Heinrich Luitpold Himmler ( listen (help·info) October 7, 1900 – May 23, 1945) was a Nazi German politician and head of the Schutzstaffel (SS). He was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, competing with Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels. As Reichsführer-SS he oversaw all police and security forces, including the Gestapo.
As overseer of concentration camps, extermination camps, and Einsatzgruppen (literally: task forces, often used as killing squads), Himmler coordinated the killing of millions of Jews, between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma, many prisoners of war, and possibly another three to four million Poles, communists, or other groups whom the Nazis deemed unworthy to live or simply 'in the way', which included homosexuals and those with physical and mental disabilities. Shortly before the end of the war, he offered to surrender to the Allies if he were spared from prosecution. After being arrested by British forces, he committed suicide before he could be questioned.
Himmler has been named Greatest Mass Murderer of All Time by German news magazine Der Spiegel.
Heinrich Himmler was born in Munich to a Roman Catholic Bavarian middle-class family. His father was Joseph Gebhard Himmler, a secondary-school teacher and principal of the prestigious Wittelsbacher Gymnasium. His mother was Anna Maria Himmler (maiden name Heyder), a devout Roman Catholic and an attentive mother. Heinrich had an older brother, Gebhard Ludwig Himmler, who was born on 29 July 1898, and a younger brother, Ernst Hermann Himmler, born on 23 December 1905.
Heinrich was named after his godfather, Prince Heinrich of Bavaria of the royal family of Bavaria, who was tutored by Gebhard Himmler. In 1910, Himmler attended Gymnasium in Landshut, where he studied classic literature. Himmler's father, the principal, set him as a bully to spy and punish other pupils. His father even called him a born criminal. While he struggled in athletics, he did well in his schoolwork. Also, at the behest of his father, Heinrich kept a diary from age 10 until age 24. He enjoyed chess, harpsichord, stamp collecting, gardening, and other extracurricular activities. Throughout Himmler’s youth and into adulthood, he was never at ease in interactions with women.
Himmler’s diaries (1914-1918) show that he was extremely interested in war news. He implored his father to use his royal connections to obtain an officer candidate position for him. His parents eventually gave in, allowing him to train (upon graduation from secondary school in 1918) with the 11th Bavarian Regiment. Since he was not athletic, he struggled throughout his military training. In 1918 the war ended with Germany's defeat, thus ending Himmler's aspirations of becoming a professional army officer.
From 1919 to 1922 Himmler studied agronomy at the Munich Technische Hochschule following a short-lived apprenticeship on a farm and subsequent illness. Himmler was pursuing a chaste lifestyle when he became interested in a young girl who was the daughter of a store owner. In his diary, he compares his initial encounter with her as like finding himself a sister. Later he experienced rejection when he let her know his true feelings. His difficulies with women persisted throughout his life. His feelings towards women are laid bare in a diary excerpt:
A proper man loves a woman on three levels: as a dear child who is to be chided, perhaps even punished on account of her unreasonableness, and who is protected and taken care of because one loves her. Then as wife and as a loyal, understanding comrade who fights through life with one, who stands faithfully at one’s side without hemming in or chaining the man and his spirit. And as a goddess whose feet one must kiss, who gives one strength through her feminine wisdom and childlike, pure sanctity that does not weaken in the hardest struggles and in the ideal hours gives one heavenly peace.
In his diaries he claimed to be a devout Catholic, and wrote that he would never turn away from the Church. However, he was a member of a fraternity (and later the Thule Society). He felt both associations to be at odds with the tenets of the Church. Biographers have defined Himmler’s theology as Ariosophy, his own religious dogma of racial superiority of the Aryan race and Germanic Meso-Paganism, developed partly from his intepretations of folklore and mythology of the ancient Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe. During this time he was again obsessed with the idea of becoming a soldier. He wrote that if Germany did not soon go to war, he would go to another country to seek battle.
