Heinrich Himmler was born near Munich, Germany, on 7th October, 1900. The son of a Catholic schoolmaster, he was educated at the Landshut High School. During the First World War Himmler joined the 11th Bavarian Regiment and by the end of the conflict he had become an officer cadet in the German Army.
After the war he studied at Munich Technical College and obtained a diploma in agriculture. He was active in the Freikorps and joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). In November 1923 he served alongside Ernst Roehm during the Munich Putsch. It has been claimed that his main claim to fame was that he carried the Reich War Flag at the Munich War Ministry.
Himmler served as secretary to Gregor Strasser and was a member of the socialist wing of the party. During this period he met Ernst Hanfstaengel who later wrote about him in his book, Hitler: The Missing Years (1957): "He had a pale, round, expressionless face, almost Mongolian, and a completely inoffensive air. Nor in his early years did I ever hear him advocate the race theories of what he was to become the most notorious executive. He studied to become a veterinary surgeon, although I doubt if he had ever become fully qualified. It was probably only part of the course he had taken as an agricultural administrator, but, for all I know, treating defenceless animals may have tended to develop that indifference to suffering which was to become his most frightening characteristic."
In 1925 he became Gauleiter (district leader) in Lower Bavaria and in 1926 in Upper Bavaria. He also served as propaganda leader of the Nazi Party. As Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "In 1928 he married the daughter of a West Prussian landowner, Margarete Boden, who was seven years his senior. His wife awakened his interest in homeopathy, mesmerism, and herbalism. Meanwhile, neglecting his own family, he fathered several illegitimate."
In 1928 Himmler became a poultry farmer near Munich. Himmler was a devout follower of Adolf Hitler and believed that he was the Messiah that was destined to lead Germany to greatness. Hitler, who was always vulnerable to flattery, decided in January, 1929, that Himmler should become the new leader of his personal bodyguard, the Schutzstaffel (SS). At that time it consisted of 300 men. Himmler personally vetted all applicants to make sure that all were good "Aryan" types. Himmler later remembered that: "In those days we assembled the most magnificent Aryan manhood in the SS-Verfugungstruppe. We even turned down a man if he had one tooth filled." By the time the Nazi Party gained power in 1933 Himmler's SS had grown to a strength of 52,000.
Karl Wolff met Himmler for the first time at the Reich Leadership School in Munich in May 1932. "My first impression of Himmler was a great disappointment. I was considerably taller than him and had already been awarded the Iron Cross first and second class, and I had been an officer in one of the best and oldest regiments of the German Army - the Hessian Lifeguard Infantry Regiment in Darmstadt. On the other hand Himmler had no war decorations and had nothing in common with the front soldier; his whole bearing was rather sly and unmilitary, but he was very well read and tried to engage our interest with his acquired knowledge, and to enthuse us with the tasks of the SS." On 15th June 1933, Himmler appointed Wolff as his Chief of Staff. It has been claimed that the reason for this was that Himmler wanted to please senior officers in the German Army. Others have suggested that it was his links with bankers and industrialists that was important.
Himmler was subordinate to the Sturm Abteilung (SA). This brought him into conflict with the Ernst Roehm. Himmler continued to build up his power base by establishing his own secret civilian security organization, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and placed Reinhard Heydrich at its head. Erich Fromm, in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), depicts Himmler as "an example of the sadistic authoritarian who developed a passion for unlimited control over others."
On 27th February, 1933, someone set fire to the Reichstag. Several people were arrested including a leading, Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern, the international communist organization. Dimitrov was eventually acquitted but a young man from the Netherlands, Marianus van der Lubbe, was eventually executed for the crime. As a teenager Lubbe had been a communist and Hermann Goering used this information to claim that the Reichstag Fire was part of a KPD plot to overthrow the government.
Adolf Hitler gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". KPD candidates in the election were arrested and Goering announced that the Nazi Party planned "to exterminate" German communists. Thousands of members of the Social Democrat Party and KPD were arrested and sent to Germany's first concentration camp at Dachau, a village a few miles from Munich. Himmler was placed in charge of the operation, whereas Theodor Eicke became commandant of the first camp and eventually took overall control of the system.
