As the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler wielded extraordinary power over the development, timing, and implementation of the Jewish genocide. Himmler was steeped in every aspect of the radicalization of antisemitic policy during the National Socialist era. His control over the policing functions of the Nazi Party and the state (including the concentration camp system) made him one of the key officials who both formulated and enforced policies of oppression.
Himmler was born on October 7, 1900, the second son of Professor Gebhard and Anna Maria Himmler. Gebhard was the tutor for Prince Heinrich of Bavaria, a member of the royal Wittelsbach family, for whom Gebhard’s son was named. After failing to become a military officer, Himmler took up agricultural studies in 1919 at the Technical College in Munich. He also developed his anticommunist and antisemitic worldview in these early and turmoil-filled years of the Weimar Republic. Through his contact with Ernst Rohm, he joined the Nazi Party in August 1923, in time to participate in the Beer Hall Putsch in November of that year. to Himmler’s administrative abilities and dogged personal allegiance, Hitler made him Reichs-fuhrer SS in 1929, a job that entailed turning the SS into a disciplined unit that could balance and control the unruly and much more haphazardly recruited SA under Rohm. Himmler’s work was tested in the Blood Purge of June 1934, when SS men summarily murdered Rohm and other top Storm troopers.
Himmler’s influence continued to grow. In June 1936, Hitler appointed him as head of the German police. As both Reichsfuhrer SS and head of the police, Himmler exercised unprecedented power in the party and state, including oversight of the developing concentration camps. He reorganized the camp system, expanded its facilities, and combined the process of punishment with an increased emphasis on forced labor. Having acquired authority over the concentration camps meant that he also controlled the institutions that might be called on to implement specific policies designed to rid Germany of its Jews.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Himmler began to propose new ways (eventually including the use of gas) of eradicating not only German Jews but also other Jewish populations coming under German domination. In the early years of the war, the SS participated most actively in killing operations by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) in the East. These murders lacked a system, however, even if the numbers of victims reached extreme proportions. In 1941, after the stunning initial military victories, Himmler worked toward a more totalizing plan with his subordinate, Reinhard Heydrich, and in consultation with Hitler. Himmler was crucial at every stage of the decision-making process, instrumental to its brutally successful culmination in the death camps of occupied Poland and in the near destruction of European Jews.
Himmler committed suicide on May 23, 1945, his third day of custody in the hands of Allied forces.
—Paul B. Jaskot
See also Eichmann, Adolf; Einsatzgruppen; Hitler,
Adolf; Holocaust; National Socialist German
Ackermann, Josef. Heinrich Himmler als Ideologue (Gottingen, Germany: Musterschmidt, 1970).
Breitman, Richard. The Architect of Genocide:
Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
Tuchel, Johannes. “Heinrich Himmler: Der Re-ichsfuhrer-SS.” In Die SS: Elite unter dem Totenkopf. Edited by Ronald Smelser and Enrico Syring (Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schoningh, 2000), 234—253.