Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Peter Longerich
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25
It is surprising, perhaps, that Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS and the primary architect of the Holocaust, has not attracted the attentions of more biographers. For all his central importance to the history of the Third Reich, he appears to lack the nefarious charisma of Heydrich or Hitler, and so has featured only rarely as a primary subject.
That seems set to change with Peter Longerich’s excellent new book. First published in German in 2008, it is a bold attempt to bind a biography of the Reichsführer-SS together with the wider political history of which he was such an important part – to explain how a needy Bavarian weakling became the architect of the crime of the century.
Longerich is assiduous in stressing the importance of Himmler’s character in influencing developments. In particular, he suggests that Himmler gave his own personalised form to the SS: how his emotional and social shortcomings were in some way compensated for by the all-male brotherhood and how his ruthless ambition made the organisation into the most dynamic and avaricious player within the Nazi state.
This is certainly no spurious ‘psycho-history’ – the idea of the interconnectedness of the personal and the structural is convincingly explained.
The Himmler that emerges in the book is a much more multifaceted, interesting individual than the bespectacled, chinless-wonder of the newsreels. There is much that will be familiar of course – the hypocritical petit-bourgeois morality or the passion for ‘Teutonic’ mumbo-jumbo and esoterica – but there are other important aspects to his character that Longerich teases out, such as his complex views on sex and sexuality and his paternalistic concern for the welfare of ‘his’ SS men.
Most importantly, Longerich portrays Himmler as a very capable operator in the dog-eat-dog world of Nazi politics. An able administrator and empire-builder, he created and shaped the SS into the intellectual and racial elite of Nazi Germany.
In addition, of course, he was a driving force in the development of racial policy, and the Holocaust in particular, which – chillingly – he saw as the prelude for a much more radical re-ordering of the European continent.
Stylistically the book is strong. Well-crafted and engaging throughout, its translators Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe have produced a very readable text, which only rarely betrays the feel of a translation. They have certainly kept the Germanic traditions of the original.
On the plus side, this means the book is comprehensive, authoritative and based on impeccable archival foundations. Conversely, it is perhaps a little overlong and is relentlessly serious – managing to suppress even the tiniest wry aside when discussing Himmler’s more outlandish and mystical fetishes, such as the bizarre ‘Cosmic Ice’ theory, or his tireless search for the origins of the Aryan race.
Nonetheless, Longerich’s biography is a most welcome contribution to the still slim canon of works devoted to Himmler. Comfortably surpassing the offerings of previous biographers, it is surely set to become the definitive work for a generation.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Vintage, 2011)