Originally called re-education centres the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) soon began describing them as concentration camps. They were called this because they were "concentrating" the enemy into a restricted area. Hitler argued that the camps were modeled on those used by the British during the Boer War. On 20th April, 1934, Herman Goering, the minister of the interior, appointed Himmler as acting chief of the Gestapo in Prussia.
With the agreement of Adolf Hitler, Himmler expanded the size of the SS. Himmler personally vetted all applicants to make sure that all were good "Aryan" types. By the time the Nazi Party gained power in 1933 Himmler's SS had grown to a strength of 52,000. He was also made head of all German political police outside Prussia, where Hermann Goering was the minister of the interior.
In May 1933, Himmler met Oswald Pohl and told him he was looking for an officer to take over the administrative and financial side of the SS. At first Pohl rejected the offer as he was happy in the navy and headed a staff of over 500 hundred men at Kiel. Pohl later wrote: "Himmler became very insistent and wrote me one letter after another urging that I take over the administrative organisation of the SS. In December 1933 and January 1934, he invited me to Berlin and Munich, and showed me the whole SS administrative set-up and the many complex problems that were involved. It was only in February 1934, after I saw what a big job was in store for me, that I finally accepted."
Pohl joined Himmler's personal staff as chief of the administrative section. "When I took over my office, the SS was a comparatively small organisation, like a union, with a group here and there in various towns and cities. I started by installing administrative commands in various key cities, and I selected personnel who would be fit for their jobs. I inaugurated schools that taught these administrative officials for a few weeks before they were dispatched to take over my branch offices all over Germany. I achieved a sound administration in the SS, with orderly bookkeeping and financial sections."
Adrian Weale, the author of The SS: A New History (2010): "Before January 1933, much of the SS's funding had come from membership dues, with occasional subsidies from party headquarters for special projects, but as it began to take over state functions, it increasingly became eligible for state funding. It was in this area that Pohl really made his mark. Despite the supposedly revolutionary nature of the National Socialist government, expenditure still had to be justified, budgets formulated and fiscal probity maintained to the satisfaction of both the civil service and the party. Pohl, drawing on his long experience in naval administration, succeeded in achieving all of this. In addition, he established relationships between his office and the various departments and ministries on whom the SS depended for its budget: the party treasury, the Finance Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior; the Army Ministry and so forth."
By 1934 Adolf Hitler appeared to have complete control over Germany, but like most dictators, he constantly feared that he might be ousted by others who wanted his power. To protect himself from a possible coup, Hitler used the tactic of divide and rule and encouraged other leaders such as Himmler, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and Ernst Roehm to compete with each other for senior positions.
Albert Speer pointed out in his book, Inside the Third Reich (1970): "After 1933 there quickly formed various rival factions that held divergent views, spied on each other, and held each other in contempt. A mixture of scorn and dislike became the prevailing mood within the party. Each new dignitary rapidly gathered a circle of intimates around him. Thus Himmler associated almost exclusively with his SS following, from whom he could count on unqualified respect... As an intellectual Goebbels looked down on the crude philistines of the leading group in Munich, who for their part made fun of the conceited academic's literary ambitions. Goering considered neither the Munich philistines nor Goebbels sufficiently aristocratic for him and therefore avoided all social relations with them; whereas Himmler, filled with the elitist missionary zeal of the SS felt far superior to all the others. "
One of the consequences of this policy was that these men developed a dislike for each other. Roehm was particularly hated because as leader of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) he had tremendous power and had the potential to remove any one of his competitors. Himmler asked Reinhard Heydrich to assemble a dossier on Roehm. Heydrich, who also feared him, manufactured evidence that suggested that Roehm had been paid 12 million marks by the French to overthrow Hitler.
Hitler liked Ernst Roehm and initially refused to believe the dossier provided by Heydrich. Roehm had been one of his first supporters and, without his ability to obtain army funds in the early days of the movement, it is unlikely that the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA under Roehm's leadership had also played a vital role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933. However, Hitler had his own reasons for wanting Roehm removed. Powerful supporters of Hitler had been complaining about Roehm for some time. Generals were afraid that the Sturm Abteilung (SA), a force of over 3 million men, would absorb the much smaller German Army into its ranks and Roehm would become its overall leader.
Industrialists such as Albert Voegler, Gustav Krupp, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen and Emile Kirdorf, who had provided the funds for the Nazi victory, were unhappy with Roehm's socialistic views on the economy and his claims that the real revolution had still to take place. Many people in the party also disapproved of the fact that Roehm and many other leaders of the SA were homosexuals.
