|Birth||October 7, 1900 (Munich, Germany)|
|Death||May 23, 1945 (Lüneburg, Germany)|
|Party||National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP)|
Heinrich Luitpold Himmler (October 7, 1900 – May 23, 1945) was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, second only to Adolf Hitler. As Protective Squadron (SS) commander, he came to control the Secret State Police (Gestapo) and was the founder and officer-in-charge of the Nazi concentration camps. Himmler held the final command responsibility for annihilating those deemed unworthy to live by the Nazi regime.
He rose to power on the foundation of his absolute loyalty to Hitler and supported the Nazi vision of Aryan supremacy with an almost mystical zeal. In 1934, after convincing Hitler that Stormtrooper (SA) commander Ernst Röhm was a threat, Himmler orchestrated Röhm's execution in what has become known as the "Night of the Long Knives." He proceeded to create, not only in Germany, but throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, a massive secret police apparatus whose efficiency and ruthlessness is perhaps second to none in the annals of human history. During the war years, he amassed even greater personal power and was widely considered as a candidate to become Hitler's successor.
Himmler is one of the few Nazi leaders on record openly discussing what he called "the extermination of the Jews," which he characterized as a policy known to "every (Nazi) Party member," in a 1943 speech to SS leaders in Poland. Shortly before the end of the World War II, Himmler became convinced of the futility of the war effort and offered to surrender all of Germany to the Allies if he would be spared from prosecution. Later, after Germany had lost the war, Himmler committed suicide with cyanide when he became a captive of the British Army.
Himmler was born in 1900, in Munich, to a Bavarian middle-class family. His father was Joseph Gebhard Himmler, a secondary-school teacher and principal in Munich. His mother was Anna Maria Himmler (maiden name Heyder), a devout Roman Catholic. Heinrich had two brothers. His father and mother were reportedly extraordinarily strict.
Heinrich was named after his godparent, Prince Heinrich of Wittelsbach of the royal family of Bavaria, who was tutored by Heinrich's father. In 1910, he began attending elite secondary schools in Munich and Landshut, where his studies revolved around classical literature. Although he struggled in athletics, he did well with his schoolwork. At his father's urging, Heinrich kept an extensive diary from age 10 until 24. He enjoyed chess, harpsichord, stamp collecting, and gardening.
When World War I began in 1914, Himmler's diaries showed a keen interest in news of the war. He implored his father to help him obtain an officer's candidate position. His parents acquiesced to his wishes, and after his graduation from school in 1918, he began training with the eleventh Bavarian Regiment. Because of his poor athletic skills, he struggled throughout his military training. Later that year, the war ended with Germany's defeat, and the Treaty of Versailles severely limited Germany's military, thus ending Himmler's aspirations of becoming a professional army officer.
From 1919 to 1922, Himmler studied agronomy at Munich Technical Institute. He wrote as a devout Catholic, and said that he would never turn away from the Church. At the same time, he was a member of a fraternity that he felt to be at odds with the tenets of his religion. He also demonstrated a strong interest in folklore and the mythology of the ancient Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe.
Soon, Himmler began to reject many tenets of Christian doctrine and was very critical of sermons given by priests who preached compassion for the weak and the brotherhood of all men. He believed that the supreme Deity had chosen the German people to rule the world, and that this was impossible to achieve by "loving one's enemy" or turning the other cheek. During this time he became obsessed with the idea of becoming a soldier. He wrote that if Germany did not find itself at war soon, he would go to another country to seek battle.
Himmler became increasingly fascinated with ancient German lore and joined various right-wing and anti-semitic paramilitary organizations, including Ernst Röhm's Reichskriegsflagge (“Imperial War Flag”). In November 1923, Himmler took part in Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch under Ernst Röhm.
In 1926, Himmler met his wife in a hotel lobby while escaping a storm. Margarete Siegroth (née Boden) was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, seven years older than Himmler, divorced, and Protestant. She was physically the epitome of the Nordic ideal, although not exceptionally attractive. On July 3, 1928, the two were married and had their only child, Gudrun, on August 8, 1929. Himmler adored his daughter, and called her Püppi (dolly). The couple later adopted a son, in whom Himmler reportedly showed little interest. Himmler, by this time, was far too engulfed in militaristic ideology to serve as a competent husband. Their marriage was difficult and they separated in 1940, without seeking a divorce. He started to become friendly with a staff secretary, Hedwig Potthast, who left her job in 1941, and became his mistress. He fathered two illegitimate children with her—a son, Helge (1942), and a daughter, Nanette Dorothea (1944).
In 1925, Himmler joined the Schutzstaffel (“Protective Echelon”), the elite corps of the Nazi Party, better known as the SS. In 1927, he was appointed deputy commanding general of the SS, a role he took very seriously. Upon the resignation of SS commander Erhard Heiden, Himmler was appointed to lead the SS unit in January 1929. At that time, the SS had only 280 members and was considered an elite battalion of the much larger Stormtroopers (SA).
