Rudolf Hess

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1978.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thomas Cox.]

5.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexley Bexleyheath

I rise to appeal to our Government once again over the plight of Rudolf Hess. I shall be brief so that other hon. Members from other parties may take part in the debate. I shall not repeat all the points that I made when I last raised the matter in the House on 20th December 1976.

Hess has been in captivity since May 1941. Since 1966 he has been in solitary confinement in Spandau. He is 84 years of age and his health, according to his family with whom I am in close contact, is failing fast. To be blunt, Rudolf Hess may well die before his case is debated again in the House.

I am the current chairman of the all-party freedom for Rudolf Hess campaign. I recently returned from addressing our fellow campaigners in West Germany where, not unnaturally, there is strong feeling on the subject.

The Foreign Office should be thanked for raising this matter yet again with the Soviet authorities which have been vindic tive and intransigent. I must express my abhorrence at the petty, outdated, inexcusable regulations that are being applied at Spandau. Is it not monstrous that so long after the war the Government still cannot make available to Parliament the rules laid down by the four Governments at Spandau for prisoners who are in solitary confinement?

I have no doubt that Hess would be willing to swap his prison conditions with those of the most cruel and callous IRA mass murderer in any of Her Majesty's prisons. No country that calls itself civilised can continue endlessly with the Spandau charade.

I have known the Foreign Secretary personally since long before he became a Member of the House. I am the last person to doubt his humanity or his passionate belief in human rights. But what is going on at Spandau today and every day is inhumane and a total negation of human rights. For example, Hess is not even allowed to consult the lawyer of his choice, Dr. Bucher, the former Minister of Justice in the Federal Republic.

It is the considered view of the all-party committee that the next time that the United Kingdom is responsible for Spandau Hess should be removed to a secure ward in the British military hospital in Berlin. Of course, that step would be supported by America and France. Of course it would incur the displeasure of the Soviet Union, with which the ultimate blame must rest. The Soviet position cannot and must not be the position of the British Government and people any longer. Quite simply, their ways are not our ways, particularly when it comes to dealing with those who are in captivity.

What would the Russians do if we were to break the four-power agreement on Berlin in this minor area? It is clear. There would be a diplomatic flurry. There might be a threat and nothing much more would happen. Perhaps we shall be told by the Minister that if we took unilateral action the Russians would feel deprived of some basic right in West Berlin. But the truth is that Soviet military personnel can move round at liberty in West Berlin, as British military personnel can move round East Berlin in freedom. In West Berlin the Soviets have their own war memorial which they guard every day with Soviet soldiers.

If we never say boo to a goose we shall end up defending the indefensible. Both Funk and Raeder were released on grounds of age and ill health. I should prefer Hess to be released unconditionally so that he can go home to die in peace. But I accept that that might present greater difficulties for the Foreign Office.

I hope that the Government will have a fresh look at the military guard which is supplied every month in rotation by the allied powers. We deploy one officer and 25 men. I do not believe that that is any longer acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to have a little ceremony when we hand over to the next power. Surely we could cut out that cruel military charade, for there is little to be proud of at Spandau at present.

I mentioned the petty restrictions which apply at Spandau. When I last met Wolf Rudiger Hess, Hess's son, I was told that, for example, when the Soviet authorities are on duty at Spandau they take the old man's spectacles away at 10 o'clock so that he cannot read in bed. That may be the way to treat a young guards recruit, but is it the way to treat a prisoner of his age?

Hess is allowed only very rare visits, one person at a time, and has never seen his very attractive daughter-in-law. His books and papers are still heavily censored and only recently was he allowed a radio. So far as I know, he is not allowed a television.

I have been closely following this case since I was responsible for guarding Hess at Spandau in the early 1960s. I confess to the House that I sometimes think in the still hours of the night of that enfeebled old man alone in a cold, damp, outdated prison fortress, a stranger to his wife and family, and wonder how it is that in this day and age this cruelty can go on and on, in my name and in all our names—for Britain has a special responsibility in this matter, and the rest of the world recognises that.

