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Heinrich Himmler

HEINRICH HIMMLER, 1900-1945), German Nazi leader, who was head of the dreaded SS (Schutzstaffel, also called the Blackshirts). 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.

Himmler was born at Munich on Oct. 7, 1900, the son of a teacher. After brief military service in 1918, he tried to establish himself as an agronomist, joined a nationalist paramilitary unit, and participated in Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch of Nov. 8-9, 1923. Influenced by nazism and by the Artamans, an obscure sect advocating a Teutonic rural life, he turned to racism and romantic Teutonism. In 1929, Hitler appointed him leader of the SS, which was then still a small elite organization.

After Hitler's accession to power, Himmler began to expand the SS into a vast empire within the Nazi state. In 1933-1934 he took over the political police, converting it into a totalitarian secret police known as the Gestapo. He was also a leader in the subjugation of the SA (Storm Troopers), his major competitors within the Nazi party, in June 1934. Simultaneously, he started to build a system of concentration camps and created the nucleus of a military SS (Waffen SS). His appointment as chief of the entire German police system followed in June 1936.

During WORLD WAR II , Himmler's activities accelerated with the attempt to convert Europe into a "Nordic empire; with the Jewish extermination program; and with the vast expansion of the military SS. In 1943 he became interior minister and, after the unsuccessful putsch against Hitler in July 1944, chief of the army's home organization.

But Himmler's empire was already crumbling from within and under attack from without. As he indulged in pseudoscientific experiments and later failed as a military commander, disrespect and independence grew among the top SS leaders. Felix Kersten, a masseur who gave Himmler temporary relief from a severe psychosomatic illness, won some influence over him. Weakened on all fronts, he was attacked after 1943 by Martin Bormann, who tried to revitalize the party organization as a rival of the SS. Bormann emerged victorious in April 1945, when Hitler ordered Himmler's arrest because he had tried to propose peace to the Allies. Caught by British troops while trying to flee, Himmler escaped trial by poisoning himself, at Luneburg, on May 23, 1945.

Wolfgang Sauer
University of California Berkeley

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