Heinrich Luitpold Himmler (Munich, 7 October 1900 – Lüneburg, 23 May 1945) was leader of the SS (Reichsführer-SS) and one of the main leaders of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP). Himmler was one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust, making him one of the major war criminals of World War II. Shortly after his arrest on May 20, 1945, he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule.
The Himmler family, in the opinion of Himmler's father, originated from Switzerland. In Basel there is a half-timbered house called the "Himmler House". Heinrich Himmler was born as the second child of a wealthy family. His father, Joseph Gebhard Himmler, was the director of a gymnasium and raised Heinrich very strictly. Catholicism and Bavarian regional nationalism played an important role in the education of the children. The Himmler family had good ties to the Bavarian royal house. Heinrich was in poor health during his childhood. The compensation for his physical weakness consisted of studying hard. He graduated from Landshut Gymnasium. At the gymnasium he showed a great interest in history, ancient languages and religion. The First World War broke out during the last weeks at the gymnasium and Heinrich dreamed of a career as a naval officer. Due to his nearsightedness, he was refused the examination. Himmler's health was also bad later in life. Himmler suffered from stomach cramps and was previously massaged by Felix Kersten, who used his influence on his patient to at least somewhat temper his crimes. During his studies, Himmler was a member of a nationalist German student association that was also involved in duels, which resulted in excommunication from the Catholic Church. Himmler soon exchanged his Catholic faith for occultism, spiritism, and neopaganism; he exchanged Bavarian regionalism for Greater Germanic ideals. Within the student body, young Heinrich was exempt from dueling and drinking beer due to his failing health and stomach problems.
Adolf Hitler and Himmler got on very well from their first meeting in 1923. They both shared the idea of a Greater German Empire for the Germans of Aryan blood and strived for an expulsion of "unclean" elements from the German population. Himmler noted that Hitler lacked a decisive framework in the latter area, and in his new role as deputy Reich propaganda leader within the NSDAP was given sufficient space to develop a vision that would ultimately serve as the basis for the racial policy of Hitler's government. Himmler was partly inspired by the ideas of General Karl Haushofer, professor of geopolitics at the University of Munich and mentor of Rudolf Hess and indirectly of Adolf Hitler. Immediately upon his tenure within the ranks of the NSDAP, Himmler suggested his idea of a military elite that would be unconditionally loyal to the Führer and his greats. Hitler supported him in this, as he no longer trusted the increasingly powerful Sturmabteilung (SA), led by Röhm, as a tool of power. When Hitler was released in December 1925, he only wanted to gain power through legal means and relegated the SA to law enforcement officers and recruiters. This motion was reinforced by Röhm's departure to Bolivia after an open argument with Hitler. Under the influence of Himmler, Hitler, together with Julius Schreck and Hermann Göring, founded the Schutzstaffel or SS in April 1925.
Although Schreck was appointed Reichsführer-SS immediately upon the founding of the SS and formally became the leader of the organization, it was Himmler who established the distinctive cult of discipline and loyalty. When Himmler was appointed Reichsführer-SS on January 6, 1929, a period of new growth began for the SS. Himmler managed to expand the paramilitary organization into a very versatile body that managed to take on many facets of the control of the Third Reich in the course of the 1930s.
Around 1930 Himmler divided the military forces within the NSDAP into 'ordinary soldiers' (SA) and 'elitist, noble soldiers' (SS). Himmler was of the opinion that within the remilitarization of the Greater German Empire there was only room for a loyal group of soldiers, embodied by the SS. During this period Himmler's paranoia-plagued mind was overflowing with ideas, but he couldn't find a suitable assistant to help him work them out until one of his friends pointed him to Reinhard Heydrich. Himmler was immediately impressed by this man's qualities and Heydrich was hired in June 1931. He immediately set up the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) for Himmler as an intelligence and espionage body within the SS.
On April 20, 1934, Heydrich and Himmler took over the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) from Göring. Göring initially had no intention of handing over his Gestapo project, but did so anyway to hasten the destruction of Röhm and his SA. In the hands of the dexterous Himmler and the efficient Heydrich, the Gestapo was a mighty weapon that contributed to the fall of the SA on 29 June 1934. After the Night of the Long Knives, the SA was definitively demoted and the way was clear for Himmler to make the SS completely loyal to Hitler's power apparatus. Himmler had been a proponent of the incorporation of the police apparatus into the SS for many years and the opportunity arose on 17 June 1936 when Reich Chancellor Hitler also appointed him Chief of the German Police. The Reichsführer SS saw his chance and started a major reorganization job in which he incorporated the entire state police apparatus into the SS. This was the first step towards the total militarization of Nazi Germany, as the security of the civilians was now placed in the hands of a paramilitary organization. On June 26, 1936, Himmler and Heydrich decided to merge the Gestapo and the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) into the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo). Himmler then also established the Ordnungspolizei (Orpo), which was responsible for general support police functions in the civilian sphere. On September 27, 1939, Himmler and Heydrich incorporated the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), Gestapo and Kripo into the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) and added it to the organizational structure of the SS. In doing so, Heydrich and Himmler created the basis for the militarized and mechanized extermination of millions of people.
