremberg defendants sentenced to prison. He died at Spandau on 17 August 1987.
Eugene L. Rasor and Spencer C. Tucker
Douglas-Hamilton, James. Motive for a Mission: The Story behind Hess's Flight to Britain. New York: St. Martin's, 1971.; Manvell, Richard, and Heinrich Fränkel. Hess: A Biography. New York: Drake Publishers, 1973.; Nesbit, Conyers, and Georges Van Acker. The Flight of Rudolf Hess: Myths and Reality. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1999.; Stafford, David, ed. Flight from Reality: Rudolf Hess and His Mission to Scotland, 1941. London: Pimlico, 2002.