Himmler was born on October 7, 1900 in Munich, Germany. The son of a pious, authoritarian Roman Catholic schoolmaster who had once been tutor to the Bavarian Crown Prince, Himmler was educated at a secondary school in Landshut. He served as an officer cadet in the Eleventh Bavarian Regiment at the end of World War I, later obtaining a diploma in agriculture from Munich Technical High School where he studied from 1918 to 1922.
After working briefly as a salesman for a firm of fertilizer manufacturers, the young Himmler joined a para-military, nationalist organization and participated in the Munich Beer-Hall putsch of November 1923 as standard-bearer at the side of Ernst Rohm, Secretary to Gregor Strasser and his deputy district leader in Bavaria, Swabia and the Palatinate, he was also acting propaganda leader of the NSDAP from 1925 to 1930.
After marrying Margarete Boden in 1927, Himmler returned to poultry farming for a time but was singularly unsuccessful in the business of raising chickens. In January 1929, he was appointed head of Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the black-shirted Schutzstaffel (SS), at that time a small body of 200 men which was subsequently to become under his leadership an all-embracing empire within the Nazi State.
Elected in 1930 to the Reichstag as Nazi deputy for Weser-Ems, Himmler concentrated on extending SS membership – which reached 52,000 by 1933 – and securing its independence from control by Rohm’s SA, to which it was initially subordinated. He organized the Security Service (SD) under Reinhard Heydrich, originally an ideological intelligence service of the Party, and together the two men ensured that the Nazis consolidated their power over Bavaria in 1933.
In March 1933, Himmler was appointed Munich Police President and shortly afterwards he became Commander of the political police throughout Bavaria. In September 1933, he was made Commander of all political police units outside Prussia and, though formally under Hermann Goering, became head of the Prussian Police and Gestapo on April 20, 1934.
The turning-point in Himmler’s career was his masterminding of the purge of June 30, 1934, which smashed the power of the SA and paved the way for the emergence of the SS as an independent organization charged with “safeguarding the . . . embodiment of the National Socialist idea” and translating the racism of the regime into a dynamic principle of action.
By June 17, 1936, Himmler had successfully completed his bid to win control of the political and criminal police throughout the Third Reich, becoming head of the Gestapo in addition to his position as Reichsfuhrer of the SS. A very able organizer and administrator, meticulous, calculating and efficient, Himmler’s astonishing capacity for work and irrepressible power-lust showed itself in his accumulation of official posts and his perfecting of the methods of organized State terrorism against political and other opponents of the regime.
In 1933, he had set up the first concentration camp in Dachau and in the next few years, with Hitler’s encouragement, greatly extended the range of persons who qualified for internment in the camps. Himmler’s philosophical mysticism, his cranky obsessions with mesmerism, the occult, herbal remedies and homeopathy went hand in hand with a narrow-minded fanatical racialism and commitment to the Aryan’ myth.
In a speech in January 1937, Himmler declared that “there is no more living proof of hereditary and racial laws than in a concentration camp. You find there hydrocephalics, squinters, deformed individuals, semi-Jews: a considerable number of inferior people.” The mission of the German people was “the struggle for the extermination of any sub-humans, all over the world who are in league against Germany, which is the nucleus of the Nordic race; against Germany, nucleus of the German nation, against Germany the custodian of human culture: they mean the existence or non-existence of the white man; and we guide his destiny.”
Himmler’s decisive innovation was to transform the race question from “a negative concept based on matter-of-course anti-Semitism“ into “an organizational task for building up the SS.” Racism was to be safeguarded by the reality of a race society, by the concentration camps presided over by Himmler’s Deaths Head Formations in Germany, just as during World War II the theories of “Aryan” supremacy would be established by the systematic extermination of Jews and Slavs in Poland and Russia.
Himmler’s romantic dream of a race of blue-eyed, blond heroes was to be achieved by cultivating an elite according to “laws of selection” based on criteria of physiognomy, mental and physical tests, character and spirit. His aristocratic concept of leadership aimed at consciously breeding a racially organized order which would combine charismatic authority with bureaucratic discipline. The SS man would represent a new human type--warrior, administrator, “scholar” and leader, all in one – whose messianic mission was to undertake a vast colonization of the East. This synthetic aristocracy, trained in a semi-closed society and superimposed on the Nazi system as a whole, would demonstrate the value of its blood through “creative action” and achievement.
