Heinrich Himmler: A Life
There is a huge contrast, almost a yawning gulf, between the pathetic inadequacy of Heinrich Himmler as a man – let alone the Aryan supermen he admired – and the vast evil he wrought. Myopic, hollow-chested, with a weakly receding chin, Himmler was a martyr to agonising stomach cramps and other ailments, never saw combat service and was violently sick on the one occasion when he witnessed a massacre of Jews as part of the Holocaust he had unleashed.
And yet in the space of a few short years this unprepossessing little man built the most terrifying apparatus of state repression that Europe has yet seen – a veritable empire of evil that held not only the Reich, but vast swathes of conquered territory in a grip of sheer terror. Himmler’s SS was at once the Nazi party’s elite Praetorian Guard; its Secret Police force; staffed the Death Camps where the Holocaust happened; and provided the Wehrmacht’s most ruthless cutting edge in the shape of the fanatical and horrifically effective Waffen SS divisions that put up the most stubborn resistance on both the Eastern and Western Fronts.
In this monumental biography Peter Longerich, Professor of Modern German History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and one of the world’s leading authorities on Nazism, attempts to explain how this monstrosity happened. Himmler’s ‘success’ – to use a word that sounds obscene in the context of the subject – lay, we learn, in him being an extremely efficient bureaucrat and empire-builder among the competing paladins around Hitler; and his utter devotion to the most fanatical, not to say downright cranky, aspects of Nazi ideology. Indeed, in his fanatical belief in such concepts as the purity of the Aryan people, its esoteric origins and the wilder shores of the occult, Himmler outdid even his master the Führer.
Born at the turn of the 20th century, the son of a teacher and devoted Bavarian monarchist, Himmler was just too young to see military service in the First World War. He compensated for this and his own all too evident lack of warrior qualities by enlisting in one of the myriad paramilitary groups infesting Munich in the chaotic postwar years. After waving a flag in Hitler’s abortive 1923 Beer Hall putsch, Himmler entered the Nazi party’s bureaucratic labyrinth, building a reputation as an efficient paper pusher and an unwaveringly loyal servant of the movement.
Behind the scenes, however, Himmler had already begun to build the SS, originally merely Hitler's personal bodyguard, as a semi-secret elite with its own arcane rules. SS members had to attain levels of fitness unattainable by Himmler himself and prove their ancestry free of any trace of Jewishness. After the Nazis obtained power, by fawning to Hitler and steadily expanding his empire and jobs portfolio, Himmler expanded the SS until it became a state within a state and the true engine of Nazism, extending its tentacles into every area of the Reich’s life. As the edifice collapsed in 1945 it was the SS that held out longest, terrorising and killing to the end.
Longerich has spent a decade researching his mammoth book – the endnotes and bibliography alone comprise some 250 of its thousand-plus pages – and has probed more deeply than any previous biographer into the inner entrails of his subject’s life: Himmler’s malign achievement, Longerich concludes, lay in moulding the SS as a reflection of his own warped personality. The book’s length and its earnest tone do not make it an easy read, but its bulk is commensurate with the seriousness of its subject matter and, as the definitive life of this whey-faced master of terror, it is unlikely to be bettered.
Nigel Jones is the author of Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London
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