Himmler, Heinrich (1900–1945)

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Leader of the SS and the German police during the Third Reich.

Born in Munich, Heinrich Himmler came from a Bavarian Catholic bourgeois family; his father was a schoolmaster, the director of a gymnasium. In 1917 Himmler was drafted into the Bavarian army but did not serve at the front. After the war he studied agricultural sciences at Munich Technical University, where he acquired a diploma. He worked from 1922 in a fertilizer company, until he became unemployed a year later. He came in contact early on with Bavarian right-wing extremism, especially the so-called Artamanen League, an agrarian youth group, which influenced his ideas on German agricultural settlement of the lands to the east. As a member of the extremist Reichskriegsflagge, he participated in Adolf Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923. He joined the Nazi Party in 1925 and soon became deputy Gauleiter (regional leader), first in Lower Bavaria, then in Upper Bavaria. In 1926 he served as deputy propaganda chief (Reichspropagandaleiter) of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP; the Nazi Party). On 6 January 1929 he took over the small SS (Schutzstaffel der NSDAP), a kind of bodyguard group inside the Sturm Abteilung (SA; Storm Troopers), which had existed since 1925. From that date on he was a fully employed Nazi functionary; in 1930 he also became a member of the Reichstag.

With the Nazi rise to power in early 1933, Himmler immediately took over state functions. As police chief constable (Polizeipräsident) in Munich, he not only installed one of the first German concentration camps near Dachau but started to take over all branches of the political police in most of Germany, and in 1934 also the Gestapo in Prussia (formally as deputy chief). On 30 June 1934 Himmler actively took part in the action against the so-called Röhm Putsch (Night of Long Knives), which resulted in the killing of the SA leadership and the formal independence of the SS, which from now on was directly subordinate to Hitler. Finally in June 1936 Himmler formally united SS and police in his role as the new SS leader and chief of the German police in the Ministry of the Interior. He thereby centralized the police on the national level, taking over command of all branches of the police and accelerating the merging of the state police and the party SS.

During the second half of the 1930s Himmler constantly developed his empire of repression: from 1937 he greatly expanded the concentration camp system; at the beginning of the war he created the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Imperial Main Security Office), the central institution of repression; and he developed the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the SS. In October 1939 Himmler received a specific authorization as Reichskommissar für die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums (imperial commissar for the strengthening of Germandom), thus becoming responsible for all deportations, settlement of ethnic Germans, and "racial screening" in German-occupied Europe. Himmler not only supervised demographic restructuring, especially in Eastern Europe, but also developed gigantic plans for deportations and mass murder (General Plan East, prepared in 1941–1942). These included the mass murder of all European Jews, the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." The SS chief supervised the murder units that accompanied the army during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and oversaw the extension of the genocide over the whole of Europe at the end of the year. After the death of Reinhard Heydrich in June 1942, he also took over the latter's position as head of the SS Security Police until January 1943 and organized mass murder in detail. By mid-1942 the SS also coordinated antipartisan warfare in most of Eastern Europe, which resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians. In August 1943 Himmler took over the Ministry of Interior and tried to restructure the administration. He concentrated his military aspirations on the Waffen-SS, and after the plot against Hitler in July 1944 he additionally became Befehlshaber des Ersatzheeres of the Wehrmacht (commander of the replacement army), giving the SS control over the organization of the POW system.

Himmler was highly influenced by racist and agrarian ideologies. He represented a specific brand of National Socialism, focusing on settlement policy in the east, trying to integrate all groups that appeared to have "Germanic" or "Aryan" roots. He was able to monopolize the policies concerning ethnic Germans abroad. Himmler based his policies on a kind of feudalism, with feudal relationships between German settlers inside the SS leadership, especially the higher SS and police leaders—his personal representatives in the occupied territories—and the indigenous population. He aspired to develop the SS as the future elite of Germany, predominantly based on racist selection. The SS chief himself decided in most cases on individual SS entries and marriages of SS members. His elite was to provide personnel and intervene in all realms of political and social life. Due to his personal appearance and sometimes occult interests (like spice growing), he has often not been taken seriously by historians. But in reality Himmler was a restless manager of the SS, touring all territories where the SS was active and inspecting even extermination camps and mass executions. Inside the Nazi system he developed an enormous power base, yet he remained extremely loyal to Hitler and did not start his own political initiatives before the final period of the war. There are indications that Himmler tried to contact the western Allies from mid-1944, first to trade Jewish lives for money and, during the last months of the war, to negotiate a separate peace with the West in order to continue the war against the Soviet Union. Upon learning this, Hitler ousted the SS chief in April 1945. Himmler tried to escape Allied arrest with false papers but was soon recognized and put in British custody, where he committed suicide.

See alsoHeydrich, Reinhard; Nazism; SS (Schutzstaffel).


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

Himmler, Heinrich. Geheimreden 1933 bis 1945 und andere Ansprachen. Edited by Bradley F. Smith and Agnes F. Peterson. Frankfurt/Main, 1974.

——. Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42. Edited by Peter Witte et al. Hamburg, 1999.

Koehl, Robert Lewis. The Black Corps: The Structure and Power Struggles of the Nazi SS. Madison, Wis., 1983.

Padfield, Peter. Himmler: Reichsführer-SS. London, 1990.

Smith, Bradley F. Heinrich Himmler: A Nazi in the Making, 1900–1926. Stanford, Calif., 1971.

Dieter Pohl