Himmler's Last Days
Being aware of the impending German defeat, Himmler tried to approach the Allies: Hungarian Jews would be released from KZs in exchange for allied trucks. In November 1944 he permitted the transfer of several hundred KZ prisoners to Sweden, ordered the end of the mass murder of Jews, and proposed surrender on the western front whilst continuing to fight in the East.
From 23 January 1945 Himmler had resided at the private nursing home of his medical adviser, Prof Dr Karl Gebhardt in Hohenlychen, 100 km north of Berlin.
Advised by SS-General Walter Schellenberg and encouraged by his masseur, Felix Kersten, Himmler tried to take up peace negotiations with the Allies (behind Hitler's back) via Count Folke Bernadotte, deputy chief of the Swedish Red Cross, who was mainly interested in obtaining concessions for Scandinavians in German KZs. On 22 April 1945 he met the Count in Hohenlychen, and again on 23/24 April in Lübeck. As a result 20,000 KZ prisoners were released and brought to Sweden.
On 26 April Himmler moved to Schwerin, 100 km east of Hamburg, together with his staff and some of his escort battalion. There he was near Admiral Karl Dönitz, the Commander-in Chief of the German Navy, and the most powerful man in north-west Germany in those days.
Meanwhile Himmler's negotiations had become known and after a related BBC broadcast on 28 April Hitler deprived him of all offices and ordered Himmler's arrest. On 29 April the Commander-in-Chief of the German Air Force, General Ritter von Greim, fled from embattled Berlin to Dönitz's new headquarters in Plön (60 km north of Hamburg), and handed over the arrest order. Dönitz had no power over Himmler and had even established his own bodyguard, consisting of submariners, instead of SS guards.
On 30 April Dönitz'was appointed Head of State following Hitler's suicide on the afternoon of that day. He told Himmler that he could not join the new government. Dönitz didn't like Himmler and his unwanted SS staff in his HQ and finally said to him:
"Anybody who is a traitor once, is ready to betray a second time."
On 6 May Himmler received a written order dismissing him from all offices. From that moment on Himmler was no longer Commander-in-Chief of the German Reserve Army, Chief of Police, and Reichsführer-SS. The newly appointed Minister of the Interior, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, advised Himmler "to drive straight to Montgomery's HQ and say that you are Heinrich Himmler and that you want to take full responsibility for everything the SS has done."
From 6 or 7 until 11 May 1945 Himmler and 5 attendants stayed at a farm near Satrup. Himmler decided to go to Bavaria, joined by a few SS-officers and perhaps 7 NCOs:
-His personal assistant Dr Rudolf Brandt,
-probably SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Prof Dr Karl Gebhardt, chief SS surgeon and Himmler's personal medical adviser,
-probably SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei Otto Ohlendorf, chief of the RSHA Department III,
-SS-Sturmbannführer Josef Kiermayer, his personal aide and secretary,
-SS-Obersturmbannführer Werner Grothmann,
-SS-Sturmbannführer Heinz Macher,
-and probably 10 other SS men.
They removed all insignia from their uniforms and placed false documents in their pockets in the expectation that these would prove that they were recently released NCOs of the Geheime Feldpolizei. They did not know that even NCOs of this organization were also on the Allied Wanted List ("Immediate Arrest" category). Himmler’s papers identified him as "Ex-Sergeant Heinrich Hitzinger of a Special Armoured Company, attached to the Secret Field Police, demobilized on 3 May 1945".
On 10 May the group left Dönitz's final HQ in Flensburg and drove southwards in 4 large cars. On 11 May the group appeared in Delve, a small village a few kilometres southeast of Friedrichstadt on the Eider River. On 12 May they probably abandoned their cars in Marne, and decided to continue their way on foot, towards the Elbe River. In the evening they found a fisherman who ferried them (allegedly for 500 RM) from Brunsbüttel across the Elbe River to Neuhaus, a small town at the mouth of the Oste River, at the south bank of the Elbe River. During the following 5 days the group slowly moved southwards. On their way they merged into the background as this area, already under British control, was teeming with German troops of all services.
