Born January 12, 1893
Died October 15, 1946
Nazi political leader and commander of the
Luftwaffe, the German air force; second in
command to Adolf Hitler
In the years leading up to World War II, Hermann Göring achieved a position of great power in Germany because of his relationship with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945; see entry), Germany's dictator from 1933 through 1945. Hitler put Göring in charge of such important matters as the organization of the police force and rebuilding Germany's air power. Although he had held fairly liberal beliefs as a young man, Göring adopted Hitler's views on the superiority of the German people and the need to eliminate their enemies. He played an active role in carrying out the horrors of the Holocaust (the period between 1933 and 1945 when Nazi Germany systematically murdered millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and other innocent people).
Dreams of greatness
Born in Rosenheim, Bavaria (a state in the southeastern part of Germany), a little town located south of Munich, Göring was the son of a German government official. He was the youngest of four children born to his father's second wife (he had five siblings from his father's first marriage). When Göring was three months old, his parents went to live in Haiti, where his father was to serve as consul general. They left their new baby in the care of family friends for three years, a period that was very difficult and unhappy for him.
As a young boy Göring was sent to live with his godfather, an Austrian physician named Hermann von Epstein, who had been born Jewish but had converted to Christianity. When Göring wrote a school essay praising his godfather, his teacher scolded him because it was not considered proper to think well of Jewish people. This disturbed Göring so much that he left the school.
Next Göring attended two military academies where he proved an excellent student and a self-confident, athletic boy who enjoyed mountain climbing and horseback riding. One day he hoped to become a great German hero. He graduated at the top of his class in 1912.
A World War I hero
Göring joined the military after graduation. During World War I (1914-18; a war that started as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and escalated into a global war involving thirty-two nations) he proved to be an exceptionally brave pilot who won his country's highest military honor, the Pour le Merite or "Blue Max." In July 1918 he was made commander of the Richthofen Squadron, a famous and daring group of aviators that was also known as the "Flying Circus."
Discouraged after the war
When World War I ended, many Germans resented the outcome of the war and its aftermath. They had been led to believe that their country would win, but they had lost. Now the German people were being punished by the victorious Allies (including Great Britain, the United States, France, and Russia), who insisted Germany pay reparations (huge sums of money) for the damages incurred during the war.
Germany also faced a terrible depression (an economic downturn that causes many businesses to close and people to lose their jobs) that started around 1930. Although this depression began in the United States, it soon spread to all of the industrial countries in Europe. Germany was hit harder than any other major European country. Germany relied heavily on exports and the countries that had been buying its goods could no longer buy them. There were few jobs available—one out of every three Germans was out of work—which led to widespread poverty and dissatisfaction with the government.
Like many former soldiers, Göring felt that he had no future in Germany. He went to Sweden and became a pilot and salesman for a Swedish airline. There he met a Swedish baroness, Carin von Lock-Kantzoa, a delicate beauty with an interest in mysticism. Even though she was already married, Carin and Göring fell in love. Carin soon divorced her husband. She married Göring in 1923, and the couple returned to Germany.
Becoming Hitler's follower
Meanwhile, an ambitious politician named Adolf Hitler took advantage of the widespread dissatisfaction in Germany. He formed the National Socialist German Workers' Party, better known as the Nazis. Hitler's party was based on the belief that the Germans were a superior race whose purity was threatened by the harmful presence of Jews and other people they considered undesirable. In particular, the Nazis blamed Jews for their country's defeat in World War I.
Even though Göring had not previously been anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish), he was so impressed by Hitler that he became a devoted follower, gradually dropping all of his more liberal views and adopting the Nazi philosophy. Recognizing his potential, Hitler put Göring in charge of the SA or Sturmabteilung —also called Storm Troopers and Brown Shirts— an organized group of men who terrorized anyone who opposed the Nazis. And it was in Göring's hometown— Munich—where the Nazis planned to take over the German government. Their attempt, called the Munich Beer Hall Putsch (1923), failed and led to the arrest and imprisonment of Hitler and other Nazi leaders.
Göring was badly wounded but managed to escape to Austria, finally making his way to Switzerland. In severe pain, he was given morphine (a strong pain medication related to opium) and quickly became addicted, a condition that led to stints in several psychiatric institutions. He was off drugs by 1926, but his addiction would continue to plague him throughout the rest of his life. Göring had also become obese, and over the next two decades his enemies would often make fun of him, nicknaming him "der Dicke" (the fat one).
