"HITLER, for the first time since he came to power, did not speak or make a public appearance," writes the journalist William Shirer in an entry in his "Berlin Diary" for May Day 1940. "His deputy, Rudolf Hess, spoke in his place -- from the Krupp munition works at Essen. He kept referring to Mr. Hambro as 'that Jew, Mr. Hamburger.'"
That was the atmosphere in the Germany Mr. Hess and his colleagues had created, and thatwas the way they used to talk about peoplewho got in their way. (Mr. Hambro was a Norwegian political leader who opposed the Nazi takeover of his country.) Earlier in his career, Mr. Hess had put his signature to the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their rights as citizens and helped pave the way for their extermination.
That act in itself would seem to make rather trivial the controversy in the last decades of Rudolf Hess' life over whether he should continue to be imprisoned. He was, from 1967 until his death this week at the age of 93, the lone inmate of Spandau Prison in West Berlin, where the four powers occupying Germany locked up a number of prominent war criminals.
He had been in one prison or another since 1941, the year he made a bizarre, unauthorized flight to England apparently to try to make peace between Germany and that country. At his trial after the war, he was unrepentant about his service to Hitler. The only defense that could be made of him was that he was mad or simple-minded, but the evidence on both counts was ambiguous. The Soviet Union, which had wanted him hanged, refused all efforts by the Western powers to let him go. It is perhaps a good sign that the efforts of Mr. Hess' family to free him could strike in many people a feeling of sympathy for them as human beings; that was something Rudolf Hess and his followers tried to deny their victims.
Mr. Hess made several attempts at suicide. On Tuesday a prison guard found him with an electrical cord around his neck; the autopsy should determine whether that was the cause of death. With its last inmate gone, Spandau Prison will be razed. It is seen by some neo-Nazis as a shrine, which should be grounds not just for razing it but for sowing the ground with salt.