Heinrich Himmler, Nazi Leader of the SS

Most Powerful Nazi After Hitler Made Mass Murder Into a Science

portrait of Nazi Heinrich Himmler
Portrait of Heinrich Himmler, 1933.

Corbis Historical / Getty Image 

Heinrich Himmler was a key figure in the Nazi party and leader of the feared SS. He was also responsible for turning the racist and anti-Semitic ideology of the Nazi movement into a shockingly efficient killing machine. Himmler's fanatical devotion to Hitler, as well as his fascination with the pseudoscience that fortified Nazi beliefs, made him one of the main architects of the Holocaust.

The unlikely rise of Himmler from an unimpressive clerk-like figure running a small farm to one of the most powerful men on earth was attributed to his penchant for organization. Upon his suicide, soon after he'd been captured and the Nazi regime had crumbled, the New York Times noted that Himmler had “raised wholesale slaughter to a science.”

Fast Facts: Heinrich Himmler

  • Known For: As head of the Nazi SS elite troops, he terrorized much of Europe and masterminded the Holocaust
  • Born: October 7, 1900 in Munich, Bavaria
  • Died: May 23, 1945 in Luneberg, Germany (committed suicide after being captured)
  • Spouse: Margarete Concerzowo, known as Marga
  • Children: Gundrun Himmler, born 1929

Early Life

Heinrich Himmler was born in Munich, Bavaria, on October 7, 1900. His father, Gebhard Himmler, was a schoolmaster. Early in his career, Himmler’s father had been appointed the tutor of Prince Heinrich of Bavaria, and Himmler was named in honor of the prince.

Growing up in a middle-class family with an older and younger brother, Himmler developed a great sense of pride in German traditions. When his older brother joined the military in World War I, he wrote in his diary that he wished he was old enough to enlist. He did eventually join the German army and received training, but the war ended before he saw action.

Following the war, Himmler studied agriculture and seemed destined to be a farmer. Like other young and angry Germans, he responded to his country’s defeat and perceived humiliation by the Allied powers by becoming interested in nationalist political movements.

He officially joined the small Nazi Party in August 1923. He was involved in a minor role, manning a barricade and holding a Nazi banner in the Munich "beer hall putsch" that November. After the failed takeover attempt, he escaped prosecution and avoided prison, unlike Hitler and other participants.

Rise to Power

As the Nazi Party grew, Himmler became a key figure. In 1925, Himmler joined the SS (Schutzstaffel, the Nazi paramilitary organization), which had originally been a thuggish group of bodyguards tasked with protecting Hitler at public gatherings. As the second-in-command at the SS, Himmler dealt with fairly mundane tasks such as increasing party membership, collecting dues, and canvassing for advertisements for the party’s newspaper.

In 1927 Himmler met his future wife, Margarete Concerzowo, known as Marga. They married in July 1928, and with Marga’s money they bought a small farm about ten miles outside Munich. They kept hens and grew some produce, and proceeds from the farm augmented Himmler’s salary from the Nazi Party.

At some point, Hitler recognized Himmler’s fanatical loyalty and talent for organization, and in January 1929 he appointed him Reichsfuhrer SS, essentially making him the head of the organization. Himmler had a grand vision for the SS. He saw the black-uniformed troops as elite soldiers for Hitler, modern-day knights in service to the Nazi movement.

As Hitler moved to seize power in Germany in the early 1930s, Himmler made plans to increase the size and power of the SS as well as its racial composition. In 1932 he issued a marriage code for the SS. Based on the concept of Blut und Boden (blood and soil in English) expounded by Nazi theorist Richard Walter Darre, the code stressed the racial purity of SS members.

By Himmler’s orders, prospective members of the elite group had to prove they were of pure Nordic stock. Potential wives of SS members had to submit to physical examinations and prove they were free of Jewish or Slavic ancestry. Himmler became fixated on the idea of selective breeding.

photo of Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler
Heinrich Himmler, left, and Adolf Hitler review SS troops. Getty Images 

Building the SS

Himmler accelerated SS recruiting, and by 1932 the organization had grown to more than 50,000 men. Within a few years, the SS grew to more than 200,000 and became a formidable presence in German life.

A major boost to Himmler’s plans came when he happened to meet a young German who had been forced out of the German navy. Reinhard Heydrich had family connections which led him to Himmler, and Himmler, believing Heydrich had intelligence experience, hired him to perform a particular mission: build a spy network within Germany.

Heydrich had not actually worked in military intelligence, but he was a fast learner and before long he had an efficient network of spies and informers.

