Himmler, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich, 1900-1945

After HITLER, Himmler is probably the most notorious of the leaders of the Third Reich. In the popular imagination he is indeed generally held responsible for the execution of all the terror and repression which the Reich visited on its victims. Popular belief is, in this instance, not very far from the truth. By diligent and unrelenting pursuit of power, Himmler had made himself by the last year of the war not only Head of the SS, and so Chief of the criminal and political police, of the concentration camp system and of a private army, the Waffen SS, but also Minister of the Interior, Commander of the Replacement Army and an Army Group Commander on the Eastern Front. He was second in power to Hitler himself and widely regarded as his obvious successor, even though title to the succession was held by Goering. Himmler had begun his ascent to power early. The son of a Bavarian school-master, he had just missed war service in 1918 but joined a right-wing Freikorps in the Bavarian civil war which followed the armistice. He made a natural transition to the infant Nazi party and was with Hitler at the Munich putsch. He became head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), originally a party strong-arm squad, in 1929, and quickly turned it into an efficient, disciplined rival to the SA, the party’s Brownshirt militia. A decisive incident in his rise was the ruthlessness with which he and his SS subordinates liquidated the leadership of the SA, which Hitler had judged had grown overmighty, in the Blood Purge of June 30,1934. His usefulness to Hitler was further confirmed by his provision of evidence against BLOMBERG and FRITSCH in the crisis of 1938, when the two generals were removed from the Ministry of War and the Army High Command, thus preparing the way for Hitler to subordinate the army to his direct control. On the outbreak of war he became responsible for the administration of the party’s racial (antiSemitic) policy, and, holding fanatical personal views on the subject, applied all his remarkable powers of organization to the extermination of the Jews of Poland and later of occupied Russia. In 1943 he succeeded FRICK as Minister of the Interior, thus consolidating in his hands all the judicial, police and other sanctionary powers of the German state. The attempt against Hitler’s life by the military conspirators in the following year yet further increased his power, as Hitler looked to the Waff en SS to provide generals and soldiers of stronger loyalty. In January 1945 he was even appointed to command Army Group Vistula, in the hope that he might by his devotion to the Fuhrer stem the Soviet advance where the army generals had failed. In the last resort, however, he became impressed by his own position, suggested to Hitler, on the latter’s incarceration in the Reich Chancellery, that power be passed to him and was instantly demoted by radio signal. True to his old loyalty, he at once obeyed the order. He was captured by the British after the war while disguised as a private soldier but, as soon as his identity was discovered, took poison and committed suicide. His character has continued to baffle students of the Third Reich. Despite his direct and freely admitted responsibility for monstrous cruelties, he was a retiring, even timid personality, kind to subordinates and animals, and apparently more interested in the rites and ideology of Nazism— runes, Nordic myths and Aryan genealogy—than in the pursuit of ultimate power. His loyalty to Adolf Hitler was certainly the mainspring of his actions, and he collapsed when accused of having violated the bond of trust.

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