Following the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles penalises the defeated Germany, annexing land, imposing large war reparations, limiting the size of the German Army and blaming Germany and Austria-Hungary for starting the conflict. The new German Government, a coalition of left-leaning and centrist parties, attempts to rebuild the country but faces opposition from the right and extreme left. The instability is exacerbated by the failure of the domestic and global economies.
Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) exploits the situation, advocating national pride, blaming the Treaty of Versailles, the left, and Jews for the political turmoil and claiming to have a solution to the economic crisis. The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January 1933 when Hitler is appointed chancellor. More background.
Born on 7 October 1900 in Munich, Germany. His father is a Roman Catholic secondary school headmaster who was once tutor to the Bavarian crown prince. Himmler has two brothers, one older and one younger.
1917 - He joins the army as an officer cadet but does not see active service during the First World War. Following the war, he studies agriculture and economics at the Munich School of Technology and becomes involved in right-wing political groups.
1923 - On 8 November Himmler participates in an abortive attempt by Hitler and 600 armed members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) - the Brownshirts, Hitler's storm troopers - to seize power in Munich.
1925 - He joins the Nazi Party, acting as the party's propaganda director until the 1930 elections, when he wins a seat in the Reichstag (parliament).
1928 - Himmler marries Margarete in July. Their only child, Gudrun, is born on 8 August 1929.
1929 - He is appointed Reichsführer of the Schutz-Staffel (SS) - the Blackshirts, Hitler's elite bodyguard - on 6 January. He immediately begins expanding the SS. From a base of 300, membership swells to more than 50,000 in just three years.
1933 - The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor. Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote, Hitler persuades the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years.
Hitler is now the Führer, the dictator of the fascist Third Reich, an empire where the individual belongs to the state, and where the state is fully controlled by the Nazis.
All Nazis in prison are issued with full pardons. Critics of the government and the Nazi Party are subject to arrest. Special courts are established for the trial of political detainees. Regional governments are dissolved and then reconstituted with governors handpicked by Hitler. Leftist political parties are banned. Germany is declared a one-party state. Jews and leftists are purged from the bureaucracy. Trade unions are dissolved and replaced with Nazi organisations. Germany withdraws from the League of Nations.
A program of public works, rearmament and forced labour helps bring the economy under control. Inflation comes down, the currency is stabilised and full employment achieved.
Himmler is made commander of all German police units outside Prussia. Hermann Göring controls the Prussian units. Together with Göring, Himmler sets up concentration camps for the interment of opponents.
1934 - In April Himmler is made assistant chief of the Gestapo, the Prussian secret state police established and led by Göring. He plays a key role in the Night of the Long Knives massacre of rebellious leaders of the SA on the night of 30 June. With opposition from the SA removed, Himmler gives sweeping powers to the SS, enabling policing, security, intelligence gathering and espionage.
1936 - Himmler assumes full control of the Gestapo when all authority for the Prussian secret state police is transferred to him from Göring on 17 June. Himmler now has control of all the political and criminal police forces throughout the Third Reich, allowing the SS to infiltrate the regular police. He also controls concentration camps across all of Germany.
Meanwhile, the Nuremberg Laws introduced on 15 September 1935 strip Jews of the right to citizenship and restrict their relations with Gentiles.
1939 - On 30 January Hitler declares in the Reichstag that a new world war will lead to the "annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe". Initially the Nazis plan a mass deportation of Jews. Madagascar is selected as a possible destination. Later the plan will change.
Assessing the Madagascar option, Himmler writes, "However cruel and tragic ... this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people ... as un-German and impossible."
Poland is overrun within a month. Denmark and Norway fall in April 1940. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month. By the middle of June 1940 France has surrendered.
In October 1939 Himmler is appointed Reich commissar for the strengthening of German nationhood and given absolute authority in the newly annexed Polish territory. In these positions he oversees the dispossession and internment of Polish Jews and advocates the use of eugenics to breed an Aryan "master race" sired by SS men mated to "German women and girls of good blood".
Meanwhile in Germany, the physically handicapped, mentally ill, and others with so-called "worthless lives" are rounded up and sent to designated hospitals, where they are killed. Referred to by the Nazis as mercy killing and planned by Hitler's office and the Reich Interior Ministry, the "euthanasia" program claims up to 275,000 lives.
1940 - Beginning from 10 July, the Battle of Britain rages in the skies as the British Royal Air Force (RAF) desperately combats wave after wave of aerial attacks and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe while launching counteroffensive bombing missions into Germany.
Though outnumbered by four to one the RAF is able to inflict enough damage to the German forces to cause Hitler to suspend Operation Sealion, the proposed invasion of Britain by sea. By the end of September the Battle of Britain is effectively over. Germany has suffered its first major setback of the war.
1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. Himmler is appointed as chief administrator of the occupied Soviet territory and charged with the elimination of the Soviet communist system from the region. Mobile killing squads ('Einsatzgruppen') are assembled to follow behind the army and wage a "total war of destruction" against Soviet society and its Jewish communities. Between one and 1.5 million Jews are murdered.
On 16 December the Nazi ruler of Eastern Poland, Hans Frank, tells a gathering of senior army officers, SS and Nazis in Krakow, "With regards to the Jews I start from the assumption that they will disappear. They must go. But what should be done with the Jews?
"Do you believe they will really be accommodated in settlements in the East? In Berlin we were told, 'Liquidate them yourselves.' These Jews cannot all be shot but we have to take measures that will somehow succeed in extermination."
1942 - On 20 January the Nazis complete the planning for the Endlosung (Final Solution), the extermination of the Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents" in death camps run by the SS and controlled by the Gestapo. About six million European Jews die in the following Holocaust.
