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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hess' Death Set Stage for End of Cold War

Friday is the 20th anniversary of the death of Rudolf Hess, the deputy fuhrer to Adolf Hitler. Hess was the last survivor of the Nazi leaders tried at the Nuremberg trials in the aftermath of World War II and remained unrepentant about his role in the rise of the Third Reich.

Hess made a dramatic, 1,500 kilometer solo flight in May 1941 to Britain, parachuting from his airplane. He apparently was hoping to arrange a separate peace with London and save the world from war, but it was a big gamble because he did not officially represent the German government.

When the British government refused to take the bait, Hess' fate was sealed; in one moment he was transformed from an inspired savior and peacemaker to an insane sinner. Hitler washed his hands of him, and Churchill ordered Hess to be "placed on ice" in waiting for a criminal trial once Nazi Germany was defeated. After Nuremberg, his fate was to serve out a life sentence as Allied Prisoner No. 7 in Spandau Prison in West Berlin.

Why should we remember Hess on the anniversary of his death?

In part because his death marked the final closure of the Nuremberg process and and the removal of sore point in East-West relations. His incarceration had become a cause celebre, sullying for many (particularly in Germany) the good news that glasnost and perestroika seemed to represent: The Allies wanted to free this curmudgeonly nonagenarian, but the more conservative Soviet side argued that a life sentence meant exactly that.

His apparent suicide, using electrical cable to hang himself in the garden shed of the prison, resolved this psychologically significant obstacle to detente. To show how seriously the four allied powers took the threat, after his funeral Spandau Prison was bulldozed flat and a shopping center was built on the site in order to deny any opportunity for neo-Nazis to treat the former jail as a place of pilgrimage.

The cascade of momentous events that followed Hess' death precipitated the breaching of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Wall, the end of the Soviet Union and a completely new balance of political forces in Europe and beyond. His suicide by no means triggered this storm of change, but his seemingly endless imprisonment seemed to hold up the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

If there was nothing in his life for which we should commend him, 20 years later we should all be grateful that Hess' decision to die at his own hands helped set the stage for a new post-Cold War era.

Major General Peter Williams was the first head of the NATO Military Liaison Mission in Moscow from 2002 to 2005.