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On Himmler and Heydrich

Max Hastings:

The Most Terrible of Hitler’s Creatures: John Lukacs has made the interesting and important assertion that Himmler spent much more time thinking about Jews than Hitler did. Once the war began, while Germany’s leader remained committed to ethnic cleansing and often bored his subordinates with monologues about his fantasy vision of a postwar world, he was chiefly preoccupied with defeating his enemies. But Himmler, Heydrich, and their formidable enforcement arm, the SS, were amazingly careless of the rational priorities of total war. They devoted themselves with demented single-mindedness to pursuing, herding, and eventually killing Europe’s Jews. Neither of these books discusses an issue that seems to me significant: the economic and strategic cost to the Nazis of undertaking a program for reorganizing Eastern Europe and its peoples, liquidating those who were unwanted, while the outcome of the war still hung in the balance….

It seems mistaken to view Himmler, Heydrich, and their colleagues in historical isolation, and more profitable to assess them alongside—for instance—Stalin’s chief enforcer, Beria, and the Soviet Union’s corps of killers, quite as dedicated to their work as was the SS. The conclusion is obvious: there was nothing uniquely German about such people. It is not difficult to persuade a substantial minority of mankind, and even of its educated elements, to commit mass murder, as long as such a course is legitimized and successfully put into practice by the authority of somebody at the top. Many of the Serbs and Croats who killed tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s would have been taught in school about the iniquity of the Holocaust. But this did not inhibit them from following the same path, albeit on a lesser scale, pursuing the wholesale elimination of unwanted citizens of their own community of all ages and both sexes….

Peter Longerich, already the author of a distinguished history of the Holocaust, has written a biography that tells us everything that the world could ever need to know about this most terrible, yet dreary, of Hitler’s creatures. Like Robert Gerwath’s book [on Heydrich], Longerich’s work [on Himmler] contains nothing significantly new, but establishes an authoritative record. Himmler, a wretched and inadequate human being, made himself Hitler’s indispensable enforcer, and successfully reinvented the SS again and again through the years of Nazi mastery.

If the two authors’ explanations of Himmler and Heydrich remain somehow unsatisfactory, this is surely because it is impossible to explain how two such contemptibly small people could encompass such vast horrors. The response of the German people not so much to National Socialism, as to its risibly unimpressive human representatives, seems much more interesting than the men themselves. The manner in which one of the most educated and civilized societies in the world acquiesced in the dominance of gangsters, thugs, and inadequates, possessed of negligible gifts for anything beyond mass murder, will baffle and terrify humanity until the end of time.