Disturbing keepsakes of the most inhumane figures in history. By David Jacobs.
The title of this article is not without irony. Some readers might think of Springtime for Hitler, the intentionally absurd and preposterous Broadway musical at the heart of the classic film by Mel Brooks, The Producers. However, the words are also meant in their most literal sense. Among Nazi memorabilia there exist albums of photographs that once belonged to high Nazi officials. Such albums are visual records of the careers of these officials, as telling as any curriculum vitae, and contain more information than any mere list of “accomplishments” can. Found in the ruins of Berlin at the close of World War II, these and other such albums left Germany through channels both official and unofficial. What matters now, more than sixty-five years later, is not the story of their discovery and transport out of Germany but their ultimate fate. Some were acquired by repositories such as the Hoover Archives, where today they can be consulted by historians and other researchers, especially those interested in what might be called the psychic structure of the Nazi state.
Such items appear to have been of little or no interest to researchers immediately after World War II. Then, historians naturally had larger questions on their minds, not the least of which was the need to establish the broad outlines of what had transpired in such a vast and complex conflict. They sought to understand how such a mass horror as the Holocaust had been organized and implemented, and how the Nazi movement that perpetrated this horror had begun and taken hold in Germany. Their focus was on the usual criteria of who, what, when, where, and why. Personal effects such as the photo albums of Nazi officials were considered curiosities at best, trivial objects in the grander scheme of things.
These albums now no longer appear to be only minor trophies of war. The complexity of World War II and the Holocaust, and the enduring interest in the study of totalitarian societies, means historians and others continue to write on these subjects and may well do so indefinitely. There are always new facets, new pieces of the puzzle. Documents that reveal details about certain Nazi leaders also provide clues to the mental landscapes of such individuals, persons whose idiosyncrasies are now deemed worthy of study. The photo albums of Hitler’s associates—the extended Nazi family, as it were—now seem compelling rather than superfluous, illustrating more than the immediate scene or persons they depict.
The Hoover Archives has a small number of such photo albums: two that once belonged to Heinrich Himmler and another belonging to Julius Streicher, both among the most notorious figures in the higher echelons of the Third Reich. Filled with photos that were taken, selected, and arranged by personnel working for Himmler and Streicher, the albums have handmade covers, some with intricate designs, exemplifying what might be called the art of the Nazi book or album. They are odd relics, but the photos inside are more than just odd—they are informative.
THE POWER OF VISUAL ART
Both the Nazis and their Soviet counterparts developed sophisticated means to influence public opinion, and both totalitarian regimes made use of artists skilled in advanced techniques of cinema, design, and photomontage. The Hoover Archives has numerous examples of the art of the Nazi poster, instruments of propaganda intended to mobilize the German people first to vote for Hitler and then to support his plans for conquest and annihilation. A number of the posters illustrate the Nazi demonization of Jews as subhuman or else as all-powerful beings; in either case, they are shown as monsters or demons, as enemies worthy of persecution.
A content analysis of the photo albums of Himmler and Streicher is not as straightforward as the one for Nazi posters, but the albums’ “messages” are not recondite, either. What you see in Himmler and Streicher’s photos is the real deal: echt Nazis—the genuine articles, not those who joined later out of conformism or self-interest. Moreover, one sees little difference between the private Himmler or Streicher and their public or official personae. They seem to be Nazis on parade at all times, or at least fulltime bosses and wielders of authority.
Himmler hardly needs an introduction. As Reichsführer of the SS, Himmler was one of the Nazi chieftains, overseeing the entire security apparatus of the Third Reich, including the Gestapo, and one of the architects of the mass murder of Jews and others in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Himmler directed the infamous Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) whose troops killed as many Jews as they could by shooting, and who were relieved of this bloody task only when it was deemed more efficient, and less wearing on German troops, to instead use mobile gas vans, and finally, the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
In his collection of essays, Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide, British historian Michael Burleigh describes the “creed” of the SS as being one of “mindless obedience.” Himmler’s empire of punishment and death, as Burleigh records it, grew with the establishment of the concentration camp at Dachau in 1933 and culminated in the creation of “the massive complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the apogee of industrialised mass murder.” Himmler’s career in mass murder almost staggers belief, and there is perhaps no other Nazi official more closely identified with perpetrating the Holocaust.
Julius Streicher, much less well known, was also an important member of the Nazi hierarchy. A founding member of the Nazi party, Streicher participated in Hitler’s unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, and became an important propagandist and publisher of the newspaper Der Stürmer, which whipped up hatred for the Jews. Streicher’s anti-Semitic passion even led to his publishing three children’s books in which Jews are the villains. In reward for his service to Hitler and the movement, Streicher was made gauleiter of Franconia (a region of Bavaria). He remained one of Hitler’s few intimates until very nearly the end of the Third Reich.
Susan Sontag’s memorable article on the Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism,” provides a good entry point into the meanings that can be mined from an examination of evidence such as that provided by the albums. Sontag makes the seemingly obvious but important point that “in both fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and chorus.” She includes remarks by Nazi ideologue and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, in a passage worth quoting in full:
Politics is “the highest, most comprehensive art there is,” Goebbels said in 1933, “and we who shape modern German policy feel ourselves to be artists . . . the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.”
One can now turn to specific examples from the albums of such “artists” to see what they had in mind when Goebbels spoke of eliminating “the diseased” and creating “freedom for the healthy.” At the end, the reader should have a good idea of just what a “healthy” official of the Third Reich was, and what values he espoused among his family of fellow Nazis.
Three individuals depicted in one photo (facing page) were at the heart of the Hitlerian state, and among its key “artists” in the sense meant by Goebbels. In this picture from the larger of the two Himmler albums in the archives, these Nazi leaders are shown conversing in the middle of a street in Munich, on what was almost certainly the tenth anniversary of the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 that led to Hitler’s imprisonment and the ample free time he needed to pen Mein Kampf.
There is no caption for this photo, nor any information about what was being discussed by these three comrades in arms. But the names of the men who comprised this small group, and the date of their encounter, cast the photo in a cold light indeed. The figure on the left, Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA or the “brown shirts,” would be dead within a year, killed in the so-called Night of the Long Knives, an episode in which both Göring and Himmler played key roles. In this settling of accounts within the Nazi party, Himmler’s black-shirted SS eliminated one faction of the Nazi party at the behest of Hitler, who saw Röhm’s social radicalism as a threat to the Führer’s need to placate German industrialists and the army high command. Röhm and another SA leader, Gregor Strasser, were arrested on June 30, 1934. Strasser was executed by firing squad, and Richard Rhodes describes what happened next:
Röhm still lived. Hitler hesitated to order Röhm’s murder because the saber-scarred veteran had stood with the Führer in Munich in 1923. On Sunday Himmler and Göring convinced him to have Röhm killed, but he hoped his old fellow revolutionary could be coaxed into committing suicide. Himmler gave the assignment to Theodor Eicke, his commandant at Dachau. [Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death]
In the end, Röhm declined this offer of suicide and was shot by Eicke and one of his deputies. Indirectly but no less certainly, Röhm died at the hands of his former interlocutors in that Munich street.
The photo appears toward the back of the larger Himmler album, and is not part of any chronological sequence. One cannot be sure, but there is a sense that perhaps this photo reminded Himmler of one of the highlights of his career. One can imagine him as a Mafia capo reminiscing about rubbing out a rival mobster. After his faction was suppressed, Röhm was airbrushed out of history, much as Old Bolsheviks were in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s purges. So it seems probable that a deliberate choice was made by Himmler, or whoever created his album, to keep Röhm’s memory alive on this page, if only to gloat over his eradication.
VENEERS OF NORMALCY
Of course, there is a vast amount of evidence showing that Himmler and his peers were unusual, with peculiarities visible in ways large and small. As befits his importance in the history of the Nazis and the Holocaust, Himmler has been the subject of numerous monographs, including one on his early years by Bradley F. Smith, published by Hoover Press in 1971. Since then a good deal more has been published in English, including a massive 1990 biography by Peter Padfield. There is little in all these studies to revise the generally received portrait of Himmler the psychopath, the organizer of mass murder, and a man who pursued odd hobbies. However, some recent studies have added more detail and relief to this picture of Himmler. The deeper one looks, the stranger and more eccentric Himmler appears.
