Heinrich Himmler

Picture of SS Leader Heinrich Himmler
The german Nazi official and chief of the Schutzstaffel (SS) Heinrich Himmler. (1930). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Who Was Heinrich Himmler?

One of the most powerful leaders of the Nazi Party, Heinrich Himmler served as Reichsführer SS (Leader of Protection Squadrons) from 1929 to 1945.  In this role and as Chief of German Police, Himmler controlled all of the Reich’s security forces. Himmler had vast responsibilities, including being in charge of the Lebensborn program, the Nazi intelligence agency (SD), and the one responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution.

A strong believer in Nazi ideology, Himmler had no qualms about organizing the murder of millions.

Dates: October 7, 1900 – May 23, 1945

Himmler’s Childhood Years

Heinrich Himmler was born on October 7, 1900, the second of three sons born to Gebhard and Anna Maria Himmler.  The family lived in Munich, Germany at the time of Heinrich’s birth and were devoutly Roman Catholic.  The newly born Heinrich was named after his godfather, Prince Heinrich of Bavaria.  Gebhard, a high-school teacher by trade, had tutored Prince Heinrich during his student years. 

Like Adolf Hitler, Himmler was not very athletic and had many health ailments as a child. He was coddled by his mother; while his father, although loving, made him do hours of learning outside of school. Himmler was nearsighted and wore glasses from an early age. His parents made him practice piano, but he was never good at it.

In 1913, Himmler’s father moved the family 40 miles northeast to the town of Landshut so that he could take the position of Deputy Head of the local high school (Gymnasium).

Both Heinrich and his older brother attended their father’s high school. The Himmler family settled into a comfortable, middle-class existence, spending their free time listening to heroic stories of Heinrich’s long-dead, soldier-grandfather as well as German military history.

For years, Himmler longed to become a naval officer, but his poor eyesight and ill health would prevent that.

Still, when World War I broke out, Himmler became obsessed and followed the war’s progression with a fervor. In 1915, he joined the local Landshut Cadet Corps.

In 1917, Himmler was desperate to become an officer. In December, he was finally accepted into training with the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment.  To Himmler’s great disappointment, the war ended prior to the completion of his training and he returned to Landshut to finish high school.

Introduction to the Nazi Party

Following his graduation from high school, Himmler enrolled in 1919 in the Munich Technical University to study agronomy.  He spent three years there and when he graduated, he took a job at the local manure processing facility, Stickstoff-Land GmbH in Schleissheim in September 1922.

It was while at the Technical University that Himmler became involved in the right-wing student group, Freiweg.  There, he began an acquaintance with Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Nazi paramilitary organization, the SA.  It was through Röhm that Himmler found his way to the Nazi Party.

Himmler officially joined the Nazi Party as member number 14,303 in August 1923.  Three months later, Himmler, holding the Nazi flag, marched alongside Röhm and Hitler during the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

  Although he was not charged for his participation in the failed coup, his involvement and increasing right-wing fervor made it difficult for him to find suitable employment.

Himmler had become overly self-assured, zealous, righteous, morally idealistic, and nosy. All of these traits pulled him away from his family and his religion and ever closer to Nazi leadership.

Joining the SS

In the years following the Beer Hall Putsch, Himmler worked closely with Gregor Strasser, one of the key propaganda leaders during the early years of the Nazi Party.  Himmler helped to distribute Party literature throughout Bavaria, leading to a significant rise in Party membership in this region. 

In 1925, Himmler also joined the SS (Schutzstaffeln, or Protection Squadrons), which at that point was considered a special, elite unit of the SA.

  He served dual roles in the propaganda department and the SS for the next four years, moving up through the ranks. In 1927, he became Deputy Reichsfuhrer SS as well as Deputy Propaganda Chief.

Full-time, paid work with the Nazi Party was not yet possible, so Himmler attempted to support himself as a chicken farmer during this time.   

In 1928, Himmler married Margaret Boden, a striking woman who fulfilled the Aryan ideal that Himmler obsessed over.  Boden was a nurse and divorcee who quickly adopted her husband’s increasingly antisemitic views.  In August 1929, she gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Gudrun.

A Rise to Leadership

On January 29, 1929, Hitler appointed Himmler to serve as Reichsfuhrer SS. Four years later, when Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 20, 1933, the SS had grown to include over 52,000 men. 