An early sign of what was coming occurred in 1933 when Himmler and Heydrich opened the first concentration camp. The Dachau camp was created to hold political dissidents and it served as a warning to anyone who opposed the Nazi regime.

Throughout the 1930s Himmler acquired more power. In 1934 he participated in the notorious Night of the Long Knives, the purge of the leadership of the SA, the Nazi stormtroopers, an organization which rivaled the SS. Having won the power struggle with the SA, Himmler became known as a major figure in the Nazi leadership. In 1936, the New York Times published a front-page article noting that Himmler had become the head of all “Reich Police.”

By the end of the 1930s the SS had become the dominant force within the Nazi Party. And Himmler as head of not only the SS but the Gestapo, the secret police, was established as the most powerful figure in Germany after Hitler.

Photo of Heinrich Himmler inspecting camp holding Russian prisoners
Heinrich Himmler inspecting a camp holding Russian prisoners of war. Getty Images

Directing the Holocaust

Himmler’s main historical significance was for the role he played in the Holocaust, the Nazi’s systematic slaughter of millions of European Jews. From his early youth Himmler had been an ardent anti-Semite, and he eagerly used his great power to persecute the Jews in Germany.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, militarized units of the SS were part of the invasion force. Under Himmler’s direction, SS troops were tasked with removing undesirable populations, which generally meant Jews, from areas conquered by German troops. SS units called Einsatzgruppen rounded up Jews and killed them in massacres across Poland.

When the German forces attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, SS units followed to conduct racial cleansing at a vast level. Himmler’s work at eliminating Jews in Europe moved quickly. By late 1941 large-scale massacres by SS troops had occurred.

At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Heydrich laid out SS plans to come up with a Final Solution for Jews in Europe. This plan for mass murder was followed by Himmler after Heydrich was assassinated by partisans months later.

Himmler directed the mass murder of millions and paid close attention to what was happening in the concentration camps. It is known that he visited the death camp at Auschwitz on two occasions. At times he issued detailed orders about how the camps should be run, even explaining in detail how much food prisoners should be given. He also authorized the gruesome medical experiments conducted by Nazi doctors who used concentration camp prisoners as subjects.

As part of the Nazi campaigns in Eastern Europe, many Jews were forced to live in ghettos, where they were isolated in overcrowded and brutal conditions. Himmler took a great interest in the Warsaw Ghetto, and when the Jews rose up in a rebellion in the spring of 1943, he gave orders to conduct a brutal campaign that amounted to extermination of the residents.

As World War II expanded and the Germans began to suffer defeats, Himmler made plans to create SS guerrilla units which would conduct warfare against the Allies in the event Germany was forced to surrender. In 1944 he was put in the field at one point to command troops, but as he had no real military experience, he was ineffective. Hitler called him back to Berlin to command troops positioned there.

Downfall

In early 1945, when it became evident that Germany would lose the war, Himmler tried to reach out to the Americans to make a peace deal. He hoped to evade prosecution as a war criminal. The American commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, refused to consider Himmler’s peace offer and declared him a war criminal.

Hitler was enraged by the betrayal and stripped Himmler of his power. As Germany was collapsing, Himmler sought to escape. He shaved his distinctive mustache, dressed in civilian clothes, and tried to blend in with the refugees traveling on the roads.

Himmler was stopped at a checkpoint manned by British soldiers and he was able to produce fake identity papers. However, he aroused the suspicion of the British, who took him into custody and turned him over to intelligence officers. When questioned, Himmler admitted his real identity.

While being searched on the night of May 23, 1945, Himmler managed to put a vial of poison in his mouth and bite down on it. He died minutes later.

A dispatch by the Reuters News Service published in the New York Times on May 25, 1945 was headlined "Himmler Outsmarted Himself." The story noted that Himmler, who had created a system of Germans often having to show identity papers to members of the Gestapo, would have had a set of fake identity papers created for himself. But in the chaos of the war’s end, few refugees on the roads still had their papers.

Himmler’s pristine set of papers was what drew attention at the checkpoint. Had he simply claimed he was a refugee trying to walk home and had lost his papers, the British soldiers at the bridge might have waved him along.

Sources:

  • "Heinrich Himmler." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2004, pp. 398-399. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Reshef, Yehudacxv, and Peter Longreich. "Himmler, Heinrich°." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 121-122. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Himmler, Heinrich." Learning About the Holocaust: A Student's Guide, edited by Ronald M. Smelser, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001, pp. 89-91. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "SS (Schutzstaffel)." Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 4, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 2434-2438. Gale Virtual Reference Library.