Himmler, Heinrich

views updated May 29 2018

Heinrich Himmler

BORN: October 7, 1900 • Munich, Germany

DIED: May 23, 1945 • Luneberg, Germany

German administrator, military commander

German military commander Heinrich Himmler became a key organizer and officer-in-charge of Nazi Germany's infamous concentration camps during World War II (1939–45). The camps included the death, also known as extermination, camps, where millions of people were murdered in a very businesslike manner. The camps were the centerpiece of the German effort to exterminate all Jews living in Europe. Considered the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany behind dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Himmler oversaw the murder of possibly as many as eleven or twelve million people including six million Jews, an event later referred to as the Holocaust. Other categories of victims besides Jews included Russian war prisoners, Slavic populations of Eastern Europe and Russia, homosexuals, Catholics, and Roma peoples known as Gypsies.

"The best political weapon is the weapon of terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But, we don't ask for their love; only for their fear."

Himmler is one of the most notorious mass murderers in world history. He was driven by extreme loyalty to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party and intense racial prejudice. Himmler was the mastermind behind the mass murders, which were motivated solely by prejudice and referred to as ethnic cleansing later in the twentieth century. He was able to convince thousands of people to carry out mass murders on an almost daily basis with few apparent feelings of guilt. He even authorized gruesome medical experiments on living inmates in concentration camps.

A comfortable upbringing

Himmler was born in October 1900 in Munich, Germany, into a middle-class family. He was the second of three sons. His father, Gebhardt Himmler, was a schoolteacher. His mother, Anna Maria Heyder Himmler, was a homemaker. Gebhardt ruled over the family members with a stern hand, expecting excellence from each of the children in their schooling and other endeavors. When Himmler was thirteen years old, the family moved fifty miles away from Munich to Landshut, where Gebhardt became headmaster (principal) of a school.

While Himmler was in high school, World War I (1912–18) raged across parts of Europe. The war raised Himmler's interest in military matters. When he graduated from high school, Himmler joined the Germany army and attended officer training school. However, just before he was to be commissioned an officer, Germany conceded defeat and the war ended. Himmler was discharged from his military responsibilities.

After the war, Himmler went to work on a farm to learn about agriculture. However, his chronic poor health forced him to quit the heavy labor of a farm job. He moved back into Munich and began studying agriculture at the university. While in school, Himmler became interested in the right-wing paramilitary organizations that were formed after the war by former German soldiers who remained upset about their defeat. Himmler joined one of the groups. It was named the Imperial War Flag. Anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) was very strong in Germany at this time. The Jews were blamed, or used as scapegoats (people blamed for something over which they have no control), for Germany's loss in the war. Himmler shared these sentiments with his fellow soldiers.

Joins the Nazi movement

In 1922, Himmler graduated from college and went to work for a fertilizer company. The following year, he began taking part in the activities of the newly established organization called the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazis for short. He participated in Hitler's unsuccessful military revolt to gain power in Munich, Germany, in early November 1923, an event known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The Nazis were considered a politically radical group by the general public at the time, and Himmler lost his job due to his association with them. During the 1920s, the Nazis were recruiting soldiers from the paramilitary groups to form its own military organization known as the Slutzstaffen or Security Squad (SS). The primary purpose of the SS at first was to provide an elite bodyguard unit for Hitler and other party leaders. By 1925, Himmler was accepted as a member of the SS and began quickly rising through its ranks.

Nazi Extermination Camps

The following concentration camps were constructed during World War II with special facilities to carry out mass murders against Jews and others considered undesirable by the Nazis. The estimated number of people killed at each camp is also given. Approximately 80 percent of those killed at these camps were Jews. All of these camps except Jasemovac and Maly Trostenets were located in Poland. They all were operated by German commander Heinrich Himmler's SS troops.

  • Auschwitz—1.1 million (the largest camp, first established in April 1940 as a concentration camp, with construction of extermination facilities begun in October 1941)
  • Belzec—500,000 (began operation on March 17, 1942)
  • Chelmno—152,000 (first death camp in operation on December 8, 1941, and continued until April 1943)
  • Majdanek—200,000 (operated from April 1942 to July 1944)
  • Sobibor—250,000 (operated from May 1942 to October 1943)
  • Treblinka—800,000 (operated from July 1942 to October 1943)
  • Jasenovac—600,000 (located in Croatia, most victims were ethnic Serbs)
  • Maly Trostenets—60,000 (located in Belarus, it is the camp least known about because it was under Soviet Union rule following World War II until 1990s)

In 1928, Himmler married a Polish nurse, Margarete Concerzowo, who operated a Berlin nursing home. They sold the nursing home and bought a small farm outside Munich from which they sold produce and raised hens. They had one daughter. As Himmler's Nazi responsibilities steadily grew, he would spend less and less time at the farm with the family. By January 1929, Himmler became the head commander of the SS. Himmler was elected as a deputy to the German parliament known as the Reichstag in 1930. Himmler would also have two other children with his personal secretary after separating from his wife in 1940.

