The most significant date in the early history of the SS was 20 January 1929,* because that was when Heinrich Himmler, hitherto Heiden’s deputy, took over as National Leader of the tiny organisation. It would soon prove to be an appointment of enormous significance. At the time of his promotion, Himmler was only twenty-eight years old, but he was already a salaried activist within the NSDAP, enjoyed a growing reputation as an outstanding organiser, and had been instrumental in the party’s recent rise to prominence in southern German politics.

Unlike many of his contemporaries amongst the party’s “old fighters,” no great trauma led Himmler into the ranks of the NSDAP: he had not fought at the front during the war and his involvement in the early post-war power struggles had been minimal. Instead, it appears that he was attracted to the movement because it offered him an opportunity to identify with a class of men he greatly admired and was desperate to join: soldiers. Himmler’s own background was comfortable and stolidly middle-class. His paternal grandfather, Johann Himmler, was born in 1809 in the Ansbach region of northern Bavaria, where he was raised by his mother. He trained as a weaver before leaving home at eighteen to join the Royal Bavarian Regiment, where he was noted for his brawling and “immoral behaviour with a low woman.”1 Later, he joined the Munich Police and then transferred into the Bavarian Police. At the age of fifty-three he became a Gendarmerie Brigadier (senior sergeant2) in the district of Lindau, and around the same time he married Agathe Kiene, the twenty-nine-year-old daughter of a local watchmaker. Although of no special significance, Johann’s rise in social status—from illegitimate peasant, via military and police service, to government official and member of the middle classes—is curiously reminiscent of Hitler’s father’s ascent in Austria.

Johann and Agathe’s only son was born in Lindau in 1865 and christened Joseph Gebhard (although he was known by his second name). He was just seven years old when his father died, and Agathe struggled to make ends meet. However, as the son of a deceased civil servant, Gebhard had access to scholarships, and these, combined with his evident academic talent, ensured that he received a top-class education at a classical high school and then at the Royal Bavarian Maximilian University in Munich, where he read philosophy and later philology.3 He finished his studies in 1894 and became a teacher at a Munich high school as well as tutor to Prince Heinrich, the son of Prince Arnulf of Bavaria. Peter Padfield has suggested that Gebhard Himmler was “a member of the educated middle class, with the credentials to rise further in the social scale, and a powerful desire to do so.”4 Providing service to the Bavarian royal family was an excellent way to achieve this end.

In July 1897, Gebhard married Anna Heyder, a quiet, mousy Munich woman a year his junior, and they set up home in a comfortable apartment in the centre of the city. The following summer, their first son, also called Gebhard, was born. He was followed on 7 October 1900 by Heinrich Luitpold. He was given the name after Gebhard Senior had written to the sixteen-year-old Prince Heinrich to request permission to name his new son after his former pupil. This was duly granted, and the prince also agreed to be the baby’s godfather.

Heinrich Himmler’s childhood seems to have been happy and reasonably normal, given the circumstances (war broke out when he was thirteen). His father, by all accounts, was a pedantic and fussy man, but both he and Anna lavished a great deal of attention and affection on their sons (a third, Ernst, was born in 1905) and this was returned by all three boys. Professor Himmler would read them tales of the old Germans, accounts of famous battles and stories of their grandfather’s exploits as a soldier of fortune in Greece and elsewhere. Heinrich received his primary education at the Cathedral School in Munich and then, at the age of ten, followed his elder brother to the Royal Wilhelm High School. Former classmates recalled him being at or near the top of the class in all of the academic subjects. The only area where he was lacking was in sport and physical education. One former classmate described him as: “of scarcely average size, but downright plump, with an uncommonly milk-white complexion, fairly short hair, and already wearing gold-rimmed glasses on his rather sharp nose; not infrequently he showed a half embarrassed, half sardonic smile either to excuse his short-sightedness or to stress a certain superiority.”5 He suffered a number of illnesses, and his health was never particularly robust. The plumpness can be explained by his great love of cakes and sweets. Consequently, PE became a terror to him, not least because the gym instructor sometimes dealt with him harshly.

In 1913, Professor Himmler was appointed deputy headmaster at the high school in Landshut, north-east of Munich. Once the family had relocated there, they lived in a comfortable house in the old town. Young Gebhard and Heinrich were both enrolled in their father’s new school, and Heinrich formed a great friendship with another boy who had moved there from Munich, Falk Zipperer.

