Theorist of Cosmic Ice

Christopher Clark

The ascent (if that’s the right word) of Heinrich Himmler to become the chief architect of Nazi genocide is one of the strangest strands of the regime’s story. There have been several studies of this enigmatic man, but Peter Longerich’s massive biography, grounded in exhaustive study of the primary sources, is now the standard work and must stand alongside Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, Ulrich Herbert’s Best and Robert Gerwarth’s Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich as one of the landmark Nazi biographies. As the author of a celebrated study of the Holocaust, Longerich is better able than his predecessors to situate Himmler within the vast machinery of genocide. And he brings to his task a gift for capturing those mannerisms that are the intimate markers of personality.

There was nothing obvious or predictable about Himmler’s rise to absolute power over the life and death of millions. He played no role in the strategising of the party before the seizure of power in 1933 and was not one of Hitler’s intimates. He lacked the acerbic charisma of Goebbels, the suave intelligence of Speer and the unforced bonhomie of Goering. His attempts to make a success of himself outside the party were a miserable failure. Despite his diploma in agronomy, his efforts at farming were a resounding flop (the hens refused to lay and the trees kept dying). His early ventures into regional party administration were not a success. He was physically unprepossessing. The pretentious paramilitary haircut could not compensate for the pudgy, unathletic body and the drastically receding chin – a matter of some consequence in a milieu obsessed with racial phenotypes. ‘Why have you got your hand in front of your face?’ his fiancée asked of a photo he sent her around 1929. ‘Did you want to cover up your chin?’

Most important, the young Himmler was not well liked. He did not impress his fellow fraternity students at the Technical University in Munich, who repeatedly refused, despite his importuning, to elect him Fuchsmajor, an office assigned to a respected senior student entrusting him with overseeing the recruitment of new members. Even his Bavarian fellow Nazis loathed him. They were repelled by his attention-seeking and by the hectoring, pompous criticisms he enjoyed parcelling out to his peers. Fortunately for Himmler, none of this mattered. In the NSDAP, what counted were not plaudits from the provinces, but the support of the leadership, and particularly of the Führer himself. And this he was assiduous in cultivating. Though he never became close to the dictator, he acquired a reputation as Hitler’s most dedicated and ruthless servant. Whereas the SA possessed a powerful and charismatic leader of its own in Ernst Röhm, Himmler fashioned the SS (originally a small offshoot of the much larger SA) into an instrument of the Führer’s will alone.

His chance to demonstrate the unconditional quality of his loyalty came in the summer of 1934, when he authorised the murders of Röhm and the dissident Nazi Gregor Strasser, both of whom had helped in the mid-1920s to lay the foundations of his career in the party. He manoeuvred his way around various sceptical bigwigs to secure an ever larger share of power over the policing agencies of the German federal states, before amalgamating them into a Reich-wide security apparatus. Goering belatedly recognised the threat Himmler posed, but his attempts to reimpose control over him were a failure. Himmler didn’t win every power struggle he entered into, but he won enough to bypass all his rivals, including army commanders. From the summer of 1941, as the Nazi empire expanded eastwards, his police apparatus gradually infiltrated military and civil chains of command, unleashing a wave of exterminatory violence unique in world history.

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