Heinrich Himmler: The Architect of the Holocaust

Within the Nazi elite, there were few more cruel and calculating as Heinrich Himmler - the man who designed the Holocaust.

Jun 16, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

arbeit macht frei with heinrich himmler portrait


Among the Nazi elite, there are few, if any, that come close to the pure evil that was Heinrich Himmler. As one of Adolf Hitler’s most trusted ministers, Himmler oversaw the running of the Nazi Party’s most vile elements. He was the leader of the SS, Germany’s most fanatical Nazis, and oversaw the creation and running of the concentration and extermination camps involved in the Holocaust. He also oversaw much of the genocide against the Soviets during Germany’s war on the Eastern Front.


From 1943, Himmler was also the head of all of Germany’s police forces, holding the positions of Chief Minister of the Interior and Chief of Police. He oversaw all internal and external police and security forces, as well as the infamous Gestapo.


Heinrich Himmler: Early Life

heinrich himmler salute
Heinrich Himmler, image via AP Photo via oregonlive


Heinrich Himmler was born on October 7, 1900, into relative luxury as his parents were socially upper-middle-class. They were devout Roman Catholic and considerably conservative. The social standing of the family was not in question. Heinrich was named so after his godfather, the highly decorated Prince Heinrich of Bavaria.


Heinrich Himmler was a studious boy who performed well at school but struggled with athletics. During the First World War, he joined the Landshut Cadet Corps, where he trained to be an officer. However, while his brother saw action on the front and even earned an Iron cross, Heinrich missed his opportunity to fight as the war ended before he could graduate as an officer.

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heinrich himmler young boy
Heinrich Himmler as a young boy, via The Mirror


Himmler finished his grammar school education and studied agronomy. Although already antisemitic at this time, it was not unusual among his peers, and his devout Roman Catholic upbringing contributed to his feelings. While at university, he was a member of the fencing club, whose president was Jewish. Heinrich’s dealings with him were noted as always being polite.


Nevertheless, after a failed attempt to join the military, Heinrich Himmler met Ernst Röhm, an early member of the Nazi Party and the leader of the SA (Sturmabteilung), the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. After this point, Himmler became more antisemitic, seemingly obsessed with the philosophical questions regarding race and the pragmatic dealings with the “Jewish Question,” as attested to by the notes in his journal.


Himmler Joins the Nazi Party

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The Sturmabteilung, also known as the SA or the “Brown Shirts,” via brewinmate.com


In August 1923, Heinrich Himmler joined the NSDAP, and even took part in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. Although involved, he escaped incarceration due to a lack of evidence. After the failed putsch, and because of the tumbling German economy, Himmler was forced to live with his parents. As daily life became a struggle, Himmler became an irritable person, increasingly angry with the state of affairs.


His interests led him into a deep fascination with race and the occult, and abandoning his Catholic faith, he turned to mysticism, searching for signs to reinforce his world beliefs.


After Hitler’s arrest, Himmler took advantage of the chaos to consolidate his position and rise through the ranks of the Nazi Party. In 1925, on the reformation of the Nazi Party, Himmler joined the Schutzstaffel (SS), which was, at the time, an elite part of the SA tasked with protecting Hitler. As Deputy Propaganda Chief, Himmler had much freedom to run things as he pleased. He established a complex bureaucracy and began to keep records of enemies of the Nazi Party, including Jews and Freemasons.


In September 1927, Himmler informed Hitler of his idea to transform the SS into an elite, racially pure unit. Hitler was impressed with Himmler’s vision and appointed him Deputy Reichsführer-SS, with the rank of SS-Oberführer.


Himmler and the Rise of the SS


When SS commander Erhard Heiden resigned, Himmler became the new Reichsführer-SS. Within a year, Himmler had grown the SS from about 390 men to about 3,000. Although still technically subordinate to the SA, the SS was effectively run as a separate organization.


heinrich himmler ss wedding
An SS wedding, via thirdreicharts.com


Himmler rode on the coattails of the NSDAP’s meteoric rise through the German parliament, the burning of the Reichstag, and the effective suspension of democratic rights in Germany, effectively making Hitler the dictator of Germany. With the immense increase in power for the Nazi Party came a huge ability for Himmler to grow the SS. By 1933, it numbered 52,000 members, all specially selected for their “Aryan” qualities.


As the SS grew, Himmler set up different departments, including the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), run by Reinhard Heydrich. The SD was tasked with locating and neutralizing enemies of the Nazi Party. Working together, Himmler and Heydrich managed to maneuver the SS into replacing the state police force throughout Germany, effectively replacing them with the SS. At the same time, they worked to sever the SS completely from the SA. On June 2, Hitler named Himmler Reichsleiter, the second-highest political rank within the Nazi Party.


Obsessed with race, Himmler organized for each SS member to have a genealogical record and promoted the breeding of pure Aryan children from a specially selected group of people who met the Aryan standards. This idea was an eventual failure. Less than 40 percent of SS men decided to marry, and each marriage produced only one child on average.


