By Rowan Hooper
It is one of the greatest remaining conspiracy theories of the second world war. In May 1941, Adolf Hitler’s deputy führer, Rudolf Hess, flew solo from Germany to Scotland in an apparent attempt to broker a peace deal between Britain and Germany. Hess’s plan failed, and he was arrested in the UK. He was eventually tried at the military tribunals in Nuremberg and incarcerated in Spandau prison in Berlin, where he died in 1987.
But from the start, there were doubts over whether the prisoner designated “Spandau #7” really was Hess. The wartime president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was one of the leading subscribers to the theory that the man in Spandau was an imposter, an idea perpetuated by a British doctor who worked at Spandau, W. Hugh Thomas. The UK government commissioned four investigations into the claims, but the “doppelgänger conspiracy” has persisted for 70 years. Had the real Rudolf Hess escaped justice and settled abroad? When the German government cremated Hess’s remains in 2011, it was thought the last chance to pursue DNA analysis of the body had been lost.
Now the mystery has finally been solved by a piece of DNA detective work by a retired military doctor from the US Army and forensic scientists from Austria. They conclude that the prisoner known as Spandau #7 was indeed the Nazi criminal Rudolf Hess.
Nazi pilgrimage site
Hess has continued to generate historical interest. He was one of Hitler’s close friends and a leading Nazi politician, and then there’s the extraordinary manner of his attempted peace deal with the UK. After his death, his grave in the town of Wunsiedel became a Neo-Nazi rallying site, which in 2011 led the German authorities to exhume and cremate Hess’s body, scatter the ashes at sea, and destroy the grave.
But not all of Hess’s DNA had been destroyed. During his incarceration in Spandau, Hess was monitored and cared for as was any other prisoner. Spandau was run by officials from the UK, France, the United States and the Soviet Union, who rotated duties each month. In 1982, a blood sample was taken from Hess by a US army doctor, Phillip Pittman, as part of a routine health check. A pathologist, Rick Wahl, mounted some of the blood on a microscope slide to perform a cell count. The slide was labelled “Spandau #7” and hermetically sealed, and kept by Wahl for teaching purposes at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.
In the mid-1990s, another US military doctor, Sherman McCall, was resident at the army hospital when he heard about the blood sample. “I first became aware of the existence of the Hess blood smear from a chance remark during my pathology residency at Walter Reed,” McCall told New Scientist. “I only became aware of the historical controversy a few years later.” McCall, who is trained in molecular pathology, immediately realised the slide’s potential for solving the Hess controversy. “Making it happen,” he says, “was another matter entirely.”
Extracting Rudolf Hess’s DNA sample
McCall contacted Jan Cemper-Kiesslich, a molecular biologist in the DNA Unit at the department of legal medicine, University of Salzburg, Austria, and told him about the slide and the dried blood.
Working under standard forensic DNA protocols, Cemper-Kiesslich’s team extracted DNA from the dried blood. Now they had to find a living male relative of Rudolf Hess to make a comparison. They got in touch with David Irving, a discredited British historian who has denied the Holocaust took place. Irving provided the phone number of Hess’s son, Wolf Rüdiger Hess. “In the event, this number was disconnected,” says McCall. “Unbeknownst to us, he had recently died.”
Tracking down living Hess relatives took yet more time. “The family is very private,” says McCall. “The name is also rather common in Germany, so finding them was difficult.” But in the end, they managed it, and obtained DNA samples from a living male relative.
The forensic DNA analysis centred on the Y chromosome, which is inherited only down the male line, and on a range of genetic markers across other parts of the genome. The male relative and another member of the Hess family have seen and approved of the publication of the DNA results, but do not want to take part in any further discussion of the findings.
“It is already a matter of public record that Hess’s wife, Ilse, did not believe this story,” says McCall – she didn’t believe Spandau #7 was an imposter. When she met the British governor of Spandau on a visit, she joked: “How is the doppelgänger today?”
The real McCoy
Statistical analysis of the results suggests a 99.99 per cent likelihood that the blood sample on the slide comes from a close family member of the living relative of Hess, “strongly supporting the hypothesis”, Cemper-Kiesslich’s team report, “that prisoner ‘Spandau #7’ indeed was Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer of the Third Reich”.
Citing the privacy of the Hess family, Cemper-Kiesslich declined to comment on their response to the results. We don’t know how the Hess family feels about the closure of the final chapter on the story of their infamous relative. “The conspiracy theory claiming that prisoner ‘Spandau #7’ was an impostor is extremely unlikely and therefore disproved,” the scientists write.
In the paper, published in Forensic Science International Genetics, the authors go on to note: “Due to the lucky event of the presence of a biological trace sample originating from prisoner ‘Spandau #7’ the authors got the unique chance to shed new light on one of the most persistent historical memes of World War II history.”
An assessment of the Hess DNA results is made more difficult by the ethical issues concerning his relatives, says Turi King, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, UK, who led the forensic examination of the last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III. The paper omits DNA details of Hess’s relative to prevent him being identified, but on the face of it, she says, it appears that the scientists have disproved the conspiracy theory.
“They’ve got a perfect match with the Y chromosome and a living male Hess relative,” King says. “If this person was a doppelgänger, you wouldn’t get that match, so from that point of view it’s a good sign.”
And Walther Parson, a forensic molecular biologist at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria, says: “The manuscript underwent review by two anonymous reviewers. I have no reason to assume that the data and science are not sound. I know the scientists are great.”
Journal reference: Forensic Science International Genetics, DOI: 10.1016/j.fsigen.2019.01.004
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