The ascent (if that’s the right word) of Heinrich Himmler to become the chief architect of Nazi genocide is one of the strangest strands of the regime’s story. There have been several studies of this enigmatic man, but Peter Longerich’s massive biography, grounded in exhaustive study of the primary sources, is now the standard work and must stand alongside Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, Ulrich Herbert’s Best and Robert Gerwarth’s Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich as one of the landmark Nazi biographies. As the author of a celebrated study of the Holocaust, Longerich is better able than his predecessors to situate Himmler within the vast machinery of genocide. And he brings to his task a gift for capturing those mannerisms that are the intimate markers of personality.
There was nothing obvious or predictable about Himmler’s rise to absolute power over the life and death of millions. He played no role in the strategising of the party before the seizure of power in 1933 and was not one of Hitler’s intimates. He lacked the acerbic charisma of Goebbels, the suave intelligence of Speer and the unforced bonhomie of Goering. His attempts to make a success of himself outside the party were a miserable failure. Despite his diploma in agronomy, his efforts at farming were a resounding flop (the hens refused to lay and the trees kept dying). His early ventures into regional party administration were not a success. He was physically unprepossessing. The pretentious paramilitary haircut could not compensate for the pudgy, unathletic body and the drastically receding chin – a matter of some consequence in a milieu obsessed with racial phenotypes. ‘Why have you got your hand in front of your face?’ his fiancée asked of a photo he sent her around 1929. ‘Did you want to cover up your chin?’
Most important, the young Himmler was not well liked. He did not impress his fellow fraternity students at the Technical University in Munich, who repeatedly refused, despite his importuning, to elect him Fuchsmajor, an office assigned to a respected senior student entrusting him with overseeing the recruitment of new members. Even his Bavarian fellow Nazis loathed him. They were repelled by his attention-seeking and by the hectoring, pompous criticisms he enjoyed parcelling out to his peers. Fortunately for Himmler, none of this mattered. In the NSDAP, what counted were not plaudits from the provinces, but the support of the leadership, and particularly of the Führer himself. And this he was assiduous in cultivating. Though he never became close to the dictator, he acquired a reputation as Hitler’s most dedicated and ruthless servant. Whereas the SA possessed a powerful and charismatic leader of its own in Ernst Röhm, Himmler fashioned the SS (originally a small offshoot of the much larger SA) into an instrument of the Führer’s will alone.
His chance to demonstrate the unconditional quality of his loyalty came in the summer of 1934, when he authorised the murders of Röhm and the dissident Nazi Gregor Strasser, both of whom had helped in the mid-1920s to lay the foundations of his career in the party. He manoeuvred his way around various sceptical bigwigs to secure an ever larger share of power over the policing agencies of the German federal states, before amalgamating them into a Reich-wide security apparatus. Goering belatedly recognised the threat Himmler posed, but his attempts to reimpose control over him were a failure. Himmler didn’t win every power struggle he entered into, but he won enough to bypass all his rivals, including army commanders. From the summer of 1941, as the Nazi empire expanded eastwards, his police apparatus gradually infiltrated military and civil chains of command, unleashing a wave of exterminatory violence unique in world history.
As Longerich shows, the mature SS of the later 1930s and 1940s became a monument to the grotesque personality of its leader. The pseudo-military structure reflected the attitudes and tone of the milieu in which Himmler had spent his early twenties in Bavaria. The clerical black garb spoke to the mysticism of a man who had forsaken Catholicism to embrace a raft of esoteric post-Christian fads. In the summer of 1940 he instructed the head of the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), a research organisation within the SS, to investigate references to thunderbolts in Germanic myths, on the grounds that these were surely evidence that the ancient Germans had possessed ‘a highly developed weapon’ requiring ‘an extraordinary knowledge of electricity’. The Ahnenerbe spent thousands of man-hours compiling a massive file on the witch trials of early modern Germany because Himmler believed witches to be the custodians of an occult ‘old knowledge’ that might still be recoverable. An expedition was dispatched to Tibet to confirm the postulations of ‘cosmic ice theory’ (according to which ice was the basic substance of all cosmic processes), another of his hobby horses. From the desk of the Reichsführer-SS poured a stream of letters on the correct preparation and ageing of mead, a suitable design for mineral-water bottles, the nutritional potential of seaweed, the baking of crispbreads using ‘a special form of algae’ and so on. As late as November 1944, Himmler was urging SS boffins to look into the possibility that the remains of meteors might be lodged inside Europe’s highest mountains.
To an extraordinary degree, the proclivities of the leader shaped the public life of the organisation. Even as a very young man, Himmler had demonstrated a need to police and control the lives of others. After his political ascent, this trait was given free reign. Letters went out to SS men across the Reich ordering them to father children, to stop using swearwords, to have their potential brides inspected for childbearing capacities by gynaecologists, to stop being ‘henpecked’ by their wives. One man was told to check his mother-in-law into a lunatic asylum, another to go on a diet: ‘I regard it as unheard of that a man of 36 is so phlegmatic, fat and complacent. It is in your interests to change this as quickly as possible.’
