Portrait of a Husband, Father and Genocidal Butcher

Heading the SS didn’t excuse Heinrich Himmler from his fatherly duties.

Michael Atkinson October 2, 2014

Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler with his daughter, Gudrun. (Photo courtesy of producer via Realworks)

The Decent One, Vanes­sa Lapa’s new doc about über-Nazi Hein­rich Himm­ler, had a sim­ple pre­cip­i­tant: a cache of per­son­al let­ters, diaries and pho­tos from the Himm­ler fam­i­ly, long secret­ed in pri­vate col­lec­tions in Israel and recent­ly brought to light. The com­pul­sion to plumb this mate­r­i­al is under­stand­able and lies at the cen­ter of Lapa’s film: How did human jug­ger­nauts like Himm­ler ger­mi­nate? How did they accom­mo­date the appar­ent con­tra­dic­tions between devot­ed fam­i­ly life and geno­cide? What could their inner life have been like?

How did human juggernauts like Himmler germinate? How did they accommodate the apparent contradictions between devoted family life and genocide? What could their inner life have been like?

Himm­ler, one of the half-dozen most famous and his­tori­cized fig­ures of the Third Reich, a man bear­ing much if not most of the respon­si­bil­i­ty for killing some 11 mil­lion civil­ians, was also just a fel­low, a father and hus­band, a some­what dwee­by, old-fash­ioned Ger­man cit­i­zen with a chip on his shoul­der and a pen­chant for patri­ot­ic ire. How could a man so ordi­nary and even typ­i­cal have wreaked so much malev­o­lent destruction?

It’s the lin­ger­ing ques­tion of the Nazi lega­cy, and one that’s prob­a­bly unan­swer­able, which doesn’t mean we will ever stop ask­ing. In the Ken Burns mode, The Decent One (the title refers to Himmler’s belief in him­self ) uses moun­tains of archival footage of Himm­ler and Ger­many while the let­ters and diaries are read aloud by actors. The upshot is essen­tial­ly an oral his­to­ry of Himmler’s pri­vate life. We fol­low him through child­hood and ado­les­cence, when already he’s grous­ing about Russ­ian ver­min” and how much his class­mates dis­like him. The more we hear Himmler’s words and see his pouty mug in footage, the more he comes across as the nerdi­est of the Nazi über-mon­sters, and his career as the revenge of the bul­lied, bespec­ta­cled fusspot.

Cer­tain­ly, he nev­er need­ed Hitler to instill in him a hatred for Jews and a han­ker­ing for racial puri­ty. He ris­es in the Par­ty, mar­ries, exchanges mushy and even racy let­ters with his wife, Mar­garete, and dotes on his daugh­ter, Gudrun, at one point admon­ish­ing the 11-year-old, in 1941, to be kind,” around the same time he was con­struct­ing con­cen­tra­tion camps. This is exact­ly the kind of head-slap­ping dis­junc­ture Lapa focus­es on, giv­ing the film a strange, almost dis­so­cia­tive air. The vast amounts of his­to­ry Himm­ler was mak­ing — run­ning the SS, fight­ing the war, arrang­ing the Final Solu­tion, plot­ting to expand Germany’s bor­ders deep into Rus­sia — are left out, because no one wrote in detail about these things in let­ters. Instead, while mil­lions die off-screen, Papa Himm­ler canoo­dles and coos.

At first, Lapa’s lack of edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing and her deci­sion to not mud­dy the Himm­ler family’s point of view with oppos­ing voic­es seem trou­bling. A dement­ed neo-Nazi today could watch The Decent One and find it rous­ing, pow­er­ful and full of truth. That is, until some­where in the mid­dle, when Lapa’s mon­tage jux­ta­po­si­tions begin to sat­u­rate with irony. A let­ter fea­tur­ing an anti-homo­sex­u­al dia­tribe is read over hilar­i­ous imagery of shirt­less Nazi hunks exer­cis­ing, while triv­ial fam­i­ly cor­re­spon­dence cir­ca 1942 gets paired with footage of mass exe­cu­tions and bur­ial. The con­dem­na­tion is sealed, how­ev­er sub­tly, when the Himm­ler family’s joy over gifts found” by the Reichs­führer-SS is illus­trat­ed with film of plun­dered Jew­ish suit­cas­es, their own­ers sent to the camps Himm­ler him­self designed.

In the end, Himm­ler remains nec­es­sar­i­ly a mys­tery. Whether there is much to gain from con­sid­er­ing the domes­tic bliss of geno­ci­dal butch­ers is an open ques­tion; all we know for sure is that they find ways to live with them­selves, and those ways look from the out­side like mad­ness. These two oppos­ing modes of liv­ing, at this extreme, don’t match up for us in any coher­ent way.

Which is just anoth­er way of say­ing that the Nazi project remains, and will like­ly always be, too huge and too mind-bog­gling­ly awful to cohere” with what we think of as nor­mal life. But, one won­ders, what about at less extreme lev­els? Should we be hav­ing the same deco­her­ence about lead­ers, such as many U.S. pres­i­dents, who have killed mere­ly hun­dreds of thou­sands, or tens of thou­sands, in the process of self-serv­ing aggression?

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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