Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, President of the Reichstag, Prime Minister of Prussia and, as Hitler's designated successor, the second man in the Third Reich, Hermann Goering was born in Rosenheim on January 12, 1893.
The son of a judge who had been sent by Bismarck to South-West Africa as the first Resident Minister Plenipotentiary, Goering entered the army in 1914 as an Infantry Lieutenant, before being transferred to the air force as a combat pilot. The last Commander in 1918 of the Richthofen Fighter Squadron, Goering distinguished himself as an air ace, credited with shooting down twenty-two Allied aircraft. Awarded the Pour le Merite and the Iron Cross (First Class), he ended the war with the romantic aura of a much decorated pilot and war hero. After World War I he was employed as a showflier and pilot in Denmark and Sweden, where he met his first wife, Baroness Karin von Fock-Kantzow, whom he married in Munich in February 1922.
Goering's aristocratic background and his prestige as a war hero made him a prize recruit to the infant Nazi Party and Hitler appointed him to command the SA Brownshirts in December 1922. Nazism offered the swashbuckling Goering the promise of action, adventure, comradeship and an outlet for his unreflective, elemental hunger for power.
In 1923 he took part in the Munich Beer-Hall putsch, in which he was seriously wounded and forced to flee from Germany for four years until a general amnesty was declared. He escaped to Austria, Italy and then Sweden, was admitted to a mental hospital and, in September 1925, to an asylum for dangerous inmates, becoming a morphine addict in the course of his extended recovery.
Returning to Germany in 1927, he rejoined the NSDAP and was elected as one of its first deputies to the Reichstag a year later. During the next five years Goering played a major part in smoothing Hitler's road to power, using his contacts with conservative circles, big business and army officers to reconcile them to the Nazi Party and orchestrating the electoral triumph of 31 July 1932 which brought him the Presidency of the Reichstag.
Following Hitler's appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933, Goering was made Prussian Minister of the Interior, Commander-in-Chief of the Prussian Police and Gestapo and Commissioner for Aviation. As the creator of the secret police, Goering, together with Himmler (q.v.) and Heydrich (q.v.), set up the early concentration camps for political opponents, showing formidable energy in terrorizing and crushing all resistance.
Under the pretext of a threatened communist coup, Prussia was “cleansed” and hundreds of officers and thousands of ordinary policemen were purged, being replaced from the great reservoir of SA and SS men who took over the policing of Berlin. Goering exploited the Reichstag fire — which many suspected that he had engineered — to implement a series of emergency decrees that destroyed the last remnants of civil rights in Germany, to imprison communists and Social Democrats and ban the left-wing press. He directed operations during the Blood Purge, which eliminated his rival Ernst Rohm and other SA leaders on 30 June 1934.
On 1 March 1935 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force and, with Udet and Milch, was responsible for organizing the rapid build-up of the aircraft industry and training of pilots. In 1936 his powers were further extended by his appointment as Plenipotentiary for the implementation of the Four Year Plan, which gave him virtually dictatorial controls to direct the German economy. The creation of the state-owned Hermann Goering Works in 1937, a gigantic industrial nexus which employed 700,000 workers and amassed a capital of 400 million marks, enabled him to accumulate a huge fortune.
Goering used his position to indulge in ostentatious luxury, living in a palace in Berlin and building a hunting mansion named after his first wife Karin (she had died of tuberculosis in 1931) where he organized feasts, state hunts, showed off his stolen art treasures and uninhibitedly pursued his extravagant tastes. Changing uniforms and suits five times a day, affecting an archaic Germanic style of hunting dress (replete with green leather jackets, medieval peasant hats and boar spears), flaunting his medals and jewelry, Goering's transparent enjoyment of the trappings of power, his debauches and bribe-taking, gradually corrupted his judgment. The "Iron Knight," a curious mixture of condottiere and sybarite, "the last Renaissance man" as he liked to style himself with characteristic egomania, increasingly confused theatrical effect with real power. Nevertheless, he remained genuinely popular with the German masses who regarded him as manly, honest and more accessible than the Fuhrer, mistaking his extrovert bluster and vitality for human warmth.