5.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr Clement Freud Mr Clement Freud , Isle of Ely

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for allowing me a few minutes of his Adjournment debate. In his time as a soldier, the hon. Member has guarded Hess in Spandau prison. In my time at the end of the war, I was war crimes liaison officer in Nuremberg and it was my duty—"privilege" is perhaps the wrong word—to meet him and other war criminals. I therefore came upon the scene at a rather earlier stage than did the hon. Member.

It should be remembered that what Hess did is totally irrelevant to this debate. There is no question but that he was a war criminal and that, as the Russians continue to maintain, he was a symbol of Nazi Germany. The Russians also say that he is a man who has never relented. I feel that a man of 84 probably has little else to do in life but not relent, especially in view of the treatment that he has had.

I welcome the Minister of State, Foreign Office, to this debate because in previous debates we have been faced with a Minister for the Army. It must be realised that our—when I say "our" I mean that I, too, am a member of the hon. Member's campaign to free Rudolf Hess—complaint has been not so much with the Army as with the general attitude of Her Majesty's Government. Although I welcome the Minister, I am sorry that other Ministers—such as the Secretaries of State for Industry and Trade and the Ministers with responsibility for the arts and for the Central Office of Information: all the Ministers who are responsible for the fact that the Russians get more from us than we get from them—are not here to listen to a debate which shows the displeasure of all caring people of Great Britain.

I am not concerned particularly about the numbers or the weaponry of those who are guarding Rudolf Hess. I am concerned about the simple obscenity of having anyone, armed or not, guarding a man of 84 who is about to die. That is the crux of this debate.

It is significant that his incarceration is having in the world today the opposite effect to that intended by the Russians. A man who is a criminal is being made a martyr. His books, which had no particular merit, are selling better than many books of enormous literary merit, simply because of the fascination and sympathy with this old man.

We have been told that unilateral action by us in the odd series of days on which we are responsible for guarding Spandau might incur the displeasure of the Russians. Heaven knows, the Russians have incurred our displeasure often enough, and I say to the Minister that the time to be frightened of incurring displeasure should be over. I would dearly like us to see whether we cannot, with the consent of the two other humane nations which are part of this quadpartite agreement, work out a way—and to hell with the displeasure of the Russians—which will allow an old man to die in peace at home.

5.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neville Sandelson Mr Neville Sandelson , Hillingdon Hayes and Harlington

I, too, am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for allowing me a few moments in which to support his plea. Two or three years ago, I had the macabre experience of flying low over Spandau in a British military helicopter and seeing this human remnant from a bygone political era taking his brief morning exercise within the prison walls. It seemed to me horrifying and morally offensive then, and even more so now, that a man in his eighties, ill in health, should continue to be incarcerated in solitary confinement in that huge prison with the grotesque multinational militia permanently taking their turn to guard him.

What on earth is the point of it all? What is it supposed to prove? What moral lessons are being proclaimed? To my mind, only one—that those who deny his release today are themselves guilty of grave moral wickedness. It is the vindictiveness and malignity of the Soviet Government which alone prevents Hess's immediate release.

I, too, fully recognise Hess's personal guilt and responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. By any penal standard short of the death penalty, he has paid a heavy and protracted price for his offences against human rights. But what is the human rights record of the Soviet Government? Need I say more about Soviet tyranny, which at present stands condemned in the eyes of the whole civilised world?

As one who recalls with deep emotion the Nazi massacres of those whom I think of as my own brothers and sisters, I beg the British Government and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, whom I know to be a sensitive man and sympa thetic to the views that are being expressed in the Chamber, to ensure that this sick old man is released by taking power into their own hands. I urge the Government to contrive Hess's release into a West German hospital the next time the British military control over Spandau comes round. It would be an act of mercy which would be in accord with the British character, and it would be approved by decent people the world over.

5.39 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frank Judd Mr Frank Judd , Portsmouth North

I, too, am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), with his very special first-hand experience and his deeply genuine concern, reflected in the speeches by other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, for drawing attention to the subject of Rudolf Hess. This matter is not a subject of controversy on party lines. I believe there is a wide consenus in the House that the continued imprisonment of Rudolf Hess is hard to justify. For well over 10 years now, successive British Governments have believed that Hess should be released from Spandau gaol in Berlin. That view remains as firm as ever.

