Heinrich Himmler in 1907
Gebhard and Anna Himmler (standing) with their three children: Heinrich (left), Ernst with nanny (centre) and Gebhard (right) in a 1906 photograph
Himmler with his wife Margarete and daughter Gudrun.
Images of Himmler and Gudrun together
Himmler in early SS uniform, with rank of Oberführer
Himmler in 1929. Photograph by Heinrich Hoffmann.
Himmler (front right, beside prisoner) visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1936
Himmler and Rudolf Hess at Dachau in 1936, viewing a scale model of the camp.
Himmler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and other SS officials visiting Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941
Himmler inspects a prisoner of war camp in Russia, circa 1941
Heinrich Himmler in 1945
Himmler's corpse after his suicide by cyanide poisoning, May 1945
In 1915, he began training with the Landshut Cadet Corps. His father used his connections with the royal family to get Himmler accepted as an officer candidate, and he enlisted with the reserve battalion of the 11th Bavarian Regiment in December 1917.
In November 1918, while Himmler was still in training, the war ended with Germany's defeat, denying him the opportunity to become an officer or see combat. After his discharge on 18 December, he returned to Landshut.
After the war, Himmler completed his grammar-school education. From 1919-1922, he studied agronomy at the Munich Technische Hochschule (now Technical University Munich) following a brief apprenticeship on a farm and a subsequent illness.
After working briefly as a salesman for a firm of fertilizer manufacturers, the young Himmler joined a para-military, nationalist organization. During World War I he served as a clerk in the Eleventh Bavarian Infantry.
He joined the Hitler ranks in 1919, and claimed to have held card 7 in the Nazi Party. He participated in the Munich Beer-Hall putsch of November 1923 as standard-bearer at the side of Ernst Rohm. Secretary to Gregor Strasser and his deputy district leader in Bavaria, Swabia and the Palatinate, he was also acting propaganda leader of the NSDAP from 1925 to 1930. After marrying in 1927, Himmler returned to poultry farming for a time but was singularly unsuccessful in the business of raising chickens.
In January 1929 he was appointed head of Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the black-shirted Schutzstaffel (SS), at that time a small body of 200 men which was subsequently to become under his leadership an all-embracing empire within the Nazi State.
In March 1933 Himmler was appointed Munich Police President and shortly afterwards he became Commander of the political police throughout Bavaria. In September 1933 he was made Commander of all political police units outside Prussia and, though formally under Goenng, became head of the Prussian Police and Gestapo on 20 April 1934.
By 17 June 1936 Himmler had successfully completed his bid to win control of the political and criminal police throughout the Third Reich, becoming head of the Gestapo in addition to his position as Reichsfiihrer of the SS.
In October 1939 Hitler appointed him Reichskommissar fur die Festigung des Deutschen Volkstums (Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom) and he was given absolute control over the newly annexed slice of Poland.
By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union all the necessary levers of power were in his hands. He controlled the Reich Main Security Office through Heydrich and then Kaltenbrunner, the criminal police under Nebe, the Foreign Political Intelligence Service under Schellenberg and the Gestapo under Heinrich Müller.
Through the SS he ruled supreme over the concentration camps and the death camps set up in Poland, while in the Waffen-SS he had a powerful private army whose strength he had expanded from three to thirty-five divisions, making it a rival military force to the Wehrmacht. In addition to these vast powers, Himmler controlled the political administration in the occupied territories and in August 1943 he was made Minister of the Interior, giving him jurisdiction over the courts and the civil service.
Following the July plot of 1944 Himmler's position was strengthened still further and the Wehrmacht was forced to accept him as Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Army in addition to all his other offices. He was even given supreme command of the Army Group Vistula in spite of his lack of military experience.
Towards the end of the war Himmler, however, had become convinced that Germany was on the verge of collapse and tried to approach the Allies for peace negotiations through the head of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte.