Under Himmler's leadership, the SS became the vanguard of the Nazi movement, and by 1933, when the Nazi Party gained power in Germany, Himmler's SS numbered 52,000 members. The organization had also developed a mythical ethos based on ancient German lore, as well as strict membership requirements ensuring that all members were of the "Aryan master race." Now holding the rank of commander (Gruppenführer) in the SA, Himmler, along with his deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, began a drive to separate the SS from SA control. He introduced black SS uniforms to replace the SA brown shirts, in the autumn of 1933.
SA leader Ernst Röhm had strong socialistic and populist views and argued that the Stormtroopers should be the sole arms-bearing corp of the state. Himmler and Hermann Göring agreed that the SA now constituted a threat and convinced Hitler that Röhm had to die. Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich developed the legal pretext for the execution of Röhm, and Hitler personally led the SS raid against the SA leaders on June 30, 1934. Röhm and SA Senior Group Leader Edmund Heines were among at least 85 SA leaders put to death in what became known as "The Night of the Long Knives." The next day, the SS became independent from the SA in the Nazi Party, while the SA was soon marginalized in the Nazi power structure, in favor of the SS.
Himmler had become the head of the Munich police soon after Hitler came to power in 1933. Germany's political police forces came under his authority in 1934, when he organized them into the secret-police force, the Gestapo, which had formerly been a branch of the Prussian Police. He also established the Nazi regime's first concentration camp at Dachau, as well as Germany's entire concentration camp complex. (Once the war began, new internment camps not formally classified as "concentration camps" would be established, over which Himmler and the SS would not exercise control.)
Himmler's SS was imbued with a mystical devotion to Hitler and the Nazi vision for the future glory of the Third Reich. Himmler exhorted his officers to revere Germany’s ancient past, telling them: “Just as a tree withers if its roots are removed, so a people fall if they do not honor their ancestors.” On July 1, 1935, Himmler founded an SS institute whose task was to research primeval German culture. He had come to detest Christianity and its "Jewish" Christ, insisting the Germanic ethics even reject such basic values as monogamy. SS recruits were closely examined to ensure their pure Aryan blood and features. Since many of these Aryan men would surely be killed in the coming war, young German women were encouraged to bear their children, even without the benefit of wedlock.
In 1936, Himmler gained further authority when all of Germany's uniformed law enforcement agencies were amalgamated into the new regular German police force (Ordnungspolizei), whose main office became a headquarters branch of the SS. Himmler was accorded the title Chief of the German Police. He also gained ministerial authority over Germany's non-political detective forces (Kripo). With the outbreak of World War II, Himmler formed the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt). The SS was also developing combat divisions which would later become known as the Armed SS (Waffen-SS).
Himmler opened the first of the concentration camps near Dachau on March 22, 1933. Under his direction, the SS-Totenkopfverbände—"Death's Head Formations"—were given the task of organizing and administering Germany's growing network of these centers. Starting in 1941, they also began to run the extermination camps in occupied Poland. The SS, through its intelligence arm, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), was also charged with finding Jews, Gypsies, communists, and other persons of any other cultural, racial, political, or religious affiliation deemed by the Nazis to be either "sub-human" (Untermensch) or in opposition to the regime, and placing them in concentration camps.
Himmler was thus one of the main architects of the Holocaust, using elements of mysticism and a fanatical belief in the racist Nazi ideology to justify the mass murder and genocide of millions of victims. Himmler had similar plans for the Poles and for many other people in Eastern Europe.
Unlike Hitler, Himmler personally inspected several concentration and war camps. In August 1941, he was present at a mass shooting of Jews in Minsk, Belarus. The gore and inefficiency of this massacre led to a search for a more hygienic and organized way to put large numbers of victims to death, which culminated in the use of the gas chambers.
On October 4, 1943, Himmler referred explicitly to the extermination of the Jewish people during a secret SS meeting in the city of Poznań (Posen), Poland. The following are excerpts from a transcription of an audio recording that exists of the speech:
I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, to the extermination of the Jewish people. This is something that is easily said: "The Jewish people will be exterminated," says every Party member, "this is very obvious, it is in our program—elimination of the Jews." …Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when 500 lie there or when 1,000 are lined up. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person—with exceptions due to human weaknesses—had made us tough. This is an honor roll in our history which has never been and never will be put in writing… If the Jews were still part of the German nation, we would most likely arrive now at the state we were at in 1916/17.
Even before the invasion of Russia in 1941, Himmler began preparing his SS for a war of extermination against the forces of "Judeo-Bolshevism." He compared the invasion to the Crusades and mobilized volunteers from Nazi-occupied territories all over Europe. After the invasion more volunteers joined from the former Soviet countries: Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians, attracted to Himmler's vision of a pan-European crusade to defend the traditional values of Old Europe from the "Godless Bolshevik Hordes." As long as they were employed against the hated Soviet troops, many of these recruits from the former Soviet territories performed fanatically, expecting no mercy if captured. When employed against the Western Allies, however, they tended to surrender eagerly. Waffen SS recruitment in Western and Nordic Europe was largely unsuccessful.