Growth of the SS

When Himmler took command of the SS in 1929, it numbered only 280 members. It was a very small part of the regular German army, known as the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Stormtrooper in English). Through aggressively promoting his troops with Nazi leaders, Himmler was successful in building the SS and expanding its responsibilities. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in 1933, the SS ranks had dramatically increased to 52,000 soldiers. The SS also reflected the strong racism of the Nazis. All SS troops had to project a certain physical appearance. They had to represent the ideal German as viewed by the Nazis: blond, blue-eyed, and physically strong. Nazis and other Germans referred to this model as the Aryan race.

Not only did Himmler make sure the soldiers had the proper physical and racial characteristics, he also laid down the rules about whom the SS troops could marry. Himmler wanted to ensure the purity of the race by not allowing any contamination of undesired biological traits deriving from Slav, Jewish, or Roma ancestry. He even established a mandatory SS bride school to shape the future wives on the proper behavior of an SS wife.

In contrast, Himmler was short, slight in stature, and not very athletic. He was severely nearsighted. Having little personality, Himmler was never very comfortable socializing. He was often sickly and had a persistently weak stomach. Nonetheless, his zealous attitude and steadfast allegiance to Nazi leaders allowed him to gain a prominent position of power. There was nothing he would not do, no matter how ruthless, if commanded.

Nazis expand power

Prior to 1933, the SS were considered a small supplementary force to the regular army. However, with the Nazis now in power, Himmler wanted to make the SS special. In late 1933, he introduced a major new uniform change for the SS. Instead of the SA brown shirts, the SS adopted fearsome-looking black uniforms. Himmler also rose in rank equal to regular SA commanders, a promotion resented by the other commanders. That same year, Himmler established Germany's first concentration camp at Dachau, where political prisoners—people considered as opponents or threats to the Nazis—could be held. It would be the forerunner of what was to appear later across Europe.

In early 1934, Hitler and the other Nazi leaders increasingly considered the traditional leadership of the regular German army, the SA, as a threat to Nazi rule. Hitler assigned Himmler and several other high-ranking party members to kill the commander of the SA, Ernst Rohm, and other senior SA officials. On June 30, 1934, Himmler and the others carried out the order, executing Rohm and others. The following day, the SS became a military organization fully independent from the SA; Himmler was its leader. No one dared to question Himmler for his actions.

Himmler's span of influence continued to grow throughout the 1930s. In 1936, Hitler gave Himmler and the SS control over all German local law enforcement organizations. The German secret police unit also came under Himmler's leadership. Himmler now enjoyed vast police powers in Germany and additional territories as Germany gained control of neighboring countries without open conflict. Himmler focused on security and espionage (secretly gathering and analyzing of information about potential enemies) throughout the region.

World War II

World War II broke out in September 1939 when Hitler unleashed Germany's massive war machine consisting of the latest in armored vehicles, tanks, and combat aircraft together with very large, well-equipped ground forces, which quickly overran Poland. Hitler wanted more than a military occupation of Poland, he wanted to destroy Polish society and replace it with German society. Himmler and the SS were charged with the task of eliminating Polish society. Himmler oversaw the construction of more concentration camps, where those people considered by the Nazis to be undesirable could be rounded up and imprisoned. The targeted people included Jews, Roma, priests, homosexual males, political leaders, Communist party members, and any others the Nazis held a racial or religious prejudice against. Not only were these peoples considered political opponents, but also threats to the purity of the German race.

Jews comprised such a large part of Polish society that the Germans needed to round them up and isolate them in crowded neighborhoods called ghettos before shipping them to camps. As Himmler remained in the background, his SS troops—dressed in their pressed black uniforms, black caps, shiny black boots, and wearing swastika (a key Nazi symbol believed associated with the mythical ancient Aryan race) armbands—terrorized these crowded ghettos. As a show of extreme prejudicial cruelty, they murdered, raped, and robbed the Jews trapped in the ghettos as they rampaged through the ghettos' streets.

