Friday, May 30, 2014

Cracking the Enigma Machine

Enigma Machine
Very Rare WWII Enigma Cipher Machine. This highly important three-rotor Enigma deciphering machine was used by the Germans during World War II. Examples of Enigma machines are exceptionally rare and almost all known models are in museums.

People familiar with the Enigma Cipher Machine generally associate it with World War II, but it actually was a product of German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I. Scherbius marketed the machines throughout Europe, and they were advertised extensively to companies to keep their ciphers confidential. The German military bought some. The common belief is that brilliant British scientists magically broke the code and thus won the war, but that also is erroneous at least in part.

Italian cryptographers
Italian Naval crypto officers operating an Enigma machine, not knowing that the cipher was being read by the Allies

Use of the Enigma machine was not a German idea. The German military had adopted the machine well before Hitler took power in 1933. In fact, the Poles, Germany's natural enemy during the inter-war period, went to work on it at once and first broke the German military code in 1932.

Three Polish cryptologists, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, were mainly responsible. They continued reading the codes through the 1930s, but towards the end of the decade the Germans starting embellishing the machine and adding new twists and turns to the code that made things harder for them.

On 15 September, 1938, the Germans changed their use of the Enigma cipher, implementing a new key scheme as war drew nearer. The new code appeared vastly more complicated, so the Polish cryptologists invented the first mechanical pseudo-computers to help them in their work. In October 1938, Rejewski designed a machine named "bomba kryptologiczna" (a cryptologic bomb, as computers were known in those days), which was soon produced at the Polish AVA Workshops. They also developed a "cyclometer" machine to assess the pattern of the key.

Enigma Machine
Close-up of a later Enigma machine. Note the fourth "shark key" rotor

While they were keeping up with the Germans (barely), the Poles decided to spread the love and spilled the beans to the British about their efforts in July 1939. They hoped to get more manpower on the decryptions so that they could be sure of knowing in advance if the Germans were going to attack. It was a dangerous summer, with the Germans mounting false-flag "provocations" supposedly by the Poles against Germany, and everybody was on edge. On 16 August 1939, the Poles gave British General Stewart Menzies a working copy of the Enigma Machine at the Victoria Station in London in a James Bond-style hand-off. The timing was fortuitous for the Allies, as the Polish state ceased to exist only two months later due to the German invasion.

The Polish cryptographers had to leave Poland in a hurry that fall, and after a quick stop in Romania they wound up in France. There, they worked with French and Spanish cryptographers under code-name "Bruno." They also continued to keep the British up to speed on their cryptological discoveries. After Germany invaded France in May 1940, the Poles again evacuated. This time they went to Algeria, using a French military plane on June 24, 1940 in one of the French government's final acts before their Armistice with Germany. After working in Algeria for a while, the Poles returned to France and worked right under the Germans' noses in Free France.

In the beginning of October 1940, the Poles set up shop in Fouzes, France under code-name "Cadix." They worked there with French and Spanish cryptographers. The "Bruno" centre successor decrypted the following types of German messages:
- German military orders to the units in Europe and in Libya,
- SS and Police (Polizei) messages from Europe,
- Spy radio communications between the field agents in Europe or in Libya and Abwehr HQ in Stuttgart,
- Diplomatic communications and German Armistice Commission communications
- Communications by 
Wehrkreis XII (controlled parts of occupied France and western Germany) in Wiesbaden and their branches in France and in North Africa.
For those who claim that breaking the Enigma Code was all things to all people, note that although the Poles broke the code first, there is absolutely no indication that they were able to use that information to any great advantage. In fact, the results of breaking the German code appear to have been fairly valueless to Poland. Knowing what the enemy is saying only helps if you know how to use the information to your advantage, get the right information from the enemy to help yourself, and have the resources to make good use of it. For all the brilliance displayed in cracking the code, none of that appeared to apply to Poland and its cryptographers.

Enigma Machine
Not all Enigma machines looked alike - they were built over many years with different models and styles. This is one in use in 1943.

The Enigma Machine actually worked quite well and did exactly what its makers claimed. The Enigma's settings offered 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions. It never should have been broken. In fact, the Enigma cipher's algorithm was considered quite strong long after the war, and was used in the Unix OS encryption in the 1970s. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept behind the machine. Used properly and thoughtfully, it really did provide a secure way to transmit confidential messages. It was this fact, this mathematical guarantee that the machine seemed to offer that lulled the precise Germans into a false sense of security.

A crew aboard U-110 operates the iconic Enigma machine, so valuable to the war effort at sea.

The British Intelligence Service thus would have had great difficulty reading the communications starting from scratch, or even with the Polish breakthroughs. However, they had help besides the Poles. German code books were seized from sinking submarines and captured ships, and some of the Germans operating the machines made it easy to break the code through their simple errors. The British came to see the Luftwaffe operators, members of the newest service who had no tradition of security, as the weak link in the entire operation. Some Luftwaffe coders would send virtually the same messages out every day at regular intervals, morning, noon and night, and if the code they used had changed, the British listening in could compare the messages they had broken with new, identical messages sent with the changed code. This made it relatively easy (not easy - relatively easy) to figure out the changes made to the code itself.

An NSA (National Security Agency) collection of Enigma machines. At far left is a Luftwaffe (Air Force) unit. Next to that is a case holding seven rotors. A Heer (German Army) Enigma is in the center, and a small radio is on the high post next to it. A Kriegsmarine (Navy) unit with four rotors is at far right.

Let's say the weather was good on a particular morning. By listening to them day in and day out, the British cryptographers could figure out that a lazy or careless or simply untrained Luftwaffe operator at a particular forward airfield might send out exactly the same message to headquarters in Paris precisely at 6 a.m. on such a day - "Weather good, conditions all right for operations" or something like that, in exactly the same word formulation every time that was the case. All the British had to do was look out the window, see that it was sunny out, and they knew what message the operator would send that morning. Or, if it was raining, same thing: "Rain over airfield, operations suspended" or something along those lines every single time it rained. All the British had to do then was translate the message backwards to what they knew it said, then work forward from there and crack the entire code. Everything became fairly easy for a trained cryptographer after that sort of hint, especially if supplemented from multiple German sources. The British got so good that they would crow that they were getting the decoded German messages to British officers in the field faster than the German commanders were receiving them.

Enigma Machine
Enigma Machine recovered from a sunk U-Boat off the US coast in 2001. Recovering an actual Enigma machine from a wreck is like finding the Holy Grail for a diver. These can be carefully restored and look almost like they did the day the sub sank.

The Kriegsmarine, on the other hand, was quite punctilious about code protocol. It had been the first military branch to adopt the machine, in 1925, and the German Imperial Navy had a long, proud and competent history. If there is one thing a good Navy understands, it is codes. The navy's operators did not make stupid mistakes. Many naval codes never were broken.

Enigma Machine

Overall, though, by the end of the war, 10 percent of all German Enigma communications were decoded by the code-name "Ultra" team led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, in England, using the world’s first electromagnetic computers. However, that means that 90 percent of German communications were not decoded, so it's important not to completely overstate the importance of Enigma.