Speaking at meeting outside Berlin, SS officer Reinhard Heydrich says, "As a first step in the 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question, it is first of all planned to put the Jews to work in the East. This will already eliminate a large number through natural wastage. The remnant that will have to be dealt with appropriately."
Most (about 4.5 million) of those killed come from Poland and the Soviet Union. About 125,000 are German Jews.
The Holocaust also claims about 500,000 Gipsies, between 10,000 and 25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and six million other Slavic civilians, as many as four million Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.
By the end of the year knowledge of the Final Solution becomes an open secret among the general German community.
Himmler oversees the mass murder of Jews, communists and other opponents in the Ukraine. He organises the systematic exploitation and slaughter of millions of Jews in extermination camps in Poland. After fainting at the sight of 100 Jews being shot on the eastern front, he orders a "more humane means" of execution - the use of poison gas in specially constructed chambers disguised as shower rooms.
1943 - Himmler is made minister of the interior and plenipotentiary for Reich administration, giving him control of the courts and civil service. He expands the Waffen-SS (armed SS) until, with 35 divisions, it rivals the army. He gains control of the intelligence network, military armaments, the Volkssturm (People's Storm Troop), and later the Werwolf, a guerrilla force intended to continue the struggle after the war.
The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated by Soviet forces at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.
The Western Allies take Africa in 1943, land in Sicily and Italy, and prepare for the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.
In the skies over Germany the Allied air forces intensify their bombing raids. The strategy of indiscriminate area bombing kills an estimated 600,000 civilians, including about 75,000 children.
The Nazis call for "total war" against the Allies.
On 4 October 1943, in a speech given to SS group leaders in Pozan in Poland, Himmler publicly admits the reality of the Holocaust, saying, "I shall speak to you here with all frankness of a very serious subject. We shall now discuss it absolutely openly among ourselves; nevertheless we shall never speak of it in public. I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish race. It is one of those things that is easy to say. 'The Jewish race is to be exterminated,' says every party member. 'That's clear, it's part of our program, elimination of the Jews, extermination, right, we'll do it.'
"And then they all come along, the 80 million good Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course the others are swine, but this one is a first-class Jew. Of all those who talk like this, not one has watched, not one has stood up to it.
"Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet - apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness - to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard.
"This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written for we know how difficult we should have made it for ourselves, if - with the bombing raids, the burdens and the depravations of war - we still had Jews today in every town as secret saboteurs, agitators and trouble-mongers. We would now probably have reached the 1916-17 stage when Jews were still in the national body.
"We have taken from them what wealth they had. I have issued a strict order, which SS-Obergruppenführer Pohl has carried out, that this wealth should, as a matter of course, be handed over to the Reich without reserve.
"We had the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us.
"Altogether, however, we can say, that we have fulfilled this most difficult duty for the love of our people. And our spirit, our soul, our character has not suffered injury from it."
1944 - In July, following an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler, Himmler is made director of home front operations and chief of the German armed forces operating within Germany.
1945 - On 24 January Hitler appoints Himmler as commander of the German forces stationed in Pomerania, to the north of the main Soviet thrust. One week later, on 30 January, advanced Soviet troops reach the Oder River, less than 70 km away from the centre of Berlin.
Himmler is out of his depth as a battle commander and unable to prevent the Soviets from securing the north against a German counterattack. After little more than a month he resigns from the post.
By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on the German capital. The Soviets march under the slogan, "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind."
Few are spared. As the Soviets move through Germany they rape at least two million German women in an undisciplined advance that is now acknowledged as the largest case of mass rape in history.
By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Berlin is soon to become the "Reichssheiterhaufen" - the Reich's funeral pyre.
Acting in secret, Himmler begins a vain attempt to arrange a cease-fire on the Western Front with the Western Allies. When Hitler learns of the plot, Himmler is stripped of all offices and expelled from the Nazi Party.
Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker on 30 April as Soviet troops storm the capital. On 7 May Germany surrenders unconditionally.
Himmler attempts to flee but is captured by British troops near Bremen on 21 May. He suicides by taking poison on 23 May in Lüneburg, Germany.
His body is buried in an unmarked grave in nearby woods.
The Second World War officially ends on 2 September when Japan formally signs documents of unconditional surrender.
Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war. Worldwide, over 60 million have died.
Beginning in November 1945, 22 surviving Nazi leaders considered responsible for the crimes committed by Germany during the war are tried before an international military tribunal sitting in Nuremberg. Among those brought before the tribunal are Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer. Twelve of the accused are sentenced to death, seven receive prison sentences, and three are acquitted.
Following the high-profile Nuremberg trials, lower-ranking Nazi war criminals are also brought to justice.
2005 - On 10 May a national memorial to the Holocaust is opened in Berlin. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located near the Brandenburg Gate in the centre of the city. It includes a museum with exhibits on the Nazi's campaign to wipe out European Jews.
Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust. These days you might expect to find someone with Himmler's ambition, cunning and organisational abilities at the head of a bank, or global corporation, methodically extracting profits from the weak, the marginalised, and the dupes of the latest round of economic doublespeak. Of course, this person would, or perhaps does, have a locked desk drawer full of the most unutterable trash, and a psychotic obsession with preserving the power and privileges of his caste.
- Germany - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series
- Heinrich Himmler - The Nizkor Project
- Genocide Under the Nazis - BBC History
- Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State - PBS
- Germany: National Socialism and World War II - Eurodocs
- Second World War: From the archive - The Guardian
- Holocaust Educational Resource - The Nizkor Project
- Nazi and East German Propaganda Guide Page