In 1923, Himmler took part in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, serving under Ernst Röhm. In 1926 he met his future wife in a hotel lobby while escaping a storm. Margarete Siegroth (née Boden) was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, seven years his senior, divorced, and Protestant. But she was physically the epitome of the Nordic ideal. On 3 July 1928, the two were married. They had their only child, Gudrun, on 8 August, 1929. Himmler adored his daughter, and called her Püppi (English: "dolly"). Margarete later adopted a son, in whom Himmler showed no interest. Heinrich and Margarete separated in 1940 without seeking divorce. At that time Himmler became friendly with a secretary, Hedwig Potthast, who left her job in 1941 and became his mistress. He fathered two children with her — a son, Helge (born 1942), and a daughter, Nanette Dorothea (born 1944).
Rise in the SS
Photo of Heinrich Himmler wearing a SS uniform in the rank of Oberführer.
Early SS: 1927–1934
Himmler joined the SS in 1925 and became deputy–Reichsführer-SS in 1927. Upon the resignation of SS commander Erhard Heiden, Himmler was appointed Reichsführer-SS in January 1929. The SS then had 280 members and was a mere battalion of the much larger Sturmabteilung (SA).
By 1933, the SS numbered 52,000 members. The organisation enforced strict membership requirements ensuring that all members were of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan Herrenvolk ("Aryan master race"). Himmler and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich, began an effort to separate the SS from SA control. Black SS uniforms replaced the SA brown shirts in the autumn of 1933. Shortly thereafter, Himmler was promoted to SS-Obergruppenführer and Reichsführer-SS, thus an equal of the senior SA commanders, who by this time loathed the SS and envied its power.
Himmler, Hermann Göring, and General Werner von Blomberg agreed that the SA and its leader Ernst Röhm posed a threat to the German Army and the Nazi leadership. Röhm had socialist and populist views, and believed that the real revolution had not yet begun. He felt that the SA should become the sole arms-bearing corps of the state. This left some Nazi leaders believing Röhm was intent on using the SA to undertake a coup.
Persuaded by Himmler and Göring, Hitler agreed that Röhm had to be eliminated. He delegated this task to Reinhard Heydrich, Kurt Daluege, and Werner Best, who ordered the execution of Röhm (carried out by Theodor Eicke) and other senior SA officials, plus some of Hitler’s personal enemies, (like Gregor Strasser and Kurt von Schleicher), on 30 June, 1934, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. The next day, the SS became an independent organization.
Consolidation of power
In 1934, Himmler was named head of the Gestapo (Geheimestaatpolizei), the German secret police, and was also named chief of all German police outside Prussia. Two years later, Himmler gained further authority as all of Germany’s uniformed law enforcement agencies were amalgamated into the new Ordnungspolizei (Orpo: "order police"), whose main office became a headquarters branch of the SS. Himmler then gained the title Chief of the German Police (Reich S.S. Leader and Chief of German Police within the Reich Ministry of the Interior), after Hitler announced a decree that was to 'unify the control of Police duties in the Reich'. Traditionally, law enforcement in Germany had been a matter of state and local control.
Despite his title, Himmler gained only partial control of the uniformed police. The actual powers granted to him were some that were previously exercised by the ministry of the interior. It was only in 1943, when Himmler was appointed minister of the interior, that the transfer of ministerial power was complete.
Himmler also oversaw the entire concentration camp system. Once war began, though, new internment camps, which were not formally classified as concentration camps, were established, over which Himmler and the SS did not exercise control. In 1943, following the outbreak of popular word-of-mouth criticism of the regime as a result of the Stalingrad disaster, the party apparatus, professing disappointment with the Gestapo’s performance in deterring such criticism, established the Politische Staffeln (political squads) as its own political policing organ, destroying the Gestapo’s monopoly in this field.