Enigma Machine

Still, much is made of the effect of breaking the Enigma Code on the outcome of the war. There is absolutely no question that it made things much, much easier for the Allies in many, many situations. Knowing where to position scarce defensive forces before an attack is invaluable information, as is knowing where the enemy is weakest before launching your own attack. There are all sorts of anecdotes about specific instances where breaking Enigma gave the Allies an edge. Winston Churchill told King George VI after World War II that "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

Enigma Machine
German signallers sending an encrypted message via an Enigma machine. Enigma was an electro-mechanical cipher machine based on rotors and was invented toward the end of WW1. First the Poles in 1932 and then the British were able to break the Enigma cipher, the centre for UK code-breaking being Bletchley Park. It has been estimated that intelligence gleaned from decoded Enigma messages shortened WW2 by 2 years.

With all due respect to Winston Churchill, who did certainly have all the facts at his disposal and has to be judged a supreme authority on World War II, that is probably overstating matters. There were larger forces at play in why the Allies won World War II. However, breaking codes helped immensely, and not just in Europe. The Americans broke the Japanese code prior to the decisive Battle of Midway. If they hadn't, there is little doubt that the Japanese would have captured that important island and not lost any aircraft carriers there, let alone four carriers, to US attack. However, no matter how many islands the Japanese captured, they were never going to out-produce and out-invent the United States - it just wasn't going to happen. The United States simply had too many resources, and Japanese such as Admiral Yamamoto knew that all along.

Enigma Machine
Rear of a 'bombe' code-breaking machine at Bletchley Park, 1943. Alan Turing designed the electromagnetic machines to reveal the plugboard settings on German Enigma ciphers.

Germany's major military problem was, in fact, economic: lack of natural resources such as oil; and the huge numbers of enemy soldiers and industrial factories it faced. Intelligence failures were secondary, just as tactics are trumped by strategy. It's more likely that breaking the code shortened the war, but then, the Germans broke Allied codes, too. For example, there was a famous incident of the British ambassador to Turkey having his codes stolen and sold to the Germans by his valet in the so-called Cicero operation. Hitler intercepted secret communications between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill by having his spies tap the underwater cable between Ireland and Nova Scotia. Code-breaking never was a one-way street, but the victorious powers don't talk about that other side too much. Much better to show how they won the war by not only having more natural resources, but also more smarts in general due to, you know, their better systems of government.

Enigma Machine
German General Heinz Guderian in a SdKfz. 251/3 halftrack vehicle, France, May 1940; note Enigma machine (German Federal Archive)

It is easy to blame the Germans for being stupid for using the Enigma machine. Certainly, a military relying upon an industrial code machine seems kind of silly today. However, the technology was new, and nobody knew its limitations at that point. Using it certainly was more effective than communicating en claire, as the Soviets did at times. The armed forces of many powers used the Enigma Machine, as did diplomatic services and other confidential governmental operations. It is similar to using the Internet today - however clever you may be, it's impossible to know in advance all of its vulnerabilities.

Enigma Machine
German soldiers in Russia

Would the Germans have stopped using the machine if they knew it had been broken? Of course. But nobody knew outside of Allied intelligence services. The secret was guarded as carefully as any in the war. Numerous deaths have been blamed on this policy of secrecy, such as the famous decision not to warn Coventry about an upcoming Luftwaffe attack in November 1940. However, that secrecy paid off in many unexpected ways: after the war, the Allies sold captured Enigma machines to other governments on the cheap. These governments were only too happy to use this "secure" machine while the winning Allied nations who were in on the secret continued to read their codes until the secret finally was revealed in the 1970s. When that happened with the publication of a book, many surviving German Generals from World War II were dumbfounded that they overlooked this hidden source of their defeat defeat.


Monday, May 26, 2014

SS Recruiting Posters

German SS recruiting posters
A Belgian recruiting for the replacement army. Waffen SS recruiting poster circulated in Belgium. The Waffen SS "swords" slay the Jewish Bolshevik dragon surrounded by human remains. Standard demonization image of the enemy and his thirst for killing.

Each country in World War II issued recruiting posters. The German posters were often quite artistic, with the Propaganda Ministry under Josef Goebbels taking great pride in its work.

German SS recruiting posters
"Meine ehre heißt treue" was a classic Waffen SS slogan. This translates roughly to My Honor Is Loyalty - meaning, the individual member will do everything and anything for the good of the whole.

The SS recruiting posters were the most radical of all German recruiting and propaganda posters. They often were quite colorful and clever in their themes.

German SS recruiting posters

Several dominant themes are evident in this sample of recruitment posters for Heinrich Himmler's SS. They appeal to the rawest emotions of the viewer.

German SS recruiting posters

That is what is most distinctive about Axis posters - their appeal to raw emotion that resonated with people consumed with fear and hatred of the enemy rather than rationality.

German SS recruiting posters
In this poster, note the uniquely American symbolism - the KKK hood, the jazz record being held high, the sack of money, the American Indian "leading the charge," the Jewish banker in the foreground (that was the typical racist way of representing them, with the big ears), the Star of David hanging from the advancing figure. There are all sorts of underlying messages, but the primary one is the imposition of an alien, corrupt American culture on elegant, refined German culture. Everything about this counters the idea that barbaric, savage, degenerate US culture is in any way superior to the German way of life.

The "Liberators" poster above uses the English word for the American bombers and uses it to apply all sorts of double meanings and crude references to standard German propaganda targets. However, the themes are given in a scattershot fashion that you will likely miss at first glance. Using the word "Liberators" - it was extremely rare in German posters to use English words - in a German propaganda poster is a sure sign of how far the US bombers had intruded into the German national consciousness.

Let's go through the major themes in these types of posters.

First, what is emphasized is defense of the homeland - who can argue with that? That is what people want today, not just during World War II.

Silence you put me in danger
"Quiet! You put me in danger." The Allies had similar posters and slogans such as "Loose lips sink ships," of course, but the Germans add that special little air of menace via the foreboding, grim portrait. Allied posters of a similar bent played on the viewer's guilt, this one evokes fear and even terror. Interesting way that the cultures differed, as both messages resonated with their respective audiences.

Naturally, the posters don't go into the details of why the homeland had to be defended because of who started the war, which of course was a bone of contention all its own. But everyone in Germany realized the extent of Allied bombing raids and how destructive they were.

German SS recruiting posters
An Italian propaganda poster (very well crafted) insinuating that the Americans were baby killers.There are a number of interesting aspects to this poster that are rather subtle: the top hat and elegant suit worn by the American, replete with ascot-resembling American flag, echoing the late-war theme that Germany was fighting a bunch of plutocrats, especially as compared to the child's simple attire; the tommy gun in the man's hands and stogie in his mouth, jibing with the 'inhuman gangsters' theme; the man's swarthy looks - is he a Sicilian gangster? With Sicily occupied and La Cosa Nostra having supposedly found a congenial home in the U.S., the propagandist may have been playing on ancient regional hatreds of the northern region still under Fascist control as well as more contemporary fears.