Throughout his two albums, for example, Himmler is shown in variety of uniforms, all of which were custom tailored according to his designs. It was Himmler the “artist” or costume designer who added details and flourishes to these uniforms. In a work of popular history, Sydney D. Kirkpatrick describes Himmler the couturier at work on an SS line of uniforms:
The highest honor an SS officer could receive was the “Blood Order,” or Deutscher Orden, a Nazi version of the decoration conferred upon the Teutonic Knights. The black and white colors of the brotherhood also became the official colors of the SS. The first SS uniform, after Hitler did away with the brown shirts worn by Hitler’s street thugs, was the Teutonic Knights’ black tunic and peaked cap. . . . “Never forget,” Himmler had told his officers, “we are a knightly order.” A recruiting poster, in wide circulation throughout Germany, had gone so far as to show the Führer dressed as a medieval Teutonic knight. [Sydney D. Kirkpatrick, Hitler’s Holy Relics]
A number of photos in the smaller Himmler album show him inspecting ruins, probably in connection with his obsession to prove what could never be proven: that the ideas about the “Aryans” that were so crucial to Nazi doctrine had some basis in historic fact. He also had a deep interest in the history of the German crusading knights who had first brought the cross and the sword to the Baltic region (Livonia, present-day Latvia and Estonia) in the twelfth century, eventually conquering the local tribes and ruling over them. He was also fascinated by esoteric matters that seem stranger than the ones treated in the fiction of Dan Brown. In a recent study on Himmler and his intellectual pursuits, Heather Pringle describes how Himmler chose a certain German castle as a fortress in which to house an academy of the SS:
He [Himmler] admired the architecture of the old castle: he considered himself something of a connoisseur in such matters, and he noticed that Wewelsburg possesses an unusual north-south orientation and a triangular-shaped footprint that he deemed a rarity. He immediately decided to lease the castle for the SS. Before long, ominous notices appeared on the sides of buildings in the sleepy little village that lay next to the fortress. They read: “Jew you have been recognized.” [Heather Pringle, The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust]
Pringle’s book relates the bizarre history of an organization created and directed by Himmler, the research institute known as the Ahnenerbe (as the author explains, an uncommon word meaning “something inherited from the forefathers”). What was “inherited,” in Himmler’s view, were the physical and cultural traits of the “Aryan race.” As Pringle shows, the problem of reality contradicting Nazi theories was not insuperable for Himmler. Ideas mattered much more than facts, and it is worth remembering the role that theory played in Nazi Germany and also in Stalin’s USSR, where charlatans like Trofim Lysenko and cultural commissars like Andrei Zhdanov enjoyed great prestige. Himmler’s mythomania knew no bounds, and the Ahnenerbe organized and funded research trips to, among other places, Crimea, Tibet, and Iraq.
As much as Hitler can be portrayed as the very embodiment of madness, his cronies and associates were perhaps even more unhinged. Himmler and his exotic pursuits point to a complex mixture of political ideas, prejudices, and mysticism that made up the potent and lethal brew—a Satansbräu, in fact—that fueled the Nazi movement.
And yet for all the oddities of their personal lives, there is the side of the Nazis that seems normal. Many Nazi officials came from the educated middle class of German society, and in his comments on the trial of Einsatzgruppen members in Nuremberg after the war, the British historian Gerald Reitlinger (author of The SS, Alibi of a Nation, a superb study of the SS) observed of the defendants that “the only common denominator was that nearly all had been to a university and the majority had achieved the doctorate so dear to the German middle class.” The idea of Nazi intellectuals may be troubling to some, but as has long been known, intellectuals rose to power in the systems of both fascism (meaning both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy) and the Leninist-Stalinist version of communism. Hitler and Stalin required the talents of writers, organizers, and, yes, artists to accomplish their ends.
Although Doctor Joseph Goebbels was the intellectual most closely associated with articulating Hitler’s aims and values, Himmler also took his status as a Nazi intellectual quite seriously, even if this trait was shown more often behind closed doors and castle walls, and in the presence of subordinates and staff, than in the public ceremonies and speeches in which Goebbels excelled.
