Upwardly mobile couple
Stoddard Martin sifts through the Himmlers’ correspondence
A petty bourgeois element runs through the history of National Socialism, with counterpoint from its traditional obverse – the bohemian. Himmler came from suburban Munich and had the provincial’s suspicion of the uncleanness and un-Germanness of the metropolis – Berlin. His eventual wife and later a secretary by whom he had two illegitimate children both lived there, and his early letters to the former are seasoned with disparagements of it. She, Marga Boden, responded with pleas that he be not too hard on her home town, and in course of their courtship he softened his tone about a place soon to supplant Weimar as capital in a new Reich, whose erection he tirelessly worked for. Ironically the Bavarian bourgeois grew adjusted to radical Berlin just as his spouse was acculturating to the new life on the outskirts of Munich he offered, eventually transmuted into a comfortable villa by a lake in the foothills of the Alps. Marga turned out to be better-suited to this transit than at first appeared. Having described the most prominent of Berlin Nazis, Joseph Goebbels, as ‘a Jewish type’ – this mainly because of how he combed his hair – and her (Jewish) boss at the clinic that she worked in as not paying properly (money frets were a constant theme), she seemed in general to find other people antipathetic; thus what she got could be seen as a kind of liberation – a household far from the madding crowd, with fruit trees and vegetable patches to cultivate, a dog and a few sheep and goats to husband, as well as a variety of fowl.
The bucolic retreat was also an ideal pen for the bohemian bourgeois to herd his ‘little woman’ into, especially once she had bred him a child. It was an anchor for him as he pursued peripatetic activities on behalf of the new party, a homestead to long for and return to when away on what constituted – in political terms – increasingly eccentric, sometimes dangerous missions. In fact, after a supposedly dominant Jewish bourgeoisie, the group Himmler expressed himself most as despising was the petty bourgeois – more than ironic when you consider how dutifully he marked his parents’ birthdays and fests such as Christmas plus all that went with them, purchase and giving of gifts not least. At these observances the conventional chap never failed, even while keeping a frenetic pace of building up his ruthless movement and later the apparatus of one of the most monstrous modes of governance ever seen. Sitzfleisch in the common man clearly annoyed him. Promulgation of revolution was preferable to living peaceably in one place doing small offices as a professional or perhaps civil servant. Constant travel from one end of the land to another or more – Austria for the Bavarian was of as much interest as the Prusso-Baltic northeast – intoxicated him, and the petty bourgeois virtues of sobriety, exactitude, adherence to hierarchy and love of rule could readily be set to serve the party’s ‘bohemian’ ends. Above all loomed a Führer who, with quasi-religious doctrine set down in Mein Kampf and iterated from numberless speaking pulpits, enabled the little man to exult in perhaps the most urgent of all his petty bourgeois virtues: a worshipful loyalty.
Yet one always had to take care to make the ‘right’ choices. Himmler began in the party under the wing of fellow Bavarian Gregor Strasser. Strasser and his brother Otto were close to its helm through the ‘20s, near equals to Hitler, for whom Gregor sometimes deputized, and major contributors to its advance. With Goebbels, who was neither a South German nor an Ur-party member, the Strassers had developed left-of-centre policies to compete with dominant Social Democrats and Communists in the German electorate. When these policies were slung out at the start of the 1930s, it triggered signal events. Under new and opportunistic influences, Hitler summoned Otto Strasser to a tirade famously lasting four and a half hours, after which the younger Strasser stormed out of the party, declaring its ‘socialist’ aspect dead. His brother stayed loyal, declining in 1932 an invitation by President Hindenberg’s military associate Kurt von Schleicher to split the party by entering a coalition to solve the crisis brought on by the Depression. By then the party had grown attractive to folk with names prefaced with ‘von’, both landowning and industrialist. Goebbels as ever saw how the wind was blowing; Himmler, now trusted by Hitler for his organizational skills, evidently saw too. Flattered by invitations from these aristo new party members, not least to a hunt, the petty bourgeois also saw that his wife enjoyed taking tea with Gräfins from whom she did not have to fear being sullied by low human nature. In any case, Himmler recognized that loyalty could not be divided. So on the ‘Night of Long Knives’ he demonstrated his merit by liquidating not only the old style military man who had had the temerity to discuss splitting the party with the elder Strasser but also that hapless Strasser himself, who had committed the treason of allowing any such discussion to take place.