Himmler's responsibilities greatly expanded again in June 1941, when Germany launched a massive surprise assault against its ally, the Soviet Union. As the German army swept across previously Soviet-controlled territories, Himmler was charged with administering those newly gained lands and their peoples. As in Poland, the goal of the Nazis was to destroy the Soviet communist system and its society. In doing this, they wished to rid the population of the undesirables as in Poland, including Jews, Slavs, and Roma. Himmler chose a particularly bloody approach. He sent out mobile volunteer death squads. These units searched out the targeted people and then gathered them on the outskirts of towns, where they would shoot them all as a group, execution style. The bodies were then buried in mass graves or burned in piles.

The Final Solution

During the 1930s the Germans under Hitler made life as unbearable as possible for German Jews to try to force them to leave the country of their own accord. Between 1933 and 1941, the number of Jews in Germany declined from 500,000 to 164,000. However, fewer countries were willing to accept more Jews in large numbers as time passed due to anti-Semitism in their societies. By late 1941, it was no longer effective to force Jews to leave. Millions of Jews were detained by the Germans, the highest concentration being in Poland. The Nazi leadership, including Himmler, decided the only option of eliminating the Jews was by mass extermination. They referred to this option as the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.

On January 20, 1942, Himmler's assistant, Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942), led a meeting of Nazi leadership known as the Wannsee Conference. They were to decide how to carry out the extermination, or genocide (killing of an entire race or particular population of people). The resulting plan was to transport the Jews from the ghettos by train to concentration camps specially equipped with gas chambers for killing large numbers of people at a time and crematoriums for burning their bodies. Many of the captives would be used as slave laborers for industries located at the camps until they died from exhaustion, malnourishment, or exposure to the harsh Polish winter conditions. The young, elderly, and infirm (sick) were to be killed as soon as they arrived in camp. Himmler ordered all gold teeth to be removed from the bodies to help pay for the camp expenses. The entire extermination process would operate with the cold efficiency of an industry and in complete secrecy. Gas chambers were even disguised as large shower rooms.

Though naturally a timid person, Himmler became the most feared man in Germany. He made sure the SS carried out anything Hitler ordered, no matter how evil the task. One example of his ruthlessness occurred in 1942, when Heydrich was killed by Czech resistance fighters in Prague. In reprisal, Himmler had every male in the region killed.

By 1943, the SS, which included thirty-five divisions or eight hundred thousand armed troops, had grown in size to rival the regular German army. Himmler even began plans for SS industries, such as tank production. However, the existing German war production minister blocked those plans not wanting to see the SS expand any further. In response, Himmler ordered what resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to have the minister killed in February 1944. Himmler also made plans for a guerilla (an irregular combat unit) force in the event that Germany should lose the war. The guerillas would continue fighting for the German Nazi cause after the war officially ended.

With expanded SS capabilities, Himmler assumed field command of combat units for a while in late 1944. First he commanded troops in the Alsace region of France against U.S. and French troops. He then moved to the eastern front against Soviet troops. Given his lack of previous battlefield experience, he was ineffective in leading on the field of combat. Hitler soon brought him back to the home front to command troops stationed there. Hitler expanded Himmler's powers in other ways each year up to and through 1944 appointing him as Germany's interior minister in charge of overseeing activities within Germany. To many, Himmler clearly seemed to be the mostly likely successor to Hitler if anything should happen to the German dictator.

By the spring of 1945, it was becoming clear to Himmler and others that defeat in the war was unavoidable. On his own and behind Hitler's back, Himmler decided to seek negotiations for peace with the Allies. Using a Swedish contact, Himmler transmitted an offer for surrender to the Allied commander, U.S. general Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969). In return, Himmler requested a promise of freedom from prosecution. Himmler even gave some Jews a last-minute reprieve (pardon) from death in hopes that would win him favor with the Allied leadership. However, Eisenhower ignored the offer and declared Himmler a war criminal. Himmler's attempt to surrender soon came to Hitler's attention. Accusing Himmler of being a traitor to the Nazi cause, Hitler stripped Himmler of all commands and rank. Hitler committed suicide the following day as Allied troops were closing in.