Second, nationalism is evoked with references to ancient archetypes and national symbols. There are pictures of medieval knights and castles interspersed among modern SS soldiers, with the clear implication that contemporary service is as honorable and noble as that of Prusian Knights of old. There are very subtle racial appeals that fuse with this theme.

panzer your weapon
"Tank, your weapon!" 

Naturally, the nationalist appeals had to be tailored to the particular nation where the poster was being shown. Posters designed for the Nordic countries were vastly different than those used in Italy.

German SS recruiting posters

Third, the clarion call of fighting Bolshevism appears over and over. This was one of Hitler's preoccupations, of course, and dovetailed with the "defending the homeland" theme. Hitler hated communism, and he knew that many other Germans did, too. It was a clever way to turn a war started for imperialistic reasons into a war of more fundamental ideologies and ways of life. The Italians were not too worried about the Russians, but the people of Germany and its allies closer to the Soviets - the Finns, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Bulgarians - had great reason to fear the imposition of Soviet Communist rule (and with good reason, given post-war events).

German SS recruiting posters
"Germany is Truly Your Friend" was the catchphrase associated with this poster, which was used in Italy to keep the Italians at their guns.

For these reasons, different posters were issued for different nationalities. These posters were more successful than one might think. Not everyone in every conquered nation harbored a grudge against the conquerors. Among the last defenders of Hitler in burning Berlin were the Belgian Rexist Léon Degrelle and the French Charlemagne Division. Hitler considered Degrelle something akin to the son he never had, and Degrelle somehow managed to survive the war despite numerous close calls and was proud of his fascist associations until the day he died in 1994.

German SS recruiting posters

There is another reason some of the German posters were successful: they contained a grain - just a grain - of truth. Posters depicting the war in Russia as a merciless struggle of ideologies were accurate - if you filtered out the reasons why the war was originally waged, the horrible depradations of the Germans themselves in Russia, and you were willing to unquestioningly accept a revisionist rationale which pretty much everyone knew was nothing but an argument of convenience. The posters depicting the Allied airmen as babykillers were accurate to an extent, because there undeniably were babies being killed (along with everyone else) by the indiscriminate Allied air raids. Many people would have known of someone who lost someone near and dear, that's just a fact of war.

Italian poster world war two
A 1940 Italian poster supporting the Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht soldiers are seen attacking John Bull, the venerable symbol of England on the Continent. This poster accomplishes the dual goal of whipping up support against the enemy and reinforcing the somewhat tenuous notion in Italy that German soldiers were their friends.

Once again, though, you had to filter out that the raids were completely legal according to the rules of war, that the Germans had institutionalized the terror raid as part of what became known as their 'blitzkrieg,' that the Germans themselves were launching air and eventually even missile raids, and that German leaders who allowed these raids to continue because of their uncompromising war aims were at least equally culpable. However, even in England there was a substantial body of opinion during the war that mass raids on poorly defended civilian targets of any nation were detestable and immoral. "We should not take the devil as our example" is the way it was put, and it is hard to argue with that line of argument. The posters thus raised legitimate moral questions that had just enough truth to be somewhat effective, especially in the absence of any rebuttal. That makes for the most effective type of propaganda.

The Germans ramped up their recruiting efforts after Stalingrad, when Goebbels instituted the "Total War" strategy. By 1945, pretty much everyone was being taken into the armed forces, with the Home Army ("Volksturm") composed of older men, often practically unarmed and in street clothes.

By war's end, because of this extensive recruiting, the SS had divisions of Muslims, French, Belgians and other nationalities and ethnic groups.

German SS recruiting posters
A Danish recruiting poster

Another underlying message is that the Allies were not the moral paragons which they liked to portray themselves as. This theme became prevalent in the closing days of the war, when everyone could see the destruction caused by Allied bombs.

German SS recruiting posters
"Your country is in danger - sign up!"

German SS recruiting posters
The League of German Maidens was part of the Hitler Youth.

Bund Deutscher Mädel: at first, the League consisted of two sections: the Jungmädel, or Young Girls League, for girls ages 10 to 14, and the League proper for girls ages 14 to 18. In 1938, a third section was introduced, the Belief and Beauty Society (BDM-Werk Glaube und Schönheit), which was voluntary and open to girls between the ages of 17 and 21.

Nazi SS British recruitment
There actually was a handful of British citizens who joined the SS.

German SS recruiting posters
The 12th SS "Hitler Youth" Division, composed mostly of kids of 16 and 17 years of age, fought ferociously in Normandy and suffered immense casualties, but kept open a line of retreat for others

German SS recruiting posters
The Italian recruiting poster.

German SS recruiting posters
The Dutch poster emphasized the fight against Communism

German SS recruiting posters
The Norwegian recruiting poster recalled the Vikings

German SS recruiting posters
This Norwegian recruiting poster also harkened back to national symbols

German SS recruiting posters
From the posters, you'd never think there was a Western Front

German SS recruiting posters
"The Battle of Stalingrad - the Army needs you to help defend the country."

German SS recruiting posters
And you?

German SS recruiting posters
A 1941 recruiting poster.

German SS recruiting posters
"The Waffen-SS calls on you to protect the Fatherland"


Sunday, May 11, 2014

VE Day 2014

Vladimir Putin VE Day 2014
A war veteran saluted among the crowd at a Victory Day ceremony in Odessa, Ukraine. Authorities in the city feared that pro-Russian groups would use the day to stage an attack.

The anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, May 8, comes every year. However, it means more in some places than in others. That difference reveals a story that should be told.

VE Day in 2014 was like many others, typical of VE Days in the 21st Century. If you lived in the United States, you probably barely noticed it. There were no Presidential speeches, no parades, no military reviews. In fact, even if you closely followed the media, the day most likely passed without your even noticing it. It did for me, and I'm quite attuned to events of World War II.

There's absolutely nothing unusual about that. The casual person likely would feel that the media handled it precisely the right way. After all, it's ancient history and that's something the "old people" cared about. The world has moved on, and it was just one of many anniversaries. July 4th and Memorial Day, now those are important because everyone gets a holiday. VE Day? Who cares. Might as well celebrate the end of the War of 1812.

So far, so good. That's simple reality. If any day from the World War II era does get any play now, it is D-Day, June 6th, or Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th. Even those, however, are given scant account these days. The last time D-Day was a big event was when Ronald Reagan went to Normandy in 1984 to celebrate the 40th anniversary. There were still a lot of veterans alive from both sides for that service, and even the surviving Germans in particular were more happy to participate. There isn't much for them to celebrate about those years otherwise.

Students of the war know why VE means more in the East than in the West. The Soviet Union and Germany were hacking at each other for four solid years, incurring immense casualties on a daily basis. There were continuing battles over little-known cities such as Kharkov that resolved nothing, but the battles raged on and on and on simply because they were in the right place on the map. Names that Westerners never knew nor cared anything about, such as Novorossiysk or Zhitomir or Sevastopol, are hugely important to millions of people in Russia to this day - just not to the West. Nobody in the United States lost a father in Bryansk.