The family were on holiday in Titmoning near the Austrian border when war broke out between Austria and Serbia on 29 July 1914. Heinrich, a young boy brought up on tales of martial glory, was intensely excited by this development. Since the age of ten, at the instigation of his father, he had been keeping a diary, and now he recorded his thoughts on the war. Naturally, he was fully in support of it, and frequently he revealed his contempt for those who were not: “Whenever there is talk of our troops retreating, they wet themselves.”6 He played games of war with his friend Zipperer, and expressed his longing to prove himself as a soldier.

Before long, he joined a youth cadet force—the Jugendwehr—for pre-military training, and began a programme of exercises to toughen himself up. But his family life continued largely as before. Then, in 1916, his elder brother left school to begin officer training, and in 1917 Zipperer did the same. Professor Himmler was keen that Heinrich should finish his schooling and gain his leaving certificate, but Heinrich prevailed on him to pull some strings (via the Bavarian royal family) and at Christmas 1917 he received orders to report at the start of January to the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment to begin his training as a Fahnenjunker (officer cadet). This would eventually qualify him as an officer of the reserve.

Much has been made of Himmler’s “failure” as a soldier, but in reality he was no such thing. Although he suffered from homesickness during his first few weeks in the army, he was an entirely satisfactory recruit. He did his basic infantry training in Regensburg between January and June 1918; officer training between June and September; and a machine-gun course in September and October.7 Had the war continued, he would have joined his regiment at the front and, in due course, would almost certainly have been commissioned. However, once the armistice was declared, there was no point in his leaving Regensburg. Once the regiment returned, he learned that he and his fellow cadets were to be demobilised, which duly happened shortly before Christmas 1918.

There is no doubt that Himmler was bitterly disappointed that he did not get to serve as a frontline soldier and earn his commission—later in life, he would lie that he had done both—but his “failure” was merely due to his age, not to any inadequacy or lack of ability. At this point, poised on the brink of manhood, achieving officer’s rank was the summit of his ambition, and he clung to the hope that he might be able to resume his military training at some stage.8 He would be disappointed in that, too, but it is worth considering the degree to which he developed during his relatively short military period. Before joining the army, he had essentially been a spoiled, fussy, naïve, middle-class mother’s boy who had rarely been outside the bosom of his family. In the first few months of his military service, his letters home contained endless requests for sweets and cakes to supplement his rations. However, as time went by, he toughened up and grew to enjoy the disciplined routine. He never shook off the pedantry that he inherited from his father, but by the time he was demobilised he was considerably more independent, was starting to formulate his own opinions and was finding his own path through the world. He had been forced to rely for the first time on his own instincts and intellect, and he had thrived. He was probably physically tougher, too. Above all, though, military service increased Himmler’s self-confidence. He would have gained experience in commanding and leading soldiers, even at the very basic, cadet level. The effect of such experience is considerable: military leadership carries with it the obligation to balance the needs of subordinates against the requirements of the hierarchy; to understand basic operational, logistical and administrative planning; and to act decisively when required. Himmler surely developed at least some of these attributes.

However, with a military career snatched away from him, Himmler returned to education. He had missed a year of school, so in early 1919 he returned to Landshut High School to take a special course for ex-servicemen—led by his father—which would take him through the last two years of secondary schooling in just two terms. However, this was interrupted in April by political events as the Free Corps mobilised to suppress the revolutionary government in Munich. Himmler first joined a small Free Corps unit in Landshut and subsequently the reserve company of the Oberland Free Corps, in which he served as an adjutant to the commander. But neither group was needed by the regular army forces and they remained in reserve. Around this time, there was some speculation that theOberland might be absorbed into the regular army, but it was disbanded instead, and Himmler returned to his studies.

His second choice for a career after the army was agriculture. In the summer of 1919, Professor Himmler was appointed headmaster of the high school at Ingolstadt, and he arranged for Heinrich to spend a year working on a nearby farm, in preparation for an agronomy course at the Technische Hochschule (Technical University) in Munich. He began work on the farm on 1 August, in time for the harvest, and Peter Padfield remarks: “The work was hard and it must have been especially so for Himmler after the desk-work at school.”9 Possibly, although it is important not to confuse the current ex-soldier with the adolescent mother’s boy. Nevertheless, little more than a month after he started, he was hospitalised after catching paratyphus and was then under doctor’s orders to study rather than remain on the farm. Consequently, in October, he moved into a rented room in Munich and began his course at the university.