Himmler was now a wanted man by the Allies and banished by the Nazis. Hoping to secretly escape from Germany, Himmler wandered for several days near the Danish border, posing as a member of a local police force. However, his forged identification papers aroused suspicion of a British patrol unit. They took him into custody on May 21, 1945. His true identity quickly became known. He was shocked that once they knew his identity he was still treated as a common prisoner rather than with the respect due an elite officer.

The Allies joined Himmler with other German leaders destined to stand trial at Nuremburg, Germany, on war crimes (violating international laws of war) charges. However, on May 23, before he could be interrogated, Himmler committed suicide by swallowing a potassium cyanide capsule he had been hiding in his mouth. The Allies buried him in a secret location so that Nazi sympathizers could not use his burial location as a gathering spot and place of inspiration. In an ironic twist, a great-niece of Himmler's later married the son of a Holocaust survivor who lived in Israel.

The numbers of people killed at Himmler's death camps in Poland were staggering. At Auschwitz alone, between 1.1 and 1.6 million people were killed. Some eight thousand people were killed at Auschwitz each day during its operation. Over 200,000 Gypsies were also killed at Auschwitz. At the Treblinka camp which was operated for seventeen months a staff of 120 Germans killed between 750,000 and 900,000. Belzec operated for ten months and claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 Jews. About 250,000 were killed at Sobibor. At some camps, gruesome medical experiments were performed on live victims, such as seeing the effects of freezing to death, testing various drugs, and performing amputations without medication. Some prisoners threw themselves into the electrified fences to give themselves a mercifully quick death. As Soviet troops were approaching Auschwitz in January 1945, the Germans marched 60,000 remaining prisoners 35 miles before boarding them on trains to other concentration camps. Approximately 15,000 died on the way. When the killings ended at some camps, all traces of the camps were removed and farms were built on the sites.

For More Information


Altman, Linda J. Hitler's Rise to Power and the Holocaust. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2003.

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

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1986.

Hale, Christopher. Himmler's Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley, 2003.

Padfield, Peter. Himmler. New York: MJF Books, 1996.


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Himmler, Heinrich

views updated Jun 11 2018

Himmler, Heinrich

[OCTOBER 7, 1900–MAY 23, 1945]

Father of the concentration camp

Heinrich Himmler has been labeled the "architect of genocide," the Nazi leader who more than any other encouraged and facilitated Adolf Hitler's decision to implement the Final Solution to the Jewish question, as well as other programs of ethnic cleansing that destroyed untold millions of lives during World War II. Few understood, embraced, and exalted the Führer's evil dreams as thoroughly as Himmler. For him they were a moral imperative.

Himmler was born the second son of a secondary-school teacher and one-time tutor to the Bavarian royal family. None of Himmler's scholarly biographers trace his hate-filled, phobic prejudices to his formative years. He no doubt absorbed conventional prejudices about minorities and outgroups, but nothing virulent. Germany's defeat in World War I transformed his conservative nationalism, like that of many future Nazis, into xenophobia, while conspiracy theories about Jews increasingly provided a scapegoat for national failure. His growing anti-Semitism fused with widely held ideas about racial purity versus degeneracy. His romantic nationalism evolved into a mystic vision of German regeneration through a combination of racial breeding and heroic struggle to colonize Slavic lands to the east. By 1924 he had abandoned Catholicism as inconsistent with his evolving views and added it to his conspiracy theories.

During this same period Himmler became a career Nazi as deputy to Gregor Strasser, head of the party's propaganda office, and his growing worldview received reinforcement. By 1926 he coordinated the propaganda of the SS, then a small paramilitary group with a bodyguard formation, and had become its deputy leader. That brought him into contact with Hitler. Impressed by Himmler's absolute loyalty, the Führer named him Reichsfuhrer SS. Himmler found his mission. He dreamed of turning the SS into a racial and ideological elite, the highly trained police force of the Nazi movement, a state protection corps that would unquestioningly fulfill the Führer's will and advance their common goal of creating a homogeneous and disciplined society.

By the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, Himmler had built the SS into a power base in competition with Hitler's other paladins. He envisioned a fusion of Germany's police, as the internal defense force of the nation, with his SS. Although Hitler undoubtedly encouraged such dreams, Himmler had to compete with many rivals in the divide-and-control system that the Führer employed to keep any lieutenant from becoming powerful enough to threaten his preeminence or to set policy.

Himmler succeeded by early 1934 in gaining nominal control over all the separate political police, and by 1936 had consolidated them into a unified national Gestapo. At the same time he acquired unified command of all German state police to become Reichsführer SS and Chief of German Police. As Hitler moved toward war, his phobias about domestic opposition had led him to favor Himmler's plans for an SS-police state as the most suitable means for domestic control. Soon Himmler was virtually independent from most normal state mechanisms of control, answerable almost exclusively to Hitler.

Himmler's SS-police state involved a tripartite wedding of SS, police, and concentration camps, all under his personal authority, with any legal appeals against them channeled through him. During the war his SS empire expanded further to become a veritable "state within a state," including the Waffen-SS military formations, a near monopoly of foreign and domestic intelligence operations, SS industries and social and cultural institutions, control over a vast reservoir of slave labor, the authority to resettle or exterminate millions, and the design and construction of the facilities needed for the expansion of the Nazi racial utopia into the occupied lands of the East.

The key to Himmler's powerful position was his dogged efforts to fulfill the Führer's every wish, especially in pursuit of a "racially pure" national community. To do so, he had to anticipate every evolution in Hitler's goals, and often encourage and facilitate their development toward ever more radical conclusions. Every step in the growth of Himmler's SS empire made it possible for Hitler to conceive of something more ambitious, and that in turn led to yet more opportunities for Himmler to add to his power.

Himmler and lieutenants like Reinhard Heydrich and Kurt Daluege developed police forces that eliminated opposition and proceeded to purge society of socalled undesirable elements, defined ideologically, religiously, culturally, socially, medically, and racially. The concentration camps would reeducate through incarceration all salvageable elements and forcefully employ or eliminate all others. At first this campaign of terror was to intended to encourage the emigration of such segments of the population as the Jews.

Heydrich's SS academics and Jewish experts in his Security Service (SD) outmaneuvered more radical Nazi anti-Semites by ostensibly studying the Jewish problem scientifically and proposing "rational" solutions. After the pogrom of November 1938 (Kristallnacht), when the actions of radicals wreaked extensive economic damage with embarrassing international consequences, Heydrich was allowed to establish model emigration centers throughout the entire Reich under Gestapo authority. It thus became the executive agency for handling the Jewish problem.

As Himmler developed the means to carry out solutions, Hitler gave him more authority for handling "population problems." Heydrich's Kriminalpolizei (regular detectives) facilitated Hitler's euthanasia program, combated homosexuality and prostitution, and dealt with the Romani problem. When the 1939 invasion of Poland greatly expanded such population management problems, Heydrich's Einsatzgruppen either exterminated any potential resistance leadership among Poles and Jews or consigned them to labor camps. Himmler became Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom, responsible for removing all undesirables from areas incorporated into the Reich, absorbing any suitable people into the German gene pool, and resettling the ethnic Germans from Soviet territories. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the "racial war" that Hitler unleashed, Himmler's authority expanded to encompass most matters involved in building the future racial empire that would extend to the Urals. This rapidly came to include total extermination of the Jewish population in the East, and finally, by perhaps the fall of 1941, orders from Hitler to exterminate all Jews in Europe. With them would go most Romani and gradually all other peoples regarded as unsuitable human breeding stock in the occupied East.

Even after defeat became inevitable, Himmler could not turn against his Führer. Nevertheless, he increasingly allowed subordinates to pursue half-baked schemes for peace feelers with the Western Allies. He also approached Hitler as early as December 1942 with plans for trading Jews for foreign currency or other advantages. Although this contradicted their determination to exterminate all Jews, Hitler consented. Many convoluted maneuvers ensued with little benefit to any Jews. By late 1944 Himmler combined the two options, negotiating with the Allies for the release of some Jews, hoping to appear as the "responsible" leader. On April 28, 1945, when Hitler learned of Himmler's efforts to negotiate surrender, he ordered his arrest. Himmler survived but he was captured by the British and soon thereafter committed suicide.

Although most scholars agree that Hitler made the ultimate decisions to unleash first mass murder and finally genocide, and they concur on Himmler's responsibility for its execution, greater debate exists about Himmler's role in Hitler's decisions. Some argue, convincingly, that he and Heydrich presented far-reaching proposals or contingency plans as early as 1939. In the field their lieutenants and other Nazi and military regional authorities creatively exceeded their authority, thereby encouraging escalation. In particular, however, Himmler's SS empire consistently demonstrated that it had not only the organizational machinery for whatever Hitler conceived, but that it could also overcome the psychological barriers to the mobilization of the hundreds of thousands of perpetrators needed for the job.

SEE ALSO Einsatzgruppen; Gestapo; Heydrich, Reinhard; Hitler, Adolf; SS


Ackermann, Josef (1970). Heinrich Himmler als Ideologe. Goettingen: Musterschmidt.

Bauer, Yehuda (1994). Jews for Sale? Bartering for Jewish Lives. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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

Breitmann, Richard (1995). "A Deal with the Nazi Dictatorship?: Himmler's Alleged Peace Emissaries in Autumn 1943." Journal of Contemporary History 30:411–430.

Breitmann, Richard (1999). "Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941." In The Holocaust in History: The Known, theUnknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peek. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Breitman, Richard (1999). "Mein Kampf and the Himmler Family: Two Generations React to Hitler's Ideas." Holocaust and Genocide Studies 13:90–97.

Smith, Bradley F. (1971). Heinrich Himmler: A Nazi in the Making, 1900–1926. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

Witte, Peter, Michael Wildt, Martina Voigt, Dieter Pohl, Peter Klein, Christian Gerlach, Christoph Dieckmann, and Andrej Angrick, eds. (1999). Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42. Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag.

George C. Browder

Heinrich Himmler

views updated May 29 2018

Heinrich Himmler

The German National Socialist politician Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) commanded the SS, Hitler's elite troops, and was head of the Gestapo. He was perhaps the most powerful and ruthless man in Nazi Germany next to Hitler himself.

Born in Munich, Bavaria, on Oct. 7, 1900, Heinrich Himmler was the son of the former tutor of one of the Bavarian princes. In World War I he took his first opportunity to join the army (1917), but owing to his frail health he never reached the front. Yet he continued soldiering in veterans' bands after the war while a student at the university in Munich, and in November 1923 he marched in Hitler's ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch. After a brief flirt with the leftist Strasser faction of the Nazis, the young anti-Semitic fanatic joined Hitler in 1926 as deputy propaganda chief.

In January 1929 Himmler found his "calling" with his appointment as commander of the blackshirt SS (Schutzstaffel) —then still a small, untrained bodyguard. With characteristic drive and pedantic precision he rapidly turned this organization into an elite army of 50, 000— including its own espionage system (SD). After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Himmler took over and expanded the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, secret police). In 1934 he liquidated Ernst Roehm, chief of the SA (storm troopers), and thus gained autonomy for the SS, which took charge of all concentration camps.

From this power base, to which he added the position of chief of all German police forces in June 1936 and that of minister of the interior in August 1943, Himmler coordinated the entire Nazi machinery of political suppression and racial "purification." From 1937 on, the entire German population was screened for "Aryan" racial purity by Himmler's mammoth bureaucratic apparatus. After the invasion of eastern Europe it became Himmler's task to "Germanize" the occupied areas and to deport the native populations to concentration camps.

After the plot of July 1944 against Hitler, Himmler also became supreme commander of all home armies. In 1943 he made contacts with the Western Allies in an attempt to preserve his own position and to barter Jewish prisoners for his own safety—an action which caused his expulsion from the party shortly before Hitler's death. On May 21, 1945, Heinrich Himmler was captured while fleeing from the British at Bremervoerde. Two days later he took poison and died.

Further Reading

Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Himmler (1965), a carefully researched and fair-minded biography, is the best personal portrayal in English. Willi Frischauer, Himmler: The Evil Genius of the Third Reich (1953), is more concerned with the SS itself, as is Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death's Head, translated by Richard Barry (1969). Felix Kersten, The Kersten Memoirs, translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon and James Oliver (1956), is a fascinating and invaluable close-up look at Himmler by his personal physician.

Additional Sources

Breitman, Richard, The architect of genocide: Himmler and the final solution, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1991; Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992.

Kersten, Felix, The Kersten memoirs: 1940-1945, New York: H. Fertig, 1994; Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Lee, Robert J., Fascinating relics of the Third Reich, Franklin, Tenn. (P.O. Box 465, Franklin 37065): R.J. Lee, 1985.

Padfield, Peter, Himmler: Reichsfuhrer-SS, New York: Holt, 1991. □

Himmler, Heinrich

views updated May 23 2018

Himmler, Heinrich (1900–45) German Nazi leader. In 1929, he became head of the SS. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Himmler assumed control of the German Gestapo and of the concentration camps. Captured by the British in 1945, he committed suicide before the Nuremberg Trials.

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