Rudolf Hess, the last surviving member of the Nazi leadership, spared at Nuremberg but sentenced to life imprisonment, died yesterday in the Spandau military prison in Berlin a pathetic and senile figure – ironically at the very moment that hopes were mounting that Mr Gorbachev might be the Russian leader to give way and allow his release.
The Soviet news media yesterday reported his death without comment. A brief dispatch from Tass was read out over the air. A statement released by the British diplomatic spokesman in Berlin, Mr Anderson Purdon, said simply that Hess had died in Spandau. The cause of death was not given.
Mr Purdon confirmed that Spandau, where Hess had been the sole inmate since 1966, will now be torn down. The victorious second world war Allies agreed to tear down the ageing brick structure to keep it from becoming a rallying place for Nazi sympathisers.
To West Germany's small neo-Nazi movement, as well as to older Germans who still harboured fond memories of Nazi rule, Rudolf Hess remained a hero despite the passage of time and his absence from the public eye during his 40 years' imprisonment at Spandau, the last 21 of which he spent as its sole inmate.
At vast expense, estimated at over £700,000 a year and paid for by Bonn, Hess was kept under the strict observance of the former wartime Allies who took it in monthly turns to guard the prison, and who also made sure that he had no contact with the outside world, except for family visits. Nor was he allowed to dwell on the past.
All allusions to the Nazi period in his reading matter and on his small television were expurgated. A couple of illicit photographs of Hess, shuffling hunch-backed in the narrow prison garden and wearing a sunhat, were the only pictures modern Germans had of the former Deputy Fuehrer's appearance after a total of 46 years' imprisonment.
Otherwise, he was still the ranting, glassy-eyed figure always to be seen behind Hitler on the old newsreels. Hess was said to have developed a fascination for space travel, particularly after the American landing on the moon, and had a photograph of the moon stuck to the wall above his bed.
His wife, Ilse, was no longer fit enough to visit him in recent years, and his only contact with his family were the monthly meetings with his son, Wolf-Ruediger, a Munich architect.