Book Review: Heinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the S.S. and Gestapo by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel
Manvell and Fraenkel conducted years of meticulous research both with primary documents and those who actually knew Himmler to bring about a biography of the man infamous for being in charge of the S.S., Gestapo, and concentration camps that made the terror of Hitler’s reign possible. They seek to provide a well-rounded look at Himmler’s entire life for those with some familiarity with the events of World War II.
This was a fascinating and difficult book to read, not because of the writing style or the atrocities recounted, but because the authors succeeded in putting a human face on Heinrich Himmler. In the intro to the book, the authors state:
The Nazi leaders cannot be voided from human society simply because it is pleasanter or more convenient to regard them now as outside the pale of humanity. (location 31)
In other words, the easy thing to do is pretend the Nazi leaders or anyone who commits atrocities is something other than human. That they are monsters. When in fact, they really are still people like you and me, and that should frighten us far more than any monster story. What leads people to do horrible things to other people? What makes them bury their conscience and humanity and commit acts of evil? This biography thus does not say “here is a monster,” but instead says, “Here is this young boy who became a man who committed himself to a cause and proceeded to order acts of evil upon others. What forces came together to mold him into someone who would do these things?”
One of the more fascinating things brought to light in this book is that Himmler was never actually fit into the ideal of a top-notch Aryan male he himself advocated. In fact throughout his life he was sickly, pale, and scholarly. He tried in school to fit in with the athletic boys but never succeeded in anything for any length of time except fencing. Instead of accepting who he was, he continually pushed his sickly body past its limits throughout his life, trying to force it to fit into his ideals of what it should be. He actually enlisted his own personal healer, a masseuse trained by a talented Chinese doctor, throughout the war. This masseuse, Kersten, was working as a spy for the Allies and was instrumental in convincing Himmler to release various people from concentration camps throughout the war. His sickly body then not only opened him up to the Allies for a convenient spy, but also was key in how he related to the world. He projected his own insecurities about the ideal body onto everyone else.
Himmler’s anxiety to destroy the Jews and Slavs and place himself at the head of a Nordic Europe brash with health was a compensation for the weakly body, the sloping shoulders, the poor sight and the knock-knees to which he was tied. (location 2189)
This physical weakness and obsession does not mean he was a weak man, however. He was profoundly intelligent and detail-oriented. He easily became obsessed with ideas he came up with and would search for proof of them excluding any and all evidence to the contrary. Those of us who went to liberal, private colleges where we were taught to adjust our worldview for new, challenging ideas may be surprised to learn that Himmler read obsessively. The fact though is that Himmler sought out in his reading sources that would simply support his previously established, prejudicial worldview.
Like Hitler, he [Himmler] used books only to confirm and develop his particular prejudices. Reading was for him a narrowing, not a widening experience. (location 2547)
Thus we cannot depend on reading alone to prevent close-mindedness.
As the Nazi regime continued on, Himmler grew more and more committed to his obsessions. Those who knew him well described the frenzy and meticulousness with which he worked over every detail toward his final goal of the “Aryan race” being in control of Europe.
Himmler’s need to rid himself of the Jews became an obsession. The ghosts of those still living haunted him more than the ghosts of those now dead; there were Jews everywhere around him, in the north, in the west, in the south, in the areas where his power to reach them was at its weakest. (location 2074)
The information on Himmler at this time period certainly sound like a man suffering from intense paranoia. Think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and how he firmly believed government agents were all around him persecuting him. The difference is that this physically weak, close-minded, paranoid man was given immense power over the lives of millions instead of simply being a professor. It is easy after reading this book to see how Himmler could easily have been that crazy neighbor worried that the people across the street were watching him all the time instead of the engineer behind genocide. All it took was placing near total power and trust in his hands to turn him into the organizer of a genocide.
There will always exist human beings who, once they are given a similar power over others and have similar convictions of superiority, may be tempted to act as he [Himmler] did. (location 592)
The lesson the authors send home repeatedly then is that Himmler was just a man overcompensating for a physically weak body who grasped onto the idea that he was actually superior to others simply because of his ancestors with a tendency toward paranoia who was given a dangerous amount of power. It is easy to imagine how the entire situation could have worked out differently if some sort of intervention had happened earlier in his life. If he was taught that everyone was valuable for different reasons that have nothing to do with their physical abilities or ancestry. If he had initially read books that weren’t racist and xenophobic. If he was never swept into the Nazi Party mania in the 1930s. If he had been maintained as an office worker in the Nazi party instead of being given so much power. It’s a lot of if’s, I know, but it’s important to think about all the ways to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Although the authors’ primary point is “be careful who you allow to have power,” I would also add “intervene when they are young to prevent the development of a xenophobic, paranoid personality to start with.” With both precautions in place, perhaps we humans as a group can avoid such atrocities in the future.
Readers should note that this book is written by Europeans and not “translated” into American English. Additionally, periodically the authors sway from the strict chronological method of a biography to follow one thought or event through to its conclusion then back-track. This was a bit distracting, but absolutely did not prevent me from learning much about Himmler, WWII, and the Holocaust that I did not previously know.
Overall, I highly recommend this to those with an interest in WWII in particular, but also to anyone interested in the prevention of future genocides. It offers great insight into how these atrocities came to be.
4 out of 5 stars