Munich, Germany January 20, 1929

On this date in 1929 failed German chicken farmer Hein­rich Himm­ler became Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler. The SS in his title “Reich Leader-SS” referred to Schutz­staffel, meaning “Pro­tec­tion Squad.” Infor­mally known by its initials, the SS was created after National Socialist (Nazi) party leader Adolf Hitler, him­self a Viennese vagrant, set about forming a new body­guard following his release from prison for having led the abor­tive 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch. (The putsch, in which Himm­ler was a par­tic­i­pant, was Hitler’s hare­brained scheme to take control of the Bava­rian state govern­ment and even­tu­ally depose “the Berlin Jew govern­ment,” Hitler’s name for the Weimar Repub­lic, which came into being following the abdi­ca­tion of Kaiser Wilhelm II in early Novem­ber 1918 shortly before Germany’s defeat in World War I.)

With the 28-year-old’s appoint­ment to Reichs­fuehrer-SS, Himm­ler’s fate and that of the elite SS became in­ex­tri­cably linked. Himm­ler devel­oped and put into prac­tice his ec­cen­tric ideo­logical, mysti­cal, and racial theo­ries, bringing in the con­cept of “racial purity” for mem­ber­ship in the SS, fash­ioning the SS as the guard­ian of the Aryan (Nor­dic) race against “Jewish Bol­she­vism,” and posi­tioning the SS as the prime secu­rity organ of the Nazi Party and pro­tec­tor of the mil­len­nial future of the German Reich. “Should we succeed in estab­lishing this Nor­dic race again from and around Germany,” he said, “then the world will belong to us.”

To that end, Himmler gathered around him­self some of the vilest ghouls in Hitler’s pan­theon of evil, in­cluding Reinhard Heydrich, one of the archi­tects of the “Final Solu­tion,” and Heydrich’s able lieu­ten­ant Adolf Eich­mann, Gestapo chief of the mur­derous Depart­ment for Jewish Affairs. From 1,000 strong in 1929, Himmler headed an organization of 200,000 in 1934.

That same year a reno­vated Renais­sance castle in North Rhine-West­pha­lia, Wewels­burg, was turned into the “Reich SS Leader­ship School,” where the leading cadre of the “Gen­eral SS” (All­ge­meine-SS) and the “Armed SS” (Waffen-SS) were to engage in rig­orous phy­si­cal training and study pre- and early history, mythology (Himmler adapted the idea of the Grail to create a heathen mys­tery for the SS), astron­omy, and art. Himmler planned to make Wewels­burg the “center of the new world” (Zen­trum der neuen Welt) following the “final victory.” When the “final victory” failed to mate­rialize, Himmler ordered the SS to destroy the Wewels­burg, which it did on March 31, 1945, three days before a unit of the U.S. Army Third Armored Division seized the grounds.

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 Nazi Germany

Wewelsburg Castle, Heinrich Himmler’s Reich SS Leadership School

Above: Wewelsburg Castle, built between 1603 and 1609 near Pader­born in north­east North Rhine-Westphalia was the planned site of Himmler’s “Reich SS Leader­ship School” (Reichs­fuehrer­schule SS). Actual in­struc­tion never took place there. In­stead, the Renais­sance castle was trans­formed into an iso­lated cen­tral meeting place for the highest-ranking SS officers. Today the castle serves as a youth hostel, one of the largest in Germany. Photo taken in 2010.

Adolf Hitler and Heinrich HimmlerHeinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich (center) photographed by Eva Braun, May 1939

Left: Head of the Schutzstaffel from 1929 to 1945 and chief of the Gestapo (secret state police) from 1934 to 1945, “der treue Heinrich” (the loyal Heinrich) 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 was one of the persons most directly responsible for the Holocaust.

Right: Himmler with Reinhard Heydrich (holding sheets of paper) at Hitler’s Bavarian retreat, the Berg­hof, situated atop the 6,700‑ft/­2,042‑m moun­tain called Ober­salz­berg (Upper Salt Moun­tain), 1939. Hey­drich, ruth­less head of the Reich Security Head (or Main) Office (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 Europe.

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

Left: On the day of the invasion of Poland, Septem­ber 1, 1939, Hitler tapped Goering, here seen with Himm­ler, to be his suc­ces­sor. From 1942 onward Goering largely with­drew from Nazi Germany’s 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 after his sui­cide on May 23, 1945. Two days earlier Himm­ler, a fugi­tive using an alias, had been detained at a British check­point. During his inter­ro­ga­tion Himmler revealed his true iden­tity. He died within 15 minutes of biting down on a cya­nide cap­sule despite efforts to revive him. Three days later he was buried in an unmarked grave near Luene­burg, 28 miles/­45 km south­east of Hamburg, in the German state of Lower Saxony.

History Channel: Hitler’s Henchman: “The Executioner,” Heinrich Himmler