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…

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