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The Most Terrible of Hitler’s Creatures

Heinrich Himmler

by Peter Longerich, translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe
Oxford University Press, 1,031 pp., $34.95
Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Heinrich Himmler (second from right) with Reinhard Heydrich (third from right) and Benito Mussolini (second from left) at a meeting of the police chiefs of Germany, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Portugal, circa 1938

In July 1945, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in his journal:

Now that the German war is over, and the surviving grandees of Nazi Germany are captured and talking, what poor, inflated vulgarians, what weak pretenders they all turn out to have been, how absurd and byzantine that fantastic court at Berlin and Berchtesgarden and in the peripatetic Führerhauptquartier!

There is a striking contradiction about Germany’s performance in World War II. The Wehrmacht showed itself the outstanding fighting force of the conflict, one of the most effective armies the world has ever seen. But its achievements on the battlefield were set at naught, fortunately for the interests of mankind, by the stunning incompetence with which the German war machine was conducted.

Hitler’s strategy, intelligence, exploitation of science and technology, industrial planning, and administration lagged by a distance those of the Allies. A biography of any senior member of the Nazi hierarchy makes inescapably dispiriting reading, for moral reasons. But beyond this, even those of us familiar with the period never cease to be amazed by the authority entrusted to men of miserably meager talents, Albert Speer alone excepted. Had not Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, and their colleagues enjoyed license to kill millions, posterity would find most of them ridiculous.

Peter Longerich opens his excellent and comprehensive biography of Himmler by posing the questions he sets himself to answer:

How could such a banal personality attain such a historically unique position of power? How could the son of a prosperous Bavarian Catholic public servant become the organizer of a system of mass murder spanning the whole of Europe?

Robert Gerwarth describes Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s wartime deputy until his 1942 assassination by Czech partisans, as “one of the great iconic villains of the twentieth century…arguably the most radical figure within the Nazi leadership.”

John Lukacs has made the interesting and important assertion that Himmler spent much more time thinking about Jews than Hitler did. Once the war began, while Germany’s leader remained committed to ethnic cleansing and often bored his subordinates with monologues about his fantasy vision of a postwar world, he was chiefly preoccupied with defeating his enemies.

But Himmler, Heydrich, and their formidable enforcement arm, the SS, were amazingly careless of the rational priorities of total war. They devoted themselves with demented single-mindedness to pursuing, herding, and eventually killing Europe’s Jews. Neither of these books discusses an issue that seems to me significant: the economic and strategic cost to the Nazis of undertaking a program for reorganizing Eastern Europe and its peoples, liquidating those who were unwanted, while the outcome of the war still hung in the balance.

There is a notable contrast here with Churchill, who exasperated his ministerial colleagues by insistently declining to discuss British postwar reconstruction until Hitler had been beaten. Only men who were fools as well as monsters, Himmler and Heydrich foremost among them, could have chosen to address the agenda of supposed ethnic purification before Nazi hegemony on the Continent was secure.

Heinrich Himmler, born in Bavaria in 1900, was the son of Catholic conservative parents. His father was a respected teacher who rose to become head of a grammar school. When Heinrich joined the army in 1917, this intensely family-minded young man complained constantly and petulantly to his parents when they failed to write to him and send parcels. He hated barracks life, and never saw action in World War I. But his brief experience as an ensign caused him forever afterward to see himself as an officer and gentleman, for whom honor and loyalty were essential values, though he would interpret these concepts in a uniquely perverted fashion.

After the war, denied the commission he sought in the shrunken German army, Himmler became an agricultural college student. Contemporaries noted his social and physical insecurity. He found it difficult to form relationships, especially with girls, and was morbidly sensitive about his weak chin. In November 1921 he wrote in his diary: “My behaviour still lacks the distinguished self-assurance I should like to have.” A sickly youth, he found physical labor difficult. Prudish, when visiting friends in the country he expressed shock at the sight of their three-year-old daughter playing naked, at “an age when children are supposed to be taught modesty.”

For several years, he nursed a hankering to emigrate, perhaps to South America, and wrote:

In two years I’ll not be in Germany any more, God willing, unless there is fighting, war and I’m a soldier…. If there’s another eastern campaign I’ll join it. The east is the most important thing for us. The west is liable to die. In the east we must fight and settle.

Here, before Nazism was born, was an expression of sentiments that would become central to Hitler’s ideology.

In his early twenties, Himmler began reading anti-Semitic literature such as Wilhelm Meister’s The Register of Judah’s Guilt, and formed an enthusiasm for rituals, mysticism, and the occult. Longerich says that it seems quite mistaken to regard Himmler’s radicalization as an act of revolt against his parents. He notes that many conservatives and Catholics flirted with or embraced extremism at that time; the Himmlers, father and son, for some months attended political meetings together.