The simple fact is that, all protestations to the contrary, the Soviet Union won World War II. The Western Allies certainly contributed and made the war much, much shorter - but they never had to engage in a grinding defensive struggle where they would feed divisions in and see them promptly get chopped up, necessitating more divisions and more divisions, with the bodies buried three-deep beside the road and the rivers turning red with blood. No, the Western contribution was more economic, via Lend Lease to England and the Soviet Union. Even the fabled bombing offensive against Germany and Japan was a logistical exercise, requiring industrial output and then targeting rather than guys running around with guns getting shot. Sea power was important, but the actual battles at sea between the Western Allies and Germany were few and far between.

The howls of protest at any minimization of the Western contribution are to victory understandable, but they are drowned out by reality. Sure, the Allies fought their way across Europe. The other major Allied contribution was a series of invasions - short, sharp actions which required the clearing out of territory, then the build up of material until overwhelming force was achieved. After that, it was only a matter of setting the steamroller into action and forcing the enemy back into what often turned into wild flight. Even at the time, American observers in the Soviet Union noticed that the Russians weren't especially or, in their eyes, appropriately appreciative of the American contribution to the war. It was a sensitive topic for Westerners who had a lot of interaction with the Soviets, and remains so for anyone who really wants to talk about it.

Vladimir Putin VE Day 2014
Residents of St. Petersburg carried portraits of their ancestors on Friday as Russia marked the 69th anniversary of the defeat of Germany.

The war in the East was brutal. The Germans explicitly told their soldiers to spare nobody - to not "engage in knightly conduct" - and made a point of noticing that the Soviets had not signed the Geneva Convention, so that no standards whatsoever applied to treatment of Soviet prisoners. The Soviets quickly noticed this, and responded in kind. There was general hatred between the two sides on the Eastern Front that was completely absent in the West. Hitler and his cronies may have fought equally hard against France, England and the United States, but they did not have contempt for those nations. In fact, Hitler apparently dreamed at times of forming a partnership with England rather than subjugating it, though of course his brutal war aims prevented that from ever happening. By VE Day, many in Germany viewed the Western forces as the equivalent of relieving armies, which were to be greeted warmly and resisted only perfunctorily because they would at least be lenient and save the remaining Germans from the Soviets, who would be anything but lenient.

The very end of the war, Victory over Japan in August 1945, told the same story. The United States efficiently had carved out operating room in the Pacific via a series of relatively quick invasions. While there was fierce fighting in places like Iwo Jima and Saipan, and too many brave men lost their lives on those overgrown rocks, there was no possibility of strong reinforcement by the other side. Once an objective was taken, that was it - after Guadacanal, the enemy disappeared from the places it lost pretty much forever. It was all so different than in places like Kharkov, where you could take the place, lose it, take it, lose it - and still be fighting there two years later. The US even avoided an invasion of Japan via its invention and use of nuclear weapons, whereas the Soviets actually invaded Japanese-held territory with troops. It is patriotic to think that the Japanese surrendered because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Soviet invasion was just as important and of more immediate concern to the Japanese, because the Soviets were close and getting closer every day. You can't just grin and bear it when there are enemy soldiers running down the street past your door as you can a far-off enemy lobbing bombs at you, no matter how fearsome those bombs may be. Which contributed to the Japanese surrender decision - the atomic bombs or the Soviet invasion - remains a matter of debate to this day.

All of this resolves itself down to the key point: the end of World War II meant a lot more to the Soviet Union than it did to the West. Yes, the end of the war was intensely celebrated by England and the United States, and we've all seen the pictures of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square on VE Day. However, even after Germany surrendered, there was still Japan for the United States to take care of, and, in any event, it really wasn't personal between the United States and Germany as it was with the Japanese. VE Day in the West was celebrated, and then largely forgotten. Today, it is simply something you learn about in school for your test and then kind of half-remember when you notice it in a headline.

To the Soviet Union, though, VE Day is the important one. They call it Victory Day and celebrate it every year as if the war just ended a few years ago. Huge military parades are mounted, and people actually remember. There were so many casualties in the Soviet Union - an order of magnitude higher than in the West - that almost everyone was affected personally by the death of somebody near and dear. The only comparison with people in the West would be those families there who lost loved ones in the Holocaust - but the occupied Soviet territories suffered that as well. The peoples of the former Soviet Union regard Victory Day as one of the most important on the calendar, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

This played out in 2014 in a singular way. Vladimir Putin actually had a victory to celebrate on Victory Day 2014, which was a huge rarity in Russia. In fact, truth be told, Russia hadn't really had a victory of any kind since the original VE Day. There were minor scuffles in the intervening 69 years, but they were mostly defensive in nature in places like Prague and Hungary. Vietnam was more a victory for the Chinese, as was Korea. The Cuban adventure in the early '60s also was more of a defensive victory. Little by little, the Soviet Union disappeared and much of its territory along with it. There were never any real victories to celebrate on Victory Day - until 2014.

Celebrations in 2014 were the same as usual, but also different. A Ukrainian head of the Soviet Union had blithely given away the Crimea in the 1950s, not really thinking it meant much within the larger context of the Soviet Union, which in any event still seemed to be on the ascendant. With the catastrophic breakup of the Soviet Union in the early '90s, though, that territory suddenly really was lost. President Putin, though, didn't think that was right. He sent in troops and recovered the Crimea in early 2014 despite international condemnation, then immediately sealed the deal with formal annexation. It was quick and painless - but it was a real victory, the addition to Russia of some of the most prime real estate in Europe. It recovered a warm water port, and put back in the Russian orbit the summer palaces of the Czars and Josef Stalin's favorite dacha. There was nothing the West could say about it, though they tried, but this was about Russian pride. Russia finally had something to celebrate again on Victory Day. You can't put a price on that kind of boost to national esteem, no matter the transient economic consequences, which on the scale of importance next to that amount to nothing.

Vladimir Putin VE Day 2014
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia attended a parade on Friday in Crimea, a territory which came under his control in March.

So, VE Day in 2014 was special. But it was only special to some - and for very good reasons.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's Executioner

Heinrich Himmler 1929.

Heinrich Luitpold Himmler (7 October 1900 – 23 May 1945) is one of the more enigmatic figures in Hitler's Germany. It isn't that what he did is obscure or unknown - what he did was meticulously documented and well-known.


The enigmatic part is why? But that, we will never know. Anyway, let's learn what we can about this mass murderer.

Heinrich is the boy on the left. Dad looks quite stern, but that was the fashion then. It also was fashionable to dress boys in clothing that later would be considered girlish. (Ang, Federal Archive).

Himmler was a Catholic born in Munich. His father, a teacher, was a man of prominence, and Heinrich developed a love of learning. He even kept a diary as a teenager. As he got older, his father pulled some strings and got Heinrich into an officer slot, and he wound up sitting out World War I in a reserve battalion.