In March 1933, Himmler established the first official concentration camp at Dachau. The camp was used as a work camp and became a model for all future camps throughout German territory. In 1934, Himmler and his SS took complete control of the camps and created a separate division of the SS to run them: the SS-Totenkopfverbände. The camps eventually became home not just to political opponents but also to criminals, vagrants, and anybody seen as undesirable.


The Night of the Long Knives

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Himmler inspecting Ukrainian members of the 14th SS Division Galicia, via espritdecorps.ca


In 1934, Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, became increasingly ambitious, believing that the revolution was yet to come. He wanted Hitler to make him Minister of Defense and wanted the three million-strong SA to become the sole military of Germany. Control of the Gestapo was handed over to Himmler, and on June 21, Hitler decided that Röhm and the leadership of the SA had to be eliminated.


On June 29, the Night of the Long Knives, the leadership of the SA was neutralized, and Röhm was shot dead. The SS now became a fully independent organization answerable only to Hitler, while the SA was converted into a sports organization. With the title of Reichsführer-SS, Himmler held the highest title within the SS, which was the equivalent of a field marshal in the army.


Under the command of Himmler, the SS expanded its scope, gaining complete control over the police in Germany, and added to itself the Waffen-SS department, the military wing of the SS and which fought alongside the regular Heer (army). The Waffen-SS was completely independent of the Heer and had its own command structure. Under Himmler, it grew from three to 38 divisions during the war and was awarded Germany’s best equipment.


World War II

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German troops invading Poland, via history.com


Heinrich Himmler was one of the masterminds behind the idea of using a false flag attack as a pretext to attack Poland. German soldiers dressed as Polish soldiers staged incursions and attacks on German territory, prompting Germany to invade. The operation itself was known as “Operation Himmler.”


SS Einsatzgruppen (task forces) were formed that followed the Heer and eradicated civilian populations, focusing on Jews and ethnic Poles. By the end of 1939, and under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, these death squads had murdered 65,000 civilians.


During Germany’s war against the western powers in Europe, Himmler devised the Generalplan Ost, which called for the conquest of eastern states, namely the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, and parts of Ukraine, and to have their populations deported or starved. This plan would see the removal of 31 million people living in those areas for the purpose of German resettlement.


Regarding this, Himmler openly stated, “It is a question of existence; thus it will be a racial struggle of pitiless severity, in the course of which 20 to 30 million Slavs and Jews will perish through military actions and crises of food supply.”


Himmler stated that the war in the east was a “pan-European crusade” against Bolshevism and was thus able to bolster the SS using men from conquered territories. After 1943, in an act of desperation, most of the men in the eastern SS units were conscripts. As a result, the eastern Waffen-SS units were sub-standard compared to their western European counterparts.


As the invasion of the Soviet Union took place, the Einsatzgruppen sprang into action again, killing as many as 500,000 Soviet POWs. Concentration camps were set up in the conquered regions, and many prisoners were shot, gassed, or starved to death.


The Holocaust

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The entrance to Auschwitz, via britannica.com


In Minsk, in 1941, Himmler attended the shooting of 100 Jews. The experience left him nauseated, and he was concerned about the effect that executing people this way would have on the morale of his troops. As a result, Auschwitz was expanded with the addition of gas chambers to expedite the genocide. In July 1942, Himmler visited the facilities and was impressed with their efficiency.


It was not only Jews who were targeted for extermination in these camps. Roma were also targeted, most being interned and killed at Auschwitz or Dachau. Himmler justified his killing of millions by his strong belief in racial hierarchy. After the extermination of Jews and other undesirable races, Himmler wanted to breed, through eugenics, a race of pure Nordic Aryans.


Almost 6 million people were exterminated in concentration and extermination camps.


The End of the War

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Hitler and Himmler, via The Times


After D-Day, it became increasingly clear that Germany was losing the war, being pushed back on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Himmler was given the role of the creation of the Volkssturm, a conscripted militia of males between the ages of 16 and 60. Lack of training and equipment was a major issue, and 175,000 died in the war’s final months. Hitler believed that the Volskssturm would initiate a popular uprising against the invaders, but his hopes were wildly optimistic.


Despite Himmler’s lack of military experience, Hitler appointed him with the task of halting the Soviets’ Vistula-Oder offensive. As head of Army Group Vistula, Himmler showed gross incompetence, failing to create concrete battle plans. He hardly ever left his command quarters, and he ordered massages every morning before he started work. After lunch, he would have lengthy naps. As a result, his personal relationship with Hitler suffered greatly.


As the war drew to a close, Himmler tried to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Western Allies. He claimed that the crematoria were built to dispose of the inmates who had died of a typhus epidemic, but as camps were liberated, it became apparent that Himmler’s claims were spurious.


Himmler attempted to evade capture, but his efforts were not particularly well-planned. He was captured and identified whereupon he was swiftly interrogated. He bit into a cyanide pill during the interrogation and was dead within 15 minutes.


Heinrich Himmler: A crucial Part of the Nazi Leadership


Himmler was undoubtedly one of the evilest men within the Nazi leadership. He was creative, intelligent, and a brutal, sociopathic sadist. In many ways, Himmler shaped the Nazi Party and the conduct of Germany during the Second World War. Without him, the Holocaust and the brutal killings may not have happened the way that they did.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.