On the evening of May 23, 1945, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, five men in a British Army jeep were driving down a dark road. Four were guards and the fifth was one of the most important Nazi prisoners of war to have been found in the collapsed Third Reich.
The commander of the expedition, a colonel, thought that they were lost, but when he turned to say so, the prisoner set him straight: “You are on the road to Lüneberg.”
The prisoner in question was none other than Heinrich Himmler, SS number 168, head of Germany’s dreaded SS and Secret State Police, and his capture, almost accidental, was of great importance to the victorious Allies. Here was the highest ranking Nazi taken alive since the arrest of Hermann Göring on May 9, 1945. What secrets about the Hitler regime might he reveal?
Heinrich Himmler: Head of the SS
Himmler was the third of four Reichsführer-SS (RFSS or National Leader of the SS). The first had been Josef Berchtold and the second Erhard Heiden. After Heiden resigned, Himmler assumed the post on January 6, 1929. He was already a close supporter of Hitler, having taken part in Hitler’s abortive 1923 Beer Hall Putsch that had tried to overthrow the Bavarian government.
Although meek- and frail-looking—certainly nothing like the tall, blond, broad-shouldered, and athletic Aryans pictured on the SS and Wehrmacht recruiting posters—Himmler had an instinct for cunning and self-survival that few others possessed.
When Hitler appointed Himmler head of the SS, the organization was nothing more than a small, elite bodyguard for the Führer within Ernst Röhm’s much larger Sturmabteilung, or SA, and numbering only 280 men. Through his organizational skills, Himmler had, by 1933, built up the SS to 52,000 men. The uniform had changed, too. Instead of the brown shirts that marked the SA, Himmler went for an all-black costume for his SS (although, at one time, the SS wore brown shirts with black trousers and black kepis). It was Himmler who, along with Göring, persuaded Hitler that Röhm must be eliminated and the brawling SA brought to heel if the Nazi Party were ever to gain the support of the German Army generals and industrialists.
Wewelsburg Castle: “Schoolhouse” of the SS
Himmler had grandiose dreams for his SS. After his first visit on November 3, 1933, he had the SS lease the 17th-century Wewelsburg Castle near Paderborn, a structure that he envisioned being converted into an SS shrine and his official SS “Schoolhouse.”
The castle was built in a triangular form of walls and towers on a pointed limestone spur that had been a Germanic stronghold at the time of the Roman invasion in ad 9. There was in Himmler’s day the famed Knight’s Hall and a trio of towers that were each five stories tall. The North Tower became the SS Valhalla, the fabled “Realm of the Dead.” Moreover, the castle’s crypt contained a dozen pedestals where it was planned that urns containing the ashes of the highest SS leaders of the Third Reich would someday rest. Himmler himself, captivated with the idea of Nordic mythology, fully expected to be interred with great Nazi solemnity in the fortress vault, designed by his hand-picked architect, Hermann Bartels.
Reconstruction performed by slave laborers from a nearby concentration camp began after the SS acquired the castle in 1934, and it was the intention of Himmler to make it the core of an SS city radiating 450 kilometers in all directions.
The castle’s highlight was an Arthurian-like round table for Himmler’s own dozen SS “Knights” that included Reinhard Heydrich; Himmler’s administrative deputy SS General Karl Wolff, who would surrender northern Italy to the Allies in 1945, thus eluding the hangman’s noose; and even their sometime rival, Chief of the German Order (Regular) Police, General Kurt Daluege, who would be hanged by the Czechs as a war criminal after the war.
Himmler’s private study was in the West Tower, and he also had two rooms where he stayed on his frequent visits. During the war, Himmler’s personal weapons collection was hidden within its walls, and thus the legend and mysteries of Wewelsburg persist to this day for treasure hunters.
An SS museum was at the castle, too, as well as a 30,000-volume library of rare books, plus a repository of SS rings. In 1938, Himmler announced that in the future all top SS generals would take their oaths of allegiance at the Wewelsburg each spring. He planned for his 12 department heads to one day be the forerunners of a new pan-European SS State after Nazi Germany won World War II, projected for 1950 by Hitler.
