Luebeck, Northern Germany · April 24, 1945

Reichsfuehrer-SS, Gestapo chief, and Adolf Hitler-devotee Heinrich Himmler began making clumsy attempts to secure a separate peace treaty with the Allies as the 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 gray bowels of the Reich Chan­cel­lery bunker—then scampered away to North­ern Ger­many. Meeting in the Baltic port city of Luebeck 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 Eastern. (Himmler misrepre­sented him­self to Berna­dotte as the pro­vi­sional leader of Germany.) Ber­na­dotte for­warded Himmler’s terms to the 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 loyal Heinrich) 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 the bunker Hitler ranted that Himmler’s act of treach­ery was the worst he had ever known. He ordered Himm­ler’s imme­di­ate arrest and the exe­cu­tion of Her­mann Fege­lein, Himm­ler’s SS repre­sen­ta­tive at Fuehrer HQ Berlin. Late that night 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. Doenitz wanted nothing to do with the noto­rious and conniving SS chief, who now went into hiding. Captured by the British, Himm­ler bit down on a cya­nide cap­sule during inter­ro­ga­tion and died within 15 minutes. He was buried in an unmarked grave near Luene­burg, 28 miles south­east of Hamburg, in the German state of Lower Saxony.

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

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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 (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 one of the per­sons most directly respon­sible for the Holocaust.

Right: Himmler with Reinhard Hey­drich (holding sheets of paper) at Hitler’s Bava­rian retreat on the Ober­salz­berg, 1939. Hey­drich, ruth­less head of the Reich Secu­rity Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA), worked under Himm­ler. In July 1941 Reichs Marshal Her­mann Goe­ring ordered the con­science­less and more-than-willing Hey­drich to pre­pare the “Final Solu­tion”—the exter­mi­nation of all Jews in Europe.

Goering, Himmler, 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 on­wards 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 after his sui­cide on May 23, 1945, during a rou­tine inter­ro­ga­tion. Two days earlier Him­mler, a fugi­tive using an alias, had been detained at a British check­point. During his inter­ro­ga­tion Himm­ler revealed his true identity.

Himmler and Hitler: The Last Days of the Third Reich