Frank Judd – 1978 Speech on Rudolf Hess

Below is the text of the speech made by Frank Judd, the then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in the House of Commons on 7 July 1978.

I, too, am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), with his very special first-hand experience and his deeply genuine concern, reflected in the speeches by other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, for drawing attention to the subject of Rudolf Hess. This matter is not a subject of controversy on party lines. I believe there is a wide consensus in the House that the continued imprisonment of Rudolf Hess is hard to justify. For well over 10 years now, successive British Governments have believed that Hess should be released from Spandau gaol in Berlin. That view remains as firm as ever.

I must make it clear that our motives for this strongly held view are exclusively humanitarian. They are not based on any judgment of Hess’s personality or character, or of the crimes with which he was associated, or of the nihilistic philosophy of which he was a symbol during the Nazi era. It must be stated clearly, without qualification, that the barbarism, horror and inhumanity of Nazi, Fascist tyranny can in no way be diminished by the passage of time. Nazi Fascism will remain for centuries a blot on the history of Western civilisation, a fearful reminder of the savagery and irrationalism into which human beings can so easily relapse.

The sacrifice made by the millions who died or who suffered unspeakable brutality at the hands of the Nazi regime cannot be measured; nor can the debt which is owed to the millions who gave their lives in combating this evil ever be repaid, still less forgotten. Nazi Germany and everything it stood for have been totally and utterly condemned, and there can be no doubt that Rudolph Hess played a crucial and leading part in the ​ construction of the apparatus of Nazi terror and that he bore a grave responsibility, along with the other prominent Nazis, for the crimes of this monstrous system.

These facts are plain, but there are also many enigmas in the story of Hess. The reasons which led him to fly to the United Kingdom on 10th May 1941 may never be clear. It is possible that, even at that time, his motives were confused. It may be that he believed that a personal peace mission on his part could end the war, or it may be that he had some dark premonition of the fate that awaited his country. In any event, the results of his mission was that he was imprisoned in the United Kingdom until the end of the war.

At the end of the war Hess was sent to Nuremberg, where he stood trial before the international military tribunal. With him in the dock were many of the worst criminals of the Nazi era, who had inflicted disaster and cruelty of unprecedented proportions on Europe. As the House knows, many of these criminals were sentenced to death and subsequently executed.

But Hess’s life was spared, and he received a sentence of life imprisonment, not for the capital charge of war crimes but for the less serious offence of crimes against peace. Like six other criminals sentenced by the Nuremberg tribunal to long terms of imprisonment, he was sent to Spandau prison in Berlin to serve his sentence under the guard and supervision of the four powers which had established that tribunal. For well over 10 years now he has been the sole prisoner, although he was not originally sentenced to solitary confinement.

Hess is now 84 years old and has been a prisoner continuously for 37 years. I have made it clear that he is a criminal who unquestionably deserved meaningful punishment for his crimes. But I think the House will agree that this punishment has been by any standard severe. His punishment now has what can only be described as a malicious and almost absurd character about it. As the House knows, in western societies a sentence of life imprisonment frequently means very much less than its literal implication that the prisoner should never again see the light of day as a free man.

If Hess were ​released tomorrow, he could be said to have paid a high price for his misdeeds.

Despite his ordeal, Hess’s health is good for a man of his age and he could well live for several years yet. But if his sentence is carried out in full, if the last drop of revenge is taken on him as a symbol for the crimes of a generation, he will spend these years in Spandau. This is a prospect which it is difficult to contemplate with equanimity.

As I have said, responsibility for the imprisonment of Hess rests jointly with the four victorious powers which established the Nuremberg tribunal. Three of those powers—Britain, France and the United States—have long been in favour of Hess’s immediate and unconditional release on humanitarian grounds. The British Government on their own, and the three powers jointly, have on numerous occasions urged the Soviet Government to show clemency to Hess, thereby reaffirming that the values of our societies are the demonstrable antithesis of the unmitigated bestiality of the Nazis.

My own most recent attempt to persuade the Russians was on 12th of last month, June, when I summoned the Soviet ambassador. I told the ambassador of the concern among various sections of British public opinion about the continuing imprisonment of Hess. I made it clear that if the Soviet Government were to reconsider their approach, they would earn considerable respect. I said that the imprisonment of Hess was no longer in accord with proclaimed Soviet or western aims for society, and that this made it all the more necessary to end it.

Unfortunately, I have to inform the House that the Soviet ambassador’s reaction was the same as the Soviet’s reaction has been for over 10 years. There has never been the slightest sign of flexibility in their attitude, and they are adamant that Hess must remain in gaol until the end of his sentence—in other words, until his death.