I must make it clear that our motives for this strongly held view are exclusively humanitarian. They are not based on any judgment of Hess's personality or character, or of the crimes with which he was associated, or of the nihilistic philosophy of which he was a symbol during the Nazi era. It must be stated clearly, without qualification, that the barbarism, horror and inhumanity of Nazi, Fascist tyranny can in no way be diminished by the passage of time. Nazi Fascism will remain for centuries a blot on the history of Western civilisation, a fearful reminder of the savagery and irrationalism into which human beings can so easily relapse.

The sacrifice made by the millions who died or who suffered unspeakable brutality at the hands of the Nazi regime cannot be measured; nor can the debt which is owed to the millions who gave their lives in combating this evil ever be repaid, still less forgotten. Nazi Germany and everything it stood for have been totally and utterly condemned, and there can be no doubt that Rudolph Hess played a crucial and leading part in the construction of the apparatus of Nazi terror and that he bore a grave responsibility, along with the other prominent Nazis, for the crimes of this monstrous system.

These facts are plain, but there are also many enigmas in the story of Hess. The reasons which led him to fly to the United Kingdom on 10th May 1941 may never be clear. It is possible that, even at that time, his motives were confused. It may be that he believed that a personal peace mission on his part could end the war, or it may be that he had some dark premonition of the fate that awaited his country. In any event, the results of his mission was that he was imprisoned in the United Kingdom until the end of the war.

At the end of the war Hess was sent to Nuremberg, where he stood trial before the international military tribunal. With him in the dock were many of the worst criminals of the Nazi era, who had inflicted disaster and cruelty of unprecedented proportions on Europe. As the House knows, many of these criminals were sentenced to death and subsequently executed.

But Hess's life was spared, and he received a sentence of life imprisonment, not for the capital charge of war crimes but for the less serious offence of crimes against peace. Like six other criminals sentenced by the Nuremberg tribunal to long terms of imprisonment, he was sent to Spandau prison in Berlin to serve his sentence under the guard and supervision of the four powers which had established that tribunal. For well over 10 years now he has been the sole prisoner, although he was not originally sentenced to solitary confinement.

Hess is now 84 years old and has been a prisoner continuously for 37 years. I have made it clear that he is a criminal who unquestionably deserved meaningful punishment for his crimes. But I think the House will agree that this punishment has been by any standard severe. His punishment now has what can only be described as a malicious and almost absurd character about it. As the House knows, in western societies a sentence of life imprisonment frequently means very much less than its literal implication that the prisoner should never again see the light of day as a free man. If Hess were released tomorrow, he could be said to have paid a high price for his misdeeds.

Despite his ordeal, Hess's health is good for a man of his age and he could well live for several years yet. But if his sentence is carried out in full, if the last drop of revenge is taken on him as a symbol for the crimes of a generation, he will spend these years in Spandau. This is a prospect which it is difficult to contemplate with equanimity.

As I have said, responsibility for the imprisonment of Hess rests jointly with the four victorious powers which established the Nuremberg tribunal. Three of those powers—Britain, France and the United States—have long been in favour of Hess's immediate and unconditional release on humanitarian grounds. The British Government on their own, and the three powers jointly, have on numerous occasions urged the Soviet Government to show clemency to Hess, thereby reaffirming that the values of our societies are the demonstrable antithesis of the unmitigated bestiality of the Nazis.

My own most recent attempt to persuade the Russians was on 12th of last month, June, when I summoned the Soviet ambassador. I told the ambassador of the concern among various sections of British public opinion about the continuing imprisonment of Hess. I made it clear that if the Soviet Government were to reconsider their approach, they would earn considerable respect. I said that the imprisonment of Hess was no longer in accord with proclaimed Soviet or western aims for society, and that this made it all the more necessary to end it.

Unfortunately, I have to inform the House that the Soviet ambassador's reaction was the same as the Soviet's reaction has been for over 10 years. There has never been the slightest sign of flexibility in their attitude, and they are adamant that Hess must remain in gaol until the end of his sentence—in other words, until his death.