Returning to success in Germany
In 1927, Germany's president pardoned all political prisoners, including Hitler and the other Nazi leaders arrested after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. Göring no longer had to fear being arrested and punished for his involvement in the Putsch and returned to his country. He and his wife settled in Berlin, where Göring became successful selling BMW cars. He again got involved with Hitler, who realized that Göring's many social, business, and military connections could be helpful to the Nazi party.
Running on the Nazi ticket, Göring was elected to the Reichstag (Germany's legislative or law-making body) in 1928 and became its president in 1932 (the top office in the Reichstag, but not the same as president of a country). Hitler was also gaining power during this period, and in January 1933 he was made chancellor (chief executive or top leader) of Germany. In only a few months, Hitler took control of the government and outlawed all political parties except the Nazis. He made himself not only Germany's head of state but also its military commander. In other words, Hitler had become a dictator (a ruler with absolute authority).
A prominent role in Hitler's government
Hitler gave Göring the job of interior minister to Prussia (a large state within Germany that ceased to exist after July 1945). Later that year, acting as commandant of police, Göring replaced the regular police force with the Secret State Police. This ruthless group became known as the Gestapo and quickly gained a reputation for brutality. They carried on a reign of terror against Jews and Catholics and members of other minority groups as well as anyone who disagreed with Hitler. So many arrests were made that the jails overflowed, so Göring constructed concentration camps where large numbers of these so-called "enemies of the state" could be confined. Ironically, Göring did not have the stomach for violence and soon turned his Gestapo and concentration camp duties over to others.
In 1931, Göring's beloved wife Carin died. Now verywealthy (due to income from his various political offices, investments, and business interests), he built a grand estate that he named Carin Hall in his dead wife's memory. He furnished this home with fine art and spent much of his time there. In 1935 Göring married a German actress, Emmy Sonnemann, and the couple's daughter Edda was born three years later. Over the next few years the Görings entertained many famous visitors from all over the world at their lavish estate.
The Luftwaffe leads the war effort
The terms of the treaty signed at the end of World War I prohibited Germany from having an air force, but Göring— who had been named reichminster of aviation in 1933—built one anyway, in secret. By 1936, his Luftwaffe (the name by which the German air force was known) was ready, just as Hitler's plans to wage war began to take shape. Hitler's stated goal at this time was to make sure that all of the German-speaking people in the world were under Nazi rule; later it would become clear that he also wanted to acquire more territory for Germany. At the same time, he was restricting the freedom of ordinary Germans while totally eliminating that of the Jews who lived in Germany.
Germany launched World War II in September 1939 by invading Poland. Much of the credit for this successful attack was given to the air force, and as head of the Luftwaffe Göring became a hero. When Holland, Belgium, and France also surrendered to the Germans he received even more attention and praise. In these first few years of the war, the German air force was considered the best in the world. Pleased with his second-in-command and with the progress of the war, Hitler made Göring a field marshal—the highest rank in the German army—and even spoke of him as his successor (the person who would take over his position when he left office).
Out of favor with "der Führer"
As the war continued, though, Göring fell out of favor with Hitler even though he never stopped idolizing "der Führer" (the leader). The main cause for Hitler's displeasure was the failure of the air force on three occasions. The first was the Battle of Britain, at which the Germans were defeated. On the second occasion, the Luftwaffe was unable to defend Germany against air raids by the Allies. The third was when the air force could not rescue the German Sixth Army when they were stranded in Stalingrad in the Soviet Union. Hitler blamed Göring for these disasters and began treating him with scorn, and leaving him out of important military decisions.
Disillusioned with the way things were going, Göring began taking drugs again. He retreated into the fantasy world he had created for himself, neglecting his official duties while traveling around Europe in his private train. He was notorious for stealing priceless works of art from the countries Germany had conquered and decorating his various homes with them.
As the war drew to a close, Soviet troops invaded Germany and made their way toward Berlin, where Hitler had gone into hiding in an underground bunker. Having fled (and destroyed) Carin Hall, Göring was convinced—quite logically—that Hitler might soon be captured. He sent his leader a message that he was prepared to take over: "If I should receive no reply by 10 P. M., I shall assume that you have been deprived of your freedom of action and shall act in the best interests of our country and people."
Hitler was enraged by Göring's assumption, and on April 23 he ordered him charged with treason and arrested. By April 30, Hitler knew that the war was lost, and he committed suicide in his bunker.
