At the peak of his career, Heinrich Himmler was the head of Nazi Germany's secret police, second in power only to Adolf Hitler. Committed suicide in British custody rather than face trial.

Early life

Himmler was born in Munich on Oct. 7, 1900. His father, a strictly Catholic schoolteacher, brought him and his siblings up in a tradition that bordered on mystic Christianity, emphasizing the more darkly supernatural aspects of Catholic doctrine, such as transubstantiation, as evidence of God's power.

After graduating from high school in Landshut, Himmler signed up for the Austro-Hungarian military as an officer cadet. He came in late in World War I, in 1917, was demobilized almost as soon as he joined, and never saw action.

After leaving the army, he briefly attended a technical school in Munich, tried to make a go of it as a chicken farmer in Bavaria, and started hanging out with some of the more disreputable members of the local political scene.

Working for the Party

Himmler was part of Adolf Hitler's abortive Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 but wasn't a major figure and escaped prosecution. While some of the senior figures were cooling their heels in jail, however, Himmler went to work as a Party organizer in Bavaria.

He served briefly as an associate of Ernst Rohm's, helping direct the Nazis' brownshirt squads, and became one of Hitler's personal bodyguards in 1925.

The bodyguards were called the Schutzstaffel, or SS. Himmler protected the party leader's person while helping devise and distribute propaganda, too. In 1929, he became the head of the SS, which then consisted of about 200 thugs, mostly part-timers, all subordinate to Rohm's outfit.

Himmler won election to the Reichstag in 1930, when the Nazis broke through and became a faction to be reckoned with. In 1933, when President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, Himmler became civilian police chief in Munich and started expanding the SS's tentacles into the existing German civic apparatus. Shortly afterward, Hitler gave him control of all the political police in Germany outside Prussia (which was Hermann Goering's personal preserve).

That year, Himmler's SS built Dachau as a sort of holding tank for political prisoners.

In 1934, Himmler organized the purge of Nazis suspected of disloyalty to Hitler, the "Night of the Long Knives." Among the many murdered was his old boss Rohm.

What on Earth he thought he was doing

Himmler drifted away from the Church late in his teens, about the time he joined the military. Patriotism took the place of piety in the young cadet's mind, and he became a true believer in the primacy of the German worker and peasant, and in the innate superiority of the German-Prussian way of life. Latter-day psychoanalysts suggest Himmler was also on the lookout for a new saviour and was only too willing to fall under the spell of the charismatic Austrian at the head of the Nazi Party. He once described Hitler as the sort of genius who only appears once in a thousand years.

Himmler was a keen advocate of the Nazis' eugenics programs, setting up breeding programs to promote Aryan traits and encouraging his subordinates -- including the notorious Adolf Eichmann -- in their efforts to find new ways to purify German territory of elements he considered undesirable, such as Jews. In 1939, he became the German minister responsible for that purification. Being a squeamish sort, he's believed to have issued the order to find a less overtly grisly way of killing large number of Jews than shooting them en masse.

Not content with merely running the SS, Himmler set up the Waffen SS, elite military units of distinctly Aryan composition, assigned to particularly difficult or sensitive tasks, who incidentally helped Himmler exert control over the Wehrmacht, or regular army. Like a perverse order of knights they were, eventually numbering 35 divisions.

The SS as a whole eventually numbered 370,000. His Gestapo rooted out all threats to the Fuhrer's (or Himmler's) authority, real and imagined, turning family members against each other, kidnapping, torturing, murdering anyone who stood in the way of Germany's expansion or Himmler's own advancement.

It's difficult to separate the instruments of the Party from the German state, but the SS, which was officially a Nazi -- not German -- agency, largely had to pay for itself. It depended on looting the possessions of its victims and on the products of slave labour in its concentration camps to stay running: evils Himmler, barely 40 years old, elevated to industrial levels.

The end of the war

After the attempt on Hitler's life in 1944, the spooked Fuhrer gave Himmler new powers. Although he was almost certainly ignorant of the plot, Erwin Rommel -- perhaps the Nazis' best general, proposed by some of the plotters as a new national leader -- was summoned from the defences at Normandy and forced to commit suicide. That was only the beginning of Himmler's rampage within the Party and the German military, which certainly weakened Germany's ability to fight the war it was by then carrying on on two fronts.

But Himmler was nothing if not craven. When it became clear the Nazis would lose the war, he met with Jewish representatives to try to deny that his death camps were, in fact, killing people. He tried to negotiate an armistice through the Swedish Red Cross. He proposed surrendering on the western front so as to free up forces to battle the Soviets in the east.

Hitler didn't like cowards, no matter how sensible their cowardice. The only man in Germany who could stand up to Himmler stripped him of all his offices and ranks and turned him out in the street.

As he tried to flee westward, Himmler was captured by the British. He committed suicide by taking cyanide on May 23, 1945.

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