Hitler's soldier

In writing a biography of Heinrich Himmler, Peter Longerich sheds light on where the SS chief played a leading role.

Heinrich Himmler (right) (photo credit: Kreismuseum Wewelsburg via Bloomberg)
Heinrich Himmler (right)
(photo credit: Kreismuseum Wewelsburg via Bloomberg)
In 1937 when Heinrich Himmler was in the midst of consolidating his power in the newly formed Third Reich, he set about outlining his objectives for the future of Germany.
“We live in an era of the ultimate conflict with Christianity. It is part of the mission of the SS to give the German people in the next half-century the non- Christian ideological foundations on which to lead and shape their lives.” It will come as a surprise to many readers that Himmler, the man most connected to mass murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, was also a rabid anti-Christian.
Prior to the outbreak of war he dabbled in numerous odd quests to discover the roots of the German people. He even sent an expedition to Tibet to discover what had become of the “stranded ruling class of Atlantis.”
Peter Longerich’s lengthy account of the life of Himmler, SS police chief, Nazi interior minister and Reich commissar for the consolidation of the German nation, is a masterpiece of historical craftsmanship. Longerich, a professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and founder of the Holocaust Research Center at that institution, sets out to write a biography of one man but in so doing writes a biography of many of the institutions in which he played a leading role.
Foremost among the positions that Himmler attained was head of the SS, the Nazi party paramilitary unit. What is extraordinary is the degree to which Himmler not only consolidated under his power all the police forces in Germany, but also was responsible for running the network of concentration and death camps, as well as commanding a reserve army during the waning days of the Third Reich.
Born in 1900 to a prosperous family, he was the son of a Protestant father and Catholic mother. He longed to be a soldier in the Great War but spent the last days of the conflict in training. After the war he tried his hand at studying agriculture.
During this period he evidently became aware of Zionism, reading the first eight volumes of a work entitled Pro Palestine, a publication of a Zionist German organization.
After Adolf Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich, Himmler ingratiated himself with the Nazi party and began to form a worldview.
“He distanced himself more and more from Roman Catholicism. Instead, he became increasingly preoccupied with works that, in his view, dealt with occult phenomena.” Eventually this led him to anti-Semitism, as he became convinced that Germany must return to its pre-Christian, and thus pre-Jewish roots, as described in Roman historian Tacitus’s Germania. He also became convinced that Germany faced a threat in the form of homosexuality. Claiming that the country had four homosexual men, he concluded that “that means, if things stay the same, that our nation is going to be wiped out by this plague.”
As his views became more extreme he devoted himself to setting up a police force that would rid Germany of the perceived evils. The SS and the German police, both of which were eventually combined under his power base, were put at the service of the Nazi state in the 1930s as concentration camps were set up to control and then exterminate the undesirables.
He also set out to amalgamate all the German minorities in neighboring countries under a unified system of planning. After the Nazi conquest of Poland, for instance, he set out to colonize part of the country with German farmers and arm the men who were “fit for action.”
Longerich argues that in 1940 the full scale of the Holocaust had not yet been envisioned.
“Himmler and his henchmen were not yet contemplating the mass killing of Jews with poison gas. At this point the ‘final solution’ they were seeking involved ghettoization and expulsion,” he writes.
As the war dragged on Himmler found himself more and more obsessed with obtaining a military command. Having missed the First World War, and having long had an obsession with being in uniform, an obsession he cultivated as head of the SS, he eventually obtained command of an army in 1944.
“Hitler appointed him commander-in-chief of the Upper Rhine, with powers of an army group commander, his job being first and foremost to construct a sort of defensive front out of the assorted units of the Reserve Army, Volkssturm [paramilitary army], border patrols and police.”
As a commander he failed dismally, but he excelled at suppressing the civilian population, ordering “all males in a building where a white flag [of surrender] is displayed to be shot.”
In the end he was captured by the British and committed suicide by chewing on a cyanide pill. Three British sergeants dug a grave for him and heaved his body into it, leaving it unmarked.
Himmler remains one of the most vilified members of the Third Reich. A radical ideologue, he was also a sort of bureaucrat, who came to wield immense power. This book, based on a massive trove of primary sources, finally sets out the life of this individual in highly readable prose.
The only downside is that those interested primarily in the Holocaust may find that the author does not dwell on Himmler’s responsibility for mass murder, but rather examines many other aspects of his activity during the war.