Adolf Hitler was also aware that Roehm and the SA had the power to remove him. Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler played on this fear by constantly feeding him with new information on Roehm's proposed coup. Their masterstroke was to claim that Gregor Strasser, whom Hitler hated, was part of the planned conspiracy against him. With this news Hitler ordered all the SA leaders to attend a meeting in the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiesse.
Himmler along with his loyal assistants, Reinhard Heydrich, Kurt Daluege and Walter Schellenberg, drew up a list of people outside the SA that they wanted killed. The list included Gregor Strasser, Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as chancellor, and Gustav von Kahr, who crushed the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Louis L. Snyder argues: "Hitler later alleged that his trusted friend Roehm had entered a conspiracy to take over political power. The Führer was told, possibly by one of Roehm's jealous colleagues, that Roehm intended to use the SA to bring a socialist state into existence... On June, 1934... Hitler came to his final decision to eliminate the socialist element in the party. A list of hundreds of victims was prepared." This became known as the Night of the Long Knives.
On 29th June, 1934. Hitler, accompanied by the Schutzstaffel (SS), arrived at Bad Wiesse, where he personally arrested Ernst Roehm. During the next 24 hours 200 other senior SA officers were arrested on the way to the meeting. Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, witnessed what happened: "Hitler entered Roehm's bedroom alone with a whip in his hand. Behind him were two detectives with pistols at the ready. He spat out the words; Roehm, you are under arrest. Roehm's doctor comes out of a room and to our surprise he has his wife with him. I hear Lutze putting in a good word for him with Hitler. Then Hitler walks up to him, greets him, shakes hand with his wife and asks them to leave the hotel, it isn't a pleasant place for them to stay in, that day. Now the bus arrives. Quickly, the SA leaders are collected from the laundry room and walk past Roehm under police guard. Roehm looks up from his coffee sadly and waves to them in a melancholy way. At last Roehm too is led from the hotel. He walks past Hitler with his head bowed, completely apathetic."
Three weeks after the Night of the Long Knives the Schutzstaffel (SS) was given independent status and no longer under the control of the SA. As a result of this purge the SS was now the principal instrument of internal rule in Germany. Now that Himmler was leader of his own independent SS, he could expand the organization. By the end of 1934 it had 400,000 members. Eventually, Himmler came to the conclusion that the mass recruitment which had taken place was very damaging to the elite status of the SS and so in 1935 over 200,000 SS men were discharged on moral, racial and physical grounds. Himmler now introduced a complex five year enrolment procedure. Having been declared physically and racially suitable for SS membership, an eighteen-year-old youth became an applicant (bewerber). The following year he became a candidate (anwärter). At the end of his probationary period he swore the oath of alliance to Adolf Hitler. At twenty-one he became liable for military service which lasted two years. It was only on his return to civilian life that he became a full SS man.
As an SS man he would serve in SS1 until he was twenty-five, then SS2 until thirty-five, when he became a member of the SS Reserve. The typical part-time member of the SS gave up one evening a week for ideological work and training. One afternoon, usually Wednesday or Saturday, was set aside for physical training and sport. One weekend in each month an SS man had to spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday on military training, important elements of which were drill, crowd control and shooting.
This smart and disciplined para-military force enabled the Nazi Party to maintain a large auxiliary police force at nominal cost. The SS could be called out at short notice in case of a national emergency such as an anti-Nazi putsch, a demonstration or a trade union dispute. The SS were also used to help the police with crowd control and security arrangements for a visit by Hitler or any other prominent member of the Nazi Party. SS headquarters in Berlin would summon SS men to duty with a printed postcard. An SS man's employee was forbidden by law to prevent or hinder his employee from responding to such a summons.
On 17th June, 1936, Hitler designated Himmler as head of the unified police system of the Third Reich. He was also put in charge of the Gestapo. Himmler was also able to put SS men in all the key posts in Nazi Germany. Himmler was now in control of a vast machine of political oppression. In December, 1940 Himmler established the Waffen SS. This new army grew rapidly and within six months grew to over 150,000 men.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Schulze-Kossens argued that Himmler was not very popular with the men in the Schutzstaffel (SS). "There was always a gap between Himmler and his soldiers. He wasn't very popular with the men because of his concept of a State Protection Corps, or his ideological ideas about the ancient German tribes and their burial mounds, King Heinrich and all that stuff. We just laughed at it."
