Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
25 July 2013
Review by John C. Binkley, The University of Maryland
Heinrich Himmler
By Peter Longerich
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. 1031. ISBN 978–0–1995–9232–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II, Biography Print Version

You would probably pass him on the street without giving him a second thought. He was frail looking, with the appearance of a bespectacled, mousy bookkeeper. His health was poor and he clearly did not look like the epitome of the master race. Yet, no one, except for Adolf Hitler himself, had greater power or impact in the formulation of state-sponsored terror in the Third Reich than Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfürher-SS, Chief of the German Police, Minister of the Interior, and "Architect of the Final Solution." How did such an unassuming individual, almost the antithesis of an archetypal "Aryan," acquire such power? Peter Longerich (Royal Holloway, Univ. of London), a leading authority on the Holocaust,[1] seeks to answer that question in his new biography.[2]

Although Himmler has been the subject of many previous historical and biographical studies, these have either been made out-of-date by new archival material or have focused exclusively on Himmler's role in the Final Solution, rather than in the rise of National Socialism generally. Neither is the case in this biography. Longerich makes exhaustive use of long-available material in the United States (National Archives), Germany, Israel, and elsewhere, but has also consulted newly accessible documents in, for example, Soviet archives. Fully a quarter of the book consists of endnotes (749–948) and bibliography (949–92).

The great value of this biography lies in its analysis of the inextricable relationship between Himmler's personality and the organizational structure and development of the National Socialist State. Longerich offers a high-resolution portrait of the man from both the personal/psychological and the bureaucratic perspectives, tracing his development as an individual and as the master organizer who held the power of life and death over millions. He enables readers to better understand the structural, organizational, and ideological factors that fostered National Socialism.

From the personal/psychological viewpoint aspect, Longerich details Himmler's drift into the paramilitary world, starting with the Free Corps and ending with the Nazis. Himmler, like so many who followed a similar path, was driven by a more than typical post-World War I middle-class angst and sense of lost status; Longerich makes a compelling case that his 's lifelong inability to form social relationships was an exacerbating factor. Though the precise origins of this attachment disorder are unknown, its consequences are clear. For normal human interactions, Himmler substituted "strict observance of social formalities and rules of daily life" (40), while at all times controlling his emotions. For his repressed sexual interest, he substituted the "invocation of masculinity, heroism and violence" (51). He believed he was a heroic, romantic figure destined for greatness. This self-delusion led to an idealization of military life, perhaps because he had not seen combat in the Great War. All of this together with his almost monastic respect for loyalty, discipline, and social distance clearly foreshadowed the the ideology of the SS (Schutzstaffel).

Although Longerich's personal profile of Himmler is extraordinarily interesting, the meat of the biography is an exploration of his career as a master bureaucrat and political infighter; the man always seemed to be in the right place, prepared to take on the right job and support the right agenda, always to advance both himself and his organization within the party. Ultimately, the minor party functionary became the second most powerful figure in the Third Reich; under his guidance, a small subordinate organization designed to protect party functionaries and public actions, became a massive "SS-State"[3] encompassing not only the Final Solution, but the Reich's police apparatus, its own army (the Waffen-SS), and an elaborate industrial complex based on slave labor. The SS grew to 1.25 million members by 1945; "the more the Third Reich headed towards its downfall, the more powerful became the Reichsführer-SS" (643).

However, the story of this transformation is not one of success piled upon success. During the late 1930s, Himmler suffered several career-threatening bureaucratic setbacks. For instance, having falsely accused Army Commander-in-Chief General Werner von Fritsch of homosexuality, he botched the subsequent investigation. And his quarrel with the Army over atrocities in Poland and his ill-advised but ideologically consistent order to procreate outside of marriage were obvious examples of bureaucratic overreach.

Himmler ingratiated himself into Hitler's inner circle, in part by taking advantage of party disarray after Rudolf Hess's ill-fated flight to Scotland in May 1941; he eventually gained control of making and carrying out racial policy in the East. Longerich definitively shows that Himmler had not decided before 1941 on genocide as the Final Solution, but was thinking in terms of deportation and expulsion. Only with the planning of the war against the USSR in spring 1941 did he start to move toward a policy of annihilation.[4]

At the heart of Himmler's ever-growing empire was the semi-monastic military order of the SS. The four chapters that make up Part IV, tellingly entitled "The Order," are the most fascinating in the book. Longerich shows how Himmler's personal values informed Nazi ideology in its very essence—the absolute subordination of the individual, from birth to death, to the state. The Reichsführer dictated every aspect of SS members' personal lives, even to the selection of their wives and the number of their children. In this Orwellian world, "virtue," chivalry," and decency" pertained only to those of true blood; this formed the basis for the genocidal destruction of "inferior" races. The SS became a gigantic "community" or "clan," with Himmler as its head. In a real sense, Himmler was the SS and the SS was Himmler.

Himmler carried over his personal beliefs to an astonishing extent into the organization he headed; leading the SS was not for him simply a political office, it was part of who he was. The task he had set for himself in life was to create a strong internal organization for the SS, to extend it and to guarantee its future through his Germanic utopia. By working tenaciously to fulfill the tasks Hitler had entrusted to him, and by linking them adroitly, Himmler built up a unique position of power, which he shaped in line with his own idiosyncratic ideas. (382)

But Himmler's rigidity was often an impediment to the success of the Reich. For example, by refusing to view the conquered peoples as anything other than potential slaves, he undermined the efforts of other Nazi leaders to use the illusion of independence to exploit divisions among the Soviet nationalities and other ethnic groups.

Peter Longerich has written a tremendously detailed book intended more for specialists than, say, undergraduates or casual readers.[5] His definitive biography of Heinrich Himmler is an invaluable addition to our understanding of the Third Reich.

[1] His previous works include Joseph Goebbels: Biographie (Munich: Siedler, 2010), unfortunately not available in English, and Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2010).

[2] German original published Munich: Siedler, 2008.

[3] Longerich does not actually use the term "SS-State," but it is commonplace in the literature. See, e.g., Helmut Krausnick et al., Anatomy of the SS-State, trans. R. Barry et al. (NY: Walker & Co, 1968), and Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism, trans. J. Steinberg (NY: Praeger, 1972) 350–62.

[4] Longerich's research on this particular topic should quash the controversy started when Richard Breitman argued, in his The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (NY: Knopf, 1991), that Himmler had embraced a genocidal approach to the Jewish Question as early as 1940. Christopher Browning also settles, like Longerich, on a date in 1941: The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: U Nebraska Pr, 2004).

[5] The masterful translation by Noakes and Sharpe manages to retain a flavor of the formal German syntax.

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