He ordered the mass slaughter of Jews to be stopped on his own initiative and proposed the surrender of the German armies in the West, including Denmark and Norway, to General Eisenhower while continuing the struggle in the East. Himmler, who by this time had lost all sense of reality, evidently believed that the Allies would consider him an acceptable leader for a reconstituted Germany and even dreamed of setting up a National Socialist government in Schleswig Holstein in May 1945 which would negotiate with the West on equal terms.
Hitler, learning of the betrayal of his most loyal follower, was enraged, repudiating him in his political testament and stripping him of all his offices. Even Admiral Doenitz, w ho had succeeded Hitler in the last days of the war, rejected Himmler’s services. Following the German surrender, Himmler took on a false identity and tried to escape, but was captured and arrested by British troops.
Brought to Luneberg, Himmler killed himself on 23 May 1945 by swallowing a poison vial concealed in his mouth, before he could be brought to trial.
Himmler was interested in mysticism and the occult from an early age. He tied this interest into his racist philosophy, looking for proof of Aryan and Nordic racial superiority from ancient times. He promoted a cult of ancestor worship, particularly among members of the SS, as a way to keep the race pure and provide immortality to the nation.
Viewing the SS as an "order" along the lines of the Teutonic Knights, he had them take over the Church of the Teutonic Order in Vienna in 1939. He began the process of replacing Christianity with a new moral code that rejected humanitarianism and challenged the Christian concept of marriage. The Ahnenerbe, a research society founded by Himmler in 1935, conducted research all over the globe to look for proof of the superiority and ancient origins of the Germanic race.
All regalia and uniforms of Nazi Germany, particularly those of the SS, used symbolism in their designs. The stylised lightning bolt logo of the SS was chosen in 1932. The logo is a pair of runes from a set of 18 Armanen runes created by Guido von List in 1906. The ancient Sowilō rune originally symbolised the sun, but was renamed "Sig" (victory) in List's iconography. Himmler modified a variety of existing customs to emphasise the elitism and central role of the SS; an SS naming ceremony was to replace baptism, marriage ceremonies were to be altered, a separate SS funeral ceremony was to be held in addition to Christian ceremonies, and SS-centric celebrations of the summer and winter solstices were instituted. The Totenkopf (death's head) symbol, used by German military units for hundreds of years, had been chosen for the SS by Schreck. Himmler placed particular importance on the death's-head rings; they were never to be sold, and were to be returned to him upon the death of the owner. He interpreted the deaths-head symbol to mean solidarity to the cause and a commitment unto death.
A very able organizer and administrator, meticulous, calculating and efficient, Himmler’s astonishing capacity for work and irrepressible power-lust showed itself in his accumulation of official posts and his perfectioning of the methods of organized State terrorism against political and other opponents of the régime.
He was a small, diffident man who looked more like a humble bank clerk than Germany’s police dictator, whose pedantic demeanour and ‘exquisite courtesy’ fooled one English observer into stating that ‘nobody I met in Germany is more normal’, was a curious mixture of bizarre, romantic fantasy and cold, conscienceless efficiency. Described as ‘a man of quiet unemotional gestures, a man without nerves’, he suffered from psychosomatic illness, severe headaches and intestinal spasms and almost fainted at the sight of a hundred eastern Jews (including women) being executed for his benefit on the Russian front. Subsequent to this experience, he ordered as a ‘more humane means’ of execution the use of poison gas in specially constructed chambers disguised as shower rooms.
The petty-bourgeois eccentric whose natural snobbery led him to welcome old aristocratic blood into the SS, revived a web of obsolete religious and cosmological dogmas linking new recruits to their distant Germanic ancestors.
He cultivated the ‘return to the soil' and the dream of German peasant-soldier farms in the East while at the same time proving himself a diabolically skilful organizer of rationalized modern extermination methods.
The supreme technician of totalitarian police power who saw himself as a reincarnation of the pre-Christian Saxon, Henry the Fowler, advancing eastwards against the Slavs - he organized the thousandth anniversary of Henry’s death in 1936 - Himmler perfectly expressed in his own personality the contradictions of National Socialism.
