Heinrich Himmler (October 7, 1900 - May 23, 1945) was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany; he led the SS and Gestapo and was put in charge of organising the mass extermination of Jews and others in extermination camps.

Born near Munich, Bavaria, Germany into a middle class family, he was the son of a Bavarian schoolmaster and attended Landshut High School. After graduating Himmler joined the 11th Bavarian Regiment, but he never saw any action. In 1918, after the war, he became active in the Freikorps, a private army of right-wing ex-German Army men resentful of Germany's loss of the war and committed to defending the borders against invasion from the Red Army and to attacking Communists and radicals within Germany. He then joined the extreme nationalist National Socialist German Worker's Party (NSDAP, also known as the Nazi Party) in 1923. He carried the Imperial German Battle Ensign in the Munich Putsch, the Party's failed attempt at a revolution.

Despite this failure and Hitler's subsequent prison sentence, Himmler was still a devout follower of Hitler, and had the long term job of organising Nazi Party propaganda. In 1928, after marrying and becoming a chicken farmer, Himmler joined the Sturm Abteilung, or SA, but a year later was promoted by the newly freed Hitler to lead his personal bodyguard, the Schutzstaffel or SS.

He managed to develop the SS into the strongest para-military organisation in the Third Reich. In 1929 when he was appointed to lead the SS it had only 280 members but by 1933 when the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany it had 52,000 members, even though Himmler reviewed each membership application to ensure that all members were of Hitler's "Aryan" "Herrenvolk" (i.e. master race). With Hitler's permission, the SS acquired vast police powers in Germany itself and the occupied territories and it also gained primary responsibilities in the areas of security, intelligence gathering, and espionage.

Himmler's army was not the largest Nazi military group in Germany, but was second only to the SA. Both Himmler, and another of Hitler's right hand men, Hermann Göring, agreed that the SA and its leader, Ernst Röhm were beginning to pose a threat to the German Army and the whole Nazi leadership of Germany itself. Röhm had strong socialist views and believed that although Hitler had successfully gained power in Germany, the 'real' revolution had not yet begun, leaving some Nazi leaders with the belief that Röhm was intent on using the SA to administer a coup. With some persuasion from Himmler and Göring, Hitler began to feel threatened by this prospect, and agreed that Röhm must die. He delegated the task of administering this death to Himmler and Göring, who, along with Reinhard Heydrich, Kurt Daluege and Walter Schellenberg, carried out the execution of Röhm and numerous other senior SA officials, in what became known as The Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934.

Hans Frank (right) hosts Heinrich Himmler during a visit to Krakow

Himmler now had total control over internal German military as the SS was now the principal force in the Reich. In 1936 Himmler gained yet more power as Hitler handed the control of Germany's secret police force, the Gestapo over to him. In 1940 Himmler slightly reorganised the SS and turned it into the Waffen-SS which by six months numbered over 150,000 men.

In the Second World War the SS's Totenkopf Units were given the task of organising and administering Germany's regime of concentration camps and eventually, extermination camps. The SS, through its intelligence arm the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) had to find Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and communists and any other culture or race deemed by the Nazis to be either Untermenschen (sub-human) or in opposition to his regime, and place them in concentration camps. Himmler now became one of the main architects of the Holocaust, using elements of mysticism and a fanatical belief in the racist Nazi ideology. By 1944 Himmler's SS numbered over 800,000, however, most of them were either in infantry or armoured units.

By 1944 Himmler was tasked to sorting out a dispute between the SD and the German military intelligence organisation, the Abwehr. Himmler resolved the issue by simply merging the Abwehr into the SD.

In late 1944, Himmler became commander of army group Oberrhein (Upper Rhine), which was fighting the oncoming United States 7th Army and French 1st Army in the Alsace region on the west bank of the Rhine. Himmler held this post until early 1945, when he was switched to command an army group facing the Red Army to the East. Himmler didn\'t have any experience as a field commander, and consequently wasn't particularly successful. General Heinz Guderian, who was in overall command of the eastern Front, speculated that the reason Himmler took on these commands was to gain glory for himself. Himmler lost faith in German victory, and came to the realization that if the Nazi regime was to have any chance of survival, it would need to seek peace with Britain and the United States. When Hitler discovered this and found Himmler attempting to make contact with the Allies, he ordered his arrest.

Attempting to evade arrest, Himmler disguised himself as a member of the Gendarmerie but was recognized and captured on May 22nd in Bremen, Germany, by a British Army unit. Himmler was scheduled to stand trial with other German leaders as a major war criminal at Nuremberg, but committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule before interrogation could begin.

See also: Report from Himmler to Hitler