Luebeck, Northern Germany April 24, 1945

Reichsfuehrer-SS, Reich Minister of the Interior, Gestapo chief, and Adolf Hitler-devotee Heinrich Himmler began making clumsy attempts to secure a separate peace treaty with the Western Allies as German defenders of the Reich capital—ground zero of Nazi resis­tance—failed to push the Red Army back across the Spree River, the last physi­cal barrier to the Soviet con­quest of Berlin. Himmler was in Berlin on April 20, 1945, to con­gratu­late Hitler on the occa­sion of the Fuehrer’s 56th birth­day—a somber one spent in the clammy gray bowels of the Reich Chan­cel­lery bunker—then scampered away to Northern Germany.

Meeting in the Baltic port city of Luebeck on the night of April 23/24, 1945, with Count Folke Ber­na­dotte, vice-presi­dent of the Swe­dish Red Cross, and with­out his master’s know­ledge, Himmler offered German capit­u­la­tion on the Western Front but not on the Soviet Front. (Himmler misrepre­sented him­self to Berna­dotte as the pro­vi­sional leader of Germany, believing Hitler would shortly commit suicide or had already done so.) Ber­na­dotte for­warded Himmler’s terms to the Western Allies through the Swe­dish Foreign Ministry. The Allies replied tersely that German capit­ula­tion could only be accepted if it em­braced all fronts, and that the Allies would con­tinue pressing their attacks until they had achieved com­plete victory. For Hitler, the back­door scheming of “der treue Heinrich” (“the faithful Heinrich”—the epithet refers back to the well-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Frog Prince, or Iron Henry) was the last straw, espe­cially when it was con­firmed by the British Reuters news agency and broadcast for all the world to know on April 28.

To the few Nazi stal­warts still with him in his Berlin bunker Hitler ranted that Himmler’s act of treach­ery was the worst he had ever known. He ordered Himm­ler’s imme­di­ate arrest, expelled the former Reichs­fuehrer-SS from the Nazi Party and from all offices of the state, and ordered the exe­cu­tion of Her­mann Fege­lein, Himm­ler’s SS repre­sen­ta­tive at Fuehrer HQ Berlin. Late on the night of April 28 Hitler married Fege­lein’s sister-in-law, Eva Braun, with whom he had a 14-year inti­mate rela­tion­ship. Then he dic­tated a poli­tical state­ment and last will and tes­ta­ment, named as his politi­cal suc­ces­sor Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz (in Flens­burg, Northern Germany, near the Danish border), and took his life and that of Braun on April 30.

Dismissed by Doenitz on May 6 from all his offices—Doenitz wanted nothing to do with the noto­rious and con­niving SS chief—Himm­ler now went into hiding, heading south in the direction of Bavaria with some of his top SS asso­ci­ates. He shaved off his mous­tache and adopted the alias ex-Sgt. Hein­rich Hit­zinger. He and his small band joined a larger wandering party of disarmed sol­diers and civil­ians. At a British Army check­point on a bridge he and his party needed to cross Himm­ler held back. The check­point was also an intel­li­gence screening point set up by British Army Field Secu­rity, which was searching for people named on the auto­matic arrest list of leading Nazis and war crimi­nals. A roving army patrol soon caught up with Himm­ler dis­guised in civil­ian clothes and wearing a black eye patch and a blue rain­coat. Reunited with the rest of his traveling party at a civil intern­ment camp, Himm­ler calmly revealed his true iden­tity during inter­ro­gation. A glass vial of poison had been found in his pos­ses­sion and removed but Himm­ler had secreted another one in his mouth and crushed it between his teeth during a doctor’s exami­na­tion on May 23, 1945. Frantic British efforts to save him were for naught. His body was autop­sied and photo­graphed, wrapped in blan­kets and camou­flage nets, then trussed up with tele­phone wires. In a lonely patch some dis­tance away Himm­ler was casually tossed into an unmarked grave like countless millions of his victims.

Heinrich Himmler was as evil a man as ever lived, as I learned in two fine bio­graphies of the second-most power­ful man in Nazi Ger­many, one authored by Roger Man­vell and Hein­rich Fraenkel (Hein­rich Himm­ler: The Sinis­ter Life of the Head of the SS and Gestapo), the other by Peter Longe­rich (Hein­rich Himm­ler: A Life). But then I read Robert Ger­warth’s bio­graphy of Rein­hard Hey­drich, titled Hitler’s Hang­man: The Life of Hey­drich—“hang­man” being one of three nick­names Hey­drich wore with pride. Up till his fatal en­coun­ter with two Czech nation­alists, Hey­drich was widely viewed as the most dan­ger­ous man in Nazi Ger­many. Ger­warth ex­plains why in this autho­ri­ta­tive bio­graphy of evil incarnate.—Norm Haskett

Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler: The Second Power in Adolf Hitler’s Germany

Adolf Hitler and Heinrich HimmlerHeinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Obersalzberg, May 1939

Left: Head of the SS (short for Schutzstaffel, the Nazi party pro­tec­tion squads) from 1929 to 1945 and chief of the Gestapo (secret state police) from 1934 to 1945, Himmler was second to Hitler as the most power­ful man in Nazi Germany. From 1943 to 1945 Himm­ler held another post, Minis­ter of the In­terior; in this posi­tion, he is one of the per­sons most directly responsible for the Holocaust.

Right: Himmler (left) with Reinhard Heydrich (holding sheets of paper) at Hitler’s Bava­rian retreat, the Berg­hof, situ­ated atop the 6,700‑ft moun­tain called Ober­salz­berg, 1939. Hey­drich, ruth­less head of the Reich Secu­rity Head Office (Reichs­sicher­heits­hauptamt, or RSHA), worked under Himm­ler. In July 1941 Reichs­marschall Her­mann Goering ordered the con­science­less and more-than-willing Hey­drich to pre­pare the “Final Solu­tion”—the exter­mi­na­tion of all Jews in German-occu­pied Europe. Hey­drich was mortally wounded on May 27, 1942, in Prague by two Czech resis­tance oper­a­tives. The “Butcher of Prague,” one of his less affec­tionate nick­names, devel­oped a sys­temic infec­tion and died 9 days later, his pain­ful death attri­buted to several contradictory causes.

Goering, Himmler, HitlerBody of Heinrich Himmler at British HQ, May 23, 1945

Left: Speaking to Reichstag members on the day of the German invasion of Poland, Septem­ber 1, 1939, Hitler tapped Goering, seen here with Himm­ler, to be his suc­ces­sor “if any­thing should befall me.” Hitler for­malized his suc­ces­sion in a secret decree on June 29, 1941. From 1942 onward Goering largely with­drew from the mili­tary and poli­tical scene when the Luft­waffe, which he headed, stumbled on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Right: Himmler’s body on the floor of British 2nd Army HQ in Luene­burg after biting down on a cya­nide cap­sule during a late morning inter­ro­ga­tion on May 23, 1945. He died within 15 minutes despite efforts to revive him. Three days later he was buried in an unmarked grave near Luene­burg, 28 miles south­east of Hamburg, in the German state of Lower Saxony.

Biographic’s Heinrich Himmler: The Dark Side of Human Nature