No matter how much is written about Nazi Germany, there is always some new horror to behold and some new paradox to ponder. That’s how I felt when I opened a remarkable and wholly fascinating new book by Peter Longerich, a German historian who is among the world’s leading scholars of the Holocaust and the Third Reich.
At more than 1,000 pages, “Heinrich Himmler” (Oxford University Press: $34.95), translated from German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe, is now the benchmark of scholarship on the man who has been deservedly called the architect of the Holocaust. Longerich’s announced goal is “to penetrate as far as possible the mystery of this man’s personality and the motives underlying his monstrous deeds,” and he is entirely successful in doing so.
Longerich makes the point that Himmler was both an ordinary German and an arch-villain. On the day of his arrest by Allied officers in 1945, Himmler appeared to be “a fairly short, ill-looking man in shabby civilian clothing,” and his unimposing presentation was nothing new. He had always been embarrassed by his weak chin and sought to cover it with his hand when being photographed, and his weak eyes forced him to wear spectacles (or a pince-nez) throughout his life.
Trained to enter the field of agriculture, young Himmler aspired to manage an estate but failed to find a job. Fatefully, the frustrated young man took advantage of the opportunities offered by the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s to reinvent himself as a political activist. The ambitious young Himmler was appointed to the command of Hitler’s personal bodyguards, the Schutzstaffel, and ultimately succeeded in turning the SS, as it was known, into nothing less than a Nazi cult, as well as a fighting force that rivaled the Wehrmacht and an industrial-scale enterprise whose function was genocide.
Himmler started out as a bespectacled young man who took a dancing class “to overcome his initial clumsiness,” and he “had little success in his relationships with women.” From a close reading of Himmler’s diaries, Longerich detects the theme that reflected his anxieties and shaped his destiny — “[t]he repression of the subject of sexuality through the invocation of masculinity, heroism and violence, and his self-imposed conviction that, predestined to be a solitary fighter and hero, he could not enter into any emotional commitments.”
So it was that the SS embodied Himmler’s own “predilections, aversions and diverse quirks.” Unlike the rival Brownshirts, a Nazi paramilitary organization that tolerated homosexuality in its ranks, the SS man was expected to marry an Aryan woman “and through his marriage to contribute to the improvements of the ‘racial quality’ of the German people.” He railed against the Freemasons with as much venom as he directed at the Jews, and yet he displayed a curious sympathy for “the martyred and tortured bodies of mothers and girls of our nation burnt into ashes as a result of the witch trials.” Abortion was another one of his obsessions: “I have asked myself the question,” he declared in a speech in 1937, “s this the reason why our nation is so morally debased and bad?”
Of course, Longerich goes into great detail in his account of Himmler’s life, and he devotes much attention to the internal politics of the Nazi regime and the bureaucratic maze through which it operated. Thus, for example, I discovered for the first time in a lifetime of reading on this subject that there was a Prussian police unit known as the Gestapa, as well as the more familiar Gestapo, and Longerich explains how this distinction figures in the rivalry between Himmler and Goering.
But the centerpiece of the book is, inevitably, Himmler’s role in designing, building and operating the machinery of mass murder that we call the Holocaust. From the outset, Himmler was the mastermind of the dreaded concentration camp system, which he loved to visit in person, and he saw in the so-called Final Solution an opportunity to put into practice “his utopian ideas of a new order in the east.” Ominously, Himmler turned his attention in 1941 to the role his men would play during the invasion of the Soviet Union — the police battalions, the Einsatzgruppen and the Waffen-SS — and the “special tasks I shall give them.”
Those “special tasks,” of course, consisted of the shooting of Jewish men, women, children and babies during the opening days of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Not long afterward, Himmler put the concentration camp system in service to the same genocidal goal, and he established a series of new camps, including the notorious camp at Auschwitz, that were purpose-built for mass murder by poison gas. His motive? “[T]o find a method of killing,” explains Longerich, “that exposed his men to less stress than the massacres.”
Longerich charges Himmler and his cronies in the Nazi regime with a crucial role in the escalation of violence against the Jewish people in 1941. But he refuses to exonerate Hitler: “Himmler could rest assured that any initiative to radicalize anti-Jewish policy would be favorably received by his ‘Führer,’ ” writes Longerich. “The extension of the mass executions in the Soviet Union was not a case of Himmler acting independently, but rather an anticipation of what Hitler had in any case planned for the period after the war: the physical extermination of the Jews, whatever form that might take.”
Himmler assured the officers who served him that he was “not a man who enjoys or takes pleasure in having to do something harsh,” but he also congratulated himself on having “sufficiently strong nerves and a sufficiently strong sense of duty” to carry out the tasks that he considered to be “necessary.” The moral burden of Longerich’s brilliant and important book is that Himmler was not a demon plucked from hell and set among ordinary men, but an ordinary man — weak-chinned but strong-willed — who lived at a time and in a place where the demoniacal visions that filled his head were elevated from a private madness into state policy.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at email@example.com.