Himmler as an officer candidate, 1918.

After the war, Himmler resumed his education and went to university in Munich. With few job opportunities in post-War Germany, though, he turned back to the military and messed around with some of the numerous paramilitary organizations milling about.


He met Ernst Röhm, and got swept up in the virulent anti-Semitism sweeping the land. The military thing didn't work out, so he got a boring office job. It wasn't much, but at least it got him out of his parents' basement.

How to get in good with Hitler: carry the flag at the Putsch. Himmler looks completely out of place, like a gangly professor in the midst of a bunch of gangsters. Considering that the flag-bearer always makes for a prime target, it is amazing that he survived.

At some point, Himmler noticed the new Party (NSDAP) and joined it right before the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Despite coming along rather late in the game relative to Hitler and some of the others, his connections to Röhm proved his bona fides.

Heinrich Himmler SS Gestapo
Early days.

Himmler even wound up carrying the flag at the Putsch, standing tall while all around him were shot down (in fact, he may have been carrying the flag because he was one of the taller men in the group who had nothing better to do). It was his finest moment.

Heinrich Himmler SS Gestapo
Himmler running on a SS training course. It's a pretty good bet that he got a good time - a very good time - no matter how slowly he went.

It must be said that whatever else Himmler did in life that suggested he lacked personal courage, carrying the flag at the Putsch took intense personal bravery (and/or intense foolhardiness and absolute desperation to fit in with someone, anyone). The defending soldiers who shot down most of Himmler's companions most likely spared him out of pity because he was so inoffensive looking and posed no possible threat - they also spared General Ludendorff for similar reasons (and of course in Ludendorff's case because of their genuine respect for the man, respect which they wouldn't have had at that point for Himmler).

Heinrich Himmler SS Gestapo
Himmler was just a mild-mannered cutthroat killer.

While unwounded (which he probably regretted at the time, since this would have really cemented his role in the Party), Himmler lost his secure office job as a result of his association with this gang of traitors to the state. In the ultimate come-down, he then had to move back in with mom and dad, as the Party was out of business for a while. However, on the bright side, he was in good with Hitler now - real good. Hitler revered the "martyrs" of 1923, even those who didn't actually become martyrs. That's one way to get ahead in life - inextricably tie your fortunes to someone with prospects. Of course, Hitler was in jail and lucky to have survived the fiasco, but he'd get out someday.

Himmler married Margarete Boden in 1928. This is kind of an odd wedding picture - Himmler is looking at her like he just bought her, she is looking... mindful. Appearances are deceiving, though: by all accounts, it was a successful marriage.

With all his troubles, Himmler moved away from Catholicism and toward German mysticism. He grew to like Hitler, who also favored all sorts of crackpot theories about German superiority. At loose ends and tired of living in his parents' basement, Himmler latched onto party leader Gregor Strasser and became a party secretary and propaganda assistant. This led to other assignments, and he joined the Schutzstaffel (SS) as an SS-Führer (SS-Leader).

Heinrich Himmler with Margaretha Boden and Gudrun, 1928. Himmler is in-between with the Party at this point, a hero to them for his part in the 1923 Putsch, but not yet in an executive position. But that was not long in coming.

The SS then was a tiny part of Röhm's paramilitary SA designed to serve as Hitler's bodyguards - kind of like the the Roman Praetorian Guard or the US Secret Service (remember, here we are talking about the earliest origins of the SS, not what Himmler later turned it into). In 1925, Hitler had ordered the formation of a new bodyguard unit, the Schutzkommando (protection command). It was formed by Julius Schreck and included old Stoßtrupp members, Emil Maurice and Erhard Heiden.

Adolf Hitler Emil Maurice
SS members #1 and #2, Adolf Hitler and Emil Maurice, apparently in Landsberg Prison. Maurice was found to have Jewish blood via a grandfather. In addition, Maurice was widely rumored to have been having an affair with Hitler's sweetheart, Geli Raubal, which may have contributed to her decision to commit suicide. However, Maurice was allowed to remain an SS Officer as an "Honorary Aryan" on Hitler's express written order to Himmler.

They quickly expanded the Schutzkommando to a national level that same year. It was renamed successively the Sturmstaffel (storm squadron), and finally on 9 November the Schutzstaffel (abbreviated to SS). Hitler became SS member No. 1 and Emil Maurice, his chauffeur, became SS member No. 2; Himmler was member #168. At that time, Maurice also became an SS-Führer in the new organization, although the leadership of the SS was assumed by Schreck, the first Reichsführer-SS.

Rudolf Hess Julius Schreck Adolf Hitler Bernhard Rust
Julius Schreck seated directly behind Hitler, Rudolf Hess and Bernhard Rust in the front row. Schreck founded the SS and became Hitler's chauffeur before passing away in 1936 from meningitis. Being Hitler's driver was akin to being a medieval English King's keeper of the royal privy: a mundane job but exceedingly prestigious and the gateway to great things. This is an early Nuremberg Party day.

Himmler advanced rapidly through the SA ranks in lower Bavaria, using the tiny SS as his springboard. After Hitler got out of jail, the two talked. Himmler told Hitler of his plans to turn the tiny SS into an elite force. Hitler was impressed and wanted to support this hero of 1923, so Hitler basically put Himmler in next-in-line to be in charge of the SS.

Himmler Wolff
Himmler smiling. I think that is SS General Karl Wolff behind him; if I'm mistaken, please feel free to correct me below. Credit: C&TAuctions/BNPS.

Himmler took over the fledgling organization in 1929 and now had a power base within the Party hierarchy. Taking over the minor position of Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel, Himmler quietly began building his organization - and power base.

Hermann Göring promotes Himmler. German hierarchies during the Hitler era were Byzantine: the same person often was both your subordinate and your superior in different contexts, as with these two.

Himmler rapidly expanded the SS from the hundreds to the thousands. After Hitler took over as Chancellor on 30 January 1933, events moved swiftly. Hermann Göring took over as Prussian Prime Minister, and Göring put Himmler in charge of the police. It is unknown what Hitler thought about Himmler's rise, but it wasn't necessarily a case of Hitler being awe-struck at Himmler's personal abilities. Hitler had a tendency to want borderline incompetents and non-threatening individuals in positions of influence, such as wine salesman Ribbentrop as his Foreign Minister (much later).

Meeting of high Reichswehr (Heer) and SS officers on  January 13, 1935: Defence Minister Werner von Blomberg. v.l.n.r. General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, General Elder, Baron Werner von Fritsch, Reichsführer of the SS Heinrich Himmler, General Werner von Blomberg, SS Group Leader Grains, Admiral Erich Raeder, General Gerd von Rundstedt. It is probably Horcher's in Berlin, a favorite Party restaurant. (Ang, Federal Archive).

Himmler, with his unthreatening demeanor and unending desire to advance Hitler and the NSDAP, was the perfect man - a basically harmless cipher personally and with no personal ambitions beyond making Hitler stronger; and remember the 1923 connection - to lead the entire police apparatus of the state. It was a job that had cost the swaggering Röhm his life, because Röhm erroneously believed himself to be powerful in his own right as the leader of millions of soldiers rather than simply being Hitler's minion.

