Hess's body exhumed and grave destroyed to stop neo-Nazi pilgrimages

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Germany's Protestant Church revealed yesterday that it had carried out a cloak-and-dagger operation to remove the grave of Adolf Hitler's former deputy, Rudolf Hess, from a cemetery in northern Bavaria because the site had become an unwelcome shrine and rallying point for neo-Nazis.

At around 4am on Wednesday, in the town of Wunsiedel, workers exhumed Hess's coffin and took away a granite gravestone bearing his name and the inscription: "I dared."

Church officials told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that they had arranged for Hess's remains to be cremated after they were removed from the cemetery and that the family had agreed to have the ashes secretly scattered at sea.

Peter Seisser, a Wunsiedel town councillor, said he had persuaded Hess's family to agree to the exhumation. A granddaughter of the Nazi deputy leader initially issued an injunction to block the move, but eventually backed down. "She agreed that the town should not remain a place of pilgrimage for the far right," Mr Seisser said.

Hess, who committed suicide in Spandau prison in Berlin on 17 August 1987, was buried in the family grave in Wunsiedel, according to his own wishes. The town rapidly turned into a neo-Nazi shrine, with right-wing extremists from Germany and around the world descending on Wunsiedel each year on the anniversary of Hess's death.

Far-right groups rallied at the grave, laid provocative wreaths and gave the banned Nazi salute. By 2004 the rallies were attracting up to 9,000 participants, making them some of the largest in Germany since the Nazi era.

In 2005, changes to Germany's freedom of assembly laws enabled Wunsiedel town council to ban the rallies. However, far-right groups continued to contest the ban in the courts and attempted to stage rallies in the town on other occasions. After discovering that the Hess family lease on the grave site was up for renewal this year, Wunsiedel's town council and the church authorities decided to act.

Hess, whom Hitler appointed as his deputy and personal secretary in 1933, was one of the Nazi leader's greatest admirers and a fanatical believer in the National Socialist cause. He became famous for making a bizarre solo flight to Scotland in 1941, ostensibly to negotiate peace with Britain on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

His ensuing arrest meant that he spent the rest of the Second World War as a prisoner of war in Wales. Unlike other Nazi leaders, he was spared the death penalty at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and received a sentence of life imprisonment.

Hess spent the rest of his life in Spandau prison on the western outskirts of Berlin. During the final years of his incarceration, he was the only prisoner there. Repeated attempts to have him released on compassionate grounds were refused by the Soviet military authorities controlling Berlin with the Western Allies under the post-war four-power agreement. Hess was found dead in a chair in a summer house in the grounds of Spandau prison with an electric cable wrapped round his neck. He left a suicide note and a post-mortem examination concluded that he had died from asphyxiation. He was 93.

Earlier fears about creating a Nazi shrine prompted the Allied authorities and the government of former West Berlin to demolish Spandau prison after Hess's death. A supermarket now occupies the site.