Goering's cunning, brutality and ambition were displayed in the cabal he engineered against the two leading army Generals, von Fritsch and von Blomberg, whom he helped to bring down in February 1938, in the misplaced hope that he would step into their shoes. Following the Crystal Night [Kristallnacht] pogrom of 9 November 1938, it was Goering who fined the German Jewish community a billion marks and ordered the elimination of Jews from the German economy, the "Aryanization" of their property and businesses, and their exclusion from schools, resorts, parks, forests, etc. On 12 November 1938 he warned of a "final reckoning with the Jews" should Germany come into conflict with a foreign power. It was also Goering who instructed Heydrich on 31 July 1941 to "carry out all preparations with regard to . . . a general solution [Gesamtlosung] of the Jewish question in those territories of Europe which are under German influence.. . ."
Goering identified with Hitler's territorial aspirations, playing a key role in bringing about the Anschluss in 1938 and the bludgeoning of the Czechs into submission, though he preferred to dictate a new order in Europe by "diplomatic" means rather than through a general European war. Appointed Reich Council Chairman for National Defence on 30 August 1939 and officially designated as Hitler's successor on 1 September, Goering directed the Luftwaffe campaigns against Poland and France, and on 19 June 1940 was promoted to Reich Marshal.
In August 1940 he confidently threw himself into the great offensive against Great Britain, Operation Eagle, convinced that he would drive the RAF from the skies and secure the surrender of the British by means of the Luftwaffe alone. Goering, however, lost control of the Battle of Britain and made a fatal, tactical error when he switched to massive night bombings of London on 7 September 1940 just when British fighter defences were reeling from losses in the air and on the ground. This move saved the RAF sector control stations from destruction and gave the British fighter defences precious time to recover. The failure of the Luftwaffe (which Hitler never forgave) caused the abandonment of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of England, and began the political eclipse of Goering. Further failures of the Luftwaffe on the Russian front and its inability to defend Germany itself from Allied bombing attacks underlined Goering's incompetence as its supreme commander. Technical research was run down completely, not surprisingly with a Commander-in-Chief who prized personal heroism above scientific know-how and whose idea of dignified combat was ramming enemy aircraft.
Goering rapidly sank into lethargy and a world of illusions, expressly forbidding General Galland to report that enemy fighters were accompanying bomber squadrons deeper and deeper into German territory in 1943. By this time Goering had become a bloated shadow of his former self, discredited, isolated and increasingly despised by Hitler who blamed him for Germany's defeats. Undermined by Bormann's intrigues, overtaken in influence by Himmler, Goebbels and Speer, mentally humiliated by his servile dependence on the Fuhrer, Goering's personality began to disintegrate. When Hitler declared that he would remain in the Berlin bunker to the end, Goering, who had already left for Bavaria, misinterpreted this as an abdication and requested that he be allowed to take over at once; he was ignominiously dismissed from all his posts, expelled from the Party and arrested. Shortly afterwards, on 9 May 1945, Goering was captured by forces of the American Seventh Army and, to his great surprise, put on trial at Nuremberg in 1946.
During his trial Goering, who had slimmed in captivity and had been taken off drugs, defended himself with aggressive vigour and skill, frequently outwitting the prosecuting counsel. With Hitler dead, he stood out among the defendants as the dominating personality, dictating attitudes to other prisoners in the dock and adopting a pose of self-conscious heroism motivated by the belief that he would be immortalized as a German martyr. Nevertheless, Goering failed to convince the judges, who found him guilty on all four counts: of conspiracy to wage war, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. No mitigating circumstances were found and Goering was sentenced to death by hanging. On 15 October 1946, two hours before his execution was due to take place, Goering committed suicide in his Nuremberg cell, taking a capsule of poison that he had succeeded in hiding from his guards during his captivity.
Source: Wistrich, Robert S. Who's Who in Nazi Germany, Routledge, 1997. USHMM photo.