From this point there are different possibilities re Himmler's route:
1. Farmhouse Waldstraße
On 18 May the group reached Bremervörde where they planned to cross the Oste River. They may have intended to walk through the sparsely inhabited countryside around the small town of Bremervörde, between Hamburg and Bremen. This provided the only possibility of avoiding the densely populated areas around Hamburg and Lübeck on their way southward.
From 18-22 May the group stayed at a farmhouse on Waldstraße, without telling the owner their true identity. From here Kiermayer investigated the situation at the guarded Oste River Bridge, not knowing that the group could have easily crossed the river via an unguarded ford some metres upstream. Twice he demanded passes from the district administration in Bremervörde but Landrat Dohrmann refused.
When Kiermayer returned to the farmhouse and reported on the situation, the men decided to divide the group. The bulk would try to pass the British check-point at the bridge first. At 3 p.m. Kiermayer and Dr Gebhardt set off for the bridge. They intended to come back if there were no problems. One hour later they arrived at the check-point where they were stopped and taken to Sergeant Ken Baisbrown, a member of the Intelligence Corps, and on duty at the mill of Wilhelm Lohse, which served as an office. The British gave the men the impression that everything was in order, and they were sent back with 2 British Army lorries and an escort to bring in the rest of their "sick comrades" (most of whom were purportedly sick policemen on their way to Munich, supervised by Dr Gebhardt, who spoke English). Meanwhile Baisbrown went to the nearby office of the 1003 Field Security Reserve Detachment and told Staff-Sergeant John Hogg about these two suspicious men who allegedly belonged to the Secret Field Police GFP (Geheime Feldpolizei), in itself a reason for automatic arrest.
After a while Gebhardt returned to the check-point, but without Himmler and two others. Sergeant Arthur Britton detected that all their documents bore the same GFP stamp, dated after 1 May 1945. In addition, some members initially denied being part of the group although Dr Gebhardt claimed that the whole party was in his care. Therefore the men were segregated. Britton and Baisbrown grilled the youngest and after a short time he admitted that the GFP stamp was in fact an SD headquarters stamp and that the men belonged together. At 6 p.m. the men were arrested and brought to the Civil Internment Camp in Westertimke near Zeven. Together with Dr Gebhardt, Hogg drove back to the farmhouse, since some of the arrested had expressed concern about three other sick members of their group. Meanwhile Himmler and his two companions had left the farmhouse.
Now British intelligence personnel had been alerted that three more SD-sponsored policemen were on their way to an unknown destination. Because the others obviously had no problems in crossing the check-point, Himmler, Grothmann, and Macher hid for a further day before trying it themselves. On 22 May, walking on Bremervörde's main road toward the check-point, they were stopped by a patrol and brought to the office besides the mill. Arthur Britton received them at about 5 p.m. They showed their documents but the British were aware that they were forgeries. Corporal Richard Forrest searched their belongings, then they were probably brought to a British office at Dohrmann's bakery, a house on Bahnhofstraße in Bremervörde, for interrogation. Afterwards they were arrested at the mill. Himmler and his two companions spent the night on the first floor of the mill, sleeping on the grain (official report).
2. Himmler and his two companions were captured on 21 May by 3 Russians (who were assigned to a British post at the River Oste) in Meinstedt (20 kilometres south of Bremervörde, 2 km northeast of Zeven). Then they were brought to Bremervörde where they spent the night in the mill.
3. From Bremervörde the men went 6 km southward to the next bridge over the Oste River, located in Minstedt. 2.5 km south of Minstedt the POW Camp "Stalag XB" was located. This camp was liberated by the British Army on 29 April 1945. The British opened the gate and the fence so that the POWs could leave the camp. Therefore hundreds of Russian and Polish POWs crossed out the region in April, May, and June 1945. Some of them might have joined the British troops to look out for their former SS camp guards or soldiers. The British post, reinforced by a tank, could have been deployed on one of the hills near the river, together with the already mentioned 3 Russians, assigned to the post. The British brought Himmler and his companions to Bremervörde.
