Heinrich Luitpold Himmler (7 October 1900 – 23 May 1945) was Reichsfuhrer of the SS, a military commander, and a leading member of the Nazi Party. As Chief of the German Police and the Minister of the Interior from 1943, Himmler oversaw all internal and external police and security forces, including the Gestapo (Secret State Police). Serving as Reichsführer and, later, as Commander of the Replacement (Home) Army and General Plenipotentiary for the entire Reich’s administration (Generalbevollmächtigter für die Verwaltung), Himmler was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and one of the persons most directly responsible for the Holocaust.
By the winter of 1944–45, Himmler′s Waffen-SS numbered some 910,000 members, with the Allgemeine-SS (at least on paper) claiming a membership of nearly two million. By early 1945 Himmler had lost faith in German victory, likely due, in part, to his discussions with his masseur Felix Kersten and with Walter Schellenberg, realizing that, if the Nazi regime were to survive in any form, it needed to seek peace with Britain and the U.S. By the middle of April 1945 he had come to believe that Hitler had effectively incapacitated himself from governing by remaining in Berlin to personally lead the defence of the capital against the Soviets. To this end, he contacted Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden whilst at Lübeck, near the Danish border, representing himself as the provisional leader of Germany, telling Bernadotte that Hitler would almost certainly be dead within two days. He asked Bernadotte to tell General Dwight Eisenhower that Germany wished to surrender to the West. hoping the British and Americans would fight the Soviets alongside the remains of the Wehrmacht. At Bernadotte’s request, Himmler put his offer in writing. On April 21, 1945, Himmler met with Norbert Masur, a Swedish representative of the World Jewish Congress, in Berlin, for a discussion concerning the release of Jewish concentration camp inmates. During the meeting, Himmler stated that he wanted to “bury the hatchet” with the Jews. Being aware of the impending German defeat, Himmler had previously tried to approach the Allies with the proposal that Hungarian Jews would be released from KZs in exchange for allied trucks. In November 1944 he permitted the transfer of several hundred KZ prisoners to Sweden, ordering the end of the mass murder of Jews, and proposing surrender on the western front whilst continuing to fight in the East.
On the evening of 28 April, the BBC broadcast a Reuters news report on Himmler’s attempted negotiations with the western Allies. When Hitler was informed of the news, he flew into a rage. A few days earlier, Hermann Göring had asked Hitler for permission to take over the leadership of the Reich – an act that Hitler, under the prodding of Bormann, interpreted as a demand to step down or face a coup. Himmler had not even bothered to request permission which hit Hitler hard because he had long believed that Himmler was second only to Joseph Goebbels in loyalty; in fact, Hitler often called Himmler “der treue Heinrich” (the loyal Heinrich). Hitler ordered Himmler’s arrest and had Hermann Fegelein (Himmler’s SS representative at Hitler’s HQ in Berlin) shot. When he had calmed down, he told those who were still with him in the bunker complex that Himmler’s act was ’the worst act of treachery he’d ever known’.
Himmler’s negotiations with Count Bernadotte failed. However, the negotiations helped secure the release of some 15,000 Scandinavian prisoners from the remaining concentration camps in the ‘White Buses operation’. Himmler joined Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who by then was commanding all German forces within the northern part of the western front, in nearby Plön. Dönitz dismissed Himmler making it quite clear that he had no place for him in the new German government.
Himmler next turned to the Americans, contacting Eisenhower’s headquarters and claiming that, if he were spared from prosecution he would surrender all of Germany to the Allies. He asked Eisenhower to appoint him “minister of police” in Germany’s post-war government. He reportedly mused on how to handle his first meeting with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) commander and whether to give the Nazi salute or shake hands with him. Eisenhower refused to have anything to do with and had him subsequently declared a major war criminal.
From 23 January 1945 Himmler stayed at the private nursing home of his medical adviser, Prof Dr Karl Gebhardt in Hohenlychen, On 26 April Himmler moved to Schwerin, 100 km east of Hamburg, together with his staff and some of his escort battalion. There, he was near Admiral Karl Dönitz, the Commander-in Chief of the German Navy, and by then, the most powerful man in north-west Germany. On 29 April the Commander-in-Chief of the German Air Force, General Ritter von Greim, fled from embattled Berlin to Dönitz’s new headquarters in Plön (60 km north of Hamburg), and handed over the arrest order for Himmler but Dönitz had no control over him and had even established his own bodyguard, consisting of submariners, instead of SS guards. On 30 April Dönitz was appointed Head of State following Hitler’s suicide on the afternoon of that day. He told Himmler that he could not join the new government and on 6 May Himmler received a written order dismissing him from all offices.
