Born in 1900, Heinrich Himmler was the godson of a Bavarian prince and became an officer cadet during the First World War. Never actually seeing combat, Himmler was discharged at the war’s end and went to a technical college, where he majored in agriculture. During the turbulent years of the 1920s in which Germany’s economy had been destroyed, Himmler managed to secure work as a chicken farmer and also joined one of the numerous paramilitary groups that had sprouted during that time. In 1923 he participated in the failed attempt by the Nazi Party to take over the Bavarian government (even though he was not yet a member of the party). In 1925, after the Nazis had regrouped, Himmler became a minor member of the Nazi Party in its Central Bavarian Office. Also, at that time, he accepted the position as Deputy Leader of a small group called the SS.
In 1929 Himmler became the Reich Leader of the SS, which at the time numbered less than 200 and was a suborganization of the SA. The SA, commonly known as the brownshirts, was the Nazi paramilitary wing, the group that did the actual dirty work–street fights, attacks against political opponents and outright political murders–of the party. Himmler at once expanded the SS, recruited hundreds of new members and introduced racial screening of members and changed the uniform to the much more familiar black jacket with red armband. In 1934 he orchestrated the destruction of the SA, which both he and Adolf Hitler had feared was becoming too powerful a force within the Nazi party, and many SA officials, from top generals on down to common street thugs, were either tried and executed or murdered outright. His actions secured the position of the SS as an independent group within the Nazi Party. He was made “Reichsfuhrer-SS” and now commanded not only the SS proper, but also the forces of the SD (internal security service) and Gestapo (state security police) as well as the fledging military SS then called the Verfungstruppe (later known as the Waffen-SS). In 1936 Himmler gained total police authority in the country by being named as Chief of German Police, and incorporated all of Germany’s regular police forces into the SS. Three years later the Second World War began.
Himmler was the official head of the military Waffen-SS, yet in actuality he had little to do with this organization and left its running to such men as Paul Hausser and Sepp Dietrich. Himmer’s most notorious activity during the war was setting in motion the extermination of all European Jews, the so-called “Final Solution”, in which wholesale genocide was carried out against groups the Nazis considered “undesirable” or racially inferior, resulting in the murders of more than six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others, a task that was assigned to the infamous Reinhard Heydrich.
By 1944 Himmler’s SS had amassed total security and police authority in Germany, had a large armed force in the Waffen-SS and was also quite wealthy through the exploits of the SS Economics Office. Meanwhile, the concentration and death camps continued to be run by men of the SS Death’s Head (Totenkopf) units. As the fortunes of war turned against Germany and Allied forces invaded the country and drew closer to Berlin, Himmler was given further power and appointed a military commander both of the Home Army and a frontline Army Group. His lack of military experience proved embarrassing and he was soon relieved of those duties. Meanwhile, however, he had climbed the political chain and been appointed Reich Minister of the Interior, which put him in line to be Hitler’s successor. By 1945, with Germany crumbling under relentless Allied pressure, Himmler was on the brink of mental collapse and began to convince himself that he would be the postwar leader of Germany and Minister of Police for the Allies. He secretly offered to negotiate the German surrender, but Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower flatly turned the offer down, refusing to have anything to do with the hated Himmler or his SS. When Hitler learned what Himmler had done, he stripped the former chicken farmer of all his ranks and titles and ordered his arrest. Himmler, however, still had much of the SS under his control and commanded it up to the end, even though Karl Hanke had been appointed the new Reichsfuhrer-SS.
After the surrender of Germany, Himmler wandered aimlessly about Bavaria until he was captured by the British. During his interrogation, he bit down on a cyanide capsule hidden in one of his teeth and died within seconds. Feared by many but respected by few, it can be argued that Himmler was more a creation of those who worked under him, like Heydrich, Pohl, Dietrich, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Hausser, than by his own designs. Heinrich Himmler was survived by his wife and daughter Gudrun, who still lives in Germany and has long been suspected of connections with neo-Nazi groups.