Learning one’s family history can be an enlightening and liberating experience. However, it can also reveal many truths that some wish to remain hidden. So what happens when you discover that your grandfather, the younger brother of a key architect in the “Final Solution” was not as innocent as you have been led to believe? Well, that is what happened to Katrin Himmler, whose grandfather Ernst Himmler (1905-1945), was the younger brother of Schutzstaffel Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Himmler’s father had asked her to search the Federal Archives in Berlin for information on his father Ernst and what she discovered was a trove of information not just on her grandfather, but on her uncles Heinrich and Gebhard Himmler (1898-1982). What started out as simple research request, evolved into the family history contained within the pages of this eye-opening account of the Himmler story.
The book is not simply a collection of facts but rather a frank and beautifully written dicussion of the Himmler lineage, German politics and two world wars, both of which crippled Germany immensly. The second war proved to be even more destructive for Germany than the first. The Bavarian history in the Himmler family line is revisited and provides insight into daily life in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century. The Himmlers are neither wealthy or in poverty but rather live in a comfortable middle class existence until a world war changes their entire lives. The surrender of Germany in 1918, also referred to as the “stab in the back”, crippled the Germany economy, causing the Himmler family’s fortunes to take a stifling blow. For Gebhard, who served in the war, it was a turning point in his life and younger brothers Heinrich and Gebhard would emulate their older sibling in military service. And by the time Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) seized power in Germany, all three had become dedicated members of the Nazi Party.
If I had to quickly describe the book, I would say that it’s a biography of all three brothers. Katrin does a masterful job of recreating their intertwined lives and brings the past to life. The brothers take slightly different paths while finding purpose, love and the accomplishment of their dreams. Heinrich would emerge as the most notorious of the three, using his powerful position within the Reich to influence the lives of those closest to him in various ways. As World War II heated up, the Himmler brothers rose in importance within the Reich but only one would surive the conflict. And although each served in different capacities within the Reich, their allegiance to each other never wavers even in spite of trivial sibling rivalries. Their differences are writted of here with Heinrich seeming to do most of the writng and griping.
The rise of National Socialism in Germany is well-document. Heinrich became fanatical in his adoration for Hitler. His brothers however, do not come across as fanatical in the book. In fact, there are hardly any “radical” statements from Ernst at all. And while he certainly did join the Nazi party, there is no record of atrocities on his part as he was a communcations specialist and focused on radio transmissions. But as part of the Reich, he certainly would have fallen into allied hands. His demise at the end of the war is still a mystery as exlained by his granddaughter. It is undoubtedly one of the many unexplained events of the second world war.
While the Nazi party and World War II are some of the interesting parts of the book, the personal lives of each are also explored to show readers the personal struggles and successes of each. Marriage, children and even infidelity all have their part. Class differences and opposing views on religion also factor in the story as each Himmler brother finds the woman they eventually marry. For one brother however, one wife was not enough. And the resolution to the predicament enlightened me on a topic which I was not aware of previously. Those who are interested in further reading might want to look up the term Sippengemeinschaft which translate into “Clan Community” in English. As to how many of these communities existed in Nazi Germany during the war, is anyone’s guess.
I should note that Hitler himself only appears a few times in the story, mainly as a passing reference. Further, the book does not focus on how and why Germany lost the war. Readers in search of a full and thorough discussion will find that in William L. Shirer’s best selling classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. However, each brother did play a critical role in Reich functions to varying degrees with Heinrich standing out for obvious reasons. The collapse of Germany became clear months before Berlin fell but up to the end, the brothers were quite busy in and around Berlin. In fact, the author examines correspondence between Ernst and Heinrich that makes one wonder if they really believed that Germany would come away unscathed. To describe the letter as surreal would be an understatement and even our author is perplexed as the conversation contained within the letter.
When it became apparent that all hope was lost, each brother made their attempt to flee Berlin. Their final moments in war are detailed here by their descendant Katrin Himmler. Gebhard’s plight after being captured by Allied forces is also included as well as his life post-war. The children of the former officials are also discussed but I should point out that as I write this post, Gudrun Himmler is deceased, having died on May 24, 2018. Children of other Nazi leaders are still alive, well in advanced years. Some of their stories can be found in the very interesting My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders-An Intimate History of Damage and Denial, in which several explain the effect the war has had on their lives. On a side note, Gudrun Himmler never renounced her father and remained committed to his image and beliefs throughout her life.
At the end of the book, a photo collection is included to match faces with the names in the story. And as I viewed the photos, I could not help to think of how an idyllic Germany family of its time would later be polarized and decimated by extreme ideology and world conflict. But such is the power of propaganda. This is the Himmler Brothers’ story as told by descendant Katrin Himmler. Highly recommended.