b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r elite force selected on racial grounds that would embody and perpetuate the purest Teutonic bloodline. Yet he was also adept at picking as subordinates men with flaws, vices, and troubled backgrounds, whom he rehabilitated to the point at which they were dependent on him and unswervingly loyal. To sustain this relationship he kept a close eye on his team – using the SD, the intelligence service that he set up under Reinhard Heydrich in 1931 – and frequently sent them critical missives or words of encouragement. Longerich sees Himmler in this mode acting like an ‘educationalist’, but for all his schoolmasterly pretensions it might be more accurate to describe him as an extortionist.
Himmler and the SS played an important part in the campaigns that propelled Hitler to the chancellorship in 1933. He acted as the politician in smoky back rooms and a military commander on the streets, despatching SS squads against political opponents. From 1933 to 1936 Himmler vied with Göring and Interior Minister Frick over who would control the police. The existence of political opposition, sometimes invented, and the genuine threat posed by the SA allowed Himmler to offer the SS as the best defence of the Nazi hegemony, even at the price of murdering his former mentors Röhm and Strasser. He systematically outmanoeuvred his rivals, placing SS men in command roles or coopting police chiefs, until he finally won total control of internal security.
According to Longerich, ‘Himmler was the man who enabled Hitler actually to exercise his position as a dictator with, in principle, unlimited power through the deployment of state terror.’ Thanks to ‘preventative repression’ and ‘protective custody’, notions elaborated by SS intellectuals, Himmler rendered the security forces a law unto themselves, able to detain any individual indefinitely. The concentration camps set up in the early months of the regime to terrorise opponents were rationalised, but at the same time made autonomous of the judiciary. Acting without restraint, Himmler was able to order one group after another to be rounded up on the grounds that they endangered the ‘racial community’. Criminal law gave way to biological determinism.
Until 1938 Himmler showed surprisingly little passion for the ‘Jewish question’. He left the design of an SS Jewish policy to Heydrich. This lack of activity, in contradistinction to his fussiness about the racial selection of SS men and their brides, may have stemmed from the fact that everyone agreed about the Jews. They were an alien presence in Germany and an ‘enemy’ of the Reich abroad. The SS policy was to force most to emigrate and to hold the residue hostage against the good behaviour of governments allegedly under Jewish domination. When it suited him, Himmler ratcheted up the fight against ‘the Jewish enemy’, but it was only after the annexation of Austria that the SS gained a decisive edge in the conduct of Jewish policy.
Even more surprising is evidence that the intensifying persecution of the Jews was less a linear outgrowth of anti-Semitic policy than one thread of Himmler’s plans for reorganising the German empire and all of Europe on ethnic lines, with the SS at its core. Himmler spent a great deal of time and energy expanding and arming the SS, laying down values for his men, and guiding what he saw as the great SS family. He fretted about their welfare and nutrition, advising in one directive that ‘the attention of all units must be drawn most vigorously to the toasting of bread. In all circumstances, even in marshland, bread can be sliced, warmed, and toasted.’ He wanted sausages and processed meat replaced by organic foods. Himmler even drafted menus for SS staff canteens in concentration camps and barracks: ‘A good herbal tea must be provided every evening … Boiled and salted potatoes are to be strictly avoided.’
Longerich makes a great effort to understand Himmler’s value system, questioning what he meant by loyalty, obedience, comradeship and, above all, ‘decency’. He concludes that Himmler measured everything against the safety and prolongation of the Germanic people for the next millennium. So he required that SS men observe Mothers’ Day and breed healthy Aryan children, but demanded the shooting of Jewish mothers and their children to preclude the emergence of a generation bent on vengeance. In the end, ‘decency’ was ‘no more than a label for petit-bourgeois double standards’.
The biographical approach triumphs when Longerich knits together Himmler’s
Himmler: liked to adopt a soldierly bearing changing vision for the SS with his personal predilections. When he conceived a child with his secretary he modified his prudishness about the sexual behaviour of SS men and advocated conception outside wedlock. This was rationalised as a necessity to replace fallen SS troopers and supply racially pure settlers for conquered lands.
Rapid German victories in 1939–40 encouraged Himmler to think that he could telescope into a few years the millenarian projects that he previously thought would take generations. He embarked on massive forced population movements, bringing one million ethnic Germans into the Greater Reich to settle annexed territory, while displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people. These vast projects were fraught with problems and most ended in failure. Even the SS policy of expelling unwanted Jews to a ‘reservation’ in southeast Poland or to Madagascar came to naught.
The invasion of the USSR offered Himmler redemption and solutions to numerous dilemmas, not least what to do with the Jews. It was launched as a ‘war of annihilation’, directed towards occupation, depopulation, and colonisation. Himmler was determined that his SS should be the vehicle for these policies and, by acting more ruthlessly than other agencies, he made his point. SS and police units slaughtered Jews on the pretext that they were a threat to security or a burden on the food supply. He visited his commanders in the field to inspect the shootings and escalate them. He also
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