The Struggle for Power Under Tyrannical Leaders: The Fight for Second-in-Command in Nazi Germany, Part 1

written by Stephen Wrubel '21
edited by Denise Bates '21 & Joe Cataliotti '21

Throughout history, ordinary people have struggled to climb the ranks of life’s stations to reach an ultimate position of authority and power over other human beings. Some individuals rose from the shackles of slavery, destitution, or lack of education to the highest ranks imaginable. The thirst for power knows no bounds and nothing will stop many passionate individuals from achieving their goals. Though with limited positions available for leaders, many will come to realize that they may never reach this high plateau of status, and they may then have to settle for a second-best option. It is this second-best option that many compete and fight for, far much more than “first place.” Such was the case in the Third Reich where a select few notorious individuals struggled and clashed ever so ever intensely to fill the position of second-in-command (and possible successor) to the even more notorious Adolf Hitler.

This three-part series will briefly analyze the power contest surrounding three of Nazi Germany’s most powerful figures—Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, and Martin Bormann—henchmen, who directly reported to Hitler, spent much time in his private company, and at one point or another was named his successor in some capacity. Each of these individuals was personally responsible for the tyranny of the Third Reich and the horrific atrocities that sprang from this regime. They did not “just follow orders.” They executed orders to obtain authority and ultimate power.

Part One:
Heinrich Himmler

An overambitious ego and fanatical quest for power are unlikely to appear at a spontaneous moment in a person’s life. Such zeal to be in control typically develops at an early age, and Heinrich Himmler was no exception to this rule. Himmler was born in Munich on October 7, 1900. Like many other youngsters of any era, anything and everything related to combat and the military enthralled him.[1] When World War One swept across Europe and Himmler had an opportunity to visit wounded soldiers at the front, he excitedly penned journal entries and sketches of what he saw on the battlefields.[2] Though Himmler was quite typical for a boy his age, these memories etched a deep mark within him, and unlike most, he would not only become a military man but a powerful figure, one who used military might and brutality to silence others.

After enlisting in the 11th Infantry Regiment in December 1917, Himmler finally had the opportunity to experience the military, and he was ever so determined to prove himself as a capable military man.[3] However, he never experienced any action at the front and was quite disturbed by this lack of opportunity and engagement.[4] Though, it would not be long before he would rise from these shortcomings, catch the attention of powerful individuals, and triumph over his opponents.

Himmler had already become radically politicalized by the early 1920s, with his diaries constantly referencing the “Jewish Question.”[5] By 1922, he decided that he would never become a military figure and that a career in politics was more within reach.[6] It is with this ambition that he became acquainted with Adolf Hitler. In November 1923, Himmler took part in the “Beer Hall Putsch,” that, with its unsuccessfulness, temporally dampened the growing power of the NSDAP. However, he caught the eyes of a few powerful individuals, and in 1924, Himmler began work under Gregor Strasser, where he was able to finetune his political and racial ideologies and develop a close relationship with the Nazi leadership.[7]

Now, with access to the top, there was nothing to prevent him from climbing the ranks. In 1928, Himmler’s positions grew from dealing with agricultural issues in Lower Bavaria to Reich Propaganda Chief when Strasser was appointed head of the Reich Party Organization.[8] In this capacity, Himmler published propaganda articles and arranged party meetings. In September 1927, he was appointed Deputy Reichsführer-SS, making him responsible for protecting meetings and the party leaders.[9] Himmler’s prestige grew. When Hitler relieved Erhard Heiden of the top post in 1929, Himmler assumed leadership as Reichsführer-SS.[10] With this promotion, Himmler had secured an ultra-prestigious and influential position—uncontested—with direct access to the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and he now had mostly unrestricted leeway to what he was permitted to execute from this position of power. However, for Himmler, this was insufficient for his ego and inadequate for his self-determined potential. Over the next sixteen years, Himmler would combat every obstacle that would obstruct him from being named the sole successor to Adolf Hitler.

However, Himmler’s path during the next decade-and-a-half was paved with many challenges, and he was not the only one with his eyes set on power and the position of the successor to Hitler. Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments, illustrates the situation in his memoir, Inside the Third Reich, quite plainly:

Quite early there were struggles for position among Goebbels, Goering, Rosenberg, Ley, Himmler, Ribbentrop, and Hess.[11]

Hess would disappear from Germany in flight to England in 1941. Rosenberg, Ribbentrop, and Ley would fade from Hitler’s presence as major spectacles. Goebbels would settle down close to Hitler and would remain content as Minister of Propaganda. However, Goering would remain a threat to Himmler until the very end. After the “Rohm Purge,” Himmler took control of what remained of the S.A., and Goering would always be jealous of his success in power. This rivalry was ever more evident between the two after April 1934 when Goering was required to renounce his position, making Himmler the head of the Prussian Secret Police, and the Gestapo began to function under the S.S. and Himmler’s direct control.[12]

As the Nazis took power in 1933, Hitler gave Himmler the green light to do as he pleased.[13] Yet, even with all his endless growing power and reach of authority, Himmler was still unsatisfied. Himmler wanted it all, and all meant to succeed Adolf Hitler, which was assigned to Herman Goering. Himmler toiled immensely and beyond the reasonable measures of other Nazi leaders to acquire this post. All through the years of the Third Reich, he did everything in his power and ability to gain favor in Hitler’s eyes. After the August 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, Himmler let some of the plotters remain alive in case there would be a peace treaty with the Allies and he would succeed Hitler as the ruler.[14] This was not the first time Himmler had thought about a peace treaty with the Allies and the possibility that he would lead the Reich.[15] And if he did not have enough power already, Hitler expanded his role and gave him more authority than before, including appointing Himmler as Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army.

As the war dwindled and the Soviets edged closer to Berlin, Himmler made a few attempts to contact the Allies including Eisenhower in pursuit of peace.[16] In April 1945, Hitler, deep in his bunker in Berlin, was informed of Himmler’s “treachery” and ordered his arrest, stripping him of all authority.[17] Though Admiral Karl Donitz was named as Hitler’s successor (Goering had been stripped of his power as well), Himmler still offered aid as second-in-command of the future regime.[18] Himmler never gave up in his quest for power.

On May 11, a disguised Himmler and his adjutants fled for safety as the Allies closed in from all directions.[19] Now stripped of all power from Hitler and with no chance at any collaboration with other Nazis, Himmler, like many other Nazi leaders, attempted to disappear into society. On May 21, Himmler and his staff were stopped at a Soviet checkpoint near Bremervorde.[20] Finally, on May 23, 1945, Heinrich Himmler bit down into a concealed cyanide capsule while under interrogation by the British, dying instantly.

[1] Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler, trans. Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 81.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Ibid., 59

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid., 81.

[8] Ibid., 91.

[9] Ibid., 110

[10] Ibid., 113.

[11] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (New York: Ishi Press

International, 2009), 97.

[12] William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 270.

[13] Ibid., 275.

[14] Ibid., 1073.

[15] Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler, 707.

[16] Ibid., 733.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 735.

[20] Ibid., 736.