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The Man Behind Hitler | Article

Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945)

USHMM, Courtesy of James Blevins

Heinrich Himmler joined the Nazi Party in 1925 and became one of Adolf Hitler's earliest followers, alongside Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring. As commander of the German Schutzstaffel (Protective Squadron), abbreviated SS, he created and controlled Nazi concentration camps and was responsible for the murder of more than 12 million people who were considered enemies by the Nazis.

Building a Racist Army
Himmler was born in Munich, Germany, to a pious, authoritarian Catholic schoolmaster in 1900. In 1918, after finishing school, he enlisted to fight in World War I, but the war ended before he saw combat. He then earned a degree in agriculture from the technical university in Munich and found work as a fertilizer salesman. He joined the Freikorps, private armies of right wing veterans who were resentful of Germany's loss in World War I. In 1923 Himmler joined the Nazi Party, which was recruiting Freikorps soldiers for the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troop), abbreviated SA, to protect senior leaders of the Nazi Party at public events. After the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazi Party's failed push for power in Munich, the German government abolished the SA. Yet it was reestablished 15 months later along with the SS, which protected Nazi Party leaders throughout Germany. In January 1929 Himmler was appointed head of the SS, a small body of 200 men that he would soon transform into the racist and deadly army of the Nazi police state. By 1933 Himmler's SS numbered 52,000 members of Hitler's "master race." Himmler then began a massive effort to separate the SS from the SA. To distinguish his troops, he introduced black SS uniforms that were unlike the SA's brown shirts. On June 30, 1934, under Hitler's orders, Himmler and Göring arranged the murder of SA leader Ernst Röhm and other senior SA officials in a massacre that would become known as The Night of the Long Knives. As a result, Himmler became chief of the German Police, including the Gestapo, the secret police.

Holocaust Administrator
Coupling his power with a fanatical belief in the racist Nazi ideology, Himmler then organized and administered Nazi Germany's extermination camps. During a speech on October 4, 1943, Himmler remarked: "It is one of those things that is easily said. 'The Jewish people is being exterminated,' every Party member will tell you, perfectly clear, it's part of our plans, we're eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, a small matter.'" Himmler toured the Nazi camps often and personally witnessed many mass shootings, unlike Hitler, who never visited the camps.

By 1945 Himmler's Waffen-SS, a military branch formed in 1940, numbered 800,000 troops, but he had lost all hope for a German victory. Believing the Nazis needed to seek peace to survive, he contacted Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden and began negotiations. Hitler declared Himmler a traitor and stripped him of all titles and ranks. After Hitler's death, Himmler contacted Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower and again offered to surrender if he could be spared prosecution as a Nazi leader. Instead the Allies declared him a major war criminal. He was scheduled to stand trial at Nuremberg, but he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule before the interrogation. His last words were, "I am Heinrich Himmler!"

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