From 6 or 7 until 11 May 1945 Himmler and 5 attendants stayed at a farm near Satrup where Himmler decided to go to Bavaria, together with a few SS-officers and perhaps 7 NCOs.They removed all insignia from their uniforms and carried false documents hoping to prove they were recently released NCOs of the Geheime Feldpolizei , unaware that even NCOs of this organization were also on the Allied Wanted List (“Immediate Arrest” category). Himmler’s papers identified him as “Ex-Sergeant Heinrich Hitzinger of a Special Armoured Company, attached to the Secret Field Police, demobilized on 3 May 1945”. On 10 May the group left Dönitz’s final HQ in Flensburg, driving southwards in 4 large cars. On 11 May the group appeared in Delve, a small village a few kilometres southeast of Friedrichstadt on the Eider River. On 12 May they probably abandoned their cars in Marne. Deciding to continue their way on foot towards the River Elbe, in the evening they found a fisherman who ferried them (allegedly for 500 RM) from Brunsbüttel across the Elbe to Neuhaus, a small town at the mouth of the Oste River, on the south bank of the Elbe. Over the next 5 days the group slowly moved southwards, merging into the background as this area which was already under British control and teeming with leaderless German troops. SS, Sturmbannfuhrer Kiermayer, Himmler’spersonal aide and secretary, investigated the possibilities of crossing at the guarded Oste River bridge, not knowing that the group could have easily crossed the river via an unguarded ford some metres upstream. Twice he demanded passes for the party from the district administration in Bremervörde but was refused.
When Kiermayer returned to the farmhouse and reported on the situation, they decided to divide up the group with the bulk trying to pass the British check-point at the bridge first. At 3 p.m.
Kiermayer and Dr Gebhardt set off for the bridge intending to come back if there were no problems. An hour later they arrived at the check-point where they were stopped and taken to Sergeant Ken Baisbrown, of the Intelligence Corps, who was on duty at the mill belonging to Wilhelm Lohse, which was serving as an office. They were given the impression that everything was in order, and they were sent back in 2 British Army lorries together with an escort to bring in the rest of their “sick comrades” (most of whom they claimed were sick policemen on their way to München (Munich), supervised by Dr Gebhardt, (who spoke English). Meanwhile Baisbrown went to the nearby office of the 1003 Field Security Reserve Detachment and told Staff-Sergeant John Hogg about these two suspicious men who allegedly belonged to the Secret Field Police GFP (Geheime Feldpolizei), in itself a reason for automatic arrest. After a while Gebhardt returned to the check-point, but without Himmler and two others. Sergeant Arthur Britton had noticed that all their documents bore the same GFP stamp, dated after 1 May 1945. In addition, by now, some members were denying being part of the ‘Group’ although Dr Gebhardt had claimed that the whole party was in his care. The men were segregated and Britton and Baisbrown grilled the youngest who, after a short time, admitted that the GFP stamp was in fact an SD headquarters stamp and that the men were all together. At 6 p.m. the men were arrested and brought to the Civil Internment Camp in Westertimke near Zeven.
Together with Dr Gebhardt, Hogg drove back to the farmhouse, since some of the arrested had expressed concern about three other sick members of their group.
Meanwhile Himmler and his two companions had left the farmhouse but now British intelligence personnel had been alerted that three more SD-sponsored policemen in the area. Since it seemed that the others had had no problems in crossing the check-point, Himmler, Grothmann, and Macher, after hiding for a further day, tried it themselves. On 22 May, walking on Bremervörde’s main road toward the check-point, they were stopped by a patrol and brought to the office at the mill. Arthur Britton interviewed them at about 5 p.m. They showed their documents but the British were aware that they were forgeries. Corporal Richard Forrest searched their belongings; then they were probably taken to an office at Dohrmann’s bakery, a house on Bahnhofstraße in Bremervörde, for interrogation. After this they were formally arrested at the mill. Himmler and his two companions spent the night on the first floor of the mill, sleeping on the grain. There is another unsubstantiated
version which claims that Himmler and his two companions were captured on 21 May by 3 Russians (who were assigned to a British post at the River Oste) in Meinst (20 kilometres south of Bremervörde, and that they were then brought to Bremervörde where they spent the night in the mill). The POW Camp “Stalag XB” was located2.5 km south of Minstedt. This camp was liberated by the British Army on 29 April 1945. The British opened the gate and the fence so that the POWs could leave the camp. Therefore hundreds of Russian and Polish POWs crossed out the region in April, May, and June 1945. Some of them might have joined the British troops to look out for their former SS camp guards or soldiers. The British post, reinforced by a tank, could have been deployed on one of the hills near the river, together with the already mentioned 3 Russians, assigned to the post.
At about 7 a.m. next morning, the three GFP suspects were duly driven by Arthur Britton and two guards in a 15 cwt truck to the Civil Internment Camp Westertimke for initial processing, a journey of some 30 km. En route, a stop was made at Zeven to report the arrest of the three SD men to Captain Excell at 45 Field Security Section HQ. Sergeant Britton was told to continue to Westertimke cage for registration. The trio spent the greater part of the day – Wednesday 23 May 1945 – being moved about by British Army transport. During the afternoon, a trip was made (probably via Fallingbostel on Lüneburg Heath) to 031 Civil Interrogation Camp which had just moved to Kolkhagen Camp on
the western side of the village of Barnstedt, south of Lüneburg. At 6:30 p.m. on 23 May 1945, “Sergeant Hitzinger” and his escorts were booked into 031 CIC Barnstedt.
At some time during the evening the ex-Gauleiter of Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann, a more moderate Nazi, was watching new arrivals from the inner compound of Kolkhagen Camp and noticed an ‘odd figure’ in military boots, breeches and a civilian jacket and saw him go behind a bush, remove an eye patch, and reappear putting on glasses – he was immediately recognizable as Himmler, whom Kaufmann had met previously. Realizing that he had been recognized, this must have been the moment when Himmler decided to reveal his identity. At about 7:00 p.m., the camp commandant, Captain Thomas Selvester, was informed that three prisoners were insisting on seeing him, in itself an unusual request. Himmler had presumably re-disguised himself for effect, for when he appeared before the camp commandant, he was again wearing the eye patch.
Later, Selvester described the scene: “The first man to enter my office was small, ill-looking and shabbily dressed; he was immediately followed by two other men (Grothmann and Macher), both of whom were tall and soldierly-looking, one slim, and one well-built. The well-built man walked with a limp. I sensed something unusual, and ordered one of my sergeants to place the two men in close custody, and not to allow anyone to speak to them without my authority. They were then removed from my office, whereupon the small man, who was wearing a patch over his left eye, removed the patch and put on a pair of spectacles. His identity was at once obvious, and he said “Heinrich Himmler” in a very quiet voice.”
Captain Selvester immediately informed HQ British Second Army at Lüneburg and Major Rice, an Intelligence staff officer, arrived at 7:30 p.m. to confirm Himmler’s identity. The German was asked to sign his name and this was compared with a signature Major Rice had brought with him. The next step was a body search:
“This I carried out personally,” said Captain Selvester, “handing each item of clothing as it was removed to my sergeant, who re-examined it. In his jacket I found a small brass case, similar to a cartridge case, which contained a small glass phial. I recognized it for what it was, but asked Himmler what it contained, and he said, ‘that is my medicine. It cures stomach cramp.’ I also found a similar brass case, but without the phial, and came to the conclusion that the phial was hidden somewhere on the prisoner’s person. When all Himmler’s clothing had been removed and searched, all the orifices of his body were searched, also his hair combed and any likely hiding place examined, but no trace of the phial was found. At this stage he had not been asked to open his mouth, as I considered that if the phial was hidden in his mouth and we tried to remove it, it might precipitate some action that would be regretted. I did however send for thick bread and cheese sandwiches and tea, which I offered to Himmler, hoping that I would see if he removed anything from his mouth. I watched him closely, whilst he was eating, but did not notice anything unusual.” On 23 May, Himmler was taken to the Security Force Headquarters at Uelzener Straße 31a in Lüneburg. There he was asked to undress himself in the presence of the military doctor, Captain C. J. Wells, accompanied by Colonel Michael Murphy Chief of Intelligence at HQ 2nd Army who had arrived at 21.45 to take personal charge of the prisoner., Major Norman Whittaker, and Company Sergeant Major Edwin Austin were also present. According to statements made later two body searches and a complete change of clothing failed to reveal any hidden poisons and he immediately arranged for a medical search to be carried out at Luneburg and at 22.45 this was done by Capt. Wells RAMC, the HQ Medical Officer who left a written account of his part in the affair.