A rare photo of the Party leadership in 1930 in Bad Elster. Front row l. to r.; Wilhelm Frick, Adolf Hitler, Fritz von Epp, Hermann Göring. Back row; Heinrich Himmler, Martin Mutschmann, Otto Strasser, Joseph Goebbels, Julius Schaub. Odd to see Himmler out of uniform a professional context and Goering off to the side in an SA uniform. Goebbels, as always, has Hitler's back.

Himmler, however, had no pretensions, knew that he owed everything to Hitler, and certainly was no Röhm. Hitler had nothing to fear from Himmler, at least so long as Hitler remained in charge and things continued going well. And things were going very well, especially after martial law was imposed after the Reichstag Fire of 27 February 1933, so Hitler wasn't going anywhere. In any event, Röhm got too big for his SA britches and was executed in the Night of the Long Knives of 30 June 1934. Himmler's SS was deeply involved in this operation ("Operation Hummingbird"). This cleared a path for Himmler to gain more control, with the SS's competitor for manpower the SA itself swiftly losing significance.

Himmler as Prussia's top cop, with his now-boss, Prussian Prime Minister Hermann Göring. They were two of the most educated people in Party elite (both with some college education, which was rare) and Hitler's prime enablers.

It was now that Himmler's intellectual qualities came into play. It may not seem as if being in charge of military and police units requires much intelligence, but quite the opposite was the case. Somebody had to create organization out of chaos. Himmler was the man.

People overseas began noticing Heinrich Himmler, though calling Himmler just a cop was a bit misleading.

Members were flooding into the Party now, and they had to be organized into some kind of coherent framework to actually do stuff. Himmler turned out to be a brilliant organizer, setting up different SS departments and turning the nebulous organization from a simple bodyguard unit into a rigid, doctrinaire, brutally efficient killing machine that since has become a template for utter indifference to human comfort or individuality. He gave the SS an identity where it had none, an identity that has lived down through time for its unique mercilessness. He was so successful that the SS forevermore has been known as the ultimate hard-line, no-nonsense group of enforcers who stopped at absolutely nothing to achieve their ends. Nothing.

Himmler's 1944 plan for Wewelsburg Castle

The genius - evil genius - of Himmler's elevation of the SS was that he figured out that the way to set an organization such as this apart from mere police forces was to give it a religious cast.

Yes, religious.

This is a very rare ring of the ancestral heritage foundation, Deutsches Ahnenerbe, that was set up by Himmler in 1935. This was a time when he was sending parties out across the globe to prove the hegemony of Aryan biology.

Just as Hitler was obsessed almost until his dying day with turning Berlin into a sort of theme park with grandiose architectural flourishes that would have dwarfed Paris and Vatican City, Himmler too wanted to create his own little mini-empire. The center of this monastic order - and that is what he intended, that is not an exaggeration - was to be Wewelsburg Castle, an inoffensive Renaissance castle located in the northeast of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. While the SS had to fight to win the war, its real purpose was to create the priests that would truly rule the Third Reich far into the future.

Model of Himmler's plans for Wewelsburg. The plan may not look like much here, but what looks like a little stream under the castle is actually a major river 

The castle itself has a triangular layout and survived the war intact. Himmler wanted to greatly expand it to become a sort of mythical location, surrounding the triangular castle with support buildings to house and service his SS Knights. He wanted to create a transcendent spot, sort of like King Arthur's round table.

Schwarze Sonne on the floor of the inner sanctum of Wewelsburg castle. It remains there today.

It was an utterly bizarre notion, completely at odds with the 20th Century, but would have happened had Hitler's Germany survived. There are all sorts of creepy spots in the castle to this day which reflect this proposed orientation. The castle itself is beautiful and is not guilty by association with the SS or Himmler, but some of his renovations to it remain visible and are some of Hitler's last surviving manifestations in Germany. To walk through it is absolutely creepy.

Himmler and his wife on an outing to Wiesbaden (Ang, Federal archive).

Making a purely military arm, the Waffen-SS, was also Himmler's idea, and it worked out fabulously for the Party. Himmler also dabbled in economic affairs and engaged in some empire-building with factory owners, carving out his own suppliers for the SS. This was not uncommon among German leaders at the time, as Göring was doing the same thing, but it showed that Himmler now was one of the Party's Big Dogs. And Himmler did it better than anyone else.

Himmler playing tennis, a somewhat rarefied sport in those days.

Himmler continued consolidating his power and developing the SS throughout the 1930s. Hitler trusted him more and more and took to calling him "Der Truer Heinrich" (Loyal Heinrich). Himmler never let Hitler down, and indeed was his most loyal henchman until the final days of the Reich.

Gudrun with her father, Heinrich Himmler, 1938. Himmler a loving father? Why not? These folks obviously lived highly compartmentalized lives.

Himmler had the distinction of being one of the youngest men in Hitler's immediate circle - he was even younger than Rommel, who was not really part of the tight clique at the top anyway - which no doubt contributed to his colleagues' barely concealed disdain for his actual abilities.

Heinrich Himmler in Valepp, Bavaria with his wife Marga, back right, his daughter Gudrun, front centre, his adopted son Gerhard, front right, and a friend of Gudrun's, front left, in 1935.

However, of them all, Himmler was probably the most polite and refined, strangely enough - to the extent that any of them were. He was sort of a typical suburbanite whose job simply happened to be slaughtering millions of people as efficiently as possible so that he would get his annual bonus.

Social evening at Kroll’s in Berlin 1936. From left: Reich SS Leader Heinrich Himmler, Reich Minister Hermann Goering and Mrs. Himmler. The top brass socialized together, especially at the opera which was Hitler's passion, but there were many underlying tensions.

Most of the Generals and Hitler himself were about 15 years older than Himmler. He was considered a bit young by the others, and not just age-wise. This, combined with Himmler's mild mannerisms, often led others to underestimate Himmler as a glorified office boy, overloaded with honors but still essentially Hitler's lackey.

Heinrich Himmler
Himmler relaxing, probably at the Berghof around 1943/44.

They were wrong to underestimate Himmler. Very wrong. Ultimately, Himmler was feared by everyone who had any sense, for he had (or could produce) the goods on anyone he didn't like through his position as head of Interpol and the Gestapo and his SS intelligence services. He had voluminous files on his colleagues (aka rivals) which his diligent staff (such as truly remorseless and hard-working Reinhard Heydrich) kept up to date with wiretaps and the like. If Hitler - or Himmler - wanted to get rid of someone, they didn't necessarily have to kill the man (though they did that, too, of course). No, Himmler didn't believe in personal violence, and was said (by Joachim Peiper, hardly a tender violet himself) to be out of sorts for days after witnessing any. For the 1970s Thames TV documentary "The World at War," SS General Karl Wolff, widely regarded as the eyes and ears of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, offered a telling anecdote in support of that. He recalled how Himmler — with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust — had vomited at the sight of Jews being shot into a pit at Minsk.