As Hitler’s power increased within the German government, Himmler’s power within the Party also grew.  However, it wasn’t until Röhm’s SA was felled during the “Night of Long Knives” in June 1934 that Himmler’s SS became the top, independent organization within the Nazi Party structure.

Himmler was now one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, but he wanted more.  On June 17, 1936, in addition to his title as Reichsfuhrer SS, Himmler became the Chief of German Police, in control of all of Germany’ police forces.  Ultimately, Himmler controlled all of the various security services within the expanding Reich.

Himmler also sought additional ways to influence the future of Germany.  Beginning in 1935, the SS, at Himmler’s urging, began to oversee the Lebensborn program, which encouraged “breeding” between those deemed to be pure Aryan stock, regardless of their marital status.  The program was intended to help counteract the population decline caused by so many young, World War I soldiers dying before fathering children.

World War II

World War II officially began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.  Later that month, Himmler fused the Security Police Main Office with the Nazi intelligence agency (Sicherheitsdienst, SD) into an entity known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), or Reich Security Main Office.

Two weeks later, Hitler bestowed a new role upon Himmler, based on his previous experience overseeing the Lebensborn initiative.  This new title, Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Ethnic Stock (Reichskommissar für die Festigung deutschen Volkstums, RKFDV), put Himmler in charge of the implementation of the Lebensraum program, which envisioned resettling ethnic Germans into newly conquered territories within Eastern Europe.

The war led to additional roles for Himmler and ways for him to exert his advancing authority.  In 1939, Himmler designed the Waffen SS, a special armed military unit to serve in the war.

In mid-1941, the RSHA was given authority over the Final Solution. This meant that Himmler was in charge of the Holocaust, and he was hands-on in this task. It was Himmler who developed the concept of mobile killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen.  These units, often composed of reserve police battalions and local volunteers, followed the Wehrmacht into Eastern Europe, killing those deemed undesirable, such as Jews, Roma and Sinti (gypsies), and the disabled. 

Himmler also ordered the expansion of Auschwitz in 1941 and made a personal visit a year later to watch the gas chambers in action.

In July 1943, Hitler appointed Himmler as the Minister of the Interior, although the position itself had little significance within the governmental power structure.

As the tide of the war turned against Germany, Himmler’s role also continued to change.  The SS gained additional control over military matters.  In February 1944, the SD began strict oversight over the Armed Forces Intelligence Service as Hitler increasingly feared an internal coup.  His fears were realized with the failed July Plot, which originated within the German military. 

Hitler decided to pursue the development of an alternate military, appointing Himmler as Commander of the Replacement Army.  The position never amounted to much but resulted in an additional title of commander-in-chief of Army Group Upper Rhine in Southwestern Germany.

Himmler’s Role at the War’s End

Despite the mountain of titles bestowed upon him, Himmler was never particularly close to Hitler and privately was concerned about his future as the Third Reich crumbled.  He was separated from his wife, having fathered two children with his mistress, and professionally feared other members of the Nazi Party such as Minister of Armaments Albert Speer and Chancellory Chief Martin Bormann.

As the Allies closed in, Himmler half-heartedly attempted to negotiate with the Swedish Red Cross.  Himmler reportedly authorized the release of nearly 20,000 concentration camp prisoners in a deal orchestrated between Himmler, the Red Cross, and the World Jewish Congress. 

In a later meeting with a Red Cross leader, Count Folke Bernadotte, Himmler claimed that he was attempting to negotiate a surrender via Bernadotte with U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower as he believed that Hitler would be dead within days and he would be the new leader of the Third Reich.  The deal did not progress and when Hitler received word of Himmler’s betrayal on April 28, Hitler stripped Himmler of his offices and ordered his detention.

Capture and Suicide

Disowned by his Party and wanted by the Allies for war crimes, Himmler attempted to flee but lacked a clear plan.  He tried to disguise himself as a German soldier, shaving off his moustache and wearing an eye patch over one eye, but was captured on May 22, 1945. 

Himmler was taken to the British interrogation camp in Lüneburg to determine his identity and role in the war.  At this camp, Himmler’s identity was revealed. However, before he could be thoroughly questioned, Himmler bit into a cyanide capsule hidden in his mouth and died on May 23, 1945.

After pictures were taken of his corpse, Himmler’s body was secretly loaded onto an Army truck, taken away from camp, and buried in an unmarked grave on Lüneburg Heath.