Be that as it may, Himmler was taken to the Civil Internment Camp in Westertimke.
At about 7 a.m. next morning, the three GFP suspects were duly driven by Arthur Britton and two guards in a 15 cwt truck to Westertimke for initial processing, a journey of some 30 km. En route, a stop was made at Zeven to report the arrest of three SD men to Captain Excell at 45 Field Security Section HQ. Sergeant Britton was told to continue to Westertimke cage for registration.
The trio spent the greater part of the day - Wednesday 23 May 1945 - being moved about by British Army transport. During the afternoon, a trip was made (probably via Fallingbostel on Lüneburg Heath) to 031 Civil Interrogation Camp which had just moved to Kolkhagen Camp on the western side of the village of Barnstedt, south of Lüneburg. At 6:30 p.m. on 23 May 1945 "Sergeant Hitzinger" and his escorts were booked into 031 CIC Barnstedt. At this time ex-Gauleiter of Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann, a more moderate Nazi, was watching new arrivals from the inner compound of Kolkhagen Camp. He noted an odd figure in military boots and breeches and a civilian jacket and saw him go behind a bush, remove an eye patch, and reappear putting on glasses - he was immediately recognizable as Himmler, whom Kaufmann had met. This must have been the moment when Himmler decided to admit his identity.
At about 7:00 p.m., the camp commandant, Captain Thomas Selvester, was informed that three prisoners were insisting on seeing him, in itself an unusual request. Himmler had presumably re-disguised himself for effect, for when he appeared before the camp commandant, he was again wearing the eye patch.
Selvester thus described the scene: "The first man to enter my office was small, ill-looking and shabbily dressed, but he was immediately followed by two other men (Grothmann and Macher), both of whom were tall and soldierly-looking, one slim, and one well-built. The well-built man walked with a limp. I sensed something unusual, and ordered one of my sergeants to place the two men in close custody, and not to allow anyone to speak to them without my authority. They were then removed from my office, whereupon the small man, who was wearing a patch over his left eye, removed the patch and put on a pair of spectacles. His identity was at once obvious, and he said "Heinrich Himmler" in a very quiet voice."
Captain Selvester immediately informed HQ British Second Army at Lüneburg and Major Rice, an Intelligence staff officer, arrived at 7:30 p.m. to confirm Himmler's identity. The German was asked to sign his name and this was compared with a signature Major Rice had brought with him. The next step was a body search:
"This I carried out personally," said Captain Selvester, "handing each item of clothing as it was removed to my sergeant, who re-examined it. In his jacket I found a small brass case, similar to a cartridge case, which contained a small glass phial. I recognized it for what it was, but asked Himmler what it contained, and he said, 'that is my medicine. It cures stomach cramp.' I also found a similar brass case, but without the phial, and came to the conclusion that the phial was hidden somewhere on the prisoner's person. When all Himmler's clothing had been removed and searched, all the orifices of his body were searched, also his hair combed and any likely hiding place examined, but no trace of the phial was found. At this stage he was not asked to open his mouth, as I considered that if the phial was hidden in his mouth and we tried to remove it, it might precipitate some action that would be regretted. I did however send for thick bread and cheese sandwiches and tea, which I offered to Himmler, hoping that I would see if he removed anything from his mouth. I watched him closely, whilst he was eating, but did not notice anything unusual."
On 23 May Himmler was taken to the Security Force Headquarters at Ülzener Straße 31a in Lüneburg.
He had to undress himself and was inspected by the military doctor, Captain C. J. Wells, accompanied by Colonel Michael Murphy (Secret Service), Major Norman Whittaker, and Company Sergeant Major Edwin Austin.