The Russians argue that many people still regard Hess as one of the principal architects of the Nazi system and that to release him would be to set up a living symbol of barbaric ideas and a focal point for nefarious neo-Nazi influences. His sentence and continued imprisonment, on the other hand, serve, they say as a powerful deterrent to such activities. ​

The Russians contend that compassion and humanity have already been shown to Hess in full measure by the simple fact that his life was spared, and they claim that the Soviet people, who retain vivid memories of their war-time sufferings and the 20 million Soviet casualties, would not understand the sort of compassion involved in releasing Hess.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I express the fullest respect for the sacrifices made by the Soviet Union and its people in the fight against Nazism. Few nations made a greater sacrifice or fought with greater courage. But it is difficult to believe that the release of Hess would conjure up the dangers the Russians identify, or that it would be seen as anything other than an act of common humanity.

Indeed—contrary to their judgment—there is a danger that Hess’s continued imprisonment could attract greater sympathy to him than would be the case if he were released. The constant publicity given to his predicament surely keeps him, and what he stood for, in the public eye much more than would be the case if he were released and after, inevitably, a brief period of publicity, were to vanish into obscurity.

As I told the Soviet ambassador, release would underline the values of our respective societies, as claimed, as compared with the evil of all that motivated Nazism. But one thing remains certain—the Russians are not prepared to contemplate the release of Hess.

In these circumstances, it has been suggested that the western allies should resolve jointly to ignore the Russians and to release Hess unilaterally during one of those months when one of the allies is providing the guard at Spandau gaol. This has been suggested this afternoon. It has been argued that such a move would call Soviet bluff, that it would demonstrate a bold decision to end an intolerable situation, and that in any response the Russians would not endanger the achievements of detente, with all the benefits it has brought to the Soviet Union, simply to demonstrate their irritation at such a move. This may be the case.

But I must leave the House in no doubt that unilateral action by the British Government, or by the three western powers acting in concert, would undeniably constitute a violation of a binding international agreement. The Nuremberg tribunal which sentenced Hess was established by a formal agreement between the four Governments, and the charter of the tribunal clearly states that it is the responsibility of the control council of Germany—that is, the four powers—to reduce or alter sentences.

The four powers also acted by quadripartite agreement in choosing Spandau prison and laying down the regulations of that prison. The day-to-day administration, and the arrangements for guarding the prison, also rest on a quadripartite basis. There have been no decisions relating to the prison and its inmates, or changes to the original 1946 and 1947 arrangements which have not been a matter for consensus among the four powers.

This is the legal reality surrounding the continued imprisonment of Hess. I need not remind the House that it would be a grave matter under any circumstances if the British Government were unilaterally to violate a binding international agreement. But in the case of Berlin such an act would be likely to have unforeseeable but certainly dangerous consequences. In Berlin, the whole western position depends on a nexus of four-power agreements of which that involving Hess is only one. It has always been a matter of policy for the western powers that these agreements should be scrupulously observed and not infringed unilaterally. As a result, our position in Berlin is strong, and the Soviet authorities have never had any legitimate reason to tamper with the presence and rights of the western powers in Berlin.

It is a plain fact that the security and freedom of the 2 million inhabitants of the city depend on this presence and these rights. The House will, therefore, understand that a unilateral infringement of the agreements relating to Hess might well set a precedent which could lead to an unacceptable degree of uncertainty and tension relating to Berlin. This is a situation which it is in our vital interest to avoid.

In these circumstances I believe—although I reach this conclusion with the greatest possible regret—that it would be the height of irresponsibility for the British Government to act unilaterally in ​the case of Hess. Such an act could endanger the comparative calm and stability that has been so laboriously constructed in and around Berlin. The only course open to us is to continue to represent to the Soviet Union the fundamental unreasonableness, inhumanity, and, above all, counter-productivity of the Soviet position on this case.

We must continue to remind the Russians, as we have been eloquently reminded, that Hess is an old and broken man. We must impress upon them that he is a more potent symbol of Nazism if he remains an object of sympathy than he would be if he were released. We must emphasise that his continuing im ​prisonment is an affront to civilised values. We must point out that to keep him in jail undermines our own self-confidence that human values have been re-established since the Nazi holocaust.

We shall continue to do all these things and, in doing so, I am confident that we have the support of virtually the whole House. I hope the message from this afternoon’s debate will be seriously and attentively listened to in Moscow. That message is unmistakably clear: Hess should be released from Spandau immediately.