Woltering on Longerich, 'Heinrich Himmler: A Life'

Peter Longerich
Ky Woltering

Peter Longerich. Heinrich Himmler: A Life. Trans. Jeremy Noakes and Leslie Sharpe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xviii + 1,031 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-959232-6.

Reviewed by Ky Woltering (The Graduate Center, CUNY) Published on H-German (August, 2015) Commissioned by Chad Ross

Himmler and the Personalization of Power

Reviewers often attach the word "definitive" to biographies of considerable scope and research. Indeed, definitive may be an apt way of describing Peter Longerich's sprawling biography of Heinrich Himmler, which includes evidence from twenty-three separate archives and special collections, not to mention numerous published document collections. In this sense, Longerich's Himmler undoubtedly stands as the most definitive reference on the mastermind of the Nazi SS. Yet Himmler reaches a level of scholarly excellence far surpassing that of the diligent archivist recording its content. Longerich's analysis elevates the piece to what should be required reading for all serious scholars of twentieth-century European history.

Longerich states he sought to build a "sensible interconnection between biography and structural history" so as to "help us to a better understanding of his [Himmler's] political action" (p. 737). In doing so, Longerich at times incorporates psychoanalysis so as to reveal a "core personality," in which to evaluate Himmler's actions. For Longerich, Himmler's efforts to compensate for his own weaknesses determined his personality more so than any particular action or personal trauma. Longerich concludes that Himmler suffered from an emotional attachment disorder that made it difficult for him to build strong and lasting relationships. This disorder, in conjunction with his physical weakness, caused Himmler to strive for incredible self-discipline and self-control so as to ensure that he always followed social forms and practices exactly. His upbringing as a sheltered, conservative, bourgeois Catholic and his experiences as part of the so-called war youth generation accentuated this drive, which naturally lent itself toward glorifying the military.

Since Himmler never served in combat, he developed fantasies about the ideal traits of the soldier, namely distance, severity, and objectivity. Longerich demonstrates how Himmler would consistently attempt to rectify his own difficulties with social interactions (especially with women) and his lack of self-confidence by striving for a "soldier's" self-discipline. Unsurprisingly given this analysis, Longerich concludes that many of the stereotypes about Himmler's distant, impassive, and pedantic nature ring true. Furthermore, Longerich argues that one can clearly see how these personality traits manifested themselves in Himmler's running and shaping of the SS.

Himmler's efforts to categorize and shape the SS as an elitist and racially superior organization separate from the rival SA and his obsessive attention to the smallest detail can be clearly seen via his intervention into the personal lives of SS members, in which he made their health, marriage, child-rearing, private debt, and alcohol consumption his concerns. Longerich further examines how Himmler similarly crafted the SS (through careful membership screening and strict codes of conduct) as the anti-homosexual and anti-Christian faction of the Third Reich, positions which mirrored Himmler's own personal beliefs. This leads Longerich to conclude that "Himmler was the opposite of the faceless ... bureaucrat.... The position he built up ... can instead be described as an ... almost total personalization of political power" (p. 743). 

Ultimately for Longerich, this "personalization of power" was only possible due to the specific power structures associated with Nazism which ultimately ensured that Hitler wielded incredible political power, but also simultaneously granted his subordinates incredible flexibility in carrying out his wishes. The pressure to conform to Hitler's changing political whims and internal competition to earn his favor fostered an environment in which individuals were in many respects free to offer unique solutions to given obstacles. For Longerich, the unique structure and functionality of the Nazi state facilitated the implementation of individual agendas. So in some sense, structuralism intensified intentionalism. This comes across best through Longerich's analysis of Himmler's centralization of the state police, his efforts to militarize the SS, and his successful push to expand policing by the SS to occupied territory.

Longerich's understanding of Himmler's position in the debate over the timing of the decision to commit genocide again seems to reconcile competing historiographical arguments. Himmler believed the incredible success of the Wehrmacht in the summer and autumn of 1941 opened the door to the creation of a racially organized utopian empire. Himmler used that opportunity to implement a more organized effort to direct the atrocities of the Einsatzgruppen and enact the "Final Solution." This decision emerged after numerous personal setbacks during the invasion of Poland. Furthermore, Longerich notes that the decision to deport western Jews came only in the spring of 1942. This information suggests two things. Firstly, while Himmler undoubtedly celebrated the initial success of Operation Barbarossa and likely would not have considered implementing anything resembling the Holocaust without German expansion into eastern Europe, the direction of the Einsatzgruppen cannot be separated from Himmler's own personal agenda and attempts to seize power in occupied territory in the east. Secondly, Himmler's initiative to expand the Holocaust to include the deportation of Jews in western Europe was taken, significantly, after the Nazi defeat at Moscow and Wannsee. Regrettably, Longerich does not make a concerted attempt to engage in this debate and instead leaves the reader trying to parse out exactly how he sees Himmler fitting into this equation.

One might also question some of Longerich's analysis of Himmler's character in the context of his rise to power within the Nazi state. For someone who had difficulty creating lasting relationships and observing social etiquette, Himmler, by Longerich's own account, showed a remarkable ability to read inner-party alliances and use them to his advantage. One might not normally expect such perspicacity from someone with Himmler's profile.

Regrettably, and this is difficult to fault Longerich for given the loss of Himmler's diaries from July 1922 to February 1924, we have little knowledge of Himmler's turn toward true political radicalism. The tone of the biography noticeably shifts after this chronological point, as even in the years to follow, Longerich seems to lack the same access to Himmler's personal writings in comparison to the years prior. Longerich himself admits this loss is incredibly unfortunate given that it was precisely during that time that Himmler's views radicalized and he chose to enter politics professionally. This loss is magnified given Longerich's analysis of Himmler's tenure as a low-level party functionary, in which he asserts, "If [Himmler] had a political hero at this time it was [Ernst] Röhm, not Hitler" (p. 80). While Longerich is certainly correct in asserting that Röhm's militarism appealed to Himmler's own personal quirks, the connection does not seem to wholly hold up given Himmler's later efforts to distinguish the SS from the SA, his subsequent role in the Night of Long Knives, and certainly his radical racial agenda. Nonetheless, Longerich's Himmler is a remarkable scholarly achievement well worth the time of any scholar of modern Europe.    








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Citation: Ky Woltering. Review of Longerich, Peter, Heinrich Himmler: A Life. H-German, H-Net Reviews. August, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40119

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