When the doctor saw a dark object in a gap in Himmler's lower jaw, he ordered him to come closer to the light and tried to remove the glass capsule.
Suddenly Himmler bit on the cyanide capsule and at the doctor's fingers. Himmler fell to the ground (or: he was thrown to the ground) and someone shouted "The bastard's beat us!" The smell of prussic acid spread through the room. "We immediately upended the old bastard and got his mouth into the bowl of water which was there to wash the poison out", noted Major Whittaker in his diary. "There were terrible groans and grunts coming from the swine." Himmler's tongue was secured in an attempt to prevent him from swallowing the poison. Dr Wells tried resuscitation but it was in vain. After a quarter hour they stopped. "... it was a losing battle and this evil thing breathed its last at 23:14 hours." (Winston G. Ramsey: Himmler's Suicide. in: After the Battle No 14, London 15th August 1976, p. 35)
On 15 August 1940 Grothmann was assigned as 2nd adjutant of the Waffen-SS to Himmler's personal staff. On 1 April 1942 assigned as chief adjutant of Himmler. Promoted SS-Sturmbannführer on 1 June 1943.
Grothmann joined Himmler during his last days. He was captured together with him and Heinz Macher on 21 or 22 May 1945.
He talked with John Toland twice in 1971, and said about Himmler that he was a coward to choose the easiest way to avoid the culpability of the SS, and others had been left with the responsibility for the young soldiers and professionals. He stated:
"I said to Himmler that it was his responsibility to inform the Allies that the Waffen-SS and the guards in the KZs were different organizations, and he couldn´t leave the rest of the organization in the easy way that the others can't take (i.e. suicide)."
Grothmann and Macher were not present during Himmler´s interrogation.
After WW2 Grothmann was tried in 1962. Finally he worked as a businessman in Western Germany. He died in 2003.
Witte Peter, Wildt Michael, Pohl Dieter and others, eds. Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42, Hans Christians Verlag, Hamburg, 1999
At least one death mask of Himmler was taken. On 25 May an autopsy was conducted, the teeth configuration compared, and the brain and part of his skeleton removed.
In the early morning of 26 May, four men (Whittaker, Austin, Weston, and Ottery) brought Himmler's corpse to a forest near Lüneburg and buried it.
AFTER THE BATTLE Magazine. Issue No 14/1976, and 17/1977.
Uwe Ruprecht: Das Grab im Wald
Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Selkirk Panton was a Daily Express journalist who covered Berlin, like Louis Lochner and William Shirer, for twelve years. His papers are in the National Library of
Jonathan Glancey examines the theory that Himmler cheated death in The Strange Death of Heinrich Himmler
Saturday March 3, 2001
Did Martin Bormann, Hitler's secretary, live to a ripe old age somewhere in South America?
And what about Himmler? Is it just possible that the scrawny middle-aged man in glasses who committed suicide at the British camp at at Lüneburg after capture that same month was in fact a stand-in for the feared SS Reichsführer? That Himmler himself - who as late as May 5 had claimed that he, for one, "would never commit suicide" - had somehow slipped out of the Fatherland and set out on some not-so-vainglorious quest to set up a secret Fourth Reich?
Well, maybe. Possibly. Perhaps. Anything is possible, after all, in the breathless aftermath of world war. Certain physical details of the dead man at Lüneburg do seem different from Himmler's: you can see them in the studious photos reproduced in this book. One nostril is larger than the other, whereas Himmler's were symmetrical. The corpse doesn't appear to sport a duelling scar, which means that unless the dead man was wearing make-up (popular among senior Nazis), he wasn't the son born to Anna and Dr Gebhard Himmler on October 7 1900.
Hugh Thomas is "a surgeon and forensic expert of international repute", says the blurb to this dense, fascinating yet ultimately bothersome book. "His first book, The Murder of Rudolf Hess , caused a worldwide furore. His second, Hess: A Tale of Two Murders precipitated a six-month Scotland Yard inquiry that saw its report immediately suppressed." Thomas does have a scalpel-sharp eye for detail - as you would hope of a man of his profession. He also writes well when he allows himself to get beyond the weight of the obsessive detail that bogs parts of this book down like one of Panzer General Guderian's tanks attempting to advance on Moscow in December 1941. It was Guderian who commented that Himmler was "a man from another planet".