From the outset of his career as Reichsfuhrer of the SS, Himmler had introduced the principle of racial selection and special marriage laws which would ensure the systematic coupling of people of “high value.” His promotion of illegitimacy by establishing the State-registered human stud farm known as Lebensborn, where young girls selected for their perfect Nordic traits could procreate with SS men and their offspring were better cared for than in maternity homes for married mothers, reflected Himmler’s obsession with creating a race of “supermen” by means of breeding. Himmler’s notorious procreation order of October 28, 1939, to the entire SS that “it will be the sublime task of German women and girls of good blood acting not frivolously but from a profound moral seriousness to become mothers to children of soldiers setting off to battle” and his demand that war heroes should be allowed a second marriage expressed the same preoccupation.
The small, diffident man who looked more like a humble bank clerk than Germany’s police dictator, whose pedantic demeanor and “exquisite courtesy” fooled one English observer into stating that “nobody I met in Germany is more normal,” was a curious mixture of bizarre, romantic fantasy and cold, conscienceless efficiency. Described as “a man of quiet unemotional gestures, a man without nerves,” he suffered from psycho-somatic illness, severe headaches and intestinal spasms and almost fainted at the sight of a hundred eastern Jews (including women) being executed for his benefit on the Russian front. Subsequent to this experience, he ordered as a “more humane means” of execution, the use of poison gas in specially constructed chambers disguised as shower rooms.
The petty-bourgeois eccentric whose natural snobbery led him to welcome old aristocratic blood into the SS, revived a web of obsolete religious and cosmological dogmas linking new recruits to their distant Germanic ancestors. He cultivated the “return to the soil” and the dream of German peasant-soldier farms in the East while at the same time proving himself a diabolically skillful organizer of rationalized modern extermination methods.
The supreme technician of totalitarian police power who saw himself as a reincarnation of the pre-Christian Saxon, Henry the Fowler, advancing eastwards against the Slavs – he organized the thousandth anniversary of Henry’s death in 1936 – Himmler perfectly expressed in his own personality the contradictions of National Socialism. For him, the SS was at one and the same time the resurrection of the ancient Order of the Teutonic Knights with himself as grand master, the breeding of a new Herrenvolk aristocracy based on traditional values of honor, obedience, courage and loyalty, and the instrument of a vast experiment in modern racial engineering. Through this privileged caste which was to be the hard core of German imperial dominion in Europe, the nucleus of a new State apparatus would emerge with its tentacles impinging on all spheres of life in the expanded Third Reich. By recruiting “Aryans” of different nationalities into his Waffen-SS Himmler envisaged the creation of “a German Reich of the German Nation” based on the feudal allegiance of its communities to the lordship and protection of the Fuhrer, embodying a Germany that would become the center of a higher political entity.
By the end of the 1930s, the possibility of forging this Greater Germanic Reich of the future came closer to realization as Himmler reached the peak of his power. In October 1939, Hitler appointed him Reichskommissar fur die Festigung des Deutschen Volkstums (Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom) and he was given absolute control over the newly annexed slice of Poland. Responsible for bringing people of German descent back from outside the Reich into its borders, he set out to replace Poles and Jews by Volksdeutsche from the Baltic lands and various outlying parts of Poland. Within a year over a million Poles and 300,000 Jews had been uprooted and driven eastwards. With the characteristic self-pitying and ascetic ethos of self-abnegation that he inculcated into the SS, Himmler informed the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Regiment: “Gentlemen, it is much easier in many cases to go into combat with a company than to suppress an obstructive population of low cultural level, or to carry out executions or to haul away people or to evict crying and hysterical women.”
It was Himmler’s master stroke that he succeeded in indoctrinating the SS with an apocalyptic “idealism” beyond all guilt and responsibility, which rationalized mass murder as a form of martyrdom and harshness towards oneself. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Himmler’s notorious speech on October 4, 1943, to the SS Group Leaders in Poznan:
Following the failure of the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler, Himmler formed a special commission that arrested more than 5,000 suspected and known opponents of the regime. He was subsequently appointed as commander of the Reserve Army, which gave him responsibility for prisoners of war, the Wehrmacht penal system, and the development of Wehrmacht armaments.