“Having searched the prisoner thoroughly he came to the mouth where he noticed a small blue tit-like object sticking out of the lower sulcus of the left cheek. He slipped his finger into the prisoner’s mouth to sweep out what he had seen but Himmler
immediately clamped down on the doctor’s fingers; they struggled, he wrenched his head away, crushed the glass capsule between his teeth and the cyanide did its
deadly work in some ten minutes”. His last words were Ich bin Heinrich Himmler!
(“I am Heinrich Himmler!”) followed by the British doctor yelling “He has done it!”
The ‘arch-criminal’ underwent an autopsy and formal identification by Allied staff officers and his body was taken away – possibly by Britton – and was buried in an unmarked grave outside Luneburg on 25 May 1945.
If this was not excitement enough, whilst this was going on, 61FSS and troops of 11th Armoured Division arrested Grand Admiral Donitz and members of his interim government at Flensburg on 22 May, whilst 53 FSS which was attached to the VIII Corps HQ Section at Lubeck arrested the Commandant of Saschenhausen Concentration Camp. Von Ribbentrop was picked up by FS personnel in Hamburg at about the same time. On 23 May 61 FSS had another big haul of wanted men when they captured Col. Gen. Jodl, General Major Dethleffsen, Admiral Wagner, two Reichsministers and six State Secretaries. The sections official report to GSI(b) at HQ VIII Corps described their difficulties in processing the captives and their documents as Press Teams and SHAEF observers had been wrongly allowed to accompany the arresting task force. These ‘observers’ quickly lifted any souvenirs that they could get their hands on such as watches and wallets regardless of the fact that in the case of these Category I arrests they could well have contained highly important evidence.
It was the same with the death of Himmler. His cell was quickly stripped of anything of the slightest interest and, by the time the Intelligence Corps personnel were able to enter the cell, all that was left was the partly used tube of shaving cream and the razor blades which are now in the Museum.
Captain Donald McPherson who worked in the Control Commission Germany later made a statement:-
HERE is the story. On 21 May 1945 Himmler set out with some other SS officers to try to pass through the Allied lines and reach his native Bavaria. He had shaved off his moustache, wore a black eye patch over his left eye, and put on army uniform.
His party was stopped between Hamburg and Bremerhaven by British guards at a control point. At some stage Himmler took off the eye patch, put on his pince-nez, and identified himself. He was taken to Second Army Headquarters where he was stripped and examined by an army doctor. When the doctor tried to examine his mouth, Himmler bit into a vial of cyanide in the space between two teeth. A stomach pump, emetics, and artificial respiration were tried in vain in an effort to resuscitate him.
Towards the end of May, shortly after this, I went to see another officer at Control Commission on some matter and noticed that he was wearing a black eye patch over one eye. I said: “Are you trying to play Himmler?” He replied that he was wearing Himmler’s actual eye patch, that all his belongings had been sent to our Headquarters from Second Army and had been put in a room, the number of which he gave me. “If you hurry along, there may be something
All that remained were the blanket in which Himmler had been sick, the framework of his rucksack, and some razor blades and a tube of shaving cream which he had acquired in Denmark. I took the shaving cream and razor blades which I now send to you. Others had taken his black silk shirts, silk pyjamas, silk socks, silk handkerchiefs, and his cigarette case,
all monogrammed with his initials, two overlapping H’s. One officer used to parade in the mess sporting Himmler’s braces, sticking his thumbs under the straps and stretching them back and forth, for they were made of that wartime rarity, the finest elastic.
Colonel L M Murphy, some years later made a statement which only confused matters further regarding the final moments of Himmler’s life..
