FOR NEARLY 21 years, a red-brick, castle-like prison in West Berlin held only one prisoner, a very old Nazi who outlived all the other German war criminals convicted at Nuremberg, but never outlived the resolve of the four victorious Allies of World War II to punish him. With the defeat, by death, of Rudolf Hess, their one remaining enemy, the Allies accomplished their final mission of the war -- punishing the Nazis responsible for it. In a sense, World War II finally ended on Aug. 17, 1987.

A pathetic absurdity also ended that day -- the way a 93-year-old man was forced to live day after day alone in a prison large enough for 600 inmates and surrounded by a 4,000-volt electric fence. Blind in his right eye, walking stooped forward with a cane, dragging his right leg because of two minor strokes and slowed by a weak heart, poor blood circulation, a bad stomach and a prostate gland so swollen that it sometimes blocked his urination, Hitler's deputy fuehrer was prevented from escaping by 100 soldiers armed with automatic weapons guarding the prison. To the day he died, at age 93, the life of this ancient, feeble, pathetic Nazi was controlled by a daily regimen that included the censoring of his newspapers, taking away his glasses at night so he wouldn't read in bed (or slash his wrists with the lenses as he did in 1969) and curtailing his garden leisure time to punish him because, as a former U.S. commandant at the prison put it, "he never did a lick of work."

He was "the loneliest man in the world," in the words of the former commandant, retired lieutenant colonel Eugene K. Bird, who served as the source for most of this article. Hess was also one of the most expensive -- his time in prison wasn't free. Keeping Hess in prison cost the West German government a little under $850,000 a year -- just for the upkeep of the 111-year-old red-brick, castle-like fortress in West Berlin that held him. That amount did not include the bill sent to West Germany every year by the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union for the use of their troops to guard Hess and for other administrative costs of the prison, such as salaries of permanent employes and food, not to mention the newspapers they censored for their sole inmate. Those numbers -- as are all costs to the West German government for the continued presence of U.S., British and French troops in West Berlin -- are classified, but no doubt outrageous. It would not be out of the ball park to say Hess's price tag was about $2 million a year.

Hess finally put an end to these absurdities by hanging himself with an electric extension cord during one of his shortened leisure periods in the prison garden. On Aug. 17, the day he died, the four Allies of World War II announced that "the purpose of Spandau Allied Prison has ceased on the death of Rudolf Hess." The prison will make way for a shopping center for British soldiers, since the site is in the British sector of West Berlin. Last week, the demolition began, ending an era that no one can be proud of.

After the defeat of Hitler's Germany, the four victorious Allies agreed that they would operate Spandau jointly to imprison the Nazi war criminals who escaped the death sentence at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and that no decision would be made about the prison or the prisoners without the unanimous consent of the four. The countries would alternate on a monthly basis guarding the prison with their own contingents of 100 troops and being in charge of it with their own directors. The countries, they agreed, would follow, to the letter, a strict military protocol adopted for running the prison. Except for a few alterations to Hess's sleeping and bathing schedule, these rules never changed. Each hour of each day of each week of each month of each of the past 40 years -- about 480 months, 2,080 weeks, 14,600 days, 350,400 hours -- was exactly the same at Spandau.

The Allied prison regulations left nothing to the imagination. From the moment they arrived at Spandau in manacles on July 18, 1947, the lives of the seven Nazi war criminals "were an automatic obedience to the daily schedule," Bird wrote in "Prisoner #7: Rudolf Hess." Rise and shine, 6 am. To the bathroom, strip to the waist and wash (meanwhile, their cells -- 9 by 7 feet -- were being searched). Breakfast in their cells (spoons only), 6:45. Plates removed, 7:30. Work, 8 to 11:15, a time also, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, to be shaved by the prison barber and get haircuts, if they needed them. Personal search after work. Lunch in cells, 11:30 to 12:15. Free time, so to speak, in cells until 1:30. Work to 4:45. Another search. Dinner, 5 to 5:45. Off to the library until 6:15. Back to the cells for more free time until 10, when they would surrender their eyeglasses to the warders, permanent employes of the prison and of the nationalities of the four Allies, who kept constant watch over them.

The prisoners could take four books a day into their cells -- a dictionary, novel, the Bible and a religious book. They received four daily newspapers -- one from each of the former occupied zones of Germany -- including the official East German Communist Party daily, Neues Deutschland (Soviet sector). They were not allowed to read anything about World War I, World War II, themselves or Spandau, so articles deemed by prison directors to be contrary to regulations were blackened out. The prisoners wrote and received one letter every four weeks -- no more than four pages.

They could have visits -- one every two months, 15 minutes long, in the presence of the prison director and a warder. Notes were taken of the conversations. The prisoners were not allowed to talk to one another without permission.

Two of the prisoners had weekly laundry duty -- washing all the sheets in the shower (later a small German washing machine was purchased). On rainy days, they pasted together envelopes for the West German post office. But most of their work took place in the garden. Each prisoner had his own plot for growing tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, even tobacco -- but no flowers were allowed at the insistence of the Soviets. Each prisoner was assigned a separate path for walking in the garden. He had to stay only on that one path, which did not cross any other prisoners'. Even when Hess was the sole prisoner of Spandau, he was not permitted to walk on any garden path but the one assigned to him in 1947.

On Saturdays they could take their one bath of the week, and in the afternoon they were required to attend church service in the prison chapel. They were allowed to take communion, but not communion wine. On Sundays, they took the day off from work, staying in their cells.

By 1966, all the other prisoners were gone but Hess. Three served their full sentences of 10 and 20 years; the other three, including two with life sentences like Hess, were granted early releases for health reasons and allowed to die at home -- unlike Hess. The Russians never agreed to repeated requests by the other Allies over the past 10 years to let him out. "Nazi war criminals are not subject to amnesty, and the Hitlerite past cannot be rehabilitated," the Soviets said in turning down a bid three years ago to let Hess free on his 90th birthday. Year after year, the western allies blamed Hess's continued incarceration on the Soviets' refusal to free him, never failing to note the original agreement that Spandau had to be run by unanimous consent. But equal blame must be laid on the United States, Britain and France for not simply springing him. Were they afraid of annoying their old World War II ally, with whom they have been on such close terms throughout the entire postwar period that Hess was in Spandau? Perhaps they were afraid that this nonagenarian would lead a Nazi revival in Western Europe.

One irony of Hess's life was that Spandau made him a larger figure in life than he actually was and probably a martyr in death. He was not that important a Nazi in terms of the war, for which the Allies were punishing him. He was Nazi Germany's deputy fuehrer, and Hitler's terrifying vision of the future, "Mein Kampf," was dedicated to him. But before Hitler's war in Europe became a world war, Hess was sitting in a British prison, after making a mysterious flight to Scotland in 1941, professing to be on a secret peace mission. His notoriety was the result of his imprisonment at Spandau, not his role in the war.

Hess should have been a largely forgotten man by now, like the six other prisoners at Spandau -- von Schirach, Doenitz, von Neurath, Raeder, Speer and Funk. But because of the almost unbelievable way he died in Spandau, managing at age 93 to find an electric extension cord, fashion a noose, tied one end to a window and lynch himself when a warder -- against regulations -- left him alone in a garden hut for a few minutes, there will always be a question mark behind his name. Unfortunately, to many extremists around the world, that question mark will one day, if not already, become an exclamation point.

Dennis McAuliffe is an editor on the foreign desk of The Washington Post.