The prison with just one inmate
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.