This history we are reminded of not by correspondence between Himmler and his wife, but by the commentary stitching it together, forming the volume into a kind of biography. Himmler does not burden Marga with details of his political activities, nor does she appear to want to know of them. She is concerned for his digestion, he that she gets sufficient sleep. She tells him about her garden and complains about the hired help; he sends her compotes and chocolates and informs her where and when his train or car is going to deliver him and what sort of rally or meeting he must attend. (Mention is made often of tea with ‘the boss’). Himmler had studied agronomy, thus is keen to share the latest research he has discovered or commissioned on the value of this herb or that kind of animal husbandry. These are among the few matters of substance of interest to both husband and wife, but Himmler does not go on to share the implications of various breakthroughs in cod-science that he will eventually apply to what he sees as the betterment of the human species. For Marga and their daughter he is ever and mainly the provider/protector, and for her this is proper and enough. She will feel neglected in time, not least after it becomes clear that she can have no more babies. But she will make no fuss with ‘Heini’, not fractiously, not even when he comes to have offspring by another. Frau Himmler remains Frau Himmler and wifehood her job, requiring its own front and loyalty. When asked at Nuremburg if she knew of Himmler’s second family, Marga’s response was that she assumed he had fathered more children, but not by whom or how many. ‘Lebensborne’, a policy he’d helped to create, enjoined healthy SS men to ‘haveth childers everywhere’[i]: a greater German world needed good Aryan stock, especially once its new territories had been cleared of lesser inhabitants. This Marga presumably came to regard as normal. Her deliberate ignoring of her husband’s bastards seems to be shared by his great-niece and her co-editor, who do not mention their fate in an epilogue which details that of Marga, her daughter and the Himmlers’ ‘step-son’ (they ‘adopted’ the child of a murdered SS man in the ‘30s) down to the present day.
It is difficult to have much sympathy for Marga Himmler. Like others privileged under Nazi rule – Winifred Wagner comes to mind – she failed throughout years of de-Nazification to show much remorse for or even recognition of the hideousness that went on, notably under her husband’s aegis. England had caused the War in her view, and Himmler’s efforts on behalf of the German people were uniformly heroic. This cost her. Her home by the lake with its chattels and heirlooms was not restored and she spent much of her postwar life under supervision in an unfamiliar part of northwest Germany. A negative personality, Marga may also have been a borderline depressive, whose original draw for Himmler had been superficial: blond hair, blue eyes – the theoretically perfect ‘master race’ breeding type. Such had a kind of fatal attraction for the often stumpy, dark-haired, Celtic south Germans: a fantastic, illusory ideal. The energy of Hitler’s criminal regime was of course driven by types unlike this – Goebbels, for instance, whom Marga imagined as ‘Jewish’. Thus the whole race clap-trap may be turned topsy-turvy. Yet the often slyly intelligent Himmler seems not only to have believed in it but to have pursued it with more system and efficiency than any other of the ‘bonzos’[ii], gaining credit and advancement and in the end allegedly more trust from the nation than other remaining early party leaders and pin-ups such as the buffoonish Hermann Göring.
It makes one wonder. Significant parts of this story remain untold, at least in the confines of endless billets-doux and sweet nothings in a grit-and-intelligence-free correspondence between husband and wife. What transpired in those equally endless meetings and conferences and teas with ‘the boss’ that Himmler neglected family life to get on with? In policy-making sessions of the petty bourgeois bohemians, what was the dynamic? How much of what was decided was made on the hoof, hepped up by blood-sugar rushes or abuse of caffeine? How much was late-night competitive brainstorming the font and origin of disastrous miscalculations leading to the death of tens of millions and whole nations crushed, including Der Heimat itself? What petty rivalries, behind-the-hand snickers, rolling of eyes, histrionics, rising voices and temper and trumping male swagger were likely to carry the day? In a regime born out of bohemian audacity who or what but the most outlandishly audacious ever wins? Thus the plague of ideas-men. Give us the boring, the gradual, the careful – even those scared of their shadow. Postwar Germany right up to the ultra-circumspect Frau Merkel fills the bill. The children and children’s children have, at least until now, ‘learned the lesson’. Whatever is next?
HEINRICH HIMMLER d’après sa correspondence avec sa femme, 1927-1945. Michael Wildt and Katrin Himmler, eds., traduit de allemande par Olivier Mannoni. Paris: Plon, 2014.
[i] The phrase comes from Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s contemporary (1939) bohemian bourgeois work of excess. It is one of various sobriquets for the ‘hero‘ Earwicker, whose initials are HCE.
[ii] Slang for ‘bosses‘. Their presence in Tegernsee and environs earned it the nickname ‘Lago di Bonzos‘.
Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher