The prison with just one in­mate

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

By the late 1980s, there was a sin­gu­lar in­sti­tu­tion in Berlin, a prison un­like any other with a large multi-na­tional staff at­tend­ing just one in­mate, con­victed Nazi war crim­i­nal Ru­dolf Hess. Span­dau Prison was one of the last ves­tiges of Al­lied Four Power co­op­er­a­tion, the post­war sys­tem whereby the vic­to­ri­ous na­tions of World War Two were to ad­min­is­ter the di­vided Ger­man cap­i­tal. As Tony Le Tissier, the last Bri­tish Gov­er­nor of Span­dau Prison puts it in his crisply au­thor­i­ta­tive first­hand ac­count of this strange anachro­nism:

“Thus, apart from the Berlin Air Safety Cen­tre, this was the sole quadri­par­tite in­sti­tu­tion to sur­vive the vi­cis­si­tudes of the Cold War, the Block­ade, the Air­lift, the crises in Hun­gary and Cze­choslo­vakia, the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion of Afghanistan, and all the other ten­sions of the forty-five years fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War. In this ex­traor­di­nary in­sti­tu­tion the prison warders of four na­tions worked closely to­gether twenty-four hours around the clock in eight-hour shifts, the Gov­er­nors met reg­u­larly to deal with the var­i­ous prob­lems that arose, and the walls were punc­til­iously guarded by the sol­diers of each of the four na­tions for a month at a time in reg­u­lar se­quence.”

Of course, by this time Hess was in his nineties and all his fel­low pris­on­ers had long since de­parted. Orig­i­nally there had been six oth­ers, but those sen- tenced to lim­ited terms had ei­ther served them out or been paroled early for health rea­sons, as had his fel­low lif­ers. Hess was a spe­cial case, no­to­ri­ous for his hare­brained flight to Scot­land in 1941 in quixotic search of an agree­ment with Bri­tain. He was one of the ear­li­est ad­her­ent s of Nazism and of Hitler and was one of the high­est-rank­ing of the de­fen­dants tried at Nurem­berg.

Per­haps be­cause he had left Ger­many be­fore the worst of the war crimes had been per­pe­trated, he was not sen­tenced to death. But the Rus­sian judge had voted for his ex­e­cu­tion and, ac­cord­ing to Le Tissier, there was no chance that the Soviet Union would ever per­mit his release un­der any cir­cum­stances. So for Hess, the life sen­tence was ex­actly that and Span­dau had to con­tinue to ful­fill its role un­til he died.

Le Tissier points out that when there was a full com­ple­ment of pris­on­ers, life at the pen­i­ten­tiary was much more reg­u­lated and tougher on the in­mates. But now that the only pris­oner was old and in­firm, there wasn’t any­thing very pen­i­ten­tial about it and it in fact catered to him to a re­mark­able de­gree. There were two cooks to pre­pare his largely veg­e­tar­ian diet (Le Tissier tells us that he was very par­tic­u­lar about his food and con­sumed an enor­mous amount for a man his age) and he was free to move about be­tween sev­eral rooms and some­times out into an at­trac­tive gar­den.

He had ac­cess to tele­vi­sion, but was not per­mit­ted to see any pro­grams deal­ing with World War II or of course with him­self. Great care was taken to pro­vide him with suit­able clothes, comfortable chairs, a record player and even a film pro­jec­tor so he could see home movies of his grand­chil­dren. The gov­er­nor is keenly aware of the irony of cos­set­ing some­one like this, but of course such hu­mane treat­ment is in it­self a ri­poste to the Nazis’ bar­baric con­duct to­wards their pris­on­ers, as in­deed the Nurem­berg Tri­als were to their trav­esty of ju­di­cial process.

But Le Tissier makes it quite clear that there was still a rea­son to keep Hess iso­lated and con­fined. Al­though he was only per­mit­ted to write and re­ceive one let­ter a week and only cor­re­spond with his fam­ily, he was, as­ton­ish­ingly, the re­cip­i­ent of huge quan­ti­ties of fan mail from devo­tees all over the world, in­clud­ing prom­i­nent Bri­tish Nazi leader Colin Jor­dan and neoNazis in Illi­nois! And the au­thor stresses that af­ter all this was an un­re­pen­tant Nazi:

“Sig­nif­i­cantly, Hess said in his fi­nal state­ment to the Nurem­berg court: ‘I am happy to say that I have done my duty to­wards my peo­ple, my duty as a Ger­man, as a Na­tional So­cial­ist, as a loyal fol­lower of the Fuhrer. I re­gret noth­ing.’ ”

Le Tissier pro­vides a mem­o­rable por­trait of life at Span­dau for those work­ing there:

“French months were al­ways a de­light, na­tional hon­our be­ing at stake to pro­vide a mem­o­rable cui­sine. The Sovi­ets did their best from the ra­tions avail­able to them, but it was al­ways a tough month on the di­ges­tive or­gans.”

It is in­ter­est­ing to learn that de­spite all the in­evitable Cold War ten­sions, life pro­ceeded rel­a­tively smoothly at Span­dau, of­fi­cials of the four pow­ers work­ing ami­ably to­gether de­spite some cul­ture clashes, amus­ingly de­scribed. But it wasn’t al­ways easy: for one thing Hess con­tin­ued to be a vi­cious racist and made un­war­ranted com­plaints about an African Amer­i­can at­tend­ing him. Once a Nazi al­ways a Nazi.

Hess had a flair for the un­ex­pected, as shown by his zany 1941 flight across the North Sea, and was able to pull off the amaz­ing coup of com­mit­ting sui­cide by hang­ing him­self in a gar­den hut while tak­ing his cus­tom­ary ex­er­cise. There have been var­i­ous sen­sa­tional claims that he was mur­dered, but Le Tissier ef­fec­tively de­mol­ishes them, based on his own ob­ser­va­tions of the scene and his knowl­edge of the man. Hess, he says, was ter­ri­fied of de­men­tia and of los­ing con­trol; his mind was beginning to go and he took mat­ters in his own hand. Lamps had been pro­vided in the hut so that he could read there and no one had thought that he might use the cord from one of them to hang him­self. Le Tissier’s first­hand ac­count is con­vinc­ing.

Span­dau was de­mol­ished fol­low­ing Hess’s death. It had served its odd pur­pose. Two years later the wall came down in Berlin and the city and in­deed Ger­many as a whole were re­united. The odd story of Hess’s im­pris­on­ment and death is one of those fas­ci­nat­ing foot­notes of his­tory and read­ers will not find a bet­ter ac­count of them than this book.

Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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