The first Nazi paramilitary organisation was the SA (Sturmabteilung, Stormtroopers, or Brownshirts) This was led by Ernst Roehm, a squat, ugly and extremely violent former army officer (and, incidentally, a predatory homosexual) who had joined the Nazi Party even earlier than Hitler. They would act as bodyguards, beat up and intimidate opponents, fight street brawls with Communists and Socialists, and also look impressive when thousands of them took part in uniformed parades and rallies. Their crude street violence played a major part in the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933: they were sworn in as special auxiliary police and given official license to arrest, beat and murder any opponents of the new regime. But by 1934 the old conservatives and Army generals who had backed Hitler were becoming alarmed, not only by the thuggish excesses of the SA, who were now more than a million strong, but by the alarming ambitions of Roehm himself. Increasingly, Roehm was openly saying that Hitler had betrayed the Nazi revolution by selling out to the old ruling classes, and making little secret of his desire for the SA to replace the old Reichswehr as a truly revolutionary army. (I often think that Roehm might have been happier in the Communist party!) Finally in summer 1934 Hitler was given a stark choice by the Army generals: eliminate Roehm or lose Army support. (As Field-Marshal von Blomberg said of the SA, the rebirth of Germany could not be left in the hands of "That gang of thugs, drunks and queers") After some hestitation Hitler gave the go-ahead to Goering and Himmler to dispose of Roehm; and the SA leaders were arrested and shot, together with other opponents of the Nazi regime, in the "Night of the Long Knives", June 1934. The SS played its first significant role in the mass killing. Following this, the Army raised no objection to Hitler merging the offices of Chancellor and President a few days later. Conservatives both in Germany and abroad were glad that Hitler had disposed of his "wild men", and few bothered to notice that the thuggish hooligans of the SA had now been supplanted by the infinitely more sinister SS.
Heinrich Himmler (here with Heydrich behind him)
Himmler was born in Munich 1900, the second son of the tutor to the Bavarian royal princes. He joined Nazi party in 1923, and took part in the Beer Hall Putsch, then studied agriculture. He married in 1928, to a woman 7 years older than him, and ran a smallholding with a chicken farm. In 1929 he was appointed leader of the SS, at this stage an insignificant organisation within the SA. In 1930 he became a Deputy in the Reichstag. From the Nazi accession to power in 1933, his power grew constantly. His first post was as chief of police for Munich; then in 1934 he took control of the Gestapo and helped organise the Night of Long Knives; and in 1936 he became Minister of Police for the whole of Germany. In 1943 he became chief of the Replacement Army.
Himmler was the only leading Nazi whose power constantly increased, and whose career never suffered setbacks. He was a colourless personality, without any obvious charisma or natural authority, and his only positive characteristics seemed to be his conscientiousness and firm faith in Nazi ideals. His frequent calls for ruthlessness only seemed to mask his own squeamishness (the only time he witnessed a killing, he was very upset), but he appeared totally impervious to the terror and suffering of his victims.
He had a strongly puritan streak; he constantly stressed the need for obedience and discipline, and disapproved of the crude, lawless violence of the SA. He was extremely superstitions: he firmly believed in Nazi racial theories, and was also interested in astrology, occultism, fringe medicine etc. However, unlike most mediocre cranks, Himmler was able to recruit men far more able than himself, and retain their loyalty. He was very dependent on the far more talented Heydrich, and the SS leadership was full of highly intelligent young law graduates.
Himmler came to oversee not only police and intelligence work, but also the vast empire of concentration camps, the deportation and extermination of Jews, and his own field army, the Waffen-SS (Himmler proved to be an extremely bad military commander!)
His fundamental lack of reality was shown near the end of the war, when he put out feelers to see whether the Allies would accept him as leader of a post-Hitler government, and even tried to open negotiations with the World Jewish Congress. (“It’s time we Nazis and Jews buried the hatchet”, he said!). The surviving SS were severely disillusioned by this “betrayal”, and one of Hitler’s last actions was to expel Himmler from the Nazi party.
As Germany collapsed, Himmler tried to escape with false identity papers, but was interned as a suspect by British forces and poisoned himself when he realised he was about to be unmasked.
Someone once commented to Hermann Goering that Himmler didn't have a brain. "Yes he does!" replied Goering, "The brain is called Heydrich!"
Heydrich was born in 1904, the son of a musician, and was widely believed to be partly Jewish (which, however, was never proved). He was always arrogant, a loner, greedy for power, and found it hard to form normal relationships. His first career was as a naval officer, but in 1931 was forced to resign for ungentlemanly conduct. He then joined the SS, where Himmler was looking for someone to run an intelligence-gathering and security organisation. Heydrich convinced Himmler that he had been a security expert in the navy: in fact he had no experience of the work, but was able to bluff Himmler, who was equally ignorant of the subject!