CEMENTING A “MASS PSYCHOLOGY”
We may never be able to plumb the depths of the minds of a Himmler or a Streicher, and there are limits to what photos and other personal items can tell us. Psychological approaches to history have a forensic value, but psychoanalysis is a feat obviously difficult to perform on the dead.
Many people naively expect their villains to look like villains, and in the case of the henchmen of a Hitler or a Stalin, they imagine that mass murderers will look like monsters in addition to acting like ones. It is harder to accept that these too are human beings, and that therefore humans are capable of the atrocities that a Himmler or a Lavrenty Beria committed.
The photographs of Himmler before the Nazis took power show the inadequacy of portrait analysis, but paradoxically, also its value. If one did not know who Himmler was and what he looked like, the photo of him wearing a suit would suggest an individual who was a civil servant, perhaps a teacher. He looks nondescript, hardly a figure (or so we might think) who within just a few years would command such fear and commit such great violence. And if one did not know what the uniform was, the lower picture is scarcely more revealing. If we did not notice the armband with its hint of a swastika showing, the individual depicted might be a German scoutmaster.
And yet here is Himmler some seven years later, dressed in black on an inspection tour of Dachau, the first concentration camp built in Hitler’s Germany and one under the direct authority of the SS. Himmler is surrounded by his underlings, and his look and bearing certainly seem more sinister, but even this interpretation may be overly subjective and tainted by what we know about what came afterward. Appearances notwithstanding, it is hard to accuse the Nazis of much dissimulation. From the start, their program was unambiguous as to whom they hated, what they liked, and what they intended to do once they achieved power.
But intellectuals and officials alone could not ensure the success of the ambitious goals embodied in the Third Reich. The plans of Himmler and Streicher and the Nazi party could not have prospered without considerable popular support. They needed soldiers and bureaucrats willing to follow orders, and they needed sophisticated organizations and logistics to conduct killings and repression on such a large scale. Furthermore, a kind of “mass psychology” (in the words of Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud who published a book in 1945 titled The Mass Psychology of Fascism) had to be inculcated: a collective ethos of enthusiasm and hatred, and at least enough acclaim of, and obedience to, the Führer to allow Hitler to make his ideas become real. The photo albums are full of examples of adoration for the Nazis on the part of the German public.
The photos offer ample evidence of Sontag’s remark about “the drama of the leader and chorus.” In image after image, we see Himmler and Streicher surrounded by aides and a chorus of personnel, followers, and ordinary Germans. In the Streicher album, there are many depictions of Streicher’s loyal staff rendering homage to their boss, suggesting that the album itself was produced as a kind of yearbook for Streicher and the personnel working for him.
Both Himmler and Streicher came to miserable ends, with Himmler committing suicide after being captured by British forces at the end of the war, and Streicher being hanged after his conviction at the Nuremberg tribunal established to investigate and prosecute Nazi war crimes. Himmler in his last days desperately sought to cut a separate deal for himself and Germany, entering into negotiations with a Swedish count and haggling over the fate of those Jews remaining in the death camps of Auschwitz and elsewhere. For these maneuvers, which proved fruitless in terms of what Himmler thought they would achieve (namely, that his life would be spared), Hitler publicly accused him of “the ultimate betrayal.” In the end, the Reichsführer let down his own Führer, even though Himmler had been among his master’s most loyal accomplices. Streicher spent the last days of the war on a farm, having been accused by other Nazi officials of stealing public funds.
This kind of falling out among thieves and murderers may provoke a sense of satisfaction that two horrible individuals met the fates they deserved. The Himmler and Streicher albums may also strike some as bizarre and awful, belonging to an era that is definitively and thankfully over. However, leaders will always have their photo albums, and one can even wonder at present as to what those recovered from Muammar Gadhafi may reveal about him and his courtiers. All power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton famously said, and there may be many photo albums belonging to all kinds of rulers that illustrate “the drama of leader and chorus.” Of course, there is drama and there is horror, and the difference between the two should not be ignored. But while the likes of Himmler and Streicher may never be seen again, there is no guarantee that societies are now somehow fully inoculated against the strains of barbarism that earned the Nazis their reputation for evil.
David Jacobs is an archival specialist at the Hoover Institution Archives.
Special to the Hoover Digest.