Mar 9, 2014
A Unique Face of Evil
Posted on Jan 27, 2012
By Jonathan Yardley
After being mustered out of the armed services at the end of the war, Himmler drifted about, studying agriculture for a time before finally making his way into the radical right that was organizing alienated Germans in the early 1920s. He became “a Nazi agitator in provincial Lower Bavaria” and then, in the summer of 1924, “took the fateful decision to adopt the role of political activist and the true purpose of his life.” He became deputy Reich Propaganda Chief and then, in 1927, was given command of the SS (Schutzstafflen), “a very small formation” that essentially served as protection for Hitler and others. Longerich says this promotion “was almost certainly largely due to the fact that he organized meetings for prominent party speakers.”
Whatever the explanation for it, Himmler’s move to the SS surely had vastly greater repercussions than Hitler or anyone else could have anticipated. He proved, whatever his manifold shortcomings, something of a bureaucratic genius. He “knew how to combine ambitious ideological notions with a sure instinct for power,” and he negotiated his way through the Nazi leadership structure with extraordinary agility. He quickly built the SS into a massive organization, neutralized the leadership of the competing SA (stormtroopers), established the SD intelligence unit and by the autumn of 1935 “had secured control over the whole of the German police.” He “was able to succeed in pushing through his policy of establishing a uniform and permanent terror system that was outside the law and covered the whole of the Reich.”
The titles he held between 1927 and the end of the war nearly two decades later leave no doubt as to his power: Reichsfhrer-SS, Chief of the German police, Reich Commissar for the Consolidation of the Ethnic German Nation, Reich Minister of the Interior and Commander of the Reserve Army. His leadership style was, to put it charitably, peculiar. As a young man he had revealed an “obsession with interfering in other people’s private affairs and (an) almost voyeuristic interest in collecting details about their lives,” and these fixations stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was a compulsive meddler. He “saw himself primarily as the educator of his men” and interfered in virtually every aspect of their lives: “their appearance, their economic circumstances, their relationship to alcohol, their health, and ... marriage and family planning.” Longerich writes:
“Himmler carried over his personal beliefs to an astonishing extent into the organization he headed; leading the SS was not for him simply a political office, it was a part of who he was. The task he had set himself in life was to create a strong internal organization for the SS, to extend it and to guarantee its future through his Germanic utopia. By working tenaciously to fulfill the tasks Hitler had entrusted to him, and by linking them adroitly, Himmler built up a unique position of power, which he shaped in line with his own idiosyncratic ideas.”
Those “ideas” often bordered on lunacy. Himmler was heavily into the occult, mythology, astrology, reincarnation and heaven knows what else, though he “never clearly expounded it as a coherent whole.” He often inhabited a fantasy world, and by the end of the war he may well have been insane, a possibility that Longerich declines to explore, no doubt for the entirely sensible reason that no firm evidence exists. Surely, though, all these nutty ideas heightened his obsessive nature, which went into overdrive when the time came for him to preside over “a campaign of racial annihilation of incalculable proportions.”
The details of that campaign are all too familiar. As mentioned above, this makes for exhausting reading, not to mention depressing and in the end heartbreaking. Even as the Nazis’ defeat loomed beyond a doubt, Himmler pursued the slaughter relentlessly: “The nearer the Third Reich came to its downfall, the more Himmler stepped up the use of terror in the occupied territories.” As Max Hastings and others have pointed out, German men and arms that could have been used to defend the homeland were instead used by Himmler for the slaughter of others, mostly civilians. As Allied forces neared the death camps that Himmler had so assiduously (one is tempted to say lovingly) built and presided over, he made a few feeble attempts to cover over what had been done there, but it was too late. When he was captured and interrogated in May 1945, he cheated justice by biting into a capsule of cyanide hidden in his mouth. True to himself to the end, he took the coward’s way out.
Jonathan Yardley can be reached at yardleyj(at)washpost.com.
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