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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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Reinhard Heydrich and Secretary of State of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia Karl Hermann Frank in Prague Castle, Czechoslovakia, September 1941

A brief career as a naval signals officer was abruptly terminated by dismissal in 1931, after a military court of honor found him guilty of breach of promise to a girlfriend with whom he’d been sexually involved before he became engaged to Lina von Osten, an ardent Nazi from Holstein. She later asserted that being cashiered was “the heaviest blow of his life.” Heydrich cried for days, in rage and self-pity. Desperate for employment, he refused an offer of a job as a sailing instructor when Himmler provided an opening in the SS. Gerwarth asserts that Heydrich accepted not out of ideological conviction, but because he needed the money—a year later, he was still sufficiently broke to have his phone cut off because the bill was unpaid.

He proved an enthusiastic street fighter. His comrades found him arrogant, as had his schoolfellows and naval brethren. But he forged a close relationship with Himmler despite the fact that his wife Lina disliked Margarete, whom she thought irredeemably vulgar. Heydrich was a much bolder man than his boss: for instance, he proscribed the works of Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest novelist, and confiscated his accessible assets. In April 1934, he became acting chief of the Gestapo, with SS rank equivalent to that of an army lieutenant general, though only thirty.

He displayed his ruthlessness in private affairs by refusing financial assistance to his distressed parents, even when his own fortunes were prospering. Like many leading Nazis, he became skilled in exploiting power for personal enrichment: his first purchase of a house was funded by a loan from the industrialist Willy Sachs. He also renovated a hunting lodge for himself near that of Göring at Karinhall.

Heydrich argued that Bolshevism was only a front for Germany’s real enemies—the Jews and political clerics, especially Jesuits. Already by 1935 he could claim to be Germany’s foremost policymaker on Jewish matters, promoting enforced emigration and confiscation of assets. Like Himmler, Heydrich insisted that crimes against humanity should be conducted in an orderly fashion: he deplored the random violence against Austria’s Jews that followed the Anschluss, and likewise the November 1938 Kristallnacht outrages, provoked by Goebbels.

Heydrich instead focused upon creating the Reich Central Office of Jewish Emigration. When war came and the Einsatzkommandos were established—task forces for the killing of Jews—he demanded that they should be led by men who possessed “relevant experience and faultless military bearing.” It was something of an embarrassment to the SS that most of its men fell short of this ideal, and comported themselves as common thugs or obvious psychopaths.

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, for instance, became one of Himmler’s foremost mass murderers, as Higher SS and Police Leader for Russia Center. In March 1942 he suffered a physical and mental breakdown, and the Reich Medical Officer reported him as “torturing himself with notions of inferiority (‘exaggerated sensitivity to pain, lassitude, lack of will power’).” Although he supposedly recovered, a specialist later reported him as suffering severely from constipation and “weak anal muscles.” Oskar Dirlewanger, another prominent SS killer, was described at the end of his earlier World War I service as “a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs.”

Himmler indulged such men because he needed them. Many of his subordinates displayed a doglike devotion to him, because nobody else would have had any use for them, far less promoted them to positions of power, with privileged access to luxury.

At the time of Heydrich’s assassination—he died of his wounds on June 4, 1942, a week after being ambushed on his way to work by a Czech group parachuted from Britain—he and Lina were living in considerable state at a country mansion outside Prague. He did not lack personal courage. He took leave of absence from his SS duties to fly some Luftwaffe fighter sorties against the Russians, and perished only because he rashly stopped his car to shoot it out with his ambushers, rather than seek prudent flight.

Wholesale reprisals exacted from the local population caused many people in the Allied camp, both Czech and British, to conclude that Heydrich’s killing was ill-judged. Nazi governance of occupied Europe showed that repression worked everywhere save Yugoslavia and Russia.

Heydrich’s death changed little, because he had already made his most notable contribution to Nazism by setting in motion the machinery of the Holocaust. After many months in which Jews had merely been killed arbitrarily across Eastern Europe, the January 1942 Wannsee conference chaired by Heydrich proved a historic turning point. Thereafter, debate about Jewish emigration, mass deportations to Madagascar, and suchlike was replaced by a commitment to bring about their deaths.

“Under appropriate leadership,” he told his guests at the Wannsee villa, “the Jews should be put to work in the East in the context of the final solution…. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes.” Any “final remnants that survive” would “have to be dealt with appropriately.” There was no need to discuss the fate of those unable to work, who would be summarily killed.

Heydrich, like Himmler, saw no moral difficulty about the policies he promoted: defined enemies of Nazism were simply excluded from any claim upon justice, compassion, humanity. He wrote to his wife in a testament drafted in 1939:

Educate our children to become firm believers in the Führer…that they strictly adhere to the eternal laws of the SS, that they are hard towards themselves, kind and generous towards our own people and Germany and merciless towards all internal and external enemies of the Reich….

It seems mistaken to view Himmler, Heydrich, and their colleagues in historical isolation, and more profitable to assess them alongside—for instance—Stalin’s chief enforcer, Beria, and the Soviet Union’s corps of killers, quite as dedicated to their work as was the SS. The conclusion is obvious: there was nothing uniquely German about such people. It is not difficult to persuade a substantial minority of mankind, and even of its educated elements, to commit mass murder, as long as such a course is legitimized and successfully put into practice by the authority of somebody at the top.

Many of the Serbs and Croats who killed tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s would have been taught in school about the iniquity of the Holocaust. But this did not inhibit them from following the same path, albeit on a lesser scale, pursuing the wholesale elimination of unwanted citizens of their own community of all ages and both sexes.

The Nazi death camps were Heydrich’s legacy. After his passing, Himmler continued to enlarge his empire, becoming Reich interior minister in August 1943. The Holocaust was steered toward what its architects deemed a highly successful conclusion. The Waffen SS expanded immensely, its formations proving themselves superb battlefield fighters: in Germany’s years of retreat, they made a critical contribution to delaying final collapse.

Following the failed July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, Himmler assumed extraordinary security powers, for instance imposing “clan custody” on the families of declared traitors or suspects. Early in 1945 he served briefly in a role he had always coveted, as a field commander—commander in chief of Army Group Vistula. This imposture exposed his absolute lack of military gifts. When he ordered his senior staff officer Colonel Eismann to produce a plan for throwing back the Russians, Eismann said, “It was difficult to avoid the reaction that this was a blind man discoursing on colour.”

In the last days of the war, Himmler’s attempts to offer himself as a plenipotentiary to negotiate terms with the Allies caused Hitler to strip him of all his offices shortly before his own suicide. Himmler, in turn, killed himself by biting on a concealed cyanide capsule a few hours after falling into British hands on May 23, 1945.

Peter Longerich, already the author of a distinguished history of the Holocaust, has written a biography that tells us everything that the world could ever need to know about this most terrible, yet dreary, of Hitler’s creatures. Like Robert Gerwath’s book, Longerich’s work contains nothing significantly new, but establishes an authoritative record. Himmler, a wretched and inadequate human being, made himself Hitler’s indispensable enforcer, and successfully reinvented the SS again and again through the years of Nazi mastery.

If the two authors’ explanations of Himmler and Heydrich remain somehow unsatisfactory, this is surely because it is impossible to explain how two such contemptibly small people could encompass such vast horrors. The response of the German people not so much to National Socialism, as to its risibly unimpressive human representatives, seems much more interesting than the men themselves. The manner in which one of the most educated and civilized societies in the world acquiesced in the dominance of gangsters, thugs, and inadequates, possessed of negligible gifts for anything beyond mass murder, will baffle and terrify humanity until the end of time.