In late 1944, after the D-Day invasion, Hitler appointed Himmler commander-in-chief of Army Group Upper Rhine. Hitler subsequently ordered Himmler to create the Volkssturm (“People’s Army”) comprised of all German males aged 16 to 60 in hopes of mobilizing six million men to fight the invading troops.
On January 25, 1945, Himmler was appointed commander of Army Group Vistula tasked with stopping the Soviet Red Army’s offensive. Himmler was unqualified for the post and, when the counter-attack he organized failed to stop the Soviet advance, Hitler held Himmler responsible and replaced him as commander on March 20.
In early 1945, the German war effort was on the verge of collapse and Himmler’s relationship with Hitler had deteriorated. Himmler considered independently negotiating a peace settlement.
Himmler and Hitler met for the last time on April 20, 1945 – Hitler’s birthday – in Berlin, and Himmler swore unswerving loyalty to Hitler. At a military briefing on that day, Hitler stated that he would not leave Berlin, in spite of Soviet advances.
On April 21, 1945, Himmler met with Norbert Masur, a Swedish representative of the World Jewish Congress, to discuss the release of Jewish concentration camp inmates. Himmler falsely claimed in the meeting that the crematoria at camps had been built to deal with the bodies of prisoners who had died in a typhus epidemic. He also claimed very high survival rates for the camps at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, even as these sites were liberated and it became obvious that his figures were false. Nevertheless, as a result of these negotiations, about 20,000 people were released in the White Buses operation.
Classified British intelligence documents from MI5 indicated Himmler sought to win asylum for himself and 200 leading Nazis in the final days of World War II by offering the freedom of 3,500 Jews held in concentration camps in exchange for 5 million Swiss francs deposited in a number Swiss bank account that he said would be transferred to the International Red Cross to provide relief for German civilians. According to the documents, inmates were to be sent to Switzerland in two trainloads. After the first trainload of 1,700 left Theresienstadt, however, Nazi security chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner reported the plan to Hitler, who ordered it halted before the second group of 1,800 Jews from Bergen-Belsen could leave the camp. A Swiss newspaper reported the deal but the MI5 report did not say whether any Nazis received asylum.
On April 23, Himmler met directly with Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross, at the Swedish consulate in Lübeck. Representing himself as the provisional leader of Germany, he claimed that Hitler would be dead within the next few days. Hoping that the British and Americans would fight the Soviets alongside what remained of the Wehrmacht, Himmler asked Bernadotte to inform General Dwight Eisenhower that Germany wished to surrender to the Western Allies, and not to the Soviet Union. Bernadotte asked Himmler to put his proposal in writing, and Himmler obliged.
On the evening of April 28, the BBC broadcast a Reuters news report about Himmler’s attempted negotiations with the western Allies. Hitler had long considered Himmler to be second only to Joseph Goebbels in loyalty and flew into a rage at this apparent betrayal, telling those still with him in the bunker complex that Himmler’s secret negotiations were the worst treachery he had ever known. Hitler subsequently ordered Himmler’s arrest.
Hitler named Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor. Himmler offered himself as second-in-command, but Dönitz rejected Himmler’s overtures and, two days before Germany surrendered, dismissed Himmler from all his posts.
Rejected by his former comrades and hunted by the Allies, Himmler attempted to go into hiding. On May 21, 1945, Himmler and two aides were stopped and detained at a checkpoint set up by former Soviet POWs and was later handed over to the British. Himmler admitted who he was and he was taken to the headquarters of the Second British Army in Lüneburg, where a doctor conducted a medical exam on him. The doctor attempted to examine the inside of Himmler’s mouth, but the prisoner was reluctant to open it and jerked his head away. Himmler then bit into a hidden potassium cyanide pill and collapsed onto the floor. He was dead within 15 minutes. Shortly afterward, Himmler’s body was buried in an unmarked grave near Lüneburg. The grave’s location remains unknown.
Sources: Robert S. Wistrich, Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, (Routledge, 1997).
“Himmler Offered to Free 3,500 Jews to Save Himself, Other Leading Nazis,” JTA, (September 22, 1999).
“Heinrich Himmler,” Wikpedia.