Rudolf Hess, the one-time deputy of Adolf Hitler who spent 42 years in prison as a Nazi criminal, was the subject of an extraordinary Cold War tussle over a sustained campaign of "mental cruelty" by his Soviet guards.
Secret British documents about the maverick Nazi's conditions in Berlin's Spandau Prison during the 1970s show how an octogenarian Hess was at the heart of a bizarre tug-of-war between the four victorious Allied powers who shared responsibility for guarding him after he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials.
The life and death of Hess, who secretly flew solo to Scotland in 1941 claiming he had Hitler's permission to negotiate a peace deal with Britain before then faking a mental breakdown, has been the subject of enduring fascination after he spent 21 years as the sole inmate of Spandau. He was found hanging in a summer house in the prison garden in 1987, aged 93.
But the details of the austerity of the regime imposed on Hess, one of the leading lights of Nazism in the 1930s, remained unknown until the release of papers yesterday at the National Archives in Kew, west London, showing how the British felt obliged to protect him from Moscow's desire that he "drink his retribution to the bottom of the cup".
A series of strictures imposed on Hess by Spandau's Russian representatives, including the forced removal of his reading glasses and a decision to deprive him of a notebook to write down his thoughts, led the British governor of the prison to conclude that his Soviet colleagues were determined to break Hess amid calls for his release as he reached his 80th birthday in 1974.
Under a deal struck at Nuremberg, Spandau, the prison for all Nazi war criminals, was run by a committee of four governors, one from each of the Allied powers – Britain, the Soviet Union, America and France.
In a secret memo to British officials in May 1974, Robert De Burlet, the British governor, wrote: "The Allies and particularly the British now have a dual role at Spandau.
"On the one hand we are carrying out the sentence passed on Hess and on the other we are additionally forced into the role of his protector against the grosser Soviet violations of his minimal privileges."
Mr De Burlet wrote that Hess, a virulent anti-Semite who helped Hitler edit and transcribe Mein Kampf, was being kept in a cell with crumbling walls, flaking paint and a draughty window because his Soviet counterpart refused to let it be redecorated.
The British governor was incensed by Soviet "obstructionism". He wrote: "The Soviet governor, Voitov, [is] short, fat and roly-poly, and his chief henchman, Federov, thin and sallow ...a couple of sneaky and mean individuals..."
The documents state that Hess was also refused access to books, had letters over-zealously censored and delayed, and was barred from seeing a lawyer because of Russian objections.
Matters came to a head during a failed campaign by the British, Americans and French governments to persuade Moscow to agree to the release of Hess in April 1974 at the time of his 80th birthday. After the release of Albert Speer in 1966, Hess was the only inmate in Spandau.
The campaign was supported by prominent figures including the former prisoner of war and MP Airey Neave and Lord Shawcross, the British prosecutor at Nuremberg, who called Hess's continued detention "a scandal".
But instead of relenting, in May 1974, Soviet guards insisted on confiscating Hess's reading glasses.
Mr De Burlet, who said he believed the Soviets were running a "Spandau cold war" to irritate the western Allied countries, wrote: "This new Russian turn of the screw is particularly unpleasant and does amount to the infliction of mental cruelty on the prisoner."
The governor added that he would go so far as to allow "minor physical confrontations" between British guards and their Soviet opposites to block such "repugnant action".
The documents suggest the Russian vindictiveness was based on a strongly-held sense that Hess deserved singular treatment because the basis of his 1941 peace mission was to persuade the British to join a war against the Soviet Union.
An editorial by a commentator for the Pravda newspaper, held by the British to sum up the Kremlin's point of view in 1974, said: "The conscience of peoples dictates that the Hitlerite lieutenant Hess must drink his retribution to the bottom of the cup."Reuse content