The historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase ‘banality of evil’ in her study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the men appointed by SS boss Heinrich Himmler to carry out the Final Solution. Eichmann seemed ‘ordinary’ and unoriginal, rather like a bland civil servant, yet his dedicated attention to bureaucratic detail helped in the efficient murder of millions of people.
It is now clear that the same phrase could also be applied to Himmler himself. News has emerged from Germany that the lost office diaries of the Nazi SS chief have been discovered in a Russian archive. Himmler’s service diaries for the years 1938, 1943 and 1944 were discovered in the archive of the Russian Ministry of Defence in Podolsk, near Moscow.
Astonishingly, they had been placed there and then forgotten about after being seized by the Russian Red Army in the last days of the Second World War. Filed under the single word ‘Dnewnik’ (meaning ‘Diary’ in Russian), there are apparently more than 1,000 pages of entries in the diaries. Historians are particularly interested in the diaries for 1943 and 1944, two crucial years when Hitler’s Germany was at war and the Nazi state was engaged in systematic mass murder in the territories it had conquered, and on a scale never seen before.
As many historians know, used carefully, diaries – whether personal or just everyday work ‘service’ ones – can be invaluable primary sources. Thus, researchers from the German Historical Institute in Moscow have spent months sifting through the Himmler diaries, and extracts have now been published for the first time in the German newspaper Bild. The British press also carried some detailed coverage of the diaries on August 2nd.
The service diaries reveal a level of detail about Himmler’s everyday routine that arguably provide some genuine insights into the life he had carved out as head of the SS and architect of the Holocaust. His average working day often found him concerned about what he was going to have for lunch or where he would eat, or with when he would find time to ring his wife and daughter (the diaries have frequent references to ‘Puppi’, his nickname for his daughter Gudrun); at the same time, he recorded details about the regular execution orders he issued and the increasingly frequent meetings he had with Hitler, especially in 1943 and 1944, the highpoint of the Holocaust.
His diaries also show that he engaged in rather incongruous activities in the evenings, such as watching a film, or playing cards, or gazing at the stars, while taking a close bureaucratic interest in the Nazi institutional machine’s industrial-scale murder during the day. There are also more obscure references in his diaries to him being ‘in transit’, which historians suggest was a code for him secretly visiting his mistress, Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had a long affair.
The journalist who helped track down the diaries for Bild, Damian Imoehl, commented to one British newspaper: ‘The most interesting thing for me is this combination of doting father and cold-bloodied killer. He was very careful about his wife and daughter, as well as his affair with his secretary. He takes care of his comrades and friends. Then there is the man of horror. One day he starts with breakfast and a massage from his personal doctor, then he rings up his wife and daughter in the south of Germany and, after that, he decides to have ten men killed or visits a concentration camp’.
The head of the German Institute in Moscow, Nikolaus Katzer, explained to the British media that the authenticity of the Himmler diaries had been verified by checking them with other records and service diaries, and he commented: ‘The importance of these documents is that we get a better structural understanding of the last phase of the war. It provides insight into the changing role of Himmler and insight into the SS elite, and overall into the entire German leadership’.
It’s all very chilling, of course, but it remains vital for scholars to continue to analyse such material if we are to better understand the nature of the individuals who carried out such horrific crimes.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University