The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: documents/reviews/padfield.001

Archive/File: holocaust/reviews breitman.002
              holocaust/reviews padfield.001
Last-Modified: 1994/11/05

                   Copyright 1991 Chicago Tribune Company   
                                Chicago Tribune

                      May 19, 1991, Sunday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 1905 words

HEADLINE: Nazidom's lethal robot 
Heinrich Himmler: Devious, secretive executioner for the Third Reich

BYLINE: Reviewed by Larry V. Thompson, Professor of history at the U.S. Naval


By Peter Padfield 
Holt, 656 pages, $29.95 

The Architect of Genocide: 
Himmler and the Final Solution 
By Richard Breitman 
Knopf, 315 pages, $23 

   Peter Padfield's biography of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and police
in the Third Reich, is yet another effort to explain the man behind the
Holocaust, concentration camps, the dreaded Gestapo and the reign of terror
unleashed upon Nazi-occupied Europe.

   Previous biographies of Himmler offer various explanations as to why a devout
Catholic from a solid middle-class background with a good formal education
became a fanatical Nazi. Comparing the apparent normality of his youth with the
horrible acts he later sanctioned, these accounts viewed Himmler as
psychologically flawed, an unprincipled opportunist and racial fanatic, an
intriguer intent on amassing personal and organizational power as well as a
pedantic bureaucrat who worshipped Hitler.

   Padfield insists, however, that Himmler's transformation from romantic
idealist to racial revolutionary cannot be understood solely in psychopathic
terms, or as an unbridied lust for power, or as the acts of an efficient
bureaucratic sycophant gone amok. He suggests that Himmler became a racial
executioner primarily because those surrounding him encouraged it and German
society sanctioned it.  

   "A man is not what he does so much as what he is allowed to do; otherwise
what would each of us not do to change the world and ourselves?" Having posed
this question, Padfield, a British historian and author of a biography of
Admiral Karl Doenitz, demonstrates that Himmler institutionalized evil with
considerable social approval. As Reichsfuhrer, Himmler prided himself on having
the courage to act on his convictions. He urged his SS men to take pride in
executing the tasks that others, who supported the ends but were squeamish about
the means, were unable to stomach. Demonstrating initiative, being aggressive
and venerating achievement were the criteria of leadership in the SS and the
Third Reich. No one placed a greater premium on them than Himmler.

   Padfield thinks Himmler's metamorphosis occurred in his early 20s, when he
absorbed the shock of a lost war while undergoing doubts about his manhood. His
country had no future, and neither did he. In a diary, he equated personal with
national humiliation. Too young to serve in the war, he agonized over his
inability to discipline himself in social or sexual intercourse. Often
retreating into heroic and maudlin fantasies, he immersed himself in racist
literature and became a political activist.

   Politics convinced Himmler that his and Germany's misfortune were caused by
Jews, Freemasons, Bolshevism and modernism in general. Paramilitary affiliation
in several Free Corps units led to his joining the Nazi Party in 1923. Wearing a
uniform, rubbing shoulders with veterans and fighting communists, socialists and
even the Weimar government gave Himmler the heroic purpose for which he yearned.

   Becoming a political soldier for Adolf Hitler exposed Himmler to the
conspiratorial world of the racial nationalists, a world of intrigue, treachery,
violence and hate. He coped with it, Padfield suggests, because a pervasive
social crisis matched his private one. The hate, fear and loathing of Jews,
Bolsheviks, the bourgeoisie and modernity marking those who gravitated to Nazism
molded him while forging a group psychosis that ultimately infected German

   Padfield speculates that the man who planned and ordered monstrous atrocities
was an "operational personality" who withdrew from the real world long before
1933, developing a "false" self that magnified certain character traits. His
obsessiveness, slavish obedience, secretiveness, moralizing and exaggerated
sense of loyalty, discernible as a young adult, became pronounced later and
defined him as the Reichsfuhrer. Shielded by his false self, Himmler remained
emotionally aloof from the cruelty he managed. He was both a robot and a lethal
weapon at Hitler's disposal.

   Padfield's study describes how Himmler obtained power and what he did with
it. Unlike others, he argues that Himmler and not Reinhard Heydrich provided the
vision and determination to weld a Party security apparatus into the elite
Schutzstaffel (Guard Echelon SS), the means through which Himmler amassed his
enormous power, culminating by 1944 in his becoming the second most powerful man
in the Reich.

   Padfield superbly analyzes Himmler's patient and calculated campaign for
personal and organizational stature. Positions, titles and influence transformed
the private Himmler into the public and officious Reichsfuhrer whom Padfield
encounters lurking behind a mountain of bureaucratic memorabilia. He notes that
Himmler's later speeches, letters and memos echo the sentiments expressed in his
earlier diary entries, demonstrating that he remained locked in the vicious
milieu of the '20s. So, too, were those who surrounded him. They accepted his
justifications for their collective inhumanity because they approved his ends.

   That they condoned, if not accepted, deviant behavior in pursuit of racial
purification makes Himmler's often assumed abnormality problematic. Padfield
asks, Who in the midst of the Third Reich's grotesque unreality was normal?

    Padfield stalks an elusive figure and defines him better than any effort to
date. But he admits that much about Himmler remains speculative. The
Reichsfuhrer proved as successful at hiding himself as he did in disguising
policies and projects from competitiors or compatriots. Padfield might agree,
therefore, that Himmler will attract future biographers.