Young Heinrich carried a flag in the pitiful Nazi putsch attempt of November 1923, then worked underground for the party, though still considering emigration. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually, he was an implausible specimen of any master race, but Longerich writes:

Himmler was not prepared to admit the failure of his plans for his personal, professional, and political life and increasingly came to adopt the role of an outsider who had been failed by other people.

The young visionary wrote of Hitler after reading his books: “He is a truly great man and above all a genuine and pure one. His speeches are marvellous examples of Germanness and Aryanness.” Yet Ernst Röhm, soon to lead the SA, was for a time his preferred hero. Himmler joined the staff of the Nazis’ Munich headquarters in summer 1926. It is extraordinary to consider how quickly events unfolded thereafter: within little more than a decade, from a standing start and before he was forty, Himmler became one of the most powerful and feared men in Europe.

In the 1920s, however, he was not a popular figure even among his fellow young Nazis, who deplored him as rude and crass. In 1928, he abandoned a vision of personal celibacy to marry Margarete Boden, a woman no more physically prepossessing than himself. They started married life in a prefabricated wooden house, very hard-up; their only child, daughter Gudrun, was born the following year.

The Nazis’ first Schutzstaffeln—“protection squadrons”—were created in 1925. When Himmler was appointed their deputy commander and soon afterward commander, the SS was less than three hundred strong. Its rivalry with the SA, dominated by ex–army officers, persisted until 1934, when Himmler’s group triumphed, chiefly by displaying much stronger discipline. From the outset he defined it as an elite, writing: “The SS must become a force that includes the best human material we still possess in Germany. The SS must be held together by a shared community of blood.”

At that time he anticipated, as Longerich emphasizes, that his own generation of Germans was merely laying foundations for a decisive clash between “the Nordic nation” and Bolshevism, which must await the “next generation.” Meanwhile, Himmler devoted himself to the expansion of his personal power base. In the decade up to 1938, he progressively gained control of Germany’s entire police and security apparatus, then began to develop the Waffen SS as an elite military force.

Longerich describes his subject’s mastery of diplomatic skills notably absent in his early youth. Himmler became an adept intriguer and power-broker, and also an ardent ideologue, a true believer, much preoccupied with “improving the stock” of the German people by planned breeding. In creating the SS he created an entire culture with its own uniforms, ranks, rituals, vocabulary, and extended family ideal.

Albert Krebs, a Nazi functionary from Hamburg, wrote with contempt of Himmler’s conversation, “a peculiar mixture of warlike bombast, the saloon-bar views of a petty bourgeois, and the enthusiastic prophesies of a sectarian preacher.” But SS members eagerly embraced Himmler’s conception, reveling above all in the powers of life and death that were granted to them.

The SS leader gathered around him a corps of dependent personal loyalists—such men as Karl Wolff, Kurt Daluege, Sepp Dietrich, and Friedrich Jeckeln. Only one, Josias Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, came from a smart social background. Most of the others committed themselves to Himmler because he offered men of limited gifts, of which only ruthlessness was indispensable, unique opportunities for advancement from relatively humble circumstances.

He secured control of the political police under a new Secret State Police Office—the Gestapo. He made the SS into what Longerich calls “a state protection corps,” committed to exercising its power and authority outside any structure of legality. From 1933, he made plain that the judiciary had no authority over the concentration camp network he created, writing: “In my work for the Führer and the nation I do what my conscience tells me is right and what is common sense.”

He sought to cut Germany’s crime rate by arresting two thousand career criminals, soon joined in concentration camps by a further two thousand unfortunates identified by labor exchanges as “work-shy.” Preventive detention also became the norm, of course, for those deemed politically suspect, many of them Jewish or Communist.

Service as Hitler’s foremost enforcer was no formula for domestic harmony. Margarete Himmler complained bitterly about her husband’s continual absences in the killing fields, writing on their tenth wedding anniversary: “In spite of the happiness marriage brings, I have had to do without many things…for H is almost never there and his life is all work.” But during the war years, Himmler found sufficient leisure to take as a mistress his private secretary, Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had a child.

By December 1938 the SS numbered 238,159 men; its military wing was nine thousand strong, and Himmler set about expanding this to corps strength, and soon much more. The code of the fighting SS, he said at a Gruppenführers’ meeting in Munich, was to be uncompromising: in battle, they would neither surrender nor take prisoners:

However kind and decent we may want to be as individuals, we will be pitiless if it is a matter of preserving our nation from death.

Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s most notable acolyte until his death, was four years younger than his leader, and likewise from a middle-class Catholic background. His father, a former opera singer, ran a musical conservatory in Halle, and his son was an enthusiastic and sentimental violinist. The family was persistently dogged by rumors of Jewishness, which caused Reinhard to be teased at school as “Isi”—Isadore.

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