On May 9, having been freed by his Nazi captors, Göring surrendered to the American troops who had occupied Germany. He was pleased with the special treatment he received at first, when he was given good food and wine. But this had just been a trick to make him offer up information about the Nazis, and he soon became an ordinary prisoner of war.
Tried and convicted at Nuremberg
The Allies (the countries that had joined together to fight Germany) tried the surviving Nazi leaders for their war crimes in a series of famous trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1946. This well-publicized event exposed the full horror of Nazi Germany, in particular the Holocaust. After months in prison, Göring was drug-free and much slimmer. Observers agreed that he gave a brilliant performance at the trial, speaking with intelligence and confidence as he tried to justify what he and others had done. He argued that government officials could not be judged by the same standards as ordinary citizens.
Nevertheless, Göring was found guilty of conspiracy to wage war, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and his request to be executed by firing squad, in the military tradition, was denied. Just two hours before he was to be executed, Göring took poison (it is still not known how he got it) and died. The next day, his body was cremated and the ashes thrown away, along with those of others who had been executed that night.
Where to Learn More
Butler, Ewan, and Gordon Young. The Life and Death of Hermann Göring.San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1990.
Hoyt, Edwin P. Angels of Death: Göring's Luftwaffe. New York: Forge, 1994.
Irving, David. Göring: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1989.
Mosley, Leonard. The Reich Marshal: A Biography of Hermann Göring. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
Skipper, G.C. Göring and the Luftwaffe. Chicago: Children's Press, 1980.
Sauer, Wolfgang. "Hermann W. Goering." [Online] Available http:/www.grolier.com/wwii/wwii_goering.html (January 21, 1999).
The Chief of the SS
Members of the SS—which stood for Schutzstaffel or security squad—served as Hitler's bodyguards and also worked as guards in the various concentration camps. They were involved in many cruel acts against those in the camps, and they murdered millions of innocent victims. The man who commanded the SS was Heinrich Himmler, a weak, dull person who had once dreamed of becoming a soldier.
Born in Munich, Germany, in 1900, Himmler was the son of a poor soldier who taught his children to develop ties to the upper classes; he also advised his son to keep a daily diary, in which Himmler would later record all of his murderous activities.
Himmler wanted very much to serve in Germany's army during World War I but he had only just completed officer training when the war ended. He spent a brief period as a farmer, then entered the University of Munich. Giving up his dream of military glory, Himmler studied agriculture. It was during his years at college that he became an anti-semite (person who hates Jews) and was drawn toward politics.
Graduating from college in 1922, Himmler got a job with a fertilizer company. The next year, he joined Adolf Hitler's (1889-1945; see entry) National Socialist German Workers' Party (the Nazis). Later he moved with his new wife Marga to a chicken farm. He continued to work for the Nazis and proved himself efficient and alert to details, even if he did have a very dull personality. In 1929, Himmler was promoted to the rank of Reichsfuhrer (equivalent to a general in the U.S. Army) of the SS.
Himmler remained in charge of the SS for the next 16 years. Although the organization had originally been intended to provide protection for Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, Himmler expanded it to include 50,000 soldiers who could carry out anything Hitler ordered, including the punishment and murder of those the Nazis considered "enemies of the state."
The Nazi idea of "racial purity" made Germans the highest form of humanity, and the ideal German was tall, blonde, and blue-eyed. Those considered racially impure included Roma (commonly known as Gypsies), handicapped people, homosexuals, and others but especially Jews, who were blamed for all of Germany's troubles. Since the SS was to provide the leaders of a new German race, Himmler ruled that SS soldiers who wanted to marry had to prove that their fiancees were of pure blood and not "contaminated" by that of other, lesser races. At the SS Bride School, women were taught how to be good Nazi wives.
Much more alarmingly, though, Himmler began to set up concentration camps where those arrested by the Nazis were sent to be imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and often murdered. Himmler himself stayed in the background while gangs of crisply uniformed SS soldiers in shiny black boots terrorized the Jewish population, rounding up and killing thousands of people.
In May 1945, several weeks after Germany had surrendered to the Allies, Himmler was caught by British soldiers while—disguised as a low-ranking soldier— he was trying to flee the country. Several days later, Himmler realized that he was not going to receive any special treatment from the Allies, and he bit into a cyanide capsule he had managed to conceal in his mouth. He died almost immediately.