Himmler: Hitler's murderous henchman


HISTORY: Heinrich Himmler: A LifeBy Peter Longerich Oxford University Press, 991pp. £25

THE PALE, BESPECKLED and ordinary-looking man who surrendered himself to the British army on May 20th, 1945, was vaguely disguised as a German military policeman, but it quickly dawned on his captors that they had just arrested one of the most powerful men in Hitler’s erstwhile dictatorship. As chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler had commanded more than a million men. As head of the German police and interior minister, he had been in charge of suppressing the opposition on the home front, as well as the murder of millions of Jews and other “racially undesirable” people in occupied Europe.

Often portrayed as a boring schoolmaster with a curious interest in ancient German mysticism and the occult, Himmler appeared to possess few obvious propensities for such gruesome tasks. How was it possible for such a man to emerge as one of the most powerful figures in German-controlled Europe?

Peter Longerich’s huge new biography on the “Reich Leader SS” addresses this question and many others. Longerich has undertaken primary research in several countries, and the result is well worth the effort: this book is set to become a standard work in the vast literature on the “SS state”. Although lives of Himmler have been written before now, none of them is as detailed and insightful as this new biography.

Over more than 900 pages, Longerich explores not only Himmler’s personal life but also the key policy areas for which he bore direct responsibility: the concentration-camp system and the Nazis’ murderous policies of annihilation directed against the supposedly lesser races of Europe.

Like many other senior SS men, Himmler came from an educated middle-class background. Born in 1900, he was called into military service in 1917 and experienced the German collapse the following year as an officer cadet. Defeat and revolution deeply politicised the young Himmler. His involvement in fringe groups of the extreme right continued while he was studying at Munich Technical University, earning a diploma in agriculture in 1922. He worked for a year at a factory in Schleissheim producing fertiliser from dung but was increasingly obsessed by politics. In August 1923, he joined the slowly emerging Nazi movement and participated in the unsuccessful Hitler putsch in Munich in November that year.

After Himmler assumed the leadership of the (then still tiny and politically irrelevant) SS, in 1929, his desire to transform it into an organisation for the racial elite was reflected in his introduction of physical selection criteria for his men. Himmler envisaged the “Aryan” body as the perfection of an ideal state of mankind that distinguished itself from ill and “inferior” bodies. He desired tall, blue-eyed men who could present family trees free of “inferior racial origin”: the body was the place where one’s membership of the Aryan race could be “verified”. Through such men, a new German race would arise that could populate the “living space” in the east that Hitler promised his growing number of followers.

With remarkable drive and organisational talent, Himmler swiftly transformed the SS from an organisation with no more than 200 members into a fighting force with 50,000 members by 1933. His subsequent rise to power was due to skilful manoeuvring, which first saw him take over the German police in 1936 and finally, after the outbreak of the second World War, become Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germanness, the chief commissar for the ethnic reordering of Hitler’s Lebensraum.

Longerich makes it very clear that Himmler possessed a pronounced strategic talent in his dealings with other senior Nazis and his subordinates, many of whom owed their professional careers to him and were therefore bound to their superior in unquestioning loyalty. Himmler was anything but the weak leader he appeared. He knew exactly what he wanted and had a remarkable talent for power politics, as well as a good instinct for appointing well-educated and similarly radical men to senior positions in the SS.

The second World War provided him with a unique opportunity to implement his particularly radical interpretation of Hitler’s ideology. Immediately after the German invasion of Poland, SS death squads descended on the country’s elites, determined to kill as many teachers, intellectuals, clergymen and politicians as was deemed necessary to ensure that the Polish nation would never rise again.

This logic of destruction reached its crescendo during the German onslaught against the Soviet Union, during which the SS murdered hundreds of thousands of suspected Bolsheviks and Jews, a genocidal campaign that would ultimately lead to the plan to murder each and every Jew in Europe. Yet despite the SS’s terrible success in implementing its policy of destruction, the genocide remained incomplete – not because Himmler and his associates lacked the determination or desire to do it but because the retreat of the German army deprived them of the opportunity to act further on their murderous fantasies. Had the Nazis won the war, they would have killed all of the estimated 11 million Jews of Europe before applying similar policies against the Slavic populations living in those territories annexed by the Third Reich.

Given his record of mass murder, it might be seen as a sign of Himmler’s growing detachment from reality that in the final months of the war he believed that he could act as an honest broker between Germany and the western Allies, turning them against the Soviet Union as a common enemy and even offering the rapid release of concentration-camp inmates in return for a favourable peace treaty with Germany.

When Hitler found out about Himmler’s secret negotiations with the enemy, he immediately sacked him from all offices and condemned him as a traitor. Himmler’s dismissal and his subsequent suicide in British captivity marked the end of an astonishing career and a murderous life that has never been retold with greater accuracy and analytical vigour than in Longerich’s biography, a life unlikely to be surpassed for many years to come.

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