Under the command of Heinrich Himmler, the SS adopted the policy of selecting only those men who were considered fine specimens of Nordic manhood. Strict obedience to this rule would have made its Reichsführer most unlikely to have been admitted, for Himmler had a weak constitution and poor eyesight. In uniform, despite the work of the very best SS tailors, he looked more like an officious ticket collector than an Aryan superman.
This long and detailed biography is, in part, a psychological study of a man who longed to be an athlete, a dueller and a soldier, an ideal of masculinity for which he was ill suited. The bond between comrades was a key part of the way of life to which he aspired, but Himmler found it difficult to make the close friendships he yearned for. Peter Longerich considers that he suffered from an "attachment disorder": while longing to be liked, he was nevertheless unable to relate, even within his family, to those he sought to impress. Stumbling in his eagerness, he became overly voluble and lapsed into a melancholy that turned to anger. As a defence, he tried to represent himself as a strong and decisive soldier and Teuton, covering up his failings much as he covered his weak chin with his hand when he was being photographed. What was genuine, however, was his cold ruthlessness.
The employment prospects for an ex-agricultural student in the post-war Germany of the 1920s were poor, and Himmler toyed with the idea of emigrating. He became involved with Bavarian radical right-wing movements and played a minor role in the Munich putsch led by Hitler and Ludendorff in 1923, but what transformed his prospects was his decision in 1924 to take a position as a party functionary with the NSDAP in Lower Bavaria. Henceforth, the Nazi Party and the power he was able to achieve within it were his life. In this he was somewhat similar to many of those embittered members of his generation who made their careers in the party.
Unlike many leading Nazis, Himmler was not, as Longerich demonstrates, drawn into the party by an entrancement with Adolf Hitler's charisma, but by the pursuit of position and power, a fierce nationalism, and a capacity for hate. His hatred of the Jews was to lead to his central role in the Holocaust, but he also detested Freemasons, and in spite of his Catholic upbringing developed a deep dislike of Christianity. Arguably the most eccentric of the Nazi leaders, he became interested in the occult and acquired a gallimaufry of mystical beliefs and practices. He invented rituals and ceremonies for the SS, and supported expeditions and archaeological digs in Europe and even Tibet in search of evidence for arcane theories of historical and racial development.
A strictly biographical approach to the life of a man who might well have remained a frustrated and ineffectual figure had it not been for the rise to power of the fringe political movement to which he had committed himself could have led to a neglect of the structural factors that determined the nature and success of the NSDAP. It is all to the good, then, that Longerich's impressive study combines biography with structural history, for, as he says: "In National Socialism the exercise of political power was quite simply inextricably linked to the biographies of leading Nazi functionaries."
Hitler was not a hands-on leader and dictator, but one who permitted his satraps considerable discretion, and it was a discretion that enabled the remorseless, power-hungry Himmler to build up his own empire-within-an-empire. The ever-adaptable SS leader succeeded "in redrawing every two or three years the master plan for his sphere of power": control of all internal security in Germany was achieved by progressively gaining command of the party's paramilitary arm, concentration camps, the political police, and then all police. As the Third Reich expanded, he built up militarised SS units into the Waffen-SS as a formidable means of repression in occupied countries; and with Germany's invasion of Russia, the complex organisation he controlled played a leading role in the twin policies of racial extermination and the proposed settlement of Germans in the East. As Germany was forced on the defensive and even as defeat loomed, Himmler maintained a tight grip on internal security in the diminishing area under Nazi control and his repressive apparatus did much to ensure that the Reich fought to the end, for "all the internally enforceable methods of violence of the Nazi state were united in his person".
The pages Longerich devotes to the psychology and the weird beliefs of his subject are amply justified. Many otherwise banal persons develop dangerous fantasies, but Europe's misfortune was that Himmler amassed sufficient power and potential for destruction to attempt to bring his about.
By Peter Longerich. Oxford University Press. 1,072pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780199592326. Published October 2011