Heinrich Himmler (left) with, from left to right: Reinhard Heydrich, Karl Wolff and an unidentified assistant at the Obersalzberg, May 1939With his 1936 appointment, Himmler also gained ministerial authority over Germany’s non-political detective forces, the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo: crime police), which he attempted to combine with the Gestapo into the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo: security police) under the command of Reinhard Heydrich, and thus gain operational control over Germany’s entire detective force. This merger was never complete within the Reich, with Kripo remaining firmly under the control of its own civilian administration and later the party apparatus as the latter annexed the civilian administration. However, in occupied territories not incorporated into the Reich proper, Sipo consolidation within the SS line of command proved mostly effective. Following the outbreak of World War II, Himmler formed the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA: reichs security headquarters) wherein the Gestapo, Kripo and Sicherheitsdienst (SD: security services) became departments.
The SS during these years developed its own military branch, the SS-Verfügungstruppe, which later became the Waffen-SS. Even though nominally under the authority of Himmler, the Waffen-SS developed a fully militarized structure of command and operationally were incorporated in the war effort parallel to the Wehrmacht. Many contemporary commentators refuse to recognize the Waffen SS as in any sense an honorable military organisation. Its units were involved in many notorious incidents of murdering civilians and unarmed prisoners. For this reason, postwar war crimes tribunals declared the Waffen SS to be a criminal organisation.
Himmler and the Holocaust
SS Chief Heinrich Himmler (front right, facing prisoner) on a personal visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936After the Night of the Long Knives, the SS-Totenkopfverbände organized and administered Germany’s regime of concentration camps and, after 1941, the extermination camps in Poland. The SS, through its intelligence arm, the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD), dealt with Jews, Gypsies, communists and those persons of any other cultural, racial, political or religious affiliation deemed by the Nazis to be either Untermensch (sub-human) or in opposition to the regime, and placing them in concentration camps. Himmler opened the first of these camps at Dachau on 22 March 1933. He was the main architect of the Holocaust, using elements of mysticism and a fanatical belief in the racist Nazi ideology to justify the murder of millions of victims. Himmler had similar plans for the Poles. Intellectuals were to be killed and most other Poles were to be only literate enough to read traffic signs. On December 18th 1941, Himmler's appointment book shows he met with Hitler, where to in answer to Himmler's question "What to do with the Jews of Russia?", Hitler's response is recorded as "als Partisanen auszurotten" (exterminate them as partisans")
In contrast to Hitler, Himmler inspected concentration camps. After that the Nazis searched for a new and more expedient way to kill which culminated in the use of the gas chambers.
Himmler wanted to breed a master race of Nordic Aryans in Germany. His experience as a chicken farmer had taught him the rudimentary basics of animal breeding which he proposed to apply to humans. He believed that he could engineer the German populace, through selective breeding, to be entirely "Nordic" in appearance within several decades of the end of the war.
Main article: Posen speech On 4 October 1943, Himmler referred explicitly to the extermination of the Jewish people during a secret SS meeting in the city of Poznań (Posen). The following is an excerpt from a transcription of an audio recording that exists of the speech:
“ I also want to refer here very frankly to a very difficult matter. We can now very openly talk about this among ourselves, and yet we will never discuss this publicly. Just as we did not hesitate on June 30, 1934, to perform our duty as ordered and put comrades who had failed up against the wall and execute them, we also never spoke about it, nor will we ever speak about it. (reference to the Night of the Long Knives) Let us thank God that we had within us enough self-evident fortitude never to discuss it among us, and we never talked about it. Every one of us was horrified, and yet every one clearly understood that we would do it next time, when the order is given and when it becomes necessary. 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, extermination, a small matter." And then they turn up, the upstanding 80 million Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say the others are all pigs, but this particular one is a splendid Jew. (compare with Rosenstrasse protest) But none has observed it, endured it. Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of. Because we know how difficult it would be for us if we will had Jews as secret saboteurs, agitators and rabble rousers in every city, what with the bombings, with the burden and with the hardships of the war. 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. (as in the Dolchstosslegende).
—Heinrich Himmler, 4 October 1943
Second World War
In 1939 Hitler masterminded Operation Himmler, arguably the first operation of WWII in Europe.
