Day 108: This Much Is True – The Story Of Spandau Prison

originally published April 17, 2012

In 1876, the Germans completed construction on Spandau Prison, designed to hold up to 600 prisoners. It was a brick fortress, surrounded by a 15-foot wall, then a 30-foot wall, then a 10-foot wall topped with electrified wire, and lastly a wall of barbed wire.

In 1946, due to some notable misbehavior over the previous 13 years, Germany lost control of Spandau Prison, and it was turned over to the occupying Allied forces for use as a place to stash Nazi war criminals. The four nations in charge, the Soviets, the Americans, the British, and the French, took monthly turns overseeing the prison. At any given time, there were about sixty soldiers on duty, teams of civilian warders, four prison directors, their deputies, medical officers, translators, cooks, waiters, and probably a tennis pro on staff.

There were seven prisoners.

On July 18, 1947, the prisoners were brought to Spandau and numbered off:

Prisoner #1, Baldur von Schirach. Leader of the Hitler Youth and alleged bisexual. He was one of only two men on trial at the Nuremberg hearings to denounce Hitler, claiming he’d been ignorant of the extermination camps, and he provided evidence that he registered a complaint about the inhuman treatment of the Jews. Sentence: 20 years.

Prisoner #2, Erich Raeder. Grand Admiral, the highest rank in the German Navy. He wanted to invade Norway, but was voted down by his staff. After a handful of screw-ups, he was demoted in 1943. He resigned, but was convicted for waging a war of aggression. Sentence: Life.

Prisoner #3, Konstantin von Neurath. German foreign minister at the start of Hitler’s reign, but he lacked the cajones to live up to Hitler’s standard of asshole-ness. Hitler fired him in 1938, but his actions during his tenure were enough to get a conviction. Sentence: 15 years.

Prisoner #4, Karl Donitz. Always had a facial expression like he was late for an important poop. He replaced von Schirach as Grand Admiral, and was such an exquisite monster, Hitler named him as the Reich’s successor in his will. He was in charge of Germany for three weeks after Hitler died. Sentence: 10 years (somehow).

Prisoner #5, Albert Speer. The architect. Hitler brought him on as the regime’s official architect, as well as Minister of Armaments and War Production. His lawyer painted him as an artist thrust into politics. During his trial, Speer claimed he’d planned to kill Hitler, but he couldn’t pull it off. He spoke out against the Reich – denounced it – but was nevertheless convicted. Sentence: 20 years.

Prisoner #6, Walter Funk. Press officer and Minster for Economic Affairs. He’d been called an “insignificant subordinate”, but his inflammatory autobiography was used against him in the trial, so off he went. Sentence: Life.

Prisoner #7, Rudolf Hess. Eyebrows-Guy. Right as the war was getting going, Hess flew to Scotland to try to talk the UK into scrapping the fighting and becoming Germany’s ally. His plane was shot down. Hess parachuted to safety, but was captured and tossed as a prisoner into the Tower of London. He was mentally ill, possibly hallucinating, maybe just nuts. Hess was shipped off to stand trial at Nuremberg, and even though he missed most of the war, he was found guilty for crimes against peace. Sentence: Life.

The Spandau Seven spent their days co-mingling in the prison garden, which they used to grow flowers and vegetables. At first they were not allowed to speak to one another, and newspapers and paper for writing memoirs were prohibited. Prisoners were allowed one family visit every two months for fifteen minutes. Outgoing letters could be one page long, sent once per month.

The rules got more and more lax as time went on, except when it was the Soviets’ turn to run the show. They’d lost 19 million people in WWII, and they weren’t about to treat these war criminals with any mercy. They served shittier meals, enforced every rule, and did what they could to make the prisoners’ lives hell.

Over time, the prisoners were allowed to interact. Speer, the architect, and Hess, the nutjob, were the outcasts of the group. Speer because he had admitted guilt and publicly derided the Nazi cause during the trial, and Hess because he was a nutjob. Hess was further alienated because he almost never went to chapel. Every group needs someone to hate, and Hess fit the bill.

The two Grand Admirals stuck together, even though they didn’t like each other – remember, Donitz had replaced Raeder, so there was a bit of a rivalry there. I guess it was a love-hate thing.

Von Schirach and Funk were ‘inseparable’. Was there a romantic sub-plot going on here? Who knows? Von Neurath was the former diplomat, so he did what he could do to get along with everybody.

There were no license plates to make, no chain gang to march out to pick up litter. The prisoners had the garden to keep their attention, as well as whatever books were available in the library. Raeder ran the library, and his war-time replacement, Donitz, worked as his assistant.

Von Neurath, the diplomat, was the first to leave Spandau. There was an inexplicable rule that, despite whatever nasty things a prisoner had done, they could be released if they were in ill health. Von Neurath had a heart attack in 1954, and that qualified as ‘ill health’. He lived his last two years in freedom.

Despite being sentenced to life, Raeder was released next, in 1955. Same reason, ill health. Raeder hung on for five years and penned an autobiography before dying in 1960.

In 1956, it was Donitz’s turn to leave, having served his ten year sentence. He claimed throughout his entire incarceration that he was still the rightful leader of Germany, but when he was released, his theory didn’t fly. He lived out the rest of his life in obscurity on a modest Captain’s pension (all promotions after Captain had been under Hitler, so he wasn’t getting paid for them), and died in 1980.

With the Grand Admirals gone, it was time to split up the von Schirach – Funk team in 1957. Walter Funk had a life sentence, but he snuck out via the ill-health loophole. He lasted three years until diabetes got him in 1960.

There were three prisoners left – the two loners and Baldur von Schirach. Speers and von Schirach left together on September 30, 1966, having served the full extent of their sentences. A stroke killed Speers in 1981; almost nothing of his architectural legacy remains. Von Schirach died in 1974.

So what happened to Rudolf Hess?

He was not released early. Despite being the only prisoner in the facility, he was not transferred. Hess lived out the remainder of his days in soul-crushing solitude, finally succumbing in August, 1987. He’d spent 45 years as a prisoner, 21 of them completely alone, apart from the staff being paid to guard him. I hate stories of Nazi officers surviving this long past the end of the war, but this is a pretty good, tortuous ending.

After Hess’s death, the prison was leveled and turned into a shopping mall. Where once sat the scum beneath the scum of the most vile corner of 20th century earth, you can now get a Whopper. A synagogue would have been a better ironic twist, but maybe that’ll be built after the Burger King is torn down because Hess’s ghost inhabits the deep fryer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s