What followed was probably as formative for Himmler as his year in the army. As in everything else he did, he applied himself to student life assiduously: he fell in (unrequited) love; he joined a duelling fraternity; and overall he was “friendly, helpful, studious and something of a bore.”10 Politically, his views were unremarkable: he adopted the conservative nationalism of the Munich bourgeoisie and appears to have been no more than conventionally anti-Semitic: there were no Jews in his social circle at this time and as a typical middle-class Catholic he regarded them as “aliens,” but his diaries betray no trace of his later ferocious hatred.11

A year of academic study was followed by his deferred year of practical study on another farm. This time he found a place at Fridolfing, near the Austrian border, and he seems to have been far happier here than he was at Ingolstadt. The farmer and his wife treated him as a member of their family and he appears to have had plenty of free time, during which he read widely in politics, history and literature, often transcribing passages from books that appealed to him.

Throughout his three years as a student, Himmler kept in touch with the military. In November 1919, he and his brother Gebhard had joined the 14th Alarm Company of the Munich Protection Brigade, an official army reserve unit. When this was disbanded at Allied insistence in the spring of 1920, he enrolled as a member of the Munich Citizens’ Militia, a semi-official group that was sponsored and equipped by the army. Joining these groups put him in touch with some of the radicalised army officers who were prominent in political circles within Munich. He eventually became a Fähnrich (senior officer cadet—in effect, a cadet NCO), which was just one step away from being a commissioned officer.

In the autumn of 1921, Himmler returned to Munich for the final year of his academic studies. It was around this time that he first met Ernst Röhm. In his diary entry for 26 January 1922, Himmler noted that he had encountered Röhm as well as his former company commander at a meeting at the Arzberger Keller in Munich. But the tone of the entry—“Captain Röhm and Major Angerer were there; both very friendly. Röhm pessimistic about bolshevism”12—suggests that he knew him, or at least of him, before this meeting. Himmler admired and respected Röhm as a decorated frontline soldier, despite the latter’s open homosexuality.

Himmler passed his final exams in August 1922 and quickly found a job as an agricultural assistant at a fertiliser factory in Schleissheim. At Röhm’s suggestion, he also joined an unofficial nationalist paramilitary group called the Reichsflagge (Imperial Flag), with which he did more military training. By now, he was more radical in his views, which was hardly surprising, given that he associated almost exclusively with right-wing ex-servicemen. In the year he worked at Schleissheim he became increasingly convinced that Germany’s republican constitution needed to be replaced, perhaps by force. This was the year of hyperinflation, an economic catastrophe that weighed particularly heavily on financially prudent, middle-class families like12 his own. Furthermore, he was already nationalistic and martial in outlook, so Röhm must have had little trouble persuading his young friend to join the NSDAP, which Himmler did on 1 August 1923. He became party member 14,303.13

He also resigned from his job. With Germany seemingly on the brink of civil meltdown, semi-official volunteer units were being created from the various paramilitary groups and fragments of the Free Corps. The Imperial Flag had split, and Himmler followed Röhm into the Imperial War Flag faction. From there, he applied to and was accepted by the Werner Company, a volunteer unit sponsored by the German Army. This group was soon disbanded, but Himmler was back in the Imperial War Flag when Röhm took it into the folkish-nationalist combat league at the end of September 1923.

Consequently, Himmler had a small, walk-on role in the Putsch. On the evening of 8 November, Röhm led his group to the Bavarian War Ministry building, and Himmler carried the banner (which, of course, was the old imperial war flag). There is some confusion about whether they gained access to the building,* but they certainly surrounded it: Himmler was photographed outside, clutching the flag atop a barricade. Before long, they themselves were surrounded by the police, who approached carefully in armoured vehicles and set up their own machine guns and light artillery.

It was to Röhm’s besieged group that Hitler and his cohorts were marching when the shooting broke out on the Residenzstrasse on 9 November. The Imperial War Flag was attacked on the same day, but after two men had been killed, and Röhm and a few other leaders had been arrested, the remainder, including Himmler, were disarmed and allowed to go home.14

This was a defining event in Himmler’s life. It made him an active comrade of men whom he greatly admired; it gave him a cause; and it satisfied a deep urge to be at the centre of conspiratorial events and “in the know.” He was an assiduous organiser of his own and, to some extent, his family and friends’ lives, to such an extent that some thought him an interfering busybody, and he carried this trait into his membership of the Imperial War Flag.