The Russians argue that many people still regard Hess as one of the principal architects of the Nazi system and that to release him would be to set up a living symbol of barbaric ideas and a focal point for nefarious neo-Nazi influences. His sentence and continued imprisonment, on the other hand, serve, they say as a powerful deterrent to such activities. The Russians contend that compassion and humanity have already been shown to Hess in full measure by the simple fact that his life was spared, and they claim that the Soviet people, who retain vivid memories of their war-time sufferings and the 20 million Soviet casualties, would not understand the sort of compassion involved in releasing Hess.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I express the fullest respect for the sacrifices made by the Soviet Union and its people in the fight against Nazism. Few nations made a greater sacrifice or fought with greater courage. But it is difficult to believe that the release of Hess would conjure up the dangers the Russians identify, or that it would be seen as anything other than an act of common humanity.

Indeed—contrary to their judgment—there is a danger that Hess's continued imprisonment could attract greater sympathy to him than would be the case if he were released. The constant publicity given to his predicament surely keeps him, and what he stood for, in the public eye much more than would be the case if he were released and after, inevitably, a brief period of publicity, were to vanish into obscurity.

As I told the Soviet ambassador, release would underline the values of our respective societies, as claimed, as compared with the evil of all that motivated Nazism. But one thing remains certain—the Russians are not prepared to contemplate the release of Hess.

In these circumstances, it has been suggested that the western allies should resolve jointly to ignore the Russians and to release Hess unilaterally during one of those months when one of the allies is providing the guard at Spandau gaol. This has been suggested this afternoon. It has been argued that such a move would call Soviet bluff, that it would demonstrate a bold decision to end an intolerable situation, and that in any response the Russians would not endanger the achievements of detente, with all the benefits it has brought to the Soviet Union, simply to demonstrate their irritation at such a move. This may be the case.

But I must leave the House in no doubt that unilateral action by the British Government, or by the three western powers acting in concert, would undeniably con stitute a violation of a binding international agreement. The Nuremberg tribunal which sentenced Hess was established by a formal agreement between the four Governments, and the charter of the tribunal clearly states that it is the responsibility of the control council of Germany—that is, the four powers—to reduce or alter sentences.

The four powers also acted by quadripartite agreement in choosing Spandau prison and laying down the regulations of that prison. The day-to-day administration, and the arrangements for guarding the prison, also rest on a quadripartite basis. There have been no decisions relating to the prison and its inmates, or changes to the original 1946 and 1947 arrangements which have not been a matter for consensus among the four powers.

This is the legal reality surrounding the continued imprisonment of Hess. I need not remind the House that it would be a grave matter under any circumstances if the British Government were unilaterally to violate a binding international agreement. But in the case of Berlin such an act would be likely to have unforeseeable but certainly dangerous consequences. In Berlin, the whole western position depends on a nexus of four-power agreements of which that involving Hess is only one. It has always been a matter of policy for the western powers that these agreements should be scrupulously observed and not infringed unilaterally. As a result, our position in Berlin is strong, and the Soviet authorities have never had any legitimate reason to tamper with the presence and rights of the western powers in Berlin.

It is a plain fact that the security and freedom of the 2 million inhabitants of the city depend on this presence and these rights. The House will, therefore, understand that a unilateral infringement of the agreements relating to Hess might well set a precedent which could lead to an unacceptable degree of uncertainty and tension relating to Berlin. This is a situation which it is in our vital interest to avoid.

In these circumstances I believe—although I reach this conclusion with the greatest possible regret—that it would be the height of irresponsibility for the British Government to act unilaterally in the case of Hess. Such an act could endanger the comparative calm and stability that has been so laboriously constructed in and around Berlin. The only course open to us is to continue to represent to the Soviet Union the fundamental unreasonableness, inhumanity, and, above all, counter-productivity of the Soviet position on this case.

We must continue to remind the Russians, as we have been eloquently reminded, that Hess is an old and broken man. We must impress upon them that he is a more potent symbol of Nazism if he remains an object of sympathy than he would be if he were released. We must emphasise that his continuing im prisonment is an affront to civilised values. We must point out that to keep him in jail undermines our own self-confidence that human values have been re-established since the Nazi holocaust.

We shall continue to do all these things and, in doing so, I am confident that we have the support of virtually the whole House. I hope the message from this afternoon's debate will be seriously and attentively listened to in Moscow. That message is unmistakably clear: Hess should be released from Spandau immediately.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Six o'clock