There was a streak of punitive malice in many of these communications. In the summer of 1944, furious at the news that some SS and police leaders in Russia were failing to treat pest control as seriously as they should, Himmler proposed that a Fly and Gnat Room should be established to discipline delinquents:
All SS leaders and police who are either uninterested in the nuisance created by flies and gnats or even dismiss it with a superior smile will find they will be taken into care there for some considerable time, during which they will have the opportunity to study the question of flies and gnats from a theoretical angle as well as to enjoy the attentions of the hundreds and thousands of flies and gnats in the room itself.
Particularly striking is the rabidity of Himmler’s homophobia. In a speech to SS functionaries in February 1937, he estimated that there were two million male homosexuals in Germany. If one added to that the two million ‘healthy’ men killed in the First World War, that made four million males who were in effect incapable of reproducing. ‘If things stay the same,’ he warned, ‘our nation is going to be wiped out by this plague.’ Homosexuality unsettled Himmler’s sense of his own identity, in part, Longerich suggests, because he found it difficult to repress a latent identification with homosexual men. The idea of homoeroticism infiltrating the paramilitary, pseudo-clerical and intensely homosocial environment of the SS filled the Reichsführer with frissons of pious horror.
Longerich is especially informative, as one might expect, on Himmler’s role in the destruction of European Jewry. Direct extermination orders from the Reichsführer himself are rare, but Longerich shows that his whistle-stop inspection tours of the eastern occupied areas were followed again and again by waves of mass murder that engulfed first men, then women and children. On 14 March 1942, for example, Himmler visited Lublin for discussions with Odilo Globocnik, the leading ideologue of Jewish policy in the General Government of Poland. The ‘clearance’ of the Lublin ghetto began two days later. Many were shot in the ghetto itself, a few thousand were selected for forced labour, and the rest, numbering about thirty thousand, were sent to be murdered at the extermination facility in Belzec. The pattern was reproduced across Poland, the Baltic states, Belorussia, central Russia and the Ukraine.
Longerich dispatches the myth, widely trafficked in television documentaries, that Himmler was nauseated by the sight of open-pit executions. According to the testimony of a police lieutenant in charge of one of the killing squads in Minsk in November 1941, he assumed the pose of an attentive and businesslike observer: ‘After the first salvo Himmler came right up to me and looked personally into the ditch, remarking that there was still someone alive. He said to me: “Lieutenant, shoot that one!”’
This performance of detachment corresponded to one of Himmler’s most perverse convictions, namely that it was possible, while overseeing the slaying of blameless children, women and men, to remain ‘decent’ (anständig). ‘Decency’ was an abiding theme of his letters and speeches. He attributed the stomach pains that plagued him to his untiring efforts to be ‘good and decent’. The ‘decency’ of the SS manifested itself in the priggish honour code that supposedly regulated the daily life of its members, who were informed, for example, that ‘an SS man buys nothing he cannot pay for’ and ‘never buys anything in instalments’, but it also applied to the administration of mass murder, which was to be implemented under the most scrupulous discipline. The idea that SS or police personnel might be stealing watches or jewellery from the people they were killing drove Himmler into a fury. A ‘decent’ killer did his work without relish or the prospect of personal advantage. This, Himmler declared in his notorious ‘Posen speech’ of 1943, was the SS’s greatest achievement: to have seen thousands of corpses ‘lying side by side’, ‘to have coped with this and – except for cases of human weakness – to have remained decent’. That is why the prim little face beneath the peaked cap had to remain unmoved as the bodies tumbled into the pit at Minsk.
Between 23 April and 2 May 1942, a series of meetings, some very protracted, took place between Himmler and his deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, and between Himmler and Hitler. Although little is known of what exactly was said, Longerich concludes from the timing and intensity of these summit discussions that they ratified the transition from local and regional mass killings to a Europe-wide extermination programme. After the assassination of Heydrich at the end of May 1942, the pace of the killing increased even further. Under the auspices of Operation Reinhard, named for Heydrich and pushed forward with vengeful determination by Himmler, two million people, most of them Jews, perished at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
Staggering as these concentrated assaults on the lives of millions are, Longerich cautions against the presumption that the Holocaust unfolded from a single ‘fundamental decision’. His account suggests rather a sliding scale of expanding and increasingly lethal violence. The Holocaust was not, he argues, the foreordained and defining objective of the SS programme for the occupied eastern zones. It was simply the preliminary phase of an even bigger plan, unrealised at the end of the war, that would ultimately have involved the extermination of tens of millions of Slavs. We get a glimpse of this vision in Himmler’s announcement in July 1943 that vast ‘dead zones’ would be created in northern Ukraine and ‘Russia-Centre’, from which all Slavs of all ages were to be removed for concentration and forced labour. Any that remained would be classed as bandits and shot on sight. The lands that had been their home would become immense plantations that would supply the German Reich with food and other products – Himmler earmarked some areas for the planting of kok-saghyz, a rubber-like plant that was another of his hobby horses.
