Who was Heinrich Himmler?

Heinrich Himmler was Reichsführer-SS (Reich SS Leader) and Chief of the German police. In this capacity, he was responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution - the extermination of the Jews - as ordered by the Führer, Adolf Hitler.

He was born in Munich on October 7, 1900. His father was the son of a police president, a former tutor to the princes of the Bavarian court, and a headmaster by profession. Himmler originally intended to be a farmer and in fact acquired a degree in agronomy. He fought in World War I at the every end, and afterwards drifted into one of the many right wing soldier's organizations that were so prevalent at the time. It is here that he came into contact with Hitler. He took part in the Hitler Putsch (the attempt to overthrow the government) of 1923 as a standard-bearer. He married Margret Boden in 1926.

In 1929, Hitler appointed him head of the SS, which at that time numbered about 300 men and served mainly as a bodyguard for Hitler. A superb organizer, he had already expanded the SS to 50,000 men by 1933.
Himmler photo
By 1936, he had consolidated police power in Germany and was named Chief of the German police on June 17 of that year. With all organs of the police, especially the Gestapo (secret state police), now under his control, his power was virtually without limit. In addition to his other responsibilities, he was also responsible for the security services (Sicherheitsdienst) and the concentration camps, which up to that time housed prisoners of the state.

Himmler's men staged the phony border incident that Hitler used to justify the invasion of Poland at the outbreak of World War II. As the war went on, the armored portions of the SS - the Waffen SS - began to rival the Armed Forces for power in the military field, culminating in Himmler's being named Minister of the Interior in 1943 and chief of the Replacement Army in 1944. Right up to the end, he was one of Hitler's most loyal men. Hitler called him "der treue Heinrich" (loyal Heinrich).

When it came time for Hitler to order the annihilation of the Jews, who better to select to carry it out than the man who was at once his most loyal follower and also in control of the apparatus necessary for its execution? And that is what Hitler did. The precise date is not known, but what is known is that Himmler obeyed the order he received with his customary thoroughness and efficiency. Interestingly enough, for a man who has been demonized as the incarnation of evil, Himmler makes it clear in several speeches that he was not particularly antisemitic. He simply blindly obeyed, displaying almost more amorality than immorality.

Whatever misgivings Himmler may have had, he carried out his orders with an efficiency and a zeal that at once astonish and repel. The first murders were carried out by Einsatzgruppen by shooting. As deadly as these shootings were, a more "efficient" method had to be found, one that would accelerate the killing and would at the same time spare the SS men the necessity to murder women and children in cold blood. The decision was made to use poison gases (hydrocyanic acid and carbon monoxide) in both stationary and mobile gas chambers in Poland. It is estimated that around 6 million Jews were killed during the Final Solution, along with as many as another 6 million non-Jews.

At the end of the war, Himmler made attempts to negotiate peace through the World Jewish Congress. Attempting to flee in disguise in May 1945, he was captured by British forces and admitted his identity. When a doctor was ordered to search him to ensure he did not have poison secreted on his person, he bit down on a cyanide capsule hidden in his mouth and was dead in a few minutes. Like Hitler, he chose suicide as his way to exit the world.

At a speech in Poznan on October 4, 1943, Himmler uttered the words that Joachim Fest has described as "one of the most horrifying testaments in the German language": 1

I am talking about the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easily said. "The Jewish people is being exterminated," every Party member will tell you, "perfectly clear, it's part of our plans, we're eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, a small matter."

Notes

1. Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, Pantheon Books, New York, 1970, p. 115.

Selected Books on Heinrich Himmler and the SS

Breitman, Richard, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991.

Buchheim, Broszat, Krausnick, The Anatomy of the SS State, Collins, London, 1968.

Fest, Joachim C., The Face of the Third Reich, Pantheon Books, New York, 1970, Part Two.

Fleming, Gerald, Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1984.

Höhne, Heinz, The Order of the Death's Head, Pan Books, London, 1969.

Paskuly, Steven, Ed., Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz Rudolf Höss, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996.

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