Mar 11, 2014
A Unique Face of Evil
Posted on Jan 27, 2012
By Jonathan Yardley
This biography of one of the most evil creatures ever to walk the earth is thoughtful and perceptive, stupendously long and almost unimaginably exhausting. The first names that come to mind when the subject of 20th-century evil arises are those of the ungodly trio—Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung—but surely that of Heinrich Himmler belongs among them. Utterly devoid of courage, decency or genuine human feeling, he caused through his manipulation of the Nazi police bureaucracy the deaths of uncountable millions of people, almost all of them innocents, and when it was all over he died a craven death.
Himself a native German, born in 1955, Peter Longerich is a professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway University of London and a leading scholar of the Holocaust. That he spent as many years with Himmler as were necessary to the research and writing of this massive book suggests that he is a man with a strong stomach. Indeed there are many times in his “Heinrich Himmler” when the reader needs one as well, for the record of Himmler’s depredations is long, violent and bloody, and Longerich does not shrink from setting forth the details, as indeed he should not if he is to give us the full measure of the man.
At the outset Longerich asks: “How could such a banal personality attain such a historically unique position of power? How could the son of a prosperous Bavarian Catholic public servant become the organizer of a system of mass murder spanning the whole of Europe?” To address these questions, neither of which can be answered conclusively, Longerich has gone “beyond the established pattern of political biography and (taken) into account quite literally the whole of Himmler’s life in its separate stages and its various spheres of activity.” He argues that the crimes committed by the German police state in its various manifestations—among them the SS, its intelligence operation the SD and its military arm the Waffen-SS—were all Himmler’s crimes, because “he to all intents and purposes united in his own person all the instruments of violence belonging to the Nazi state.”
Thus this book is less a biography as the term is commonly understood than a history of the organizations that Himmler created in order to terrorize the citizens of his own country, the Jews of Europe, and Europe itself. “Himmler was the complete opposite of a faceless functionary or bureaucrat, interchangeable with any other,” Longerich writes. “The position he built up over the years can instead be described as an extreme example of the almost total personalization of political power.” Therefore it is necessary, Longerich convincingly argues, not merely to portray Himmler the man but also the institutions he created in his own image.
Himmler was born in 1900 into a respectable and almost entirely conventional Munich family. His father was a schoolteacher, his mother a homemaker. He was “the middle son, trapped between the model of the superior big brother and the solicitous care focused on” the youngest brother. He “had a sickly constitution, he was frequently unwell, and his whole appearance was delicate.” From an early age he was fascinated by “everything connected with war and the military,” and like countless other German boys of his generation he was deeply embittered by the peace imposed on his country in the Treaty of Versailles. He was in military uniform at the end of World War I but never saw action, which left him permanently resentful even though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that he would have been a competent military officer, much less a brilliant or brave one.
“Nothing in Himmler’s childhood and youth,” Longerich writes, “would suggest that someone with clearly abnormal characteristics was growing up there.” He became obsessed early on, though, with “the soldierly world,” with its precepts of “sobriety, distance, severity, objectivity, but also order and regulations,” and its relegation of women to subordinate and supporting roles. “It was only much later,” Longerich says, “that he discerned ‘homosexual dangers’ in this way of life, with its protective cocoon of male solidarity and its self-imposed celibacy, and this was a disturbing insight that strengthened his latent homophobia.”
True enough, but Longerich does not explore the possibility that Himmler’s homophobia may well have been an outward defense against inner fears of his own homosexuality. From Hitler on down this was a pattern among the males of Nazi Germany. Himmler’s complex, ambiguous relationships with and feelings about women—he had a passionless marriage and, much later, an affair with his private secretary about which little is known except that “the couple cannot have seen much of each other, and they cannot possibly have lived together”—suggest that his sexual self-confidence was shaky and his true sexual identity uncertain. The possibility that the extreme violence he actively promoted in the organizations under his command was an expression of inner rage cannot, it seems to me, be discounted.
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