The last major reconstruction project was the North Tower during 1941-1942, but all work ceased in April 1944.
Over the castle’s main entrance there was a Latin inscription that read, “Many would gladly enter, but they will not succeed,” and none did, until Himmler ordered SS General Heinz Macher on March 30, 1945, to destroy the Wewelsburg before the Americans arrived. Much damage was done, but the castle was not completely destroyed.
After the SS withdrawal, the local townspeople looted the castle of 40,000 bottles of wine and champagne, furniture, carpets, art objects, silver utensils, fine china, and linens. Himmler’s personal, top-secret safe was found and blasted open by American GIs, but the contents were never positively identified. It was rumored that the safe contained documents relating to the slain Heydrich. The castle was then occupied by the U.S. Army and is today a tourist attraction.
Growing Up During World War I
Born in Munich on October 17, 1900, the son of a pedantic schoolmaster father, Himmler, whose godfather was Prince Heinrich of Wittelsbach, started keeping a diary at age 10 and in 1914 as a teenager during World War I, he turned it into a war journal: “Aug. 23rd: The Bavarian troops were very brave in the rough battle.”
Heinrich’s eyesight was too poor for him to join the Imperial Navy. While his older brother Gebhard joined the reserves, Heinrich could only stay at home and play with his toy soldiers. In 1915, though, he joined the Jugendwehr (Youth Forces) for field drilling and military lectures in preparation for later joining the Bavarian Army on the Western Front.
Prince Heinrich, 32, died of wounds sustained at the Battle of Verdun, while his namesake was rejected for service by two regiments. Distraught, Heinrich joined the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment as an enlisted man on October 16, 1917. Meanwhile, brother Gebhard had been awarded the Iron Cross before the war came to a sudden end in November 1918, followed by a communist revolt in Munich accompanied by considerable economic and political turmoil. His dreams of a military career dashed, Heinrich then decided to study agriculture but fell ill with paratyphoid fever. The following year, recovered, he enrolled as an agricultural student at the University of Munich, where he remained until graduating in 1922.
Entering Into Politics
Caught up in the unrest that was wracking his defeated country, which the socialists had turned into a republic, Himmler joined a nationalist, paramilitary organization known as the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag), headed by veteran Ernst Röhm. At some point, Himmler had occasion to hear a young firebrand named Adolf Hitler speak. Mesmerized by Hitler’s oratory and nationalistic fervor, Heinrich joined the Nazi Party in August 1923 and took part in Hitler’s abortive Beer Hall Putsch that November.
Having avoided arrest himself, Himmler threw himself into politics and began speaking at various rallies, espousing anti-government, anticapitalist, and anti-Jewish sentiments. After Hitler was released from prison in December 1924, and Röhm broke away from Hitler, Himmler threw in his lot with the Nazis and received a paid position at the party’s offices in Landshut. His ambition and skill at organizational matters soon caught Hitler’s eye, and Himmler was entrusted with more and more tasks. In 1927, he married Margarete Boden, a nurse seven years his senior. They had one child, a daughter named Gudrun. During the war, he also had a mistress, Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had a son and a daughter.
In 1929, when he wasn’t yet 30, the shy, quiet, methodical, and organized Himmler was named Reichsführer-SS, commanding the Nazis’ national force that protected Hitler and other leaders personally and broke up the meetings of the party’s political opponents.
“Night of the Long Knives”: Destroying the SA
The unobtrusive Heinrich Himmler was on his way to a career unique in 20th-century history. By January 1933, when Hitler was named to the exalted office of chancellor of Germany, Himmler made the SS a haven for those elite young men who scorned the more plebeian brown-shirted SA storm troopers. By war’s end, the Waffen (Armed) SS alone would number 900,000 men in 40 divisions.
Himmler’s first great chance to shine in Hitler’s eyes came in 1934 when the conservative German Army demanded that the chancellor rein in the unruly SA led by Staff Chief Ernst Röhm. The latter’s goal, allegedly, was to replace the regular army with his own men under arms and, as Himmler’s immediate boss, Röhm also stifled the expansion and independence of the SS.