Today is the anniversary of a major blow against Nazism. On May 23rd, 1945, former head for the SS Heinrich Himmler committed suicide. Himmler had been taken captive by the British but did not want to stand trial and so ended his own life by ingesting cyanide. His death along with the earlier suicide of Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering meant further thinning of the ranks for those serving Nazi leadership.
Heinrich Himmler was born in 1900 to a middle class and deeply Catholic family. His brother had tutored the children of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and in 1917 his family was able to use its resulting royal connections to secure Himmler a position as an officer candidate in a reserve battalion. Himmler did not see combat in World War One and completed his education upon his return home. In 1922 Himmler was forced to leave university due to his family’s economic woes and became increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied. The assassination of foreign minister Walther Rathenau shifted Himmler’s political views to the right and inflamed his already existing antisemitism. Himmler joined the Nazi Party in 1923 and participated in the Beer Hall Pusch. The failure of the Pusch lost Himmler his job and he was forced to move in with his parents in Munich. By this time Himmler had become fascinated with the occult and had turned away from Catholicism. Himmler joined the SS, at that time merely a part of the SA, and quickly rose through its ranks, becoming head in 1929. In 1930 he convinced Hitler to make the SS independent of the SA and the Nazi Party’s takeover in 1933 led to a rapid increase in SS membership. That year Himmler also set up the first concentration camp, located in Dachau. In 1934 Himmler played a key role in the Night of the Long Knives, in which hundreds of SA leaders and other political opponents were killed by the orders of Hitler. Himmler would spend the rest of the 1930s increasing the power of the SS by expanding its authority and creating military units. During WWII, Himmler organized concentration camps and the roundup of undesirables. He also pushed for the creation of SS volunteer units from occupied and neutral nations. Himmler was a favorite of Hitler and the SS gained more favor with Hitler as the army disappointed him. As Germany waned, Himmler’s authority increased as he gained more and more authority within Germany and over the army. Himmler’s failure to organize several counteroffensives led to a falling out with Hitler. Hitler declared Himmler a traitor on April 29th after he learned of Himmler’s attempt to negotiate peace with the Allies and stripped him of all positions. Himmler attempted to flee Germany but was captured on May 21st. He revealed his identity during interrogation and was taken to the Headquarters of the British Army. When a doctor attempted to examine Himmler’s mouth, Himmler ingested a hidden cyanide capsule, killing himself.
The rise and fall of Heinrich Himmler mirrors the arc of many other Nazis, mostly notable Adolf Hitler. Himmler was a failure as a student and a worker who found direction and success in the Nazi Party. He advanced his power and influence, eventually coming to control most of German law enforcement, a good portion of the Army, and the establishment and direction of the concentration camps. Eventually, his political plays became little more than attempts to claim an ever-larger fraction of a shrinking corpse. The height of his influence came after the failure of the 1944 July plot to assassinate Hitler at a time when Germany was being pushed back on all fronts and military officers had tried to kill its leader. Himmler is the quintessential example of the perils of myopia. He was too busy trying to take every last bit of power he could to do anything more than create a forged playbook to escape with, and so would die by his own hand, his hard-won influence taken by forces beyond his control and far more powerful than him.