In “The Decent One,” Heinrich Himmler: Dedicated family man

In her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial more than 50 years ago, writer Hannah Arendt referred to the “banality of evil” as the crushing ordinariness of everyday life while atrocities of unprecedented proportion are not only going on all around you, but you are actively perpetrating them.

I have no doubt that her pointing to this troubling disconnect in our thinking processes helped guide a generation of (mostly) young protesters toward opposing the Vietnam War. Not even a full generation after the end of World War II, when we thought the global community had said “Never again!” here were our own leaders, in the U.S. and other countries, doing what disturbingly looked like pretty much the same thing.

It is that very ordinariness that film director Vanessa Lapa addresses in her new documentary The Decent One that focuses on the life of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS and among Adolf Hitler’s innermost circle of loyalists. Himmler headed the Gestapo and ruthlessly pursued any perceived enemy of the Third Reich, showing mercy to few. He was one of the principal designers of death camps, working closely with scientists and administrators to ensure that his beloved German officers and soldiers could be spared the headache of having to personally execute Jews and other undesirables in mass killings. That’s where gas came in so handy.

Using all archival footage without questionable “reenactments,” but with some added sound (running motors, explosions, music), Lapa surveys the early, not particularly distinguished life of her subject, gradually revealing how infected he was (banally, of course, along with millions of others, and not just in Germany) by the casual anti-Semitism and muscular, militaristic masculinity that defined Aryan ideology. In relatively short time, Himmler rose in the Nazi hierarchy owing to his efficiency and effectiveness as his responsibilities increased.

Where Lapa uses original film work, it is to pan over the hundreds of diaries and letters that Himmler and his family exchanged over the course of some 20 years – mostly with his wife Marga and daughter Gudrun – while voiceovers relate the banalities of love and courtship, parenting, sibling relationships, work routines and vacations, holiday plans and gifts. All bathed in a wash of tender embraces and kisses from “Heini.”

The story of where this cache of documents came from remains somewhat mysterious. It is surmised that at the end of the war, some Allied soldiers, acting against orders, appropriated Himmler’s personal effects from his home in Gmund, and sold them. (Himmler committed suicide on May 23, 1945, with a cyanide capsule shortly after being captured in the final days of the war.) Eventually the papers wound up in Tel Aviv, where they languished untouched for years.

Finally Lapa’s father purchased the collection for the purpose of allowing this film to be made. Paired with film clips from 151 different sources, both family and institutional, the resulting 94-minute documentary, a 2014 Israel/Austria/Germany production, in German with English subtitles, is grippingly eerie.

Himmler personified Nazi doctrine in his abhorrence of weakness and homosexuality, his petty bourgeois standards for gender roles (submissive wife, obedient children), his hatred for Jews and Communists. (Viewers will hear a brief clip of “The Internationale” accompanying the scene of a Berlin street rally.) Above all, he loved his German nation, fantasized about the impeccable Aryan morality of the race-pure medieval commonwealth, and wholly identified with the mystical cleansing role the German nation was ordered by history to play in the world.

For someone as punctilious as Himmler, he does show his personal lapses. Disturbed that his (older) wife had given him only one child, when the ruling ideology was to build up the nation with a much higher birthrate than that, Himmler takes on a mistress, by whom he has another two children. And toward the end, after Stalingrad, after the inexorable retreat back home, German cities being bombed into submission, Himmler is still writing upbeat letters reflecting blithe certainty that his side will win.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Lapa’s film certainly does not “humanize” Himmler in his frankly unremarkable family devotion, but only points up how unrecognizable he is as the man who could at one and the same time be one of the great masterminds of Nazism. Is he truly a freak of nature, a moral Frankenstein? Or is he simply opaque to us, like the strangler or serial killer – or bankster or corporate rapist of the Earth – who, it turns out, lives next door, or even in our own house?

Among the memorabilia my Dad nabbed in the course of his service in the Counterintelligence Corps were a few telegrams sent to a regional Gauleiter by leading Nazi officials, congratulating him on the birth of his new son. They were of scant historical significance and I wondered what to do with them. Eventually I turned them over to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as examples of precisely the kind of “banality” to which these criminally misguided individuals were allowed to rise.

Through it all, Himmler indulges in self-congratulation, emphasizing at every turn how well his officers treat animals, even the “subhuman” ones. Even their plan for a Final Solution of the Jewish Question was in their minds a generous act of decency on behalf of the Aryan nation and the future of the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I squirmed with discomfort and shame for the cognitively dissonant human race at more than one point in the film.

As Himmler writes home from Warsaw, Riga, Lemberg and other cities where he’s traveled to supervise the war, all I could think of was the Kurt Weill song “What did the soldier’s wife receive?” (“Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?”), written in 1943 to a poem by Bertolt Brecht. From Prague she received high-heeled shoes, from Oslo a little fur piece, from Amsterdam a fine Dutch hat, lace from Belgium, a silken gown from Paris, an embroidered smock from Bucharest. And from vast Russia? The soldier’s wife received the widow’s veil.

This haunting film, now in theaters, recently won the best documentary award at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Photo: Image from The Decent One.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.