The German government will likely grant permission to a group of neo-Nazis to hold a public demonstration on Saturday commemorating the death of Rudolf Hess, who was Hitler’s right-hand man and deputy chief of the Nazi Party until his capture by the British in 1941.
But assuming it goes forward, this won’t be a Charlottesville-style rally featuring people decked out in swastikas giving Nazi salutes and shouting Nazi slogans. The German neo-Nazi demonstrators will only be allowed to gather under the strictest of conditions.
They are forbidden from displaying Nazi paraphernalia or swastikas and wearing Nazi uniforms. They will not be allowed to sing Nazi songs or chant Nazi slogans. They will not be allowed to quote Hess, play recordings of his speeches, display his image, or even use certain phrases that venerate him, such as, "His faith was stronger than prison and pain."
The German news agency Deutsche Welle reported the restrictions go even further. “[Organizers] presented its attendees with a code of behavior including bans on media interviews, alcohol, [and] mobile phones.”
That’s because under the German penal code, it is strictly forbidden to act in a manner that "approves of, glorifies or justifies the violent and despotic rule” of the Nazis.
For some, though, those restrictions are still not enough to justify permission. “Freedom of assembly is of great importance, but a democratic society does not have to please a neo-Nazi march,” German member of parliament Kai Wegner told the press earlier this week.
Neo-Nazis long glorified Rudolf Hess, the last of Hitler’s confidants
Rudolf Hess was with Adolf Hitler from the beginning, standing by the Führer’s side following the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 — Hitler’s first (failed) attempt to take over Bavaria, a state in southern Germany. Hitler’s efforts landed him, and Hess, in jail. Hess served as Hitler’s private secretary: Hitler actually dictated most of Mein Kampf, his infamous anti-Semitic text, to Hess while they were in jail.
Hitler named Hess deputy party leader in 1933, the year Hitler took power in Germany, and promoted him again in 1939 — making Hess third in command after Hermann Göring.
Then Hess did something peculiar: He left.
He flew to Scotland in May 1941 on a mission, he claimed, to try to negotiate a peace with England. That mission has long been questioned — in May 2016, Smithsonian magazine ran a long feature unpacking all the peculiarities surrounding Hess’s ill-fated journey. Some wondered if Hess had undertaken the effort on behalf of Hitler — or because he had been wooed there by the Allies.
But the outcome of his trip is undisputed: Hess was arrested immediately. He was held in a number of British prisons — including the Tower of London — until he faced judgment at Nuremberg. “I regret nothing,” he told the court. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Hess served out that term in Spandau, a prison in West Berlin. He was rumored to have been subjected to a harsh daily regime, including the use of only toilet water for hand washing. (Unsanitary, perhaps, but far less harsh than conditions in the death camps for Jews, Roma, gay men and lesbians, and other Nazi undesirables.)
From 1966 on, Hess served his time in alone — his fellow inmates had either served their time or been released due to failing health. When Hess was in his mid-70s, his son began a public campaign asking for his father’s release on humanitarian grounds. It was unsuccessful.
Hess lived the longest of Hitler’s inner circle: He was 93 when he killed himself. The circumstances have long been the subject of conspiracy theories — did the British actually kill him, how was it possible for him to actually hang himself, that sort of thing — though why they’d wait until 40 years after the war to do so has never been satisfactorily answered.
Fearing that Spandau prison, Hess’s 40-odd-year home, would become a shrine for neo-Nazis, the West Germans quickly tore it down, paved part of the land, and built a shopping center. Yet despite their best efforts, Hess became an object of fetishistic attention.
Nazi hero worship is hard to prevent
When Hess died, the family buried his body according to his wishes — in Wunsiedel, a town in Bavaria. The town almost immediately became a site of neo-Nazi pilgrimage.
Marches commemorating Hess’s death began in 1988, the year after he died. That lasted until 1991 and then continued on and off until 2005. (The off years came when the march was banned, not, apparently, for lack of interest.)
The German Constitutional Court shut down those marches for good in 2009. The court explained that the march was not guaranteed under Germany’s right to freedom of assembly, as it violated Germany’s Basic Law banning all glorification of the Nazi era. As Der Spiegel explained at the time, “According to that court's decision, a ‘reasonable observer’ would have ‘clearly recognized’ that the commemorative march — if it were to ever be held again — ‘would endorse the totality of the National Socialist regime without restriction.’"
Yet 500 people are expected to come out to celebrate him this weekend, marking the 30th anniversary of his death. But they won’t be in Wunsiedel. This march will be in Spandau, near the prison where he lived out nearly half of his days. And they won’t be carrying anything that identifies them as Hess supporters — indeed, they won’t have anything to identify them as neo-Nazis at all.
But everyone will still know why they’re there.