The Schutzstaffel or SS was the organisation chiefly responsible for carrying out the Final Solution, so the role of its leader, Heinrich Himmler, was critical. In the flesh, Himmler was a most unremarkable figure. Short, bespectacled and cursed with a squeaky high-pitched voice, he looked nothing like the Nordic ‘supermen’ at the centre of Nazi racial propaganda. Yet an enormous weight of historical evidence lays responsibility for the Holocaust directly at Himmler’s feet, probably more than for any other individual, including Hitler. Himmler’s full understanding of the Final Solution, its motivations, objectives and methods are laid out in hundreds of documents, written orders and speech transcriptions, some of which date to before the war. In one famous address to SS officers, given at Posen in October 1943, Himmler said:
“We have never conversed about it amongst ourselves, never spoken about it. Everyone shuddered, and everyone was clear that the next time, he would do the same thing again if it were necessary. I am talking about the “Jewish evacuation”: the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you. “Perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them. Ha! A small matter.” … But all together we can say: We have carried out this most difficult task out of love for our people. And in doing so, we have taken on no defect within us, in our soul or in our character.”
Heinrich Himmler was born in 1900 to a Catholic middle-class family in the south of Germany. A bright student but something of a loner, Himmler was fascinated by World War I and harboured dreams of becoming an army officer, though he was not old enough to see active service. In the early 1920s, Himmler was forced to take a job in a manure-processing factory near Munich. During this period he came into contact with the fledgeling Nazi Party and decided to join. Himmler participated in the Munich putsch; later he left the party and worked briefly as a chicken farmer. In 1926 Himmler joined the Schutzstaffel (SS), which at the time was a small but specialised division of the much larger Sturmabteilung (SA). Himmler’s fascination with discipline, control and organisation impressed Hitler, who in 1929 placed him in charge of the struggling SS.
Few in the Nazi Party or the SA believed this timid and bookish clerk could survive in the cut and thrust of party politics. But this was a gross underestimation of Himmler’s abilities: he was a cunning political operator and a ferocious worker with meticulous attention to detail. Himmler was determined to maintain the SS and elevate it into an elite squadron of Aryan warriors. He raised the profile of the SS and implemented new recruiting strategies. By late 1939 SS membership had swelled to around 512,000 men, from just 300 a decade before. One of Himmler’s main priorities was to instil SS ranks with rigorous discipline and fanatical loyalty to Hitler – two attributes that were missing from the SA. Himmler also envisioned the SS as a vanguard of Arial racial purity and supremacy. In the early 1930s he put this plan into action, limiting SS membership to those of verifiable Aryan racial heritage. SS officers had to trace their family history back three centuries, to show the absence of ‘undesirable’ (that is, Jewish) ancestors. SS men were also forbidden from marrying, conceiving children or having sex with non-Aryan women.
The minister of death
Christopher Hale, historian
By the end of 1933, Himmler’s unswerving loyalty to Hitler and his success with the SS had made him one of the fuhrer’s most trusted advisors. The SS had emerged as a fanatically loyal paramilitary force, protective of Hitler and his power – in stark contrast to the SA, which was becoming increasingly troublesome and disloyal. Himmler’s management of the Dachau concentration camp also impressed his leader; in late 1933 Hitler gave him control of all concentration camps. In 1936 Himmler was appointed chief of all German police forces, including the notorious Gestapo. By this time Himmler had found himself a willing deputy, the former naval officer Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi who was as efficient and effective as he was ruthless.
Himmler’s oversight of concentration camps gave him responsibility for what he later described as a difficult but necessary task. Himmler was certainly anti-Semitic but his racism extended well beyond a hatred of Jews; he considered all non-Aryan races to be untermensch (‘sub-human’) and marked for either expulsion or extermination. In a January 1937 speech, Himmler claimed that “there is no more living proof of hereditary and racial laws than in a concentration camp”, full of “hydrocephalics, squinters, deformed individuals, semi-Jews; a considerable number of inferior people.” Germany was the “custodian of human culture”, according to Himmler, and his self-declared mission was “the struggle for the extermination of any sub-humans all over the world who are in league against Germany”.
The onset of World War II gave Himmler an opportunity to put this plan into operation. As SS chief he had overall command of the concentration camps, most labour camps, the extermination centres and the einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squadrons). Himmler’s evils were chiefly bureaucratic; he murdered with orders and policies, his weapons the pen and the telephone. It is unlikely Himmler ever killed anyone himself, in fact, one anecdotal account claims that he vomited after being sprayed with blood at an execution. To many historians, Himmler ordered the construction of death camps and the other instruments of the Final Solution but for the most part remained distant and detached from its horrific realities. It is perhaps for this reason the deluded Himmler believed he could negotiate peace with the Allies in 1945, avoiding trial or punishment. In his own twisted mind, he had done nothing beyond what might normally be expected of a military commander in a time of war.
1. Himmler was SS leader, in charge of internal security, the overseer of the Final Solution, and Hitler’s most loyal ally.
2. He had no war service, but his fascination with discipline, organisation and structure earned him favour with Hitler.
3. Himmler was given command of the SS and transformed it into an elite and racially pure paramilitary force.
4. He was also Minister of the Interior, responsible for domestic security and a key figure in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.
5. Historians have debated his contribution to Nazism, but his role as an instigator of the Holocaust is not in dispute.