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Book Review 226: Hess: A Tale of Two Murders

February 19, 2012 - Harry Eagar
HESS: A Tale of Two Murders, revised edition, by Hugh Thomas. 223 pages, illustrated. Hodder & Staughton paperback.

Ordinarily, I would not bother with a conspiratorial tale like “Hess: A Tale of Two Murders,” but Hugh Thomas is among the historians I most admire, so if he thinks it worth writing about, I think it is worth reading about.

Oops, this is a different Hugh Thomas, a Royal Army medico who examined Hess in Spandau in the '70s. He was shocked not to find the scars from Hess's gunshot wound in the lung from World War I and started investigating.

Other physicians who had examined Hess either had not looked for scars (being often psychiatrists) or were not aware he had been seriously wounded.

So far, so good.

Thomas soon raises doubts about Thomas by discovering that everything about Hess is fishy. This is usually a tipoff that we are dealing with a crank, and so it proves here.

There are three main problems about the idea that the Hess who landed in England was an imposter.

First, in 1941 most Germans didn't know how to drive a car. To find a lookalike to Hess who could also fly the most advanced fighter plane was certainly an unlikely stroke of luck for the plotters.

Second, the coordination of the plot was beyond the ability of 1941 communications.

Hess took off from southern Germany at a time that could not have been predicted by the plotters. They would have had to alert pilots in Holland to find and shoot down Hess, then notifiy the double in Denmark to take off in time to arrive in Scotland about the time Hess would have.

This would have required lengthy periods of encryption and decryption, more delays in transmitting by Teletypewriter, not to mention the cooperation of always chancy continental flying weather.

Third, Thomas cannot come up with a plausible reason for the plot.

He misunderstands the status of Rudolf Hess, describing him as the No. 2 Nazi that conspirators (he suggests Goering) planning to displace Hitler would have had to get rid of.

The concept of fuhrerprinzip did not allow for No. 2s, and while Hess was titled Deputy Fuhrer, he was only a glorified office manager. Unlike the leading Nazi satraps, such as Goebbels, Goering, Rohm or Strasser, he had no power base of his own; there was no reason to worry about him if there had been a plot.

So what about the missing scar?

Thomas diligently recovered some of Hess's army records, which reveal long periods of invalidism but do not say what the problem was. We have only Hess's word that he was shot.

The simplest explanation is that Hess lied to conceal an unsoldierly reason for his absences from the front. It could have been TB (his lung showed an old scar), trench foot, VD or – considering his mental instability later – a nervous breakdown.

In any case, it is easier to think that Hess lied than to believe Thomas's preposterous theory about a fanatic doppelganger who pretended to be Hess for nearly half a century.

If Hess really was Hess, then there is no reason to pay attention to Thomas's further theory that the false Hess was murdered to conceal the absence of the real Hess.


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