Before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), Himmler prepared his SS for a war of extermination against the forces of "Judeo-Bolshevism". Himmler, always glad to make parallels between Nazi Germany and the Middle Ages, compared the invasion to the Crusades. He collected volunteers from all over Europe, especially those of Nordic stock who were perceived to be racially closest to Germans, like the Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and Dutch. After the invasion, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians volunteers were also recruited, attracting the non-Germanic volunteers by declaring a pan-European crusade to defend the traditional values of old Europe from the "Godless Bolshevik hordes". Thousands volunteered and many thousands more were conscripted.
The volunteers from the occupied Soviet territories were frequently collaborator policemen pressed en masse into the Waffen SS once their territories of origin were overrun by the Red Army. In the Baltic states many natives volunteered to serve due to their loathing of their oppression after the occupation by the Soviet Union. As long as they were employed against Soviet troops, they performed acceptably because they expected no mercy if captured. When employed against the Western Allies they often tended to surrender eagerly. Waffen SS recruitment in Western and Nordic Europe collected much less manpower, though a number of Waffen-SS Legions were founded, such as the Wallonian contingent led by Leon Degrelle, whom Himmler planned to appoint chancellor of a restored Burgundy within the Nazi orbit once the war was over.
In 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s right hand man was assassinated near Prague after an attack by Czech special forces supplied by British Intelligence and the Czechoslovak rebellion. Himmler immediately carried out a brutal reprisal, killing the entire male population, along with women and children, in the village of Lidice.
In 1943, Himmler was appointed Interior Minister. Himmler sought to use his new office to reverse the party apparatus's annexation of the civil service and tried to challenge the authority of the party gauleiters.
This aspiration was frustrated by Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary and party chancellor. It also incurred some displeasure from Hitler himself, whose long-standing disdain for the traditional civil service was one of the foundations of Nazi administrative thinking. Himmler made things much worse still when following his appointment as head of the Reserve Army (Ersatzheer, see below) he tried to use his authority in both military and police matters by transferring policemen to the Waffen-SS.
With Himmler threatening his power base, Bormann could not give him the opportunity fast enough, initially acquiescing in the policies, until furious protests broke out. Then, Bormann came out against the scheme, leaving Himmler much discredited, especially with the party, whose gauleiters now saw Bormann as their protector.
20 July plot
It was determined that leaders of German Military Intelligence (the Abwehr), including its head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, were involved in the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. This prompted Hitler to disband the Abwehr and make Himmler's Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD) the sole intelligence service of the Third Reich. This increased Himmler’s personal power.
General Friedrich Fromm, Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve (or Replacement) Army (Ersatzheer), was implicated in the conspiracy. Fromm’s removal, coupled with Hitler’s suspicion of the army, led the way to Himmler’s appointment as Fromm’s successor, a position he abused to expand the Waffen SS even further to the detriment of the rapidly deteriorating German armed forces (Wehrmacht).
Unfortunately for Himmler, the investigation soon revealed the involvement of many SS officers in the conspiracy, including senior officers, which played into the hands of Bormann’s power struggle against the SS because very few party cadre officers were implicated. Even more important, some senior SS officers began to conspire against Himmler himself, as they believed that he would be unable to achieve victory in the power struggle against Bormann. Among these defectors were Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Heydrich’s successor as chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, and Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, the chief of the Gestapo.
In late 1944, Himmler became Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Army Group Upper Rhine (Heeresgruppe Oberrhein). This army group was formed to fight the advancing U.S. 7th Army and French 1st Army in the Alsace region along the west bank of the Rhine. The U.S. 7th Army was under the command of General Alexander Patch and the French 1st Army was under the command of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.
On 1 January, 1945, Himmler's army group launched Operation North Wind (Unternehmen Nordwind) to push back the Americans and the French. In late January, after some limited initial success, Himmler was transferred east. By 24 January, Army Group Upper Rhine was de-activated after having gone over to the defensive. Operation North Wind officially ended on 25 January.
Elsewhere the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) had failed to halt the Red Army’s Vistula-Oder offensive, so Hitler gave Himmler command of yet another newly formed army group, Army Group Vistula (Heeresgruppe Weichsel) to stop the Soviet advance on Berlin. Hitler placed Himmler in command of Army Group Vistula despite the failure of Army Group Upper Rhine and despite Himmler’s total lack of experience and ability to command troops. This appointment may have been at the instigation of Martin Bormann, anxious to discredit a rival, or through Hitler’s continuing anger at the "failures" of the general staff.
As Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Vistula, Himmler established his command centre at Schneidemühl. He used his special train (sonderzug), Sonderzug Steiermark, as his headquarters. Himmler did this despite the train having only one telephone line and no signals detachment. Eager to show his determination, Himmler acquiesced in a quick counter-attack urged by the general staff. The operation quickly bogged down and Himmler dismissed a regular army corps commander and appointed Nazi Heinz Lammerding. His headquarters was also forced to retreat to Falkenburg. On 30 January, Himmler issued draconian orders: Tod und Strafe für Pflichtvergessenheit —"death and punishment for those who forget their obligations" to encourage his troops. The worsening situation left Himmler under increasing pressure from Hitler; he was unassertive and nervous in conferences. In mid-February the Pomeranian offensive by his forces was directed by General Walther Wenck, after intense pressure from General Heinz Guderian on Hitler. By early March, Himmler’s headquarters had moved west of the Oder River, although his army group was still named after the Vistula. At conferences with Hitler, Himmler aped his leader’s line of increased severity towards those who retreated.
On 13 March, Himmler abandoned his command, and, claiming illness, retired to a sanatorium at Hohenlychen. Guderian visited him there and carried his resignation as Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Vistula to Hitler that night. On 20 March, Himmler was replaced by General Gotthard Heinrici.
Heinrich Himmler in 1945.In the winter of 1944–45, Himmler’s Waffen-SS numbered 910,000 members, with the Allgemeine-SS (at least on paper) hosting a membership of nearly two million. However, by early 1945 Himmler had lost faith in German victory, likely due in part to his discussions with his masseur Felix Kersten and with Walter Schellenberg. He realized that if the Nazi regime was to survive, it needed 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 to achieve a peace treaty with the Allies. Himmler hoped the British and Americans would fight their Soviet allies with the remains of the Wehrmacht.
When Hitler discovered this, he declared Himmler to be a traitor. The day before Hitler committed suicide, he stripped Himmler of his titles and ranks — Reichsführer-SS (Supreme Commander of the SS), Successor of Adolf Hitler (as Reich chancellor), Chief of the German police, Reich commissioner of German nationhood, Reich minister of the interior, Supreme Commander of the Volkssturm, and Supreme Commander of the Home Army.
Himmler’s negotiations with Count Bernadotte failed. He joined Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who by then was commanding all German forces within the northern part of the western front, in nearby Plön. Dönitz sent Himmler away, explaining that there was no place for him in the new 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. He asked Eisenhower to appoint him "minister of police" in Germany's post-war government. He reportedly mused on how to handle his first meeting with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) commander and whether to give the Nazi salute or shake hands with him. Eisenhower refused to have anything to do with Himmler, who was subsequently declared a major war criminal.
Capture and death
Himmler’s corpse in Allied custody after his suicide by poison, 1945Unwanted by his former colleagues and hunted by the Allies, Himmler wandered for several days around Flensburg near the Danish border. Attempting to evade arrest, he disguised himself as a sergeant-major of the Secret Military Police, using the name Heinrich Hitzinger, shaving his moustache and donning an eye patch over his left eye, in the hope that he could return to Bavaria. He had equipped himself with a 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. Himmler was arrested on 22 May by Major Sidney Excell, and in captivity, was soon recognised. Himmler was scheduled to stand trial with other German leaders as a war criminal at Nuremberg, but committed suicide in Lüneburg by potassium cyanide capsule before interrogation could begin. His last words were Ich bin Heinrich Himmler! ("I am Heinrich Himmler!"). Another version has Himmler biting into a hidden cyanide pill when searched by a British doctor, who then yelled, "He has done it!". Several attempts to revive Himmler were unsuccessful. Shortly afterwards, Himmler’s body was buried in an unmarked grave on the Lüneburg Heath. The precise location of Himmler’s grave remains unknown.