Heydrich’s cleverness, hard work and ruthlessness quickly made him Himmler’s indispensable No. 2 in the S.S. He set up his own Security Department (SD), dedicated to gathering intelligence, including on the other Nazi leaders, and recruited some exceptionally bright young men to staff it. As Himmler rose to take control of all the German police forces, Heydrich rose with him, and became chief of the Security Police in 1936. He helped plan the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, and the overthrow of the generals Blomberg and Fritsch in 1938.
When the war came, Heydrich set up the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) to co-ordinate all police and intelligence work throughout occupied Europe. Soon only Military Intelligence (Abwehr) under Admiral Canaris was outside Heydrich’s control. He organised the “Night and Fog” operation to exterminate any possible resistance leaders in Poland, and the “Einsatzgruppen” (Hit Squads) in Russia for the mass killings of Jews. In summer 1941 Goering authorised Heydrich to carry out a “final solution to the Jewish question”, and in early 1942 he chaired the Wannsee Conference, where plans for the killing of all Europe's Jews were announced.
In late 1941 Heydrich was sent to Prague to govern occupied Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), whilst retaining control of the RSHA. Here in May 1942 he was assassinated by a hit squad of Czechs specially trained in Britain. Although he was given a lavish funeral, his colleagues in the Nazi leadership were probably relieved to see him dead. He is considered the Nazi most likely to have succeeded Hitler, had Hitler died suddenly. Unlike the deeply superstitious Himmler, he seems to have had no beliefs at all, apart from an obsessive greed for power. Although Heydrich was violently anti-Christian, Himmler doubted whether he was really an ideologically committed antisemite, and considered that, behind his front as a compulsive achiever, he was “at heart, a deeply unhappy man”.
The SS (Schutzstaffel, Protection Squad, or Blackshirts) was originally a personal bodyguard for Hitler within the SA, numbering no more than 180 men, but it grew rapidly in size and importance. Himmler saw its role as more than just a policing body; it should be the ideological and racial elite of the new Germany: pure-blooded Aryans, highly disciplined and fanatically dedicated to Nazi ideals. He set out to recruit a better type of men than the crude street-fighters of the SA.
By 1933 the SS had expanded to 50,000 members, and by 1939 to 200,000. Entry was made deliberately difficult, and before the war a large majority of applicants were turned down. A recruit had to prove his Aryan ancestry back to the 18th century; he could not marry without permission, and his bride also had to undergo a racial check. The SS bore resemblances to the orders of fighting monks in the Middle Ages: the Templars and Teutonic Knights, and there was a strong element of strange quasi-occult rituals that stemmed from Himmler's superstitious mind.
The original formation was the "Allgemeine-SS" (General, or All-purpose), bringing together all members, salaried, part-time or honorary; divided into regiments and squads, with officers having ranks parallel to those of the regular army, under Himmler as Reichsfuehrer. But within the SS different functions emerged: the Waffen-SS came to be practically a separate army, with its soldiers noted for their fanaticism in combat, the WVHA section was responsible for administration of the concentration camps and the "Deaths-head" SS provided the camp guards (these tended to be of a rather lower class: ex-soldiers unable to become army officers because they lacked the educational qualifications, who were unsettled and often unemployed in civilian life, and rarely rose above the rank of Major in SS ranks)
As Himmler's power grew, he used his SS to take on more and more functions. He ordered that in each district the local SS commander must also be the chief of police. The SS increasingly ran a vast slave-empire in the concentration camps, where SS doctors conducted medical experiments on the inmates. The "Lebensborn" organisation attempted to breed the master race of the future. The campaign to exterminate the Jews was spearheaded by the SS, and concentration camps such as Auschwitz were a vast slave-manned economic empire in their own right.
The SD was organised by Heydrich within the SS. It was an intelligence-gathering body, without powers of arrest, whose function was to keep under investigation any likely opponents of the regime, "to provide the authorities with a comprehensive mosaic picture", so that action could be taken. (Files were also kept on the Nazi leaders themselves!) The work of the SD therefore overlapped with that of the Gestapo, and the two organisations were to some extent rivals; typical of the administrative chaos that prevailed in Nazi Germany. The bright young graduates whom Heydrich recruited for the SD tended to look down on the less-educated career policemen who made up the Gestapo. It was only in 1939 that the two were co-ordinated together in the RSHA. But Heydrich did not allow his appointees to be mere desk-warriors: when the war came, he sent them out to lead teams of killers!
(Next time: The Gestapo and related topics)
There is, of course, an enormous literature on Nazi Germany, but for a biographical approach to the subject I would greatly recommend "The Face of the Third Reich" by Joachim Fest.