In the aftermath, his worried parents hoped that he would settle down and resume his career. Instead, he devoted his energies to keeping alive the flame of the Imperial War Flag and acting as a courier between folkish groups and leaders who were trying to revive the movement. He also joined the National Socialist Freedom Movement—Gregor Strasser’s successor group to the NSDAP—and gave several public speeches during the 1924 election campaign. He travelled from town to town on his motorbike, lecturing small crowds, proselytising the message of National Socialism, which meant he had now embraced the extreme anti-Semitism of the movement. He still kept an assiduous record in his diary of what he was reading, and around this time these lists are dominated by anti-Semitic pamphlets, heroic German myths and several spiritualist and occult tracts.15 He adopted militant anti-Semitism simply because that was the creed of the movement and the milieu he had joined. In his youth, he had been no more than a “mild” anti-Semite, and his father had several Jewish friends. However, his post-war association with such radical nationalists as Röhm undoubtedly focused his attention on the “Jewish question.” The anti-Semitic propaganda he read, especially when combined with the romantic German imagery that had been a staple of his life since childhood, evidently had a striking and deep-seated effect on him.

There can also be little doubt that Himmler had a powerful desire to conform to the values of anyone he admired and respected. In his youth, he had submerged himself in the bourgeois Roman Catholic mores of his parents, family and schoolfriends; as a young adult, he wholeheartedly—even fanatically—subscribed to the radical, militarist nationalism of his student circle; and once he entered the National Socialist movement, he eagerly adopted its virulent anti-Semitism.

Himmler’s campaigning did not go unnoticed, and in July he was offered the position of Gregor Strasser’s secretary. Strasser was a resident of Landshut so probably knew the Himmlers from their time in the town, but it was equally possible that Himmler was recommended by Röhm or another leading National Socialist. Either way, Himmler, at the age of just twenty-three, was now on the National Socialist payroll.16 At the time, Strasser was regional leader for Lower Bavaria and a deputy in the Bavarian Landtag(state parliament) and was also forging links with National Socialist–leaning groups in northern Germany and the Rhineland. It seems that Himmler was tasked with holding together the various threads of the semi-underground National Socialist groupings—both party and SA—in Lower Bavaria. Strasser thought his new secretary was “incredibly keen…he’s a perfect arms NCO. He visits all the secret depots.”17

In the December general election, Strasser was one of the few National Socialists elected to the Reichstag, which meant he needed Himmler even more and led to Himmler’s appointment as Strasser’s deputy regional leader for Lower Bavaria. This was a significant promotion: Lower Bavaria was one of the key strongholds of National Socialism. The fact that a man as young as Himmler was put in effective charge of this region after just over a year in the party speaks volumes for his reputation as an administrator and organiser, if not his personal charisma and popularity among the rest of the membership (Strasser was unlikely to appoint a potential rival in his place).

Himmler was therefore the “man on the spot” when Schreck’s “protection squad” circular arrived in Lower Bavaria. However, he had already joined the SS on 2 August, when he was given membership number* 16818 (he had nominally joined the SA on the same day). As Strasser’s deputy, Himmler was no doubt privy to the internal workings of party headquarters in Munich, which explains how he had prior knowledge of the new organisation before it was announced to the mass of the party.

There is little record of Himmler’s SS activities at this stage, and he may well have devoted as much, if not more, of his time to several other organisations. He was, for example, the Regional Leader in Bavaria for the Artamanen Society, a folkish agricultural society that espoused a “back to the land” ideology and advocated settling German farmers in the East as a sort of pioneer group. The putative elite status of the SS within the NSDAP, and its focus on intelligence-gathering, probably appealed strongly to Himmler, but there was no reason for him to think that it would ever become anything more than a small bodyguard service. He did take his squad to the “Party Day” at Weimar in July 1926, when the Blood Banner was placed in the custody of the organisation, but it seems likely that Himmler’s role as Strasser’s deputy took precedence over any SS activity.

