The Struggle for Power Under Tyrannical Leaders: The Fight for Second-in-Command in Nazi Germany, Part 2

written by Stephen Wrubel '21
edited by Alyssa Pascoe '21 & Nicole Stark '22

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 Two:
Hermann Goering

If one can summarize Hermann Goering’s lifestyle in one word, the first term that comes to mind would be, “grandiose.” And it was in this fashion that Goering lived out his life until the end—while the Third Reich and much of the world sank to its knees with the utmost destruction and devastation. From the emergence of Nazi Germany in 1933 to its lofty climax with control over most of the European continent in 1942, until its defeat by the Allies in 1945, Goering exploited the continent with his lavish and extravagant lifestyle up until his very last moment. It was with his ostentatious style and his excessive wealth that Goering did as he pleased, destroying the continent while quarreling with his contemporaries for power under Adolf Hitler.

Hermann Wilhelm Goering was born in Bavaria on January 12, 1893. Descending from a prominent line of bureaucrats and jurists bordering on the aristocracy, Goering’s father, a soldier under Bismarck, raised his son with the utmost nationalistic sentiments and deepest patriotic feelings for Germany.[1] Always focused on the military, leadership, and power, he spent much of his childhood leisure time playing with military caps and swords, while always envisioning himself as the winner.[2] Goering’s all-triumphant attitude developed at an early age, only to manifest itself into his only way of life—a life that could never acknowledge defeat, even when it was truly over.

Goering met Hitler in 1922 and they instantly connected, with Hitler giving Goering the leadership of the Sturmabteilung (S.A.).[3] After the Putsch of 1923 when the Nazi party was outlawed and its leaders were imprisoned or exiled, Goering, who was exiled in Bavaria, took a step back from public life and lived in poverty, sickly from his injury in the Putsch.[4] However, this state was only that of an “interim Goering,” who was waiting for the day when he would once again emerge to triumph victoriously.

Goering received his chance to reclimb the ladder of prestige in 1928 when he secured a spot on the party-list for Nazis in the Reichstag.[5] However, Goering was envious and constantly quarreling with other prominent Nazi officials from the beginning. Ernst Roehm, who was an early opponent of Goering, was afraid that Goering would take away his position as head of the S.A., which Roehm had received from Hitler when the Nazi party came back into the limelight. However, his most serious opponent was still to come—Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS.

Goering and Himmler first became closely acquainted around the Roehm Purge in 1934 they collaborated to assassinate Roehm and disbanded the S.A.[6] However, this was the end of their collaboration, and they soon would be doing everything in their power to outdo the other and gain prestige in Hitler’s eyes.

Until 1934, the Gestapo was solely under Goering’s control. Goering founded the Gestapo in Prussia as a replacement for the original secret police.[7] Goering used the Gestapo “to arrest and murder opponents of the regime,” instilling terror throughout the Reich [8] However, Hitler soon replaced Goering with Himmler and the Gestapo began to function under the direction of the S.S. as a department within the organization. As time moved on, Goering and Himmler continued to clash, especially as Hitler continued to relieve Goering of his position holdings because of their own disagreements. At every opportunity, Goering and Himmler attempted to undermine the other’s authority as well as gain on the other’s prestige. Such was a battle that went on ever so quietly without Hitler’s knowledge and intervention.

To the end, even in his cell in Nuremberg, Goering was quite vocal of his disdain for Himmler. Gustave Gilbert, the American psychologist for the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, quotes Goering in his Nuremberg Diary:

If I had taken over, I would have gotten rid of Bormann and Himmler; Bormann in five minutes, but Himmler would have taken a little longer—a few weeks maybe.

You see, Bormann was a nobody who supported the Führer. And nobody else. But Himmler was too powerful to get rid of at once.[9]

No one liked Bormann and his extreme power in Hitler’s inner circles; though, his power was limited to influencing Hitler. However, it was Himmler who had a free hand in so many aspects of the daily functions and operations in the Reich, and this is all Goering wanted—even with all his prestige and wealth, he was still not satisfied.

As the end of the Reich drew near in 1945, Goering remained loyal to Hitler. Despite many disagreements with Hitler and failure to secure the Luftwaffe’s superiority, Goering continued to obey his orders.[10]Goering and Hitler parted for the last time on Hitler’s birthday on April 20, 1945, when Goering set out for safety from the approaching Soviets and Hitler retreated to the bunker. On April 23, Goering sent a telegram to the bunker in Berlin that as per Hitler’s decree of June 29, 1941, which named Goering as the successor to Hitler, he would assume command of the Reich if he did not receive a reply by 10:00 that night.[11] Upon receiving this news, Hitler flew into a fury, denounced Goering, stripped him of all authority, and ordered him to resign or be shot.[12] Bormann, in defiance of Hitler, had Goering arrested by the S.S.[13]On May 7, 1945, Goering, now released from S.S. hands, made his way to an American convoy and surrendered to the Allies.[14]

Tried at Nuremberg and found guilty on all counts, Goering was sentenced to hanging. However, he cheated the executioner and all those who wished to make him pay for his horrific deeds on this earth. On the night of October 14-15, 1946, Hermann Goering committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule that was smuggled into his cell.

Even at the gates of death, Goering could never give in.

[1] Richard Overy, Goering: The Iron Man (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), 5.

[2] David Irving, Göring: A Biography (New York: William Morrow, 1989), 32.

[3] Richard Overy, Goering: The Iron Man, 8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 280.

[8] Ibid.

[9] G. N. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (Boston: De Capo, 1974), 107.

[10] Ian Kershaw, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany 1944-1945 (New York: Penguin, 2011), 399.

[11] William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1116.

[12] Ibid., 1118.

[13] Ibid.

[14] David Irving, Göring: A Biography, 465.