The central thesis of Thomas's book - and the evidence for it is vivid - is that Himmler was attempting to set up a Fourth Reich outside the boundaries of Hitler's Germany. Quite aware that Germany had effectively lost the war as early as 1943, Thomas's Himmler set about channelling the Croesan riches amassed by the SS and pro-Nazi German finance and industry into Swiss and South American bank accounts. An FBI/OSS report of November 1944, written by Senator Harley M Kilgore and backed by the US Treasury and State departments, noted: "The German aggressors have begun to pursue the strategy which they found successful a quarter of a century ago. They are already deploying their economic wares throughout the world in preparation for a third attempt at world domination." Which, of course, appeared to happen from the 1950s, when the Federal Republic's "economic miracle" astounded the nations that had borne the brunt of the fighting against Hitler, Himmler and the rest of their vile crew.
Thomas piles up a massively detailed case suggesting that Nazi money exported to safe financial havens in the late stages of the second world war was, to a previously underplayed extent, responsible for Germany's rise to economic power in the decade following Hitler's downfall. Well, maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. To his credit, Thomas uses these defusing words frequently in a book that might otherwise overstretch the imagination and, in turn, credit Himmler with too much intelligence and insight.
His portrait of Himmler is, in fact, the best part of SS-1, which suffers from being three books in one. There's an excellent mini-biography of Himmler, a Byzantine analysis of the links between Nazi and international finance during the war, and a forensic examination of the corpse that may or may not have been that of the Reichsführer.
The description of Himmler's childhood and youth is compelling. This "man of quiet, unemotional gestures, a man without words" was fastidious and possessed of a phenomenal memory; he kept a daily diary recording everything that happened to him. He put these skills to chilling use when he began to wipe out Europe's Jews and gypsies, communists and homosexuals. Everything the SS did was planned and recorded fastidiously. No one escaped the Reichsführer's eyes, beady behind those infamous rimless glasses. Everyone needed to be watched, especially Paula Stolzle, his elder brother's pretty and flirtatious fiancée. Disapproving of sexy women, shortly before he joined the Nazi party the puritanical young Himmler employed a private detective to follow Stolzle; he made the couple's lives so fraught that the engagement was called off.
Himmler went on to become a lot creepier and a lot more dangerous, although he did marry, losing his virginity at the age of 28 to a nurse seven years his senior who thought those rimless glasses - she persuaded him to wear them - rather fetching. It's just this sort of near-forensic detail that makes Thomas's book worthwhile. Quick as a Blitzkrieg, this bloodless young man is Reichsführer SS (in 1929, aged 28). The title SS-1 refers to Himmler's position as head of the Schutz Staffel; it was also the licence plate of his BMW staff car. According to Josef Göbbels, "except for Hitler, no one is entirely without fear of Himmler".
No one? German business certainly appears to have gone along with him. So too did business interests in Washington, London and Zurich. If there had been some shady Allied agreement to allow Himmler to escape the wrath of the Nuremberg trials and set up shop elsewhere while pretending that he had committed suicide, then it had surely been abandoned by May 1945. Himmler, the SS and German big business may well have been in cahoots with elements in Wall Street and the City of London; Britain's royal family, with its shareholding in German companies, was also that bit too close to him (Prince Christopher Mountbatten, says Thomas, was on Himmler's staff). Yet ultimately the SS Reichsführer was surely too ghastly to be acceptable to the international business and banking community.
It's true that the British dug up the corpse for reidentification, and it's true that several members of British intelligence, Kim Philby among them, were not immediately convinced that Himmler was dead. Yet if he weren't, we would surely have heard something about it by now.