Heinrich Himmler
What I want to point out here is the little lapel pin that Himmler is wearing - just like politicians today. The Germans were advanced in the use of imagery.

No, Hitler just had to turn to Der Truer Heinrich, who would either pull something that was true out of the file to ruin the man (as with Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg, though Blomberg likely was set up by Himmler in the first place), or take the slightly harder but more assured route and simply fabricate a scandal out of whole clothe, but with just enough of an appearance of legitimacy to smear the victim irrevocably (as with Army Chief Fritsch, see below). So, Himmler always was treated with the utmost respect by those beneath him in the hierarchy, and anyone who talked snidely about him behind his back - and they most assuredly did - spoke very quietly.

Heinrich Himmler
Himmler inspecting the Janowska death camp. Himmler was one of the only German leaders who actually visited concentration camps, and he did so regularly.

Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, wound up in Auschwitz, where he died, after Himmler found out (according to evidence adduced by Himmler and his people) that Canaris was a traitor. Of course, a few years before that, in 1938, General von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) had been implicated in homosexual activities and forced to resign. Turned out it was a complete fabrication, trumped up by Himmler and his boss, Göring, to get rid of Fritsch (it was someone else entirely coincidentally named Fritsch who was the actual homosexual, which must have made the whole charade both simpler to document in court and an object of private amusement to the SS men). So taking anything derived from Himmler as fact is dicey without a great deal of corroboration.

Hitler and Himmler at a party rally

When Hitler wanted a pretext for the invasion of Poland in the summer of 1939, he knew exactly where to turn: to "Der Truer Heinrich." Himmler obliged, and promptly organized the aptly named "Operation Himmler," which entailed various made-up provocations by supposed Polish infiltrators. The most notorious was the false-flag attack at the Gleiwitz radio transmitter in Operation Greif.

Himmler Hitler
Himmler presents Hitler with a portrait of Frederick the Great, Hitler's idol, on Hitler's 50th birthday, 20 April 1939. Many consider this day the absolute apex of Hitler's rule, and Himmler was right in the middle of it. Some accounts, though, say that Hitler was not particularly impressed with this gift.

These fabrications worked like a charm. The media went into overdrive publicizing these completely faked incidents, reporters weren't given any time to investigate, and war soon was underway.

Children admire Himmler's ride.

With the war in progress, everything now was perfectly set up for Himmler to move the SS to the next level. Hitler was bound and determined to invade Russia, which would involve mixing with a bunch of 'untermenschen.' Orienting the SS so that it became the "racially pure" bedrock of the German state was politically convenient and made sense in terms of drawing big, fat lines of distinction between the 'good guys' and the Slavik Commies. This also dovetailed nicely with Himmler's crackpot mystical theories, which he truly believed. He spent a lot of effort sending emissaries around the world in search of evidence of Aryan superiority. All of this later changed, as the war situation deteriorated, but this was Himmler's vision for the SS.

The SS as cult.

The SS became Himmler's personal cult. He even began classifying nations as to how close to Aryan purity their citizenry fell, and it was quite amazing how flexible he was about that as the need arose. Slavs were out - they were untermenchen - but Croatians? No problem! Himmler believed that Muslims made ideal soldiers because their religion inspired them to be pitiless killers. Yes, he really believed that.

Himmler, with his personal doctor in the background, perhaps exiting the Fuhrer's personal plane in the '30s.

A key to Himmler's brutal success was that he surrounded himself with really bad guys who had absolutely no morals or scruples whatsoever and complete indifference to just about anything but advancing their own goals, such as the notorious Waffen SS leader Joachim Peiper. In between battles at the front, Peiper would come back to Berlin and resume his service as Himmler's aide.


One of Himmler's most capable lieutenants was Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was a truly loathsome individual who may be the most heinous individual in Germany - which says a lot - but he also was competent. Himmler had a good eye for picking capable people to do his dirty work.

Heinrich Himmler, wearing mufti, takes a stroll sometime in winter 1942. You will struggle to find pictures of men such as Manstein, Guderian and von Bock wearing civvies except when attending a secret (except to posterity) Hitler meeting where they wished to be incognito.

As the war progressed, the opportunity arose for Himmler to put into practice his lingering anti-Semitism from the 1920s. Göring issued an edict calling for the "final solution" of the "Jewish problem," and Himmler was the man charged with putting that into practice.

Himmler passing a prisoner standing at attention at Mauthausen.

Himmler passed it on to Heydrich, who was only too happy to help out. A conference was held at an SS office in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin in January 1942.


While Heydrich didn't offer any details (the Jews were to be "sent East" to "build roads," and that was about the extent of the "planning"), he got all the different government agencies to help out with this grand project, which of course was to be led by the SS.

Heinrich Himmler in jovial conversation with Theodor Eicke, January 1942.
The war started going poorly, but the Holocaust was just swinging into gear. There's undoubtedly a connection between those two facts. Through various trial and error methods, the SS devised efficient methods of killing, which wasn't so hard, and of disposing of the corpses, which was extremely challenging. Eventually, they solved the latter problem with specially built ovens.

Himmler in a famous stare-down with a prisoner (Horace Greasley?), who refused to sit down as ordered. Himmler could have had him shot - or shot him himself on the spot without any fuss - but didn't. Himmler admired bravery, even by his enemies. Greasley also famously escaped from the camp and snuck back in more than 200 times to meet in secret with a local German girl he had fallen in love with. Incidentally, to be clear, the identity of the prisoner and even the location and date of this photograph have all been called into question. It is commonly believed that this was Horace Greasley, and this picture was published on his obituary in 2010. However, an alternative theory is gaining ground: posed by Guy Walters, it posits that this is Minsk, it is 1941 and the soldier is a Russian. As with so many things from the archives, doubt lingers. I tend to side with Walters.

The SS military formations, meanwhile, grew steadily throughout the war. Ultimately, there were 38 SS divisions, though admittedly a few were pretty much just for show. The Waffen SS, as they were called, became famous for their fanaticism and ability to triumph against heavy odds, but the regular military was skeptical and judged them to be untrustworthy. The SS commanders were unskilled and sometimes arrogant about their capabilities, and while they could be vicious and unyielding and blow through opposition that would stop anyone else, they also often made elementary mistakes and showed occasional flashes of indifference to the tactical situation.

Heinrich Himmler receives a report somewhere on the Eastern Front, undated (it looks like an East Prussian pine forest). The head of the SS visited the front often in an effort to cultivate his "military" profile, but seldom stayed for long. Many army figures never took him seriously, but that was a mistake. It was not until late 1944 that Himmler was named chief of the Replacement Army (after Friedrich Fromm came under suspicion about the 20 July attentat) in addition to all of his other titles. Hitler valued loyalty over competence by that point, so Himmler finally obtained Army General rank and even was appointed to command Army Group Vistula. Himmler was incompetent as a General, and used his position to exact revenge from those in the Heer who had mocked him previously.

If a dawn attack was vital and called for by the Wehrmacht high command, for instance, the SS troops sometimes inexplicably would wind up wasting much of the day "getting ready" and only attacking in the afternoon when a fleeting opportunity had come and gone. The Waffen SS formations also drew off Germany's best equipment and best replacement troops, beggaring the regular Wehrmacht forces upon whom the defense of the Reich ultimately rested. So their prowess, while real, also was somewhat exaggerated and in some ways detrimental to the overall effort.

Himmler greeting the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Many Muslim soldiers served in the SS, in fact there was an entire division of them, the Handschar Division. Himmler loved their ruthlessness which he ascribed to their religious principles (Federal Archive).

Himmler himself was ruthless in a bureaucratic manner. He casually arranged for the extermination of every Jew his men could find, brushing aside arguments that some should be spared because they were "good" Jews. He adopted a similarly vicious attitude toward the fate of conquered peoples - he flat out said that he didn't care what happened to them so long as they served the needs of the Reich.

Himmler enjoyed the occasional cigar.

He himself, though, while dressed in spiffy uniforms, didn't kill anyone and became uncomfortable around prisoners. One of his adjutants, Joachim Peiper, later recalled that after he personally witnessed the execution of 20 Poles, Himmler was left "speechless for days."

Himmler enjoying a cigar again, almost certainly at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden, either 1943 or 1944.

Himmler's was the blandest face of mass terror in history, and it was while thinking about one of Himmlers protégées, Adolf Eichmann, that author Hannah Arendt made her famous comment about "the banality of evil." Those who met him (and survived, which was rare, whether they were his colleagues or his prisoners) usually describe him as being an inoffensive cipher who mouthed platitudes and seemed distant from affairs at the front. He tended to adopt a "lord of the manor" attitude. When a commander he had told to hold a town protested that the Russians would soon overwhelm him (as happened), Himmler simply responded, "You were sent there to hold the town. Do that."

Himmler with Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman. If that is Hoffman's home, it is where he buried numerous photographs of Hitler that he was supposed to have destroyed.

The war, of course, went from bad to worse. As the Russians closed in, Hitler needed someone he could trust to defend Germany proper. As he had in 1939, he turned to Himmler. It was a strange choice, given Himmler's lack of experience when there were truckloads of general officers who had been fighting steadily for four years, but understandable given Hitler's predilection for valuing loyalty over competence.

Heinrich Himmler Totenkopf SS Division
While Himmler was not a warrior himself, he visited his Waffen SS formations at times. Here he is visiting the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (part of II SS Panzer Corps in Generaloberst Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army) in June 1943, right before the Battle of Kursk (Peter Adendorf, Federal Archive).

Himmler had never served in the Army or commanded a formation of troops, but now he was put in command of Army Group Vistula, defending the capital itself. It was an impossible assignment, and it is difficult to blame Himmler for its failure. However, he didn't stick around very long, so he can be blamed for that. He quickly bowed out of the command, claiming illness and retreating to a rural SS clinic for treatment. The other officers, a remarkably petty and gossipy bunch, noted snidely that he never even visited the front, but instead parked his luxurious command train safely behind the Oder, out of harm's way during the time of his command. The implication was that he was a personal coward.

Himmler and Heydrich. This is probably not long before Heydrich's assassination.

With that inconvenient matter of responsibility over an army group and hundreds of thousands of soldiers out of the way, Himmler quickly revived. It was obvious that the war was lost, and he quite bureaucratically began looking for a way to help end it. He proceeded dispassionately, as though a memo came across his desk saying "The war is lost. Take action." and he proceeded accordingly. Himmler appears to have had some notion that he could retain power under the Allies because someone would have to "maintain order" after the fall of Hitler.

Unless you were in the SS and up for promotion or a medal, you probably didn't want anything with both your name and Heinrich Himmler's signature on it.

It was a remarkably detached viewpoint that conflicted with any notion of reality. The Allies used this otherworldliness to strike some deals with Himmler which released trainloads of Jews to Switzerland and prevented their executions. The peace negotiations themselves, though, were shams on both sides, each side simply trying to use the other with no capability or authority of altering the war's course. But wheeling and dealing as his world collapsed around him apparently made Himmler feel in control.

Himmler with Marshal Mannerheim, probably at the famous June 1942 birthday meeting.

Hitler finally found out about "True Heinrich's" unauthorized peace negotiations and flew into a rage. He fired Himmler, but in the chaotic last days of the Reich few noticed. Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor, and Himmler went to the new headquarters in northern Germany and acted as if he also was in charge. Dönitz humored Himmler for a few days, but then peremptorily dismissed him.

Himmler walks with Hitler from the Berghof to the teahouse, Spring 1944.

It didn't really matter by this point - the war ended the next day - and Himmler struck out on his own for a place of refuge. The only problem was that there was no place to hide - the Allies were everywhere. It's unclear where Himmler was headed, but he only remained on the loose for a couple of weeks, heading nowhere. There is no indication that he tried to head for Spain, like Skorzeny and Leon Degrelle, or South America, like Mengele - he just "hung out" amidst the refugees. Again, just a hyper-detached and completely unrealistic attitude. The British eventually picked him up for investigation and soon found out who he was - he told them. When a doctor tried to examine his mouth, Himmler refused and promptly bit down on a cyanide capsule. He was dead within minutes. The British buried him in an unmarked grave near Luneburg whose location remains unknown. The soldiers claimed that they wanted to prevent any latter-day disciples from making it a place of pilgrimage. They may have dumped him in a garbage can for all anyone knows.


Himmler was rare among the German elite as an educated man. He was solidly middle class and could have lead a humdrum life as a teacher or a banker. Instead, he turned into the man most responsible for the greatest killing machine of all time. Nobody knows why.

Below is some superb footage of Heinrich Himmler from Eva Braun's home movies. Himmler appears around the 4:34 mark.

Himmler and Wilhelm Frick
Himmler investigating Runic inscriptions as part of his "master race" theory, apparently at a rock quarry.

Himmler explains his relocation plans to Rudolf Hess, who flew to England shortly thereafter. (Ang, Federal Archive).

Himmler visiting the SS's forward outpost in Zhitomir, probably 1942.

Himmler greeted by Hitler at the Berghof

Himmler fooling around at the Berghof.

Himmler and Hitler at the Berghof, Spring 1944.

Himmler with Hitler in Hitler's private train receiving tributes.

Himmler watching as Hitler gives a soldier an award at the Berghof

Himmler inspects Mauthausen (Ang, Federal archive).

Himmler inspects Lodz concentration camp, 1941.

Himmler on January 9, 1943, ordering the Warsaw purge that led to the uprising shortly thereafter in April/May (not to be confused with the separate 1944 uprising).

Himmler listening to folk songs at the Folkemuseum in Oslo, Norway, 1941, as part of his Master Race research (Ehlert, Federal archive). Thank you to a commenter for identifying the location of this shot.

Himmler greeting Hitler late in the war