In September 1926, Strasser was appointed National Propaganda Leader, but he was still busy with his Reichstag duties and organising the North German National Socialists, so much of the propaganda work was actually done by Himmler, who deputised for him in this role as well. He is credited with inventing the technique of saturating an area with posters, speakers and canvassers, which became the standard campaign method for the NSDAP. Equally importantly, from September 1926, he was working in the party’s headquarters in Munich and so was able to impress the people who really mattered. At this relatively early stage, the majority of the NSDAP’s members and indeed its leadership were still members of the lower middle classes, so the well-educated, bourgeois Himmler would certainly have stood out.

It was also in 1926 that Himmler met the woman he would eventually marry. Margarete (“Marga”) Siegroth was the daughter of a Prussian landowner. A qualified nurse, she and a Jewish gynaecologist had opened a private clinic in Berlin,19 where they practised homoeopathy, hypnosis and a variety of other popular, alternative treatments. Himmler met her while sheltering from a rain shower in a hotel lobby at Bad Reichenhall, and was apparently captivated by her statuesque figure, blond hair and blue eyes. Marga was eight years older than him, a Protestant and a divorcée, but as far as Himmler was concerned, it was love at first sight. According to Otto Strasser,20 Himmler lost his virginity to her, which is probably true, because he remained extremely socially conservative and prudish.

In September 1927, Himmler became Heiden’s deputy in the SS. There was a certain logic to this appointment: in his previous propaganda role, Himmler had made use of intelligence reports compiled by SS groups that detailed the activities of left-wing opponents and right-wing rivals; and, of course, he himself had been an active member of the SS almost since its inception. His enthusiasm and organisational talent were two more points in his favour, and he wasted little time in exerting his influence. In “SS Order No. 1,” which he issued on 13 September 1927,21 he tightened up regulations to ensure that SS members always appeared in the same uniform, rather than in sportswear and lederhosen, which had apparently been worn at a recent Nuremberg Party Day. Another directive was that local SS units should conduct at least four “activities” each month, two of which had to involve drill and singing. Finally, the order enjoined local SS commanders to begin forwarding various pieces of information to party headquarters: systematic intelligence reports about opponents’ political activities; the names of prominent local Jews and Freemasons; special community events; secret orders and plans of political opposition groups; and press clippings about the party.22 This presaged the SS’s later role as the Third Reich’s primary security organisation.

Himmler soon became the driving force within the organisation. He still fulfilled his propaganda duties—although Strasser handed responsibility for propaganda over to Hitler in the run-up to the spring 1928 elections*—but he found the time and the energy gradually to eclipse Heiden. According to Koehl, the latter “seems to have become a fifth wheel, hanging around the offices of the ‘[Folkish] Observer’ as a survival of an earlier free corps type.”23 Even so, the SS remained a comparatively small and obscure organisation. By comparison, Pfeffer von Salomon’s SA, the party’s mass uniformed group, was commanding much of the leadership’s attention and was increasingly being used by the younger generation of leaders as the workhorse of the movement.

Although a full-time party official, Himmler’s salary at this time was relatively modest. Following his marriage to Marga in 1928, they used the proceeds of the sale of her clinic to fund the purchase of a small farm at Waldtrudering, near Munich, where they intended to supplement their income by raising chickens. However, despite Himmler’s enthusiasm for agriculture, by now his party duties were leaving him little time for either the farm or his new wife. Indeed, the couple were soon leading largely separate lives, a pattern that would continue until Himmler’s death. Their only child, a daughter named Gudrun (known as Püppi), was born in 1929. By then, her father was busy plotting a path that would make him one of the most powerful men in Germany.

* His appointment was later officially backdated to 6 January for reasons which remain unclear.

* Padfield, for example, says, “Röhm could not gain access” (p. 65), while Höhne has him “in possession of the War Ministry…the muzzles of their machine guns poked menacingly out of the windows” (p. 36).

* It isn’t entirely clear how SS membership numbers were allocated. Individuals who joined before Himmler have higher numbers (for example, see Bednarek above). It is probably the case that numbers were allocated by the SS HQ in Munich and that, therefore, it was easier for those in close physical proximity to prod them into action.

* Hitler took control of party propaganda in the run-up to the elections in the spring of 1928 before handing over responsibility to two individuals: Josef Goebbels in Berlin and Fritz Reinhardt in Munich.

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