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Himmler was appointed as a Commissar for the Consolidation of German Nationhood. Himmler devised methods of mass murder based on a rationalized extermination process. His main task was to eliminate "racial degenerates" that Hitler believed stood in the way of German's regeneration. The SS also followed the German Army into the Soviet Union where they had the responsibility of murdering Jews, gypsies, communists and partisans.
After the war Lieutenant Colonel Richard Schulze-Kossens, who fought with the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler in Poland in 1939 defended his troops in this action: "Let me say as a soldier I condemn all crimes regardless of who committed them, whether by us or by others, and that includes the crimes committed against captured SS men after the capitulation. But I make no reproaches in that respect. I am not recriminating, I only want to say that in war, amongst the mass of soldiers, there are always elements who develop criminal tendencies, and I can only condemn them. I would not say that the Waffen-SS was typically criminal, but there are well-known incidents. I don't want to excuse anything, but I must say one thing which is, that it is natural in war, during hot and heavy fighting, for young officers to sometimes lose their nerve."
In August 1941, Himmler and Karl Wolff observed a mass execution near Minsk, that had been organised by Arthur Nebe. According to Wolff, Himmler noticed a tall, blond, blue-eyed man of about twenty whom he engaged in conversation. Himmler asked the man if both his parents were Jews. When he replied "Yes" he followed up with "Do you have any ancestors who were not Jews?" When the man said "No" he replied: "Then I can't help you."
Standing close to the pit, Himmler became increasingly distressed as the shooting commenced. According to Wolff: "After many volleys, I could see that Himmler was trembling. He ran his hand across his face and swayed... His face was almost green... He immediately threw up." Himmler complained that "a piece of brain just splattered in my face". After the killing was over, Himmler made a speech to the men in which he told them to "see it through". Wolff claims that Himmler told Nebe to "devise a less gruesome means of mass execution than simply shooting people."
In February 1942, Oswald Pohl took control of the administration of the concentration camps. Pohl clashed with Theodor Eicke over the way the camps should be run. According to Andrew Mollo, the author of To The Death's Head: The Story of the SS (1982): "Pohl insisted on better treatment for camp inmates, and SS men were forbidden to strike, kick or even touch a prisoner. Inmates were to be better housed and fed, and even encouraged to take an interest in their work. Those who did were to be trained and rewarded with their freedom. There was a small reduction in the number of cases of maltreatment, but food and accommodation were still appalling, and in return for these 'improvements' prisoners were still expected to work eleven hours per day, six or seven days a week."
Pohl came under pressure from Albert Speer to increase production at the camps. Pohl complained to Himmler: "Reichsminister Speer appears not to know that we have 160,000 inmates at present and are fighting continually against epidemics and a high death-rate because of the billeting of the prisoners and the sanitary arrangements are totally inadequate." In a letter written on 15th December, 1942, Himmler suggested an improvement in the prisoner's diet: "Try to obtain for the nourishment of the prisoners in 1943 the greatest quantity of raw vegetables and onions. In the vegetable season issue carrots, kohlrabi, white turnips and whatever such vegetables there are in large quantity and store up sufficient for the prisoners in the winter so that they had a sufficient quantity every day. I believe we will raise the state of health substantially thereby."
As the war progressed Adolf Hitler became greatly concerned about the problems of production. Himmler wrote to Oswald Pohl on 5th March, 1943: "I believe that at the present time we must be out there in the factories personally in unprecedented measure in order to drive them on with the lash of our words and use our energy to assist on the spot. The Führer is counting heavily on our production and our help and our ability to overcome all difficulties, just hurl them overboard and simply produce. I ask you and Richard Glucks (head of concentration camp inspectorate) with all my heart to let no week pass by when one of you does not appear unexpectedly at this or that camp and goad, goad, goad."
In a speech made on 4th October, 1943, to members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Himmler argued: "One basic principle must be the absolute rule for the SS men - we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and to nobody else. What happens to a Russian or to a Czech does not interest me in the slightest. What the nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type we will take, if necessary by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us. Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only so far as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise, it is of no interest to me. Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only so far as the antitank ditch for Germany is finished. We shall never be rough and heartless when it is not necessary, that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude toward animals, will also assume a decent attitude toward these human animals."
Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "Himmler expanded the SS from three to thirty-five divisions, until it rivaled the SS from three to thirty-five divisions, until it rivaled the Wehrmacht itself. Made Minister of the Interior on August 25, 1943, he strengthened his grip on the civil service and the courts. Meanwhile, he enlarged the concentration camps and the extermination camps, organized a supply of expendable labor, and the authorized pseudomedical experiments in the camps... On July 21, 1944, Hitler made him supreme commander of the Volkssturm defending the German capital and the chief of the Werwolf unit that was expected to carry on a last-ditch fight in the Bavarian mountains." By June 1944 the SS had over 800,000 members: Hitler's Body Guard (200,000) Waffen (594,000) and Death Head Units (24,000).
In April 1944 Oswald Pohl issued orders to camp commanders: "Work must be, in the true sense of the world, exhausting in order to obtain maximum output... The hours of work are not limited. The duration depends on the technical structure of the camp and the work to be done and is determined by the camp Kommandant alone." One inmate of Auschwitz complained that Pohl was guilty of "the systematic and implacable urge to use human beings as slaves and to kill them when they could work no more."
Heavy bombing of the camps further damaged production. Peter Padfield, the author of Himmler: Reichsfuhrer S.S. (1991) points out that Himmler suggested a possible solution to the problem: "Himmler urged Pohl to build factories for the production of war materials in natural caves and underground tunnels immune to enemy bombing, and instructed him to hollow out workshop and factory space in all SS stone quarries, suggesting that by the summer of 1944 they should have ... the greatest possible number of such 'uniquely bomb-proof work sites'... Pohl's Works' Department chief, Brigadeführer Hans Kammler, succeeded in creating underground workshops and living quarters from a cave system in the Harz mountains in central Germany."
Himmler was put in charge of the German Army facing the advancing United States Army. In January, 1945, he was switched to face the advancing Red Army in the east. Unable to halt the decline in fortunes of the German forces, Himmler became convinced that Germany needed to seek peace with Britain and the United States. In March, 1945, Himmler had a meeting with Joseph Goebbels. He recorded in his diary: "Himmler summarises the situation correctly when he says that his mind tells him that we have little hope of winning the war militarily but instinct tells him that sooner or later some political opening will emerge to swing it in our favour. Himmler thinks this more likely in the West than the East. He thinks that England will come to her senses, which I rather doubt. As his remarks show, Himmler is entirely Western-oriented; from the East he expects nothing whatsoever. I still think that something is more likely to be achieved in the East since Stalin seems to me more realistic than the trigger-happy Anglo-American (Roosevelt)."
With the Russians closing in on Berlin, Himmler made approaches to the Allies through the Swedish internationalist Count Folke Bernadotte. The two men met in Lubeck on 24th April, 1945. Himmler asked Bernadotte to arrange a surrender that would allow Germany to continue fighting the Soviet Union. Bernadotte passed this information onto Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman but they rejected the idea, insisting on unconditional surrender.
When Adolf Hitler discovered on 28th April that Himmler had been attempting to make contacting with the Allies, he ordered his arrest. Himmler now took the name and documents of a dead village policeman. Although in heavy disguise, Himmler was arrested by a British army officer in Bremen on 22nd May. Before he could he interrogated, Himmler committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule.
The American journalist, Ann Stringer, gave Himmler's wife the news of his death: "Frau Margarete Himmler maintained today that she was still proud of her infamous husband and shrugged away the world's hatred of the dead Gestapo chief with the calm observation that no one loves a policeman. When I told her that husband Heinrich had been captured and had died from his own dose of poison, Frau Himmler showed absolutely no emotion. She sat, hands folded in her lap, and merely shrugged her shoulders. Until then she had not known what had happened to Himmler since he last telephoned her from Berlin around Easter while she was at their home near Munich. When first captured by the Fifth Army she had claimed a weak heart and internment camp officials, fearful of a heart attack, never told her of her husband's death. But even when I told her that Himmler was buried in an unmarked grave Frau Himmler showed no surprise, no interest. It was the coldest exhibition of complete control of human feeling that I have ever witnessed."