In 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's right hand man, was killed in Prague after an attack by Czech special forces. Himmler immediately carried out a reprisal, killing the entire male population in the village of Lidice.
In 1943, Himmler was appointed German Interior Minister. Although his attempts to use this office to gain even more power incurred displeasure from Hitler, the involvement of the German Military Intelligence in the July 20, 1944, plot led the Führer to make Himmler's SD the sole intelligence service of the Third Reich. It also soon emerged that General Friedrich Fromm, Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army, was implicated in the conspiracy. Fromm's removal, coupled with Hitler's great suspicion of the army, led the way to Himmler's appointment as Fromm's successor.
In late 1944, Himmler became Commander-in-Chief of the army group Upper Rhine, which was fighting the oncoming United States 7th Army and the French 1st Army in the Alsace region on the west bank of the Rhine. Himmler held this post until early 1945, when Russian advances led Hitler to place Himmler in command of the newly formed Army Group Vistula on the eastern front. As Himmler had no practical military experience as a field commander, this choice proved catastrophic and he was quickly relieved of his field commands, to be replaced by General Gotthard Heinrici.
As the war was drawing to a German defeat, Himmler was considered by many to be a candidate to succeed Hitler as the Führer of Germany, although it now appears that Hitler never considered Himmler as a successor.
By the spring of 1945, Himmler had lost faith in German victory. He came to the realization that if the Nazi regime was to have any chance of survival, it would need to seek peace with Britain and the United States. Toward this end, he contacted Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden at Lübeck, near the Danish border, and began negotiations.
When Hitler discovered this, Himmler was declared a traitor and stripped of all his titles and ranks the day before Hitler committed suicide. Hitler's successor as Chancellor of Germany was Joseph Goebbels. At the time of Himmler's denunciation, he held the positions of Commanding General of the SS, Chief of the German Police, Realm Commissioner of German Nationhood, Realm Minister of the Interior, Supreme Commander of the People's Storm (Volkssturm), and Supreme Commander of the Home Army.
Unfortunately for Himmler, his negotiations with Count Bernadotte failed. Since he could not return to Berlin, he joined Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who by then was commanding all the German forces within the northern part of the western front, in nearby Plön. Dönitz immediately sent Himmler away, explaining that there was no place for him in the German government.
Himmler next turned to the Americans as a defector, contacting the headquarters of General Dwight Eisenhower and proclaiming he would surrender all of Germany to the Allies if he was spared from prosecution as a Nazi leader. Eisenhower refused to have anything to do with Himmler, who was subsequently declared a major war criminal.
Unwanted by his former colleagues and hunted by the Allies, Himmler wandered for several days near the Danish border, around Flensburg, the capital of the Dönitz government. Attempting to evade arrest, he disguised himself as a sergeant-major of the Secret Military Police, using the name Heinrich Hitzinger, shaving his mustache and donning an eye patch over his left eye, in the hope that he could return to Bavaria. He had equipped himself with a full set of false documents, but someone whose papers were wholly "in order" was so unusual that it aroused the suspicions of a British Army unit in Bremen. He was arrested on May 22, and, in captivity, was soon recognized.
Himmler was scheduled to stand trial with other German leaders as a major war criminal at Nuremberg, but committed suicide in Lüneburg by swallowing a potassium cyanide capsule before interrogation could begin. His last words were "Ich bin Heinrich Himmler!" ("I am Heinrich Himmler!"). Shortly afterward, Himmler's body was secretly buried in an unmarked grave on the Lüneburg Heath. The precise location of Himmler's grave remains unknown.
Heinrich Himmler controlled the Nazi regime's Protective Squad (SS) and the Secret Police (Gestapo) making him second only to Adolf Hitler in power, in the Nazi hierarchy. Besides using the infamous death squads to round up, murder, and oppress people, Himmler is also remembered as the founder and commander of the infamous Nazi concentration camps, where he held final responsibility for annihilating "subhumans"—actually the Jews, political prisoners, ethnic minorities, and those who did not fit the Aryan mold—who were deemed unworthy to live.
Historians are divided on the psychology, motives, and influences that drove Himmler. Many see him as a willing tool of Hitler, carrying Hitler's views to their logical conclusion. A key issue in understanding Himmler is to what extent he was a primary instigator and developer of anti-semitism and racial murder in Nazi Germany—and not totally within Hitler's control—and to what extent he was simply the executor of Hitler's direct orders. A related issue is whether antisemitism and racism were primary motives for him, as opposed to self-aggrandizement and the accumulation of power.
Himmler to some extent answered this himself, once saying that if Hitler were to tell him to shoot his mother, he would do it and "be proud of the Führer's confidence." This unconditional loyalty was surely one of the driving forces behind Himmler's unlikely career.
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