Home » OL Weekly

Now in Paperback: Heinrich Himmler

By (April 8, 2013) No Comment

Now in Paperbackhimmler

Heinrich Himmler

By Peter Longerich

Oxford University Press, 2013

No doubt the wellspring of the sickly fascination that has always attended the figure of Heinrich Himmler is fear – not fear of the vast armature of tyranny he commanded as Reichsfuhrer-SS and Chief of the German Police, since those fangs had been pulled by the time he revealed himself to victorious British forces near Lunenberg in May of 1945, but rather the deeper and more personal fear that was always a Nazi speciality: fear of moral weakness. Fear of biddability. With Himmler, there is none of the brazen psychopathology of a Goering, to say nothing of the sullen, staring insanity of Hitler himself; the master of the Gestapo, the architect of the Holocaust, looks like the assistant manager of a grocery store. He laughed easily; he picked wildflowers with his family; he had hobbies; he could be anybody – and so he pricks anybody with the nagging fear that they could, under the right circumstances, be him.

The explication of this fear is at the heart of Peter Longerich’s balefully magnificent full-dress biography of Himmler, a thousand-page tome now out in paperback from Oxford University Press. As Longerich puts it, “How could the son of a prosperous Bavarian Catholic public servant become the organizer of a system of mass murder spanning the whole of Europe?”

His book, which so far exceeds all previous biographies of Himmler as to render them completely outdated (an observation that would perhaps have more grace if Longerich weren’t at such pains to make it himself), concentrates an immense amount of scholarship and records-shifting in order to answer that unanswerable question, and along the way virtually the whole history of the Nazi state is rehearsed again for the author’s readers. Himmler’s rise to prominence in the National Socialist party is drawn in comparatively swift strokes, and the rest is an unblinking anatomy of oppression. With his oft-touted organizational skills, Himmler systematically draws the net tighter and tighter over all the elements of German society that he and his fellow Nazi overlords deemed degenerate. Bolsheviks, Catholics (eventually Himmler had no use for Christians of any kind), the mentally handicapped, homosexuals – all were penalized, dehumanized, euthanized, and the laws were warped to allow it.

No group more so, of course, than the Jews. Longerich is an intensely trustworthy historian, so he spends a good deal of time discussing the evolution of the “Final Solution” in Nazi thinking and planning. He once again dispels the widely-held belief that the idea of physically exterminating the Jews of Europe was present at the highest official levels as early as 1941; in his telling, the abomination of the Holocaust was a constantly-evolving thing, only reaching its familiar shape after plenty of philosophical trial and error:

The evidence can be summarized as follows: while experiments with Zyklon B were going on in Auschwitz, in the autumn of 1941 the SS began building installations for murdering people with gas near those ghettos that were destinations for the initial wave of deportations from the Reich – in Riga, near Lodz (Chelmno), in Belzec, probably also in Mogilev, in other words, in the Minsk area. In those regions that were of central importance for the future transfers of population being planned within the context of the racial ‘New Order’, at the very least the indigenous Jewish population that was ‘incapable of work’ was to be exterminated. In addition, it was still the intention to deport the remaining Jews to the occupied Soviet territory, a ‘final solution’ plan which was also based on the physical extermination of the European Jews.

When Himmler’s captors made it clear that they wanted to extract the cyanide capsule he had implanted in his mouth, he broke that capsule and ended his own life before the Allies could hang him (even the death-photo looks entirely undemonstrative – he looks like he’s napping). He thus granted to himself that last autonomy he had withheld from so many millions of his helpless victims, and he ensured an element of enigma to his posthumous reputation that would probably have pleased him. Longerich’s attempts to pierce that enigma lead him to some unexpected places; under the milquetoast exterior of this Nazi arch-criminal, he finds not a toady but an individualist:

Himmler was the complete opposite of a faceless functionary or bureaucrat, interchangeable with any other. The position he built up over the years can instead be described as an extreme example of the almost total personalization of political power.

That may very well be true (certainly Longerich is to be credited a bit more than other theorizers on the subject), but if so, it makes the unsettling puzzle of Heinrich Himmler harder, not easier, to solve – or even to think about.