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The Hess files

Sarah Judith Hofmann / lbhSeptember 10, 2013

In the midst of war, Hitler's deputy flew to Scotland with a peace treaty for the British in his suitcase. Now, documents which could shine a light on what Rudolf Hess really wanted are up for auction in the US.

The end of a letter from Hess dated 1941 Photo: Caitlin/Alexander Historical Auctions/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Alexander Historical Auctions

It could be the beginning of a James Bond film: a man receives an anonymous phone call. He is offered a file, which could be useful to his "projects." He should show up the next day at a predetermined meeting spot, and the file will be waiting for him. And indeed, what he finds are the files of a high-ranking Nazi.

All that is supposed to have taken place 20 years ago. The files were logs, transcripts and letters from Hitler's deputy Rudolph Hess, stemming allegedly from his time in British captivity. Among the files was a draft of a peace treaty that Hess wanted to present to the British in 1941, shortly before Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.

Photo: Caitlin/Alexander Historical Auctions/dpa
Among the files is a draft of a peace treatyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Alexander Historical Auctions

This tale appears on the website of Alexander Historical Auctions, where it is drumming up interest for an auction of the documents on behalf of the man who was offered them back then. Alexander will sell them off to the highest bidder at its auction house in the US on Tuesday (10.09.2013) and they are expected to fetch $500,000 - 700,000 (380,000 - 530,000 euros).

So much money for a stack of old paper? Rudolf Hess isn't just any Nazi, but one of Hitler's closest associates and his long-time deputy. In 1941 Hess flew to Scotland in the middle of the war to negotiate a bilateral peace treaty with Great Britain ahead of the invasion of the Soviet Union. According to the plan, if the Nazis were granted all of Europe, the British could keep their empire in the rest of the world, with the exception of the former German colonies.

Not surprisingly, the British did not accept the offer. Hess was arrested and remained in British captivity until he was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. In 1987, at the age of 93, he took his own life in the Berlin-Spandau prison for war criminals.

The accused on their bench (front left to right Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim v. Rippentrop, Wilhelm Keitel; back left to right: Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur v. Schirach, Fritz Sauckel Photo: picture-alliance/akg-images
At the Nuremburg Trials, Hess (second from left) was sentenced to life in prisonImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

These are the known facts. But it's still unclear how seriously Rudolf Hess took his peace plan, how valuable his role in the Nazi regime was, and whether Hitler was aware of the plan. During the war Hess was labeled mentally ill. In fact Hess built his Nuremberg defense strategy off this label. He continues to be glorified by neo-Nazis as a hero in British captivity.

Can the Hess Files provide any new insights? "The story needs to be rewritten in any case," said Achim Baumgarten. "But maybe the files will cast a new light on Rudolf Hess." Baumgarten heads the department that handles documents from private sources and modern historical collections at the Federal Archive in Koblenz. Just over a year ago, the German authorities were presented with copies of a small part of the collection.

Theft unlikely

Achim Baumgarten describes the price that is being aimed at for these documents as "totally over the top." But he considers it quite possible that the documents stem from the pen of Rudolf Hess. "At least, I haven't been able to prove that the files are fake," he told Deutsche Welle.

Bald neo Nazi carries a flag Photo: Hans-Jürgen Wege dpa/lni +++(c) dpa - Report+++
For neo-Nazis Hess was a hero, but Rudolf Hess marches are banned in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Just over a year ago, a German auction house, Beck Militaria, sought Baumgarten's expertise in identifying if the files were originals. The Federal Archive is where all the documents from and about Rudolf Hess until his flight in 1941 are kept.

"What I noticed immediately was the English stamp, 'most secret,'" said Baumgarten. That made him think the documents could be originals. He suspected that they'd been stolen from the British National Archives. But the British National Archives said that no documents had ever been reported missing.

Baumgarten said he believes that Hess could have made copies of the letter with his peace plan which he wrote to the British king while in prison, and this is the document that is now being auctioned. Perhaps it was then smuggled out by prison staff. But that's all speculative. The original documents given by Hess to British diplomats are in the UK under lock and key and will not be available to the public until 2018 at the earliest.

Fake or imposter?

Baumgarten compared the handwriting of the copied pages presented to him with some files from Hess already at the Federal Archive. The writing was perfectly straight, just like that of Hess.

Hitler's deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess raises arm in Nazi greeting Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Rudolf Hess, here in 1931, was a close ally of HitlerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Certain letters, certain descenders in the handwriting all matched," Baumgarten said. The seal on the documents carried the monogram RH for Rudolf Hess. Of course, that doesn't mean the file is genuine. "For this the federal criminal police would have to test the paper and ink. But I haven't had access to the originals."

For now, experts can only say about as much about the Hess files as they could about the 1983 Hitler Diaries. In one of Germany's greatest publishing scandals, news magazine "Stern" bought Hitler's purported memoirs, which turned out to be fake. In spite of the uncertainty, the Federal Archive would have liked to have bought the Hess documents - "but not at that asking price."

Why don't German archives have a chance when it comes to auctions? "We often end up empty-handed," said Baumgarten. "Especially when it comes to documents from Nazi leaders." Hitler's private cash book recently came up for auction. "In America, the objects fetch prices that are impossible for us." In the US documents are offered on the private market for a much higher price than "what seems appropriate to us, and what we could afford."

The end of a letter from Hess dated 1941 Photo: Caitlin/Alexander Historical Auctions/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Alexander Historical Auctions

Individual items pieces which were taken home by American GIs are now surfacing. "The next generation finds them, can't do anything with them, and puts them up for auction," said Baumgarten. Theft is subject to the statute of limitations, and so there's no case to answer any longer. Just like any other interested party, the Federal Archive must bid with the others.

In the case of Hitler's cash book, the new owner offered the Federal Archive a copy. The cost? One thousand euros. For now Achim Baumgartnen can only hope this will happen with the Hess Files.