   Richard Breitman's study of Himmler's role in designing and implementing
genocide complements and reinforces Padfield's analysis. Breitman's aim is to
determine when the plans for genocide began and to clarify how the actions
leading to it evolved. He identifies Himmler as the chief planner, emphasizing
that the Reichsfuhrer was in this endeavor, as in all others, a master of
deceit. Similarly, Padfield stresses Himmler's predilection for deceptions
against friend and foe alike, in and outside of Germany. Indeed, Padfield
demonstrates that Himmler eventually deceived and betrayed all his patrons,
including Hitler. Concealing genocide became Himmler's greatest subterfuge.

   Breitman insists, however, that Himmler's deceit and the imposed secrecy
surrounding Jewish extermination subsequently contributed to the confusion and
controversy among historians over when and why it began and who bears ultimate
responsibility for it. He concludes that Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich were the
major co-conspirators of the Final Solution, and he argues that it was a planned
rather than improvised program. He deduces this from documentation previously
available to historians, but he also uses Himmler's hitherto neglected daily
appointment calendar and office logs, which recorded his incoming and outgoing
phone calls and written correspondence.

   While the logs are incomplete, they let Breitman track Himmler's whereabouts
and activities. What emerges is a pattern that places Himmler or Heydrich with
Hitler at critical times before, during and after decisions radicalizing Jewish
persecution were made. Equating proximity with previous actions and motivations,
Breitman infers that plans leading to extermination were hatched, briefed and
ultimately approved in these meetings. Characteristically, he says, Himmler
omitted detailed memos for the record of these discussions - always conducted,
as the German phrase has it, "under four eyes" - or he laconically employed
language that masked killing behind euphemisms.

   While not denying that the stages through which Jewish policy passed were
affected by circumstances of foreign policy, economics, war, geography and
technical difficulties, Breitman asserts that "the idea of killing Jews was on
the SS agenda from at least late 1938 on." He argues further that the Final
Solution was in place by March, 1941, a date several months ahead of the period
favored by other specialists. Thus, he believes that the decision to kill Jews
predated the campaign against the Soviet Union and was not the result of
military failure and frustration during 1942.

   These conclusions place Breitman within the "intentionalist" school of
historians who believe that Hitler's anti-Semitism presumed a radical physical
solution to the "Jewish Question" even before the Second World War began. While
not agreeing with Breitman's chronology, Padfield is also convinced that Hitler
and Himmler intended to exterminate Jews before the war. Unlike Padfield, who
finds it self-evident that Jewish extermination emanated from Hitler's brand of
anti-Semitism, Breitman is concerned to sharpen the chronology of the Final
Solution in order to clarify the debate between historians of the intentionalist
camp and scholars designated as "functionalist."

   Functionalists insist that extermination evolved from ad hoc improvisations
by subordinates in the field who promoted it hoping to eliminate the
catastrophic conditions created when military conquest brought millions of Jews
into German hands. Functionalists find no evidence of planning behind the Final
Solution until late 1941, and they view SS sovereignty within it as the
culmination of bitter competition among State and Party organs for executive
power. Himmler won, they claim, not without difficulty, because he possessed a
superior organizational apparatus.

   Breitman does not deny that local initiative escalated radicalization, nor
does he dispute that "turf battles" were fought for control of Jewish lives by
sundry agencies. These actions, he argues, obscure rather than clarify the fact
that an SS strategy evolved from abstract formulation in the prewar years to
reality by the spring of 1941. Breitman is convinced that this transformation
was neither accidental nor circumstantial. He contends that Hitler and Himmler
agreed that Jewish liquidation should occur, and they schemed, deceived and
acted accordingly as opportunities developed for achieving it. The absence of
concrete documentation demonstrating their intent denotes that a massive
cover-up took place. The cover-up not only fooled many contemporaries, but it
also established the basis for subsequent disagreements among historians as to
the causes behind the Holocaust.

   Breitman, a professor of history at American University and co-author of a
previous work on genocide, provides no definitive answer as to why Hitler and
Himmler opted for extermination. He speculates that both men may have been
influenced by a contemporary historical account of Genghis Khan, which convinced
them that Germany's future strength depended upon achieving racial purity and
that a racial armageddon with Jewish Bolshevism loomed ominously in the East.

   While not wholly improbable, this explanation stretches credulity and remains
unpersuasive, although one must concede that no other answer yet commands
unqualified support. Breitman anticipates that not all historians will accept
his deductions and hypotheses, which are often inferred rather than proven. The
continued absence of a "smoking gun" ensures that the debate he seeks to sharpen
will remain lively. Speculation notwithstanding, he formulates a challenging
thesis. His book advances a provocative interpretation that merits further

Home ·  Site Map ·  What's New? ·  Search Nizkor

© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012

This site is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat hatred. Any statements or excerpts found on this site are for educational purposes only.

As part of these educational purposes, Nizkor may include on this website materials, such as excerpts from the writings of racists and antisemites. Far from approving these writings, Nizkor condemns them and provides them so that its readers can learn the nature and extent of hate and antisemitic discourse. Nizkor urges the readers of these pages to condemn racist and hate speech in all of its forms and manifestations.