For him, the SS was at one and the same time the resurrection of the ancient Order of the Teutonic Knights with himself as grand master, the breeding of a new Herrenvolk aristocracy based on traditional values of honour, obedience, courage and loyalty, and the instrument of a vast experiment in modern racial engineering. Through this privileged caste which was to be the hard core of German imperial dominion in Europe, the nucleus of a new State apparatus would emerge with its tentacles impinging on all spheres of life in the expanded Third Reich.
By the end of the 1930s the possibility of forging this Greater Germanic Reich of the future came closer to realization as Himmler reached the peak of his power.
In carrying out his task as supreme overseer of the ‘Final Solution’, Himmler proved himself a fanatical disciple of race theory with an unswerving dedication to its translation into stark reality.
Himmler utilized his powers mercilessly to exploit the ‘inferior' eastern peoples for slave labour, to gas millions of Jews on Hitler’s orders, to plan mass abortions and the sterilization of entire ethnic groups. Under his authorization a special SS pseudo-science developed which caused untold suffering to innocent civilians. He eagerly supplied ‘asocial individuals’, criminals, gypsies, Jews, etc., for so-called ‘freezing experiments’ (to see how much cold a human being could endure) or high altitude tests on human guinea pigs in decompression chambers.
Himmler treated the results of these murderous, pseudo-medical experiments as if they had been performed on bacterial cultures. The same police dictator who was disgusted at cruelty to animals and never abused his power for personal profit was totally indifferent to the millions of human beings crushed by the mass murder machine which he controlled.
Quotes from others about the person
Speer said that though Himmler seemed pedantic and insignificant on the surface, he was a good decision maker, had a talent for selecting highly competent staff, and successfully inserted the SS into every aspect of daily life.
Peter Longerich observes that Himmler's ability to consolidate his ever-increasing powers and responsibilities into a coherent system under the auspices of the SS led him to become one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich.
Historian Wolfgang Sauer says that "although he was pedantic, dogmatic, and dull, Himmler emerged under Hitler as second in actual power. His strength lay in a combination of unusual shrewdness, burning ambition, and servile loyalty to Hitler."
Historian Peter Padfield opined that "Himmler ... appeared the most powerful man under Hitler. It is impossible to say whether he was in practice, and meaningless to ask, since he was never prepared to use his power directly to change the course of events...".
Himmler met his future wife, Margarete Boden, in 1927. Seven years his senior, she was a nurse who shared his interest in herbal medicine and homoeopathy, and was part owner of a small private clinic.
They were married in July 1928, and their only child, Gudrun, was born on 8 August 1929. The couple were also foster parents to a boy named Gerhard von Ahe, son of an SS officer who had died before the war. Margarete sold her share of the clinic and used the proceeds to buy a plot of land in Waldtrudering, near Munich, where they erected a prefabricated house. Himmler was constantly away on party business, so his wife took charge of their efforts to raise livestock for sale. They had a dog, Töhle.
After the Nazis came to power the family moved first to Möhlstrasse in Munich, and in 1934 to Lake Tegern, where they bought a house. Himmler also later obtained a large house in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem, free of charge, as an official residence. The couple saw little of each other as Himmler became totally absorbed by work. The relationship was strained. The couple did unite for social functions; they were frequent guests at the Heydrich home. Margarete saw it as her duty to invite the wives of the senior SS leaders over for afternoon coffee and tea on Wednesday afternoons.
Hedwig Potthast, Himmler's young secretary starting in 1936, became his mistress by 1939. She left her job in 1941. He arranged accommodation for her, first in Mecklenburg and later at Berchtesgaden. He fathered two children with her: a son, Helge (born 15 February 1942) and a daughter, Nanette Dorothea (born 20 July 1944, Berchtesgaden). Margarete, by then living in Gmund with her daughter, learned of the relationship sometime in 1941. She and Himmler were already separated, and she decided to tolerate the relationship for the sake of her daughter. Working as a nurse for the German Red Cross during the war, Margarete was appointed supervisor in Military District III (Berlin-Brandenburg). Himmler was close to his first daughter, Gudrun, whom he nicknamed Püppi ("dolly"), he phoned her every few days and visited as often as he could.