“I remember very well the last hours of Himmler. There is no question that Himmler spent some time at the Intelligence Suspects Camp [Westertimke] where Capt Sylvester [sic. Selvester] met him and interrogated him. When I got there about 8 pm no attempt had been made to search Himmler and he and his officers were sitting at a table smoking cigars! He had two bodyguards [Werner Grothmann and Heinz Macher] (very big men) with him, and they had not been searched either. I turned the bodyguards out of the room and had them searched and confined. I then told Himmler I intended to search him, and told him to strip. He refused, saying, “I am Himmler.” “I carry a letter for General Montgomery.” I confess I don’t know what happened to the letter. I never saw it. I told Himmler I did not care who he was, I intended to search him and take away his clothes. He asked what he could wear instead of his own clothes. I told him Battle Dress. Himmler said he wouldn’t be seen dead in British Battle Dress. I then told him I intended to take him after searching to Army H.Q. — about a 10 mile car ride., and if he didn’t put on British Battle dress he would have to travel naked and might be rather cold! He then agreed, stripped & his clothes searched. The phial of cyanide was found in the lining of his jacket. During all my time with Himmler he had no form of refreshment.
It was clear to me that it was still possible for Himmler to have poison hidden about him, the most obvious places being his mouth and his buttocks. I therefore told him to dress and, wishing to have a medical search conducted, telephoned my G-II at my
H.Q. and told him to get a Doctor to standby at a house I had had prepared for such men as Himmler. I and another officer then accompanied Himmler on the drive to this house.
On arrival we met the Doctor and told him what was wanted. Himmler stripped again and was naked except for his socks and boots. The Doctor started his examination with the mouth. He said, “Open” and H opened and immediately he saw a small black knob sticking out between a gap in the teeth on the right-hand side — lower jaw. He shut his mouth at once. Once again the Dr said “Open” and H. opened. The Dr went closer, and with his fingers extended and closed inserted them into H’s mouth. Immediately he bit hard — hurt the Doctor and broke the phial. I dived for H’s feet and threw him to the ground. We turned him on his tummy to try and stop him swallowing, and I shouted for a needle and cotton which arrived with remarkable speed! I pierced the tongue and with the cotton threaded through held the tongue out. But it was no good, with many convulsions H died in about 15 minutes.
I telephoned Gen Dempsey [British 2nd Army] to get permission to let the Press know H was dead, and we covered him with a blanket where he lay. D. said I must first get Russian approval. It was 24 hours before they arrived to view the body.
Photos I have taken they would not believe. When they arrived they grudgingly agreed it might be Himmler.
As regards the capsule, this was minute – certainly not an inch in Diameter. Himmler had no food or dinner in my presence and there is no doubt in my mind that from the time I met him to the time of his death one capsule was in his mouth. So far as I remember from the one taken from his clothes, this was of thin metal, strong enough to withstand careful mastication and liquids,especially if the other side of the mouth was used but not strong enough to withstand a decision to break(?) it.
I think the time of death was midnight 23/24 but I cannot be sure. I have no recollection of the autograph incident. H, was sure of himself & arrogant to the end. He was quite convinced that he would be taken to see Montgomery & was surprised at the firm treatment I gave him when getting rid of his bodyguard & searching him. He felt that I should have received a German General with more courtesy!”
As David Irving, the notorious historian has pointed out, this account differs in significant terms from the account given by Capt T Selvester. A point at issue appears to be whether Selvester’s officers conducted a proper search of Himmler and his two men before Colonel Murphy arrived, and – not unrelated – whether Himmler had anything to eat after his identification. Other sources state that he ate sandwiches. Murphy alone says (above) that he ate nothing. But others also described Himmler as chatting volubly with them on the drive over to 2nd Army.
Murphy’s description of the capsule (of thin metal, no glass) is not only improbable but also unlike the standard issue Nazi suicide-capsule, e.g. the one found in Hermann Göring’s property, which raises the possibility that Murphy did not in fact see it. It is possible that the one taken from Himmler’s jacket was merely the empty screw-cap brass container; which they decided not to risk opening, and they did not realize that the glass ampoule had been removed. But would Himmler have retained the give-away brass casing, instead of throwing it aside?
Since he did eat more than one thick British Army sandwich, it is unlikely he would have concealed the ampoule in his mouth. Finally, no other source, either at the time or later, confirms Murphy’s remarkable story about piercing Himmler’s tongue with needle and cotton.
The mystery surrounding the death of Himmler is unlikely ever to be resolved.
Note: Arthur Britton was originally Arthur Verdun Britton Schrijnemakers, the son of a Dutch father and a French mother, but, himself, an Englishman. Originally enlisted in the Guards, when his multi-lingual skills were discovered he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps.