The SS ended with a whimper. By the summer of 1944, the Third Reich was beleaguered on all fronts and the vast military machine that Hitler and his generals had assembled was crumbling. The tide of the war had been decisively turned by the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43, and ultimately by the failure of the German Kursk offensive in July 1943. Thereafter, despite the best efforts of ordinary German soldiers and airmen, as well as the workers on the home front who attempted to sustain them, the German armed forces could do little more than fight a series of increasingly futile holding actions against the overwhelming strength of the Red Army. In September 1943, Italy—Germany’s principal European ally—surrendered. Nine months later, the Germans’ inability to repulse the Allied landings in northern France merely confirmed that the war was already irretrievably lost.
This fact was not lost on Himmler and the senior officers of the SS. Walter Schellenberg had succeeded Heinz Jost as chief of Office VI of the RSHA in 1943,1 and he had also become Himmler’s closest professional confidant since the death of Heydrich. Through his access to foreign intelligence, Schellenberg was in no doubt that Germany was heading for defeat, and indeed had been so ever since the United States had joined the war in December 1941. By his own account, he had proposed seeking peace with the Western Allies to Himmler as early as the summer of 1942. Himmler was too nervous and indecisive to plot against Hitler at that time, but he had not dismissed the idea out of hand.2
Schellenberg knew that the West would not countenance an armistice while Hitler remained in control, and he hoped to convince Himmler of that reality, too. Throughout 1943, he used Office VI’s network of contacts in neutral countries to float the idea of the removal of Hitler as a prelude to peace negotiations with a number of potential intermediaries. But all of this came to nothing: Schellenberg was unable to obtain any meaningful guidance or support from the Western Allies, who remained implacably committed to a policy of unconditional surrender. Without this, Himmler continued to lack the strength of will to act against Hitler.
While Himmler vacillated, he and the senior leadership of the RSHA were aware of several knots of political resistance within the German establishment. The most important of these was centred on the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service commanded by Wilhelm Canaris. His deputy, General Hans Oster—in the full knowledge of Canaris himself—had coordinated resistance within the military, and had liaised with rebels in the Foreign Office and other parts of the German establishment. The Gestapo learned something of this after arresting Wilhelm Schmidhuber, a currency speculator and smuggler whom Oster had used as an informant and to smuggle Jews out of Germany. Under interrogation, Schmidhuber revealed his links with the resistance, implicating Oster and others within the Abwehr, as well as General Beck, the retired chief of the General Staff, and Karl Goerdeler, a former mayor of Leipzig. Obviously, this evidence of a resistance network at the highest levels of the Abwehr meant that Canaris came under suspicion too, but at this stage no arrests were made. Instead, Oster and one of his associates were merely dismissed from the Abwehr while the Gestapo continued to investigate.3
Finally, in January and February 1944, a number of Abwehr personnel, including Canaris, were arrested, while the Abwehr itself was incorporated into the RSHA. (It became known as the Military Office.) However, none of the Gestapo’s investigations unearthed an even more significant resistance cell within the headquarters of the Replacement Army, the German Army’s home command. By June, these plotters, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, had decided that the only way to save Germany from total collapse was to stage a coup d’état.4 Their interpretation was correct. On the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht was being overwhelmed by the massive Red Army, which was pushing into Poland and South-East Europe. In the West, the Allies had established a firm beachhead in Normandy.5
Von Stauffenberg, who had been severely wounded in North Africa,* was chief of staff to the commander of the Replacement Army, which gave him access to Hitler’s field headquarters at Rastenberg, East Prussia. On 20 July, after several earlier abortive attempts, he smuggled a small bomb—made from British plastic explosives—into Hitler’s daily situation conference. Having set the fuse, he excused himself, saying he needed to make a telephone call. The bomb exploded and von Stauffenberg was convinced that Hitler must have been killed. He talked his way out of Rastenberg and flew back to Berlin to coordinate the rest of the coup from the Replacement Army headquarters in Bendlerstrasse.6
The rebels’ plan was based on an existing contingency plan, codenamed Valkyrie, which had been developed to counter civil unrest in Germany. Hitler’s assassination would have given the Replacement Army the perfect justification to implement this plan, impose martial law and oust any loyalists who insisted on prolonging the war. However, Hitler was not assassinated: he sustained only minor injuries in the explosion. Nevertheless, von Stauffenberg’s group were determined to continue. They issued orders to military district commanders in the name of the commander of the Replacement Army, claiming that an element within the party was attempting a coup and ordering the arrest of regional leaders, other senior party officials, senior SS and police leaders, senior Waffen-SS commanders and other SS and police officers. Some arrests were made in Vienna, while in Paris Senior SS and Police Leader Carl Oberg and other high officials were taken into military custody.7
Coincidentally, Himmler was at his own field headquarters near Rastenberg when the attack took place,* and he hurried to Hitler’s side.8 Like many others, he put his leader’s survival down to providence and temporarily shelved any doubts he had about his conduct of the war. Instead, he attempted to exploit the situation for his own advantage. That very afternoon, he persuaded Hitler to appoint him Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army. In some respects, this represented the zenith of Himmler’s power.
The situation throughout German-occupied Europe remained confused for some hours as contradictory orders were issued by the conspirators and by Hitler loyalists in Berlin and Rastenberg. But before long it was evident that the plot had failed. Members of the conspiracy could have cut communications from Rastenberg, but they failed to do so, which meant that Hitler and senior loyalists were able to countermand Valkyrie. After a struggle between conspirators and loyalists at Bendlerstrasse, von Stauffenberg and three other leaders of the plot were summarily executed in the courtyard of their headquarters.
The SS could never claim to have foiled the plot. The so-called “state protection corps” had no knowledge of von Stauffenberg’s group before the bomb exploded; and, perhaps even more damningly, they did virtually nothing to counter the coup once it had been launched. Von Stauffenberg’s rebellion was stopped in its tracks by members of the German Army acting at the behest of the regime’s political leadership. The first SS personnel to arrive in Berlin were members of the Waffen-SS special forces from their base at Friedenthal, under the command of Otto Skorzeny, chief of sabotage within Office VI of the RSHA. But the crisis was already over by the time they showed up.
However, having failed to detect the conspiracy, the Gestapo now swung into action to exact revenge for it. Interrogations of existing resistance suspects were stepped up and around five thousand more people were arrested over the next few months. Many of these were not associated with the bomb plot, but they were still identified as potential opponents of the state. After a series of show trials, about two hundred alleged and genuine conspirators were executed between August 1944 and April 1945.9
ON PAPER, HIMMLER was now the second most powerful man in Germany. As National Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police, he controlled the nation’s security and police apparatus, the intelligence service, and the Waffen-SS (which, by now, was notionally thirty-eight divisions strong). As Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army, he commanded all military units on home territory. But the reality was somewhat different. The vast majority of the Waffen-SS units were out of Himmler’s reach, under the command of the OKW: his responsibility extended no further than supplying them with such men and materials as were still available. Meanwhile, by and large, the police were controlled by local party and civil authorities. Himmler occasionally attempted to transfer policemen into the Waffen-SS, but his efforts were invariably stymied by the party and regional leaders. Finally, his new command of the Replacement Army gave him authority over a vast pool of manpower, but there was little he could actually do with it: the Replacement Army was designed to supply units for combat, not to engage in combat itself.
Even more ominously for Himmler, his hold over the RSHA was slipping. During the course of the investigation into the bomb plot, Ernst Kaltenbrunner had started to forge an alliance with Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary and head of the Party Chancellery. Like all senior figures in the National Socialist hierarchy, Bormann was highly experienced at the political infighting that earned power and prestige. He had also viewed Himmler’s meteoric rise with some alarm and was determined to undermine him in order to increase his own influence. He did this by giving Kaltenbrunner direct access to Hitler, thus cutting Himmler out of the loop that controlled the RSHA. In practice, this meant that Himmler’s orders—for example, those concerning the release of selected prisoners from concentration camps—could be ignored or even countermanded by Kaltenbrunner. In the RSHA, both Kaltenbrunner and his chief ally Müller loathed and distrusted Himmler’s main confident, Schellenberg.
However, Himmler barely noticed any of these machinations against him. In November 1944, Hitler decided to create a new army group—Upper Rhine—for the area between Karlsruhe and the Swiss border. Early the following month, Bormann proposed Himmler as its commander, his argument being that, as head of the Replacement Army, Himmler would be able to muster the soldiers to man it.10 Hitler agreed, and Himmler was duly appointed. It is not clear whether Bormann nominated Himmler in the genuine belief that he was the best man for the job or because he expected him to fail and consequently lose even more prestige. Either way, failure was inevitable because the formations under Himmler’s command were weak and poorly trained. Nevertheless, Himmler was delighted finally to possess a high military command, and he was determined to launch an operation. It was decided that his new army group would combine with Army Group G to retake Strasbourg, which had recently been captured by the US 7th Army.
The assault began on 5 January 1945 and achieved some initial success, with Himmler’s formations advancing to within a few kilometres of Strasbourg. However, the collapse of the Ardennes offensive to the north freed American troops to counter-attack. A few days after they did so, Himmler’s forces were involved in a desperate fight just to cling on to the ground they had won.11 On 24 January, Army Group Upper Rhine was deactivated and its formations—primarily the 19th Army and the various elements of the Replacement Army that had been assembled by Himmler—were subordinated to Army Group G. However, this was not quite the end of Himmler’s military command career. The OKW had already decided to create a new army group—Vistula—in Pomerania, in order to coordinate the defence against the Soviet advance there. Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs was just about to assume command when Hitler asserted his authority. In the teeth of opposition from the Army Chief of Staff, General Heinz Guderian, he handed the position to Himmler on 24 January.12
By now, Himmler had realised that he was not cut out for military command, but he was too intimidated to refuse. Army Group Vistula consisted of three armies—the 3rd Panzer Army, the 9th Army and the 21st Army, in total about 500,000 soldiers—but it was desperately short of vehicles and supplies, and so was barely operationally effective. In the first week of Himmler’s command, several of his operations failed dismally. He subsequently retreated to the SS hospital at Hohenlychen, north of Berlin, claiming illness.
Throughout February, Guderian lobbied Hitler to replace Himmler with a competent, experienced general, but Hitler refused. Eventually, in mid-March, the Chief of Staff decided that he must press Himmler himself to resign. He arrived at Vistula’s headquarters to learn that Himmler had been absent for more than a week, supposedly suffering from influenza. Guderian travelled on to Hohenlychen, found Himmler, and diplomatically suggested that he should relinquish his command “on health grounds.” Himmler timidly agreed, and on 20 March General Gotthard Heinrici was appointed to succeed him.13
By now, Himmler seems to have been in a quandary about how to save his own skin. He remained terrified of challenging Hitler, yet was also desperate to improve his reputation with the Western Allies. On 19 February, he had met Count Folke Bernadotte, a member of the Swedish royal family and representative of the Red Cross, and had agreed to release some Scandinavian concentration camp prisoners.14 Now, Schellenberg attempted to persuade him that he should make a peace offer to the Western Allies, via Bernadotte.15 The two men met on 2 April, but Himmler remained indecisive. Later, Schellenberg attempted to persuade Bernadotte to act as a go-between with General Eisenhower, commander of the Western Allies, but the Swede said he would do so only if Himmler took power. When Schellenberg put this to Himmler, he continued to equivocate.
While Himmler vacillated in Germany, the Senior SS and Police Leader in Italy, SS-General Karl Wolff, was in an advanced stage of negotiations with Allen Dulles, the American representative in Switzerland, to surrender all German forces on the Italian front.16However, word of this leaked out in mid-April, and Wolff was summoned to Berlin to face the music. Himmler was furious with the former head of his personal staff for endangering his own position by opening negotiations behind his back, but Wolff countered that he was acting within his authority from Hitler. On 18 April, Wolff met Hitler and Kaltenbrunner and received permission to continue the negotiations.17 He flew back to Italy and surrendered the German forces there on 29 April.18
Himmler’s last meeting with Hitler occurred on 20 April, at a tea party held in what remained of the Reich Chancellery to celebrate the dictator’s fifty-sixth birthday. The next day, he met Bernadotte again, but their discussions went nowhere. By now, though, Berlin was in the combat zone and Hitler would inevitably soon be trapped behind Russian lines. That fact seems to have finally emboldened Himmler. On the evening of 23 April, he and Schellenberg met Bernadotte at the Swedish Consulate in Lübeck, where Himmler made the following statement:
We Germans must declare ourselves as beaten by the Western Allies. That is what I request you, through the Swedish government, to convey to General Eisenhower, so that any further senseless fighting and unnecessary bloodshed might be spared. To the Russians it is impossible for us Germans, and above all for me, to capitulate. We will continue to fight there until the Western Allied front has, so to speak, relieved the German fighting front.19
This offer was put in writing and Bernadotte agreed to present it to the Swedish government, who, in turn, would hand it on to the Western Allies.
Neither Himmler nor Schellenberg seems to have appreciated that this offer was meaningless. Himmler had no operational authority over any combat troops, and he had received no authorisation from Hitler to seek peace. Moreover, it apparently did not occur to Himmler that the Western Allies viewed him as a notorious war criminal and were not prepared to enter into any negotiations with him.
Nevertheless, on 28 April, international press agencies carried the story that Himmler had offered to surrender Germany to the Western Allies. Obviously, this was picked up in Berlin, where Hitler and his inner circle were sheltering in their bunker, now completely surrounded by the Red Army.20 Hitler was incensed by what he regarded as treason from a man whose loyalty he had never questioned. Of course, Himmler had remained loyal—at least until Hitler’s position had become literally hopeless—but that was not enough for the dictator.
Hitler’s first act of vengeance for this supposed treachery fell not on Himmler, but on SS-General Hermann Fegelein. The dashing cavalry commander had succeeded Wolff as liaison officer between Himmler and Hitler in October 1943, and had cemented his place in Hitler’s inner circle by marrying Eva Braun’s sister the following year. He had been living in and around the bunker as the Soviets had tightened their noose around Berlin, but had suddenly disappeared on 27 April. Members of Hitler’s close protection detail, led by SS-Lieutenant Colonel Peter Högl,21 were sent to find him, and Fegelein was discovered with his Hungarian mistress at his flat off the Kurfürstendamm,* drunk, dressed in civilian clothes, with a stash of cash and jewellery.22 A court-martial was immediately convened under the presidency of SS-Brigadier Wilhelm Möhnke, the commander of Hitler’s SS military escort. However, Fegelein was too drunk to face this, so he was put in the custody of Heinrich Müller to sober up. News of Himmler’s peace moves arrived while he was being interrogated the next day. A search of Fegelein’s office revealed that he knew of Himmler’s contacts with Bernadotte, and the enraged Hitler ordered him to be shot without further ado.23 He was taken into the garden of the Reich Chancellery and executed by a firing squad from Hitler’s close protection team.24
Himmler himself was stripped of all of his state and party roles on 29 April. Karl Hanke, the Regional Leader of Breslau, was appointed National Leader of the SS in his place.25 However, this appointment was as meaningless as Himmler’s peace offer: Hanke was still in Breslau, which was besieged by the Soviets.
The next day, Soviet soldiers advanced to within a few hundred metres of Hitler’s bunker. A surprisingly large proportion of the defenders were of foreign origin, drawn from the Norwegian and Danish Panzer-Grenadier regiments of the Nordland Division, a few hundred French volunteers, and a company of Spanish Fascists who had joined the Waffen-SS when the Blue Division was withdrawn from German service in 1943. As these soldiers were forced back by the Red Army, Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz, the chief of the German Navy, based in the north German town of Plön, his successor as head of state. Then the man who had ruled Germany for over twelve years committed suicide. To all intents and purposes, the National Socialist era was over.
By this stage, Himmler had established his headquarters at Lübeck, and he immediately offered his services to the new administration when word arrived from Bormann that Hitler was dead and Dönitz was now in control of Germany and its armed forces. Dönitz later claimed that he turned Himmler down flat, but this seems unlikely, given the number of conversations the two men had around this time.26 In fact, it seems that Himmler advised on the best way to conduct surrender negotiations until 5 May, when a provisional ceasefire came into effect on Dönitz’s orders. At this point, Himmler gave a short speech to his remaining entourage—a disparate group of senior SS bureaucrats, Waffen-SS personnel, members of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, and his personal staff, including SS-Colonel Rudi Brandt, his long-serving personal assistant—in which he effectively told them to make a run for it.
Himmler himself remained in and around Flensburg for a few days after the German surrender on 7 May, probably with his mistress.* Then he tried to escape, heading south towards Bavaria disguised as a Field Security Police NCO and wearing an eye-patch. He was accompanied by Werner Grothmann, one of his adjutants, and Heinz Macher, a young but highly decorated Waffen-SS captain, who were both dressed as army privates. They set out first by car and then, after reaching the River Elbe, on foot, posing as military refugees who were heading home. On 21 May, they were stopped at a British checkpoint between Hamburg and Bremen. Unfortunately for Himmler, he now discovered that Field Security Police NCOs were subject to automatic arrest, so all three men were detained and then moved to a holding camp at Westertimke. Nobody recognised Himmler, but he was sent on to an interrogation centre at Barfeld, near Lüneberg, where he arrived on 23 May.27 At that point, he decided to identify himself. In a meeting with the camp commandant, Captain Selvester, he removed his eye-patch, put on his distinctive spectacles and quietly said, “Heinrich Himmler.” Selvester later recalled: “His identity was at once obvious.”28
Military intelligence was immediately alerted, and Himmler was given a thorough body search. This revealed two brass tubes, similar to cartridge cases: one was empty, while the other contained a glass phial of a substance Selvester took to be poison. The commandant assumed that Himmler had concealed the other phial, possibly in his mouth. Selvester ordered food and tea for the prisoner and watched closely as he ate, but he noticed nothing unusual. A few hours later, Himmler was collected by Colonel Michael Murphy, from Montgomery’s intelligence staff, and driven to a villa in Lüneburg.29 The British were still convinced that he was concealing poison in his mouth; and they were right. As a military doctor prepared to give him an oral examination, he turned his head to one side, flicked the phial from a gap in his teeth with his tongue, and bit down on it.
Despite prolonged resuscitation attempts by the doctor, Heinrich Himmler was dead within a few minutes.30
* He lost his left eye, his right hand and two fingers from his left hand when his car was strafed by British aircraft in Tunisia in 1943.
* The conspirators had originally intended to kill both Himmler and Hitler in a single explosion, in the hope of paralysing the SS as well as the government, but this plan was abandoned because Himmler rarely attended the situation conferences.
* One of Berlin’s most fashionable shopping streets, equivalent to Knightsbridge in London or Park Avenue in New York.
* Himmler is reputed to have had affairs with several women during his years as National Leader of the SS. The longest lasting of these was Hedwig Potthast, the daughter of a Cologne businessman, who had worked as Himmler’s secretary and with whom he had two children (a son born in 1942 and a daughter born in 1944).