As a young man, he was convinced that nobody liked him. But by the time he was in his early 20s Heinrich Himmler had become the Chief Sycophant of the most popular man in Germany: Adolf Hitler. There he was, always at Hitler’s right elbow and just a step behind. You might say he was Hitler’s Dick Cheney. And he no longer craved affection. What he was after was respect.
In a stunning new documentary by writer/director Vanessa Lapa and the Israeli Film Council, the history of Germany’s rise and fall is told through the eyes of Himmler, as recorded in his private diaries, letters, documents, and photographs. The film is called The Decent One.
Heinrich Himmler was born in 1900 to a Royal Bavarian teacher who apparently had enough clout to be able to invite an unnamed Royal Highness to be his son’s godfather. And Heinrich, as a young boy, recorded that the Princes Heinrich and Arnulf had come to tea.
Too young to participate in the First World War, he spent his time playing piano, collecting stamps, and deploying his toy soldiers to assuage his dismay that he couldn’t “join the brawl.”
Still a student at war’s end, he entered Munich University and wrote, “I study because it is my duty.” He also noted in his diary “I never reveal my troubled thoughts and my struggling soul,” and ruminated on the fact that “People don’t like me because I talk too much. Because I am such a chatterbox I have a terrible feeling of dissatisfaction and disgust. I can never shut my mouth. I am thoughtless and immature. When will I get a grip on myself? If only there was a war again! If only I could put my life on the line. It would be a pleasure.”
In 1922 he wrote “The young, undisciplined generation is a serious threat to Germany,” and the following year he joined the Nazi party. “It is an act of selflessness serving a great idea, a great cause,” he wrote.
By 1924 he was writing, “I had an inhuman amount of work today—I had to lead and restructure all of Lower Bavaria.”
In 1927 he met Margarete Boden on a train. She was seven years older than he, but they married the following year, even after he explained his philosophy of love. “A woman is loved by a real man in three ways,” he said. “As a beloved child that one must argue with, or even punish; as a wife who shares your struggles without shackling you; and as a goddess whose feet one must kiss.”
The following year they had a daughter, Gudrun, and because Himmler believed that “a good, racially pure nation that is short of children is doomed to extinction, and a nation that has many children has the benefit of world power and world domination,” they adopted a foster child, Gerhard von der Ahe.
Meanwhile Himmler was rising up the ranks. He became the head of the SS, the Police Commissioner, and the Minister of the Interior. He built and managed the first concentration camp, at Dachau, and then was responsible for building and managing all the concentration and extermination camps and forming the country’s death squads. As Chief of Police for all Germany he also ensured that half a million citizens were convicted in German courts. That included some 5,000 Communists and “other Social Democrat nuisances.”
In the decade between 1929 and 1939 he built the SS from 300 “mercenaries fighting for liberty” to an elite paramilitary unit of 250,000, and was given the job of Settlement Commissioner.
“How the Russians feel, how the Czechs feel, does not concern me at all,” he wrote. “Whether other nations live in prosperity or die from hunger interests me only insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture.”
As for the Jews, he decreed, “Out of the 10 million Jews living in Europe, two to three million should be sterilized and kept alive for labor.”
Most of the still photographs are from Himmler’s personal archives, but the grainy war footage was collected from sources around the world. The film ends with soldiers clearing out the piles of bodies from Auschwitz and a row of skeletal men waiting to be liberated. And then Himmler, who by this time had committed suicide, is heard saying, “I think you know that I am not a bloodthirsty man, and not someone who takes pleasure in difficult duties. But on the other hand, I have such strong nerves and such a great sense of duty that when I recognize something as being essential I execute it without compromise.”
But the last word belongs to Hitler. “We can have but one desire as to what is said about us,” he declared. “These German officers, these German soldiers, these German generals—they were Decent.”
This extraordinary film, The Decent One, opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Theaters on October 10th.
Photo by Kino Lorber