Himmler had an ideal image of the Aryan. He wanted to see that image realized in the SS man, who should serve as a model for the hard-working German population as a source of inspiration. This image had to be expressed in the SS man's physical condition, the National Socialist philosophy and the supposed 'racial purity'. These three things were a crucial part of Himmler's picture of Greater German geopolitics. He firmly believed in favoring the Aryan and removing the 'unclean elements'. According to him, this privilege had to take shape in the glorification of the SS, but also in the design of all kinds of 'breeding programmes' that he instituted in order to spread the Aryan SS blood more widely. In fact, in Himmler's view, there was only one matter that needed close attention, and that was philosophy. After all, the breed would be established and tested against numerous breed standard forms and health could easily be tested by a doctor. Himmler already had a clear vision of the future role of the SS in 1925.
On March 30, 1933, Himmler informed the press about the foundation of the first German concentration camp near Dachau, which was officially inaugurated on March 20, 1933. Himmler indicated that the camp was needed to house 'undesirable elements' such as Bolsheviks and Social Democrats. SS-Standartenführer Theodor Eicke would become Lagerkommandant in that camp. Eicke was known as a man who regularly committed brutal acts, including gruesome murders with axes and clubs, to give direction to his political idea. Himmler explicitly preferred Eicke as Lagerkommandant, because of his heavy-handed reputation with SA and SS, but above all because of his unconditional loyalty to Hitler and his orderly way of working. Eicke would replace SS-Hauptsturmführer Hilmar Wäckerle. Wäckerle had incurred the discontent of the Bavarian court because of the horrific irregularities that took place in Dachau. Himmler wanted to send a signal of reliability to the Bavarian court with the appointment of Eicke. He thus removed Eicke from the Würzburg psychiatric clinic and officially appointed him as Lagerkommandant of Konzentrationslager Dachau on 26 June 1933. From that day on, concentration camps and the SS would be inextricably linked. But it was above all Eicke's actions in his career as a camp superintendent that would lead to heinous crimes.
Nazi racial policies, including the notion that people who were racially inferior had no right to live, date back to the earliest days of the party. Hitler addresses this in Mein Kampf. Hitler stated that the Jews of Europe were to be "exterminated".
Hitler entrusted Himmler with this extermination plan or as the Nazis called it the "Endlosung" (in English 'Final Solution') of the Jewish Question. Around six million Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust. In the Soviet Union, Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen units became responsible for the deaths of another nearly two million people. At the Wannsee Conference, a meeting held in Villa Marlier in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942, the plan was drawn up. The meeting, which lasted only 90 minutes, was attended by senior government officials of Nazi Germany and Schutzstaffel (SS) leaders.
In 1945 the Waffen-SS consisted of 910.000 members and the Allgemeine-SS of nearly two million members but that was on paper. Himmler realized by the spring of 1945 that the Nazi regime had no chance of survival unless it made peace with the British and Americans. In Lübeck, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, he contacted Count Folke Bernadotte from Sweden and started negotiations for the German surrender with the West. Himmler also negotiated with members of a Jewish organization, the World Jewish Congress, about the release of the Jewish prisoners. Himmler hoped that the British and Americans would fight the Russians with the remaining Wehrmacht.
When Adolf Hitler discovered that Himmler was starting the peace negotiations, he was furious: he was astonished that Himmler, the most loyal of the faithful as he was called by him, dared to negotiate capitulation. He called Himmler's betrayal the most shameful betrayal in all history. Hitler then stripped him of all his titles and powers on April 29, 1945. At the time of the demotion, Himmler was a Reichsfuehrer SS, Chief of the German Police, Reich Commissioner of the German Nation, Reich Minister of the Interior, Supreme Commander of the Volkssturm and Supreme Commander of the German Home Army.
Negotiations with Count Bernadotte and the Jewish deputation failed and Himmler, unable to return to Berlin, went to Flensburg where Admiral Karl Dönitz was staying and at that time commander of all German forces in the West. Orders regarding Himmler's demotion never reached Admiral Dönitz and Himmler joined the new Flensburg government. Himmler was sacked by Dönitz on May 6, 1945, hoping to win the favor of the Allies.
Himmler then, as a defector, contacted Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters, informing him that if he were spared all persecution as a Nazi leader, Germany would surrender to the Allies. He even sent an application to General Eisenhower for the position of Secretary of State for Police in Germany's post-war era. Eisenhower refused and Himmler was identified as a war criminal to be arrested.
Unwanted by his former colleagues and wanted by the Allies, he wandered for a few days in Flensburg near the Danish border and the capital of Dönitz's Reich government, with a large number of SS men also joining him. Dönitz did not want to work with Himmler because he did not trust the SS, told him on May 5, 1945 that he would fire Himmler the next day, and offered false papers and a disguise if he left himself. In a final appeal to 'his' SS, Himmler called on them to do the same and to merge with the tens of thousands of soldiers who were then marching through northern Germany. A large part of the SS men eventually succeeded.
Himmler now left Flensburg disguised as a member of the German Gendarmerie in the hope of returning to Bavaria. While crossing the River Oste, Himmler had to pass a British checkpoint, where his poor disguise and nervous behavior soon attracted attention. He was captured by a British unit on 20 May. He was then taken to a British POW camp near Seelos-bei-Bremervörde for interrogation. On May 23 he ended up in the 031 Interrogation Camp in Barnstedt near Lüneburg. There he made himself known as Heinrich Himmler. He was transferred to the British Second Army headquarters in Lüneburg, where Dr. Wells began a medical examination. Wells tried to inspect Himmler's oral cavity, but Himmler pulled his head away and bit through a cyanide capsule hidden in a molar. The agony lasted fifteen minutes. The remains were placed in an unnamed grave on Lüneburger Heide, the exact location of which has never been revealed.
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