Hess, the eldest of three children, was born on 26 April 1894 in Ibrahimieh, a suburb of Alexandria, Egypt (then under British occupation, though formally a part of the Ottoman Empire), into a wealthy German family. Hess attended a German language Protestant school in Alexandria from 1900 to 1908, when he was sent back to Germany to study at a boarding school in Bad Godesberg. He demonstrated aptitudes for science and mathematics, but his father wished him to join the family business, Hess & Co., so he sent him in 1911 to study at the École supérieure de commerce in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. After a year there, Hess took an apprenticeship at a trading company in Hamburg.
Hess served in the German army during World War I. After the war, he studied at the University of Munich, where he engaged in nationalist propaganda. They held a shared belief in the stab-in-the-back myth, the notion that Germany's loss in World War I was caused by a conspiracy of Jews and Bolsheviks rather than a military defeat. Hess joined the fledgling Nazi Party in 1920 and quickly became Hitler’s friend and confidant. After participating in the abortive November 1923 Munich (Beer Hall) Putsch, he escaped to Austria but returned voluntarily to Landsberg prison, where he took down and edited much of Hitler’s dictation for Mein Kampf.
Hitler was released on parole on 20 December 1924 and Hess ten days later. The ban on the Nazi Party and SA was lifted in February 1925, and the party grew to 100,000 members in 1928 and 150,000 in 1929. Hitler named Hess his private secretary in April 1925 at a salary of 500 Reichsmarks per month, and named him as personal adjutant on 20 July 1929. Hess accompanied Hitler to speaking engagements around the country and became his friend and confidante. Hess was one of the few people who could meet with Hitler at any time without an appointment. His influence in the Party continued to grow. On 15 December 1932 Hess was named head of the Party Liaison Staff and Chairman of the Party Central Political Commission.
In April 1933 Hess became deputy party leader and in December entered the cabinet. In 1939 Hitler declared him second to Hermann Göring in the line of succession.
Hess had a reputation for absolute loyalty to Hitler. During the later 1930s and the first years of World War II, however, when military and foreign policy preoccupied Hitler, Hess’s power waned, and his influence was further undermined by Martin Bormann and other top Nazi leaders.
Hess decided in the spring of 1941 to bring the continuing military struggle between Germany and Britain to an end by means of a spectacular coup and thereby restore his flagging prestige. On May 10 he secretly flew alone from Augsburg and landed by parachute in Scotland with peace proposals, demanding a free hand for Germany in Europe and the return of former German colonies as compensation for Germany’s promise to respect the integrity of the British Empire. Hess’s proposals met with no response from the British government, which treated him as a prisoner of war and held him throughout World War II. His quixotic action was likewise rejected by Hitler himself, who accused Hess of suffering from “pacifist delusions.”
Hess was transferred back to Nuremberg for the post-war trials in October, 1945, where he escaped the hangman but was sentenced to life in prison. He spent the rest of his long life, 46 years, as Prisoner Number 7 in Spandau where he lingered long after the other Nazis were freed. Hess was the facility's only prisoner for more than 20 years, his term ending only when the 93-year-old was found hanging from a lamp cord in a garden building in August 1987. The suicide was denounced as a murder by those, including Hess's own son, who suspected he'd been silenced.
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