Katrin Himmler knew about great-uncle Heinrich, the Nazi chief, but then she unearthed dark truths about ‘innocent’ relatives ...
The Sunday Times
July 8, 2007
Yes, I’m related to that Himmler
By Peter Millar
For teenage girls to be embarrassed by older members of their family is nothing new. For 15-year-old Katrin, however, it was an experience in another league when her surname suddenly struck one of her classmates during a history lesson.
“Are you related to the Himmler?” she asked.
When Katrin managed to stammer out “Yes”, the rest of the class, until then bored rigid by the new curriculum’s endless detailing of Nazi atrocities, turned round as one and stared at her.
“It was that time in the early Eighties when educational policy was to hammer in the evils of Nazism to a generation that felt remote from it. Everyone knew it was terrible but they were all bored. Suddenly the real-isation that I was Heinrich Himmler’s great-niece brought it home to them,” she recalls.
Geneticists today will tell us that given the spread and proliferation of humanity there is a fair possibility that most of us have a distant relationship with Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan or even Vlad the Impaler.
But it is considerably more complicated to be only two generations removed from a man who, originally considered by the rest of the family to be a sickly child, good at organisation but with no more ambition than to run a small farm, ended up one of the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century.
Katrin was not born until 1967, 22 years after Himmler and his brother Ernst, her grandfather, died in the Nazi Armageddon of May 1945, although Ernst’s family did not know for sure that he was dead until seven years later.
As a child growing up in prosperous West Germany Katrin learnt about Nazism, the war and the horrors of the concentration camps like the rest of her generation, but she could feel no real link to a terrible era that came to a close two decades before her birth.
She has only the vaguest of memories of her other great-uncle, Gebhard, the oldest of the three brothers, who survived the war, fought to regain his pension rights as a civil servant and wrote occasional poetry and a small book of memoirs that made no mention of Adolf Hitler.
It was only in 1997, after she had gone on to study political science in Berlin, that her father asked her to do some research in the federal archives in Koblenz about the career of his own father Ernst, the “baby” of the Himmler family.
Katrin was not sure what he hoped she would find. “I think he and his sib-lings wanted to know what really happened, whether or not his father had had any involvement with Heinrich. There were things they probably suspected and rather hoped might not have been true.”
Great-uncle Gebhard had presented himself as never succumbing to Nazi ideology, made no mention of ever joining the party and privately protested outrage at Hitler for having led Germany astray, describing his brother Heinrich as a “dangerous romantic” who, because of his oath of loyalty, failed to turn away from the Führer in time.
The younger brother Ernst, it was generally accepted in the family though never discussed, had travelled a similar route, being primarily just a broadcasting technician. The family actually had a primitive television to watch the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
So there was a clear line between “Heinrich the Terrible” and “Ernst the Unpolitical”. The truth, Katrin soon found out, only half to her surprise, was very different: both Gebhard and Ernst had been convinced Nazis all along and had joined the SS, which Heinrich headed, not so much because he forced them into it but because they saw the family link as a fast track to promotion and more money.
Gebhard had even stood alongside Heinrich and Hitler in the abortive beer hall putsch of 1923. Ernst’s engineering skills in broadcasting had brought him into close contact with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief. In 1944 he readily gave his brother Heinrich a dismissive report on a “nonracially pure” employee knowing it was almost certainly a death sentence.
Katrin’s father and his sisters had heard enough: but having scraped away the veneer that had grown over her family’s history, she was determined to unearth the rest of it. The Himmler Brothers, which took nine years to research and write and is just about to be published in Britain by Macmillan, has been acclaimed in Germany, a country now engaged on the next stage of assimilation of its history.
But not all of her relatives – even those of her own generation – are so willing to cope with its contents head-on. Katrin’s sister belongs to those who had so much of it “drilled into us at school” that they prefer simply not to think about it.
Heinrich Himmler’s daughter Gudrun, his legitimate offspring with wife Marga, declined to cooperate with the book. The other two children, a son and daughter by his devoted mistress Hedwig, found anonymity when she married after 1945, and have clung to it.
Katrin’s own looks come from her grandmother’s side of the family, for which she is grateful. Above all, she is fortunate not to have her great-uncle Heinrich’s eyes, their hooded lids squinting from behind thick glasses in every family photograph.
But perhaps it is hindsight that today makes us discern in them the essence of evil. “He was apparently just incredibly myopic,” she says.
Nonetheless it remains one of the most sinister aspects of Himmler’s dark legend that he was, in essence, primarily a bookkeeper, a bureaucratic administrator whose inventory happened to be death.
It is part of the creeping discomfort in reading her book to realise the incredibly ordinary middle-class background of these three sons of a rather pompous provincial headmaster and to see how, right until the end, Gebhard was almost able to convince himself it hadn’t happened like it had.
It has fascinated Katrin Himmler as a historian to disentangle what was not so much a web of lies as a series of overlapping veils drawn by negligence with the truth. She sees a need, particularly in Germany, to extract as much as possible from the now ageing generation who played no part in the war but were traumatised by it as children.
Her father has told her stories of how in the aftermath of the war he and his sisters, still young children, were spat at in the street as “Nazi scum”, often he suspects by people whose own wartime records would not have borne close investigation.
It is that generation to which Hel-mut Kohl, the chancellor who presided over reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, belonged. Kohl himself faced down outrage when he suggested that although Germany could never forget the Holocaust, nor be forgiven for it, it was not something for which successive generations should forever have to feel a sense of personal guilt.
If you’re called Himmler, of course, and related to Heinrich, it can be harder still to get a hearing. Katrin, a slim, vivacious 39-year-old excited by her first visit to London, has had interviewers – notably Jewish ones – ask her, “How can you profit from that name?”, and even more confrontation-ally, “How can you be a happy human being?”
She has easy answers to both. “Himmler is simply my name and like many modern women I still use it even though I am married.” Her husband Dani is part of the other answer: he is an Israeli-born Jew whose family only just managed to escape being sent to Auschwitz.
They are separated, but for personal reasons nothing to do with either’s family history. He lives nearby in Berlin and they happily share custody of their eight-year-old son – Heinrich Himmler’s half-Jewish great-great nephew.
Occasionally she has asked herself how she will one day explain to him that one half of his family systematically attempted to annihilate the other half. But then that is the work of the true historian: to reconcile the present with the past, no matter how uncomfortable.