b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r dav i d c e s a r a n i
Man to Monster einrich Himmler By Peter Longerich
(Translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe)
(Oxford University Press 1031pp £25)
Ten years in the making, this biogra- phy of Himmler is a work of staggering scholarship. The 750 pages of text are followed by 200 pages of notes, most of which refer to original documents. Peter Longerich, a German historian, has delved into archives in several countries and read everything by or about the man who created the SS. Although there are several worthy biographies of Himmler, this is the first to incorporate material that became available after the end of the Cold War.
Access to Himmler’s appointment book, in particular, enables Longerich to chart his travels and meetings, and map them onto the development of policy or the sequence of events. Nevertheless, Himmler’s most intimate letters and diaries have long been available. They were used by Peter Padfield in his 1990 biography of Himmler. So, does Longerich get us any closer to the man himself?
He argues that a ‘comprehensive biographical approach’ is the only way to understand the evolution of the institutions shaped by Himmler, the ideas that inspired them, and their terrible impact. ‘The organisation and aims of the state protection corps were influenced by his phobias and prejudices, his fads and fancies, and his passions to an almost astonishing extent.’ To understand him better Longerich took advice from psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. On the strength of their diagnoses he asserts that in addition to a dodgy tummy that was probably psychosomatic, the ReichsführerSS also suffered from ‘an attachment disorder’. By contrast, Padfield deduced that Himmler was a classic ‘schizoid’ case. You can pick your shrink.
It is more pertinent that circumstances placed Himmler in the extraordinary position of being able to create a police apparatus and exercise power untrammelled by legal codes or moral norms. Longerich does an excellent job of explaining how he achieved this, although it is often a dull record of organisation building. Fortunately, Himmler also bequeathed us numerous writings, speeches and letters in which he set out his political vision and his ethical stance. These reveal his priggishness, intellectual myopia and lack of self-awareness. Longerich uses them cleverly, refraining from comment and allowing their author to damn himself with his own words. Himmler emerges as a practised tyrant and an unwitting buffoon.
His origins were perfectly normal. His father was a schoolteacher of modest origins who rose to tutor minor royalty and run a school. He was a strict but caring father with conventional, conservative beliefs. Young Heinrich, born in Munich in 1900, was a sickly child but worked hard at his studies and enjoyed success. His father was status conscious, as befits a parvenu, but his son was neither a misfit nor a failure. He did feel, though, that, unlike his elder brother, he missed out on the Great War. Despite a brief period as an officer cadet before the armistice he was always trying to prove himself as a soldier. He glorified the military virtues of discipline, loyalty, obedience, and ruthlessness.
As a young man Himmler experienced difficulty meeting women and ‘striking the right note’ with male friends. He rationalised his dissatisfaction by adopting a pose of celibacy and manly restraint. This was stressful, but sexual frustration and self-doubt are hardly unique. They certainly cannot explain why he drifted into right-wing politics, which was more to do with his frustration about Germany’s humiliating defeat. Between 1919 and 1922, he mixed university studies in agronomy with part-time soldiering in nationalist, anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic militias.
The youthful Himmler escaped from his personal rut by dreaming of becoming a hero or a settler in some far-off land. His reading of Teutonic myths nurtured these reveries. Like Padfield, Longerich examines his neatly kept reading lists for clues about his political development. During the early 1920s Himmler read key texts on ‘racial science’, works defining and elevating the ‘Aryan race’, and anti-Semitic tracts.
Interestingly, until this point he had not displayed any antipathy towards Jews or interest in the ‘Jewish question’. He learned from books that the Jews were a race conspiring against Christians and capitalism, and then spent months chewing over the allegation until it became one of his fixed ideas. At around the same time, he abandoned Catholicism for a shifting kaleidoscope of mystical beliefs. These ideas were self-reinforcing. In the course of hammering out his Weltanschauung he came to regard Christianity, like socialism, as a pernicious Jewish invention. Both sapped the spirit and reproductive power of the Aryans, but Christianity was the true ‘destroyer of every nation’ and a greater threat to mankind than the Jews.
By 1922, Himmler was embedded within the völkisch, nationalist far-right camp in Bavaria. He first encountered Hitler through editions of his speeches, and was impressed. But Ernst Röhm and Gregor Strasser, the leaders of the SA,were his earliest heroes and patrons. For several years after the abortive Munich putsch he slaved away as a minor Nazi Party functionary in Bavaria. The traits of ‘pedantry and his obsessive need to exercise control, as well as his megalomania’ now appeared in full. He constantly drafted grandiose schemes that bore no relation to his or the party’s resources. However, he was never carried away by occult ideas or fads, such as the Artaman League, that came his way. Longerich shows that Himmler always had his eye on power: who held it, how to get it, and how to justify keeping or extending it. Anything that cut across these aims was jettisoned or consigned to his most private realm.
His life began to improve in 1927. He met his future wife and was appointed deputy leader of the SS, the hand-picked protection squad that Hitler was building up as a counterweight to the SA. In January 1929, Himmler assumed command of this quickly expanding praetorian guard. As it grew, he shaped it. He envisaged an n o v e m b e r 2 0 1 1 | Literary Review 7