Even as the regime hurtled towards the abyss, Himmler’s power continued to soar. As head of the Waffen-SS he had privileged access to military matériel; by 1943 he was interior minister and in charge of a growing armaments manufacturing apparatus. But this expansion of his activities also revealed his limitations. Himmler was and remained a master at the deployment of terror against defenceless civilians abroad and at home, but his ventures into armaments produced a litter of white elephants. His massive kok-saghyz plantations took valuable arable land out of food production without ever producing a viable source of ‘plant-based rubber’. The shale oil refineries and peat-based fuel extraction plants were a costly irrelevance. His success in securing a foothold in Luftwaffe armaments production came too late to offset the overwhelming air superiority of the Allies. As the commander of an army group from January 1945 – an appointment that came as the fulfilment of a boyhood dream – he was an abject failure (Hitler sacked him after only two months).
Yet even in the face of impending ruin, Himmler’s self-belief remained strong. In the final phase of the war, he began planning for the peace ahead. In the spring of 1945, orders went out to the camps to end the shooting of Jewish inmates. Communicating through his former personal physician, Felix Kersten, now in Stockholm, Himmler informed the World Jewish Congress that he was willing to release ten thousand Jewish prisoners to Sweden or Switzerland. A similar offer was made to Count Folke Bernadotte, vice president of the Swedish Red Cross. When Bernadotte met Himmler in February and March 1945, he found the Reichsführer courteous, genial and keen to leave a good impression. Himmler was aware, he told Bernadotte, that the world regarded him as ‘brutal’. But the reality was exactly the contrary: he loathed brutality. An even more surreal encounter took place on 19 April, when Himmler met Norbert Masur, an agent of the World Jewish Congress, to discuss transfers of prisoners. When the conversation touched on the regime’s treatment of the Jews, Himmler denied that there had been any mass killings. His own preference, he claimed, had always been for a policy of emigration, which he had supported ‘in conjunction with Jewish-American organisations’. Yes, a number of Jews had died during the war with Bolshevik Russia, but this was hardly to be avoided, given the intensity of the conflict. As for the camps, these were harsh but fair – one needed only look at Auschwitz, where 150,000 Jews still survived in good health.
How Himmler expected his interlocutor to believe these claims is anybody’s guess. The Allied press was already full of photos of the liberated camps and detailed reports on the gas chambers at the extermination facilities. Himmler clearly still hoped to reinvent himself as the honest broker and ‘decent fellow’ who might even be welcomed into an advisory function of some kind by the western Allies. The Reichsführer-SS remained, as Longerich aptly puts it, ‘versatile’.
With the Third Reich collapsing around him, Himmler embarked on a last bizarre adventure. Slipping into mufti and wearing an eye patch, he made his way with a small incognito entourage in the direction of Meinstedt in Lower Saxony, where he was arrested by British troops, to whom he introduced himself, using a forged paybook, as Sergeant Heinrich Hitzinger of the Wehrmacht. He acknowledged his true identity a few days later, still apparently confident that he could talk his way out of trouble. When it became clear in the course of a medical examination that an attempt would be made to remove the phial of cyanide concealed between his teeth, he pulled his head away, bit open the phial, swallowed the poison and was dead within 15 minutes.
The biographical gaze, when it is directed at the perpetrators of great evil, sometimes has an attenuating effect on our hostility to the subject – either because mitigating circumstances are brought to light, or simply because the narrative of childhood and youth confronts us with the person who was not yet guilty of the adult’s misdeeds. This effect is strikingly absent in Longerich’s account. There was no tyrannical paterfamilias, no scenario of childhood neglect or abuse to explain the inhumanity of the adult. And the controlling, pedantic goody-two-shoes of the youthful diaries is too obviously the larval form of the mature Reichsführer-SS. Nor is there any evidence that the slightest beam of moral insight into his own villainy ever penetrated Himmler’s awareness. He was like those malefactors in Dante’s hell who must remain there for ever, precisely because they are completely unable to understand why they are there.
How much explanatory historical weight can Longerich’s subtle reconstruction of this personality carry? One of the temptations of biography is to anchor events in the hidden mechanisms of a sovereign self. Longerich avoids this by embedding the young Himmler in the textures of a specific historical moment. In the narrowness of his horizons, he reflected the inwardness of a conservative Catholic Bavarian environment that had been on the cultural defensive for several generations. He was one of many thousands of young Germans drawn to the paramilitary networks, a perfervid milieu in which the First World War seemed never to have ended. In exchanging Christianity for a hodgepodge of pseudo-science and new-age esoterica, Himmler followed a well-trodden path. Finally, as Michael Wildt showed in An Uncompromising Generation, Himmler shared with part of his age-cohort an ambition to achieve total self-mastery in the name of the nation defeated in 1918, to be hard, ‘rational’, immune to pity and self-doubt. Himmler the man gradually fades into the background in the second half of Longerich’s book, as his story is engulfed in the enormity of the criminality he set in train. And this is perhaps appropriate, because the truly extraordinary aspect of his story is not the wickedness of the persona at its centre, but the unique political and social constellation that gave such a man the resources to turn his fantasies into other people’s real-life nightmares.