M Y M E E T I N G W I T H
H E I N R I C H H I M M L E R
A P R I L 20/21, 1945
H E I N R I C H H I M M L E R
A P R I L 20/21, 1945
N O R B E R T M A S U R
We sat at a table, which was set up for coffee for five persons. Himmler was dressed impeccably in his uniform with the insignias of rank and shiny decorations. He looked well-groomed, seemed fresh and lively in spite of the late hour, outwardly quiet, and in control. He looked better in person than in photographs. Perhaps his errand and piercing gaze was an expression of sadism and harshness, however, had I not known his past, I would never have believed that this man was singularly responsible for the most extensive mass murders in history.
He began to talk immediately and gave a historical overview of the position of the Nazis vs. the Jews. “In our generation we have not known any peace,” he said. “When the first World War began, I was 14 years old. The war hardly ended when the civil war began and the Jews were deeply involved in the Spartacus revolt. The Jews were a foreign element in our midst, which always evoked irritation. They were driven out of Germany several times, however they always returned. After coming into power, we wanted to settle this issue once and for all, and I was I favor of a humane solution through emigration. I conferred with American organizations to arrange for a quick emigration, but even countries who claimed to be friendly toward the Jews, did not want to admit Jews.”
I countered that possibly it might have been more comfortable for the German people not to have a minority among its midst. However, based on prevailing law, it did not seem right to suddenly exile people whose ancestors had lived in a country for a long time. In spite of this, it was necessary for the Jews to bend to the will of force and they tried to emigrate. The National-Socialists wanted a situation which was created over several centuries, to be changed within a few years, and that was impossible.
Himmler continued: “Then the war brought us into contact with the Jewish masses of the East, who were mostly part of the proletariat. Because of this, many new problems arose. We could not tolerate such an enemy at our backs. The Jewish masses were infected with many diseases, especially typhoid fever. I lost thousands of my SS troops through these diseases. Also the Jews were helping the partisans.”
Answering my question as to how the Jews could be helping the partisans, after the Germans concentrated them into large ghettos, he said: “They sent news to the partisans. In addition, they were shooting at our troops in the ghettoes.” That was Himmler’s reaction to the heroic fight of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto! What an unbelievable distortion of the truth!
I tried very carefully to get him away from the unfortunate thought to defend his policies against the Jews in front of a Jew, because such an attempt would force him to add lie upon lie to his argument. But it was impossible to do so. It seemed that he had the need to express his defense to a Jew, as he probably let that the days of his life, or at least the days of his freedom were numbered. And Himmler continued: “In order to stop the epidemic, we were forced to cremate the bodies of the many people that died of the disease. That was the reason we had to build the crematoria, and now, because of this everybody wants to tighten the noose around our neck.” This was the most convulsing try by Himmler to cover up his deeds. I loathed this explanation of the crematoria to such an extent that I could only remain silent.
“The war in the East was unbelievable difficult,” said Himmler. “We did to want any wars with Russia. But suddenly we learned that the Russian had 20,000 tanks at that forced us into action. Either we prevailed or we would perish. The war at the eastern front made the most difficult demands on our soldiers. A terrible climate, never ending distances, an enemy population, and constantly appearing partisans. Only by being harsh could the troops prevail. Because of this, they were forced to destroy whole villages, if there was resistance and shooting from such a village. The Russians are not ordinary enemies, we cannot understand their mentality. In the most hopeless situations, they would refuse to capitulate. If, because of these difficulties in the east, the Jewish people suffered great casualties, one needs to remember that the German people also suffered severely.”
Himmler then got to the subject of the concentration camps. “The bad reputation of these camps was because of the unfortunate choice of names for them, that was a mistake, we should have called them ‘educational camps’. There were not only Jewish and political prisoners in the camps, but also criminal elements, who were detained after they served their sentence in prison. Because of this, in 1941, a war year, Germany had the lowest crime rate in decades. The prisoners had to perform heavy labor but that was true of the German people too. The treatment in the camps was sever but just.” I interrupted: “ But one cannot deny that many atrocities occurred in the camps,” to which he answered:” I have to admit that this happened, but I then punished the guilty.”
Even though during this conversation I constantly had to keep my goal of liberation of Jews and of the prisoners in my mind, and therefore had to choose my words carefully, I was not able to, nor did I want to, contain my agitation, when he talked about the “just treatment” in the contention camps. It was to my satisfaction, in the name of the suffering Jewish people, to tell him a thing or two about the atrocities in the concentration camps. At that moment, I felt that I had the upper hand as the advocate of the bent over, but not destroyed, rights of man. And I believe that Himmler felt the weakness of his positon.
I tried once again to get him off the thoughts of trying to defend this position. “Too many things occurred that cannot be changed or rectified any more,” I began. But if in the future we need to build a bridge between our people, then at least the Jews at that are still in the areas occupied by Germany, should remain alive. Therefore we are asking that the Jews in the camps near the Swedish and Swiss borders be freed in order to evacuate them to other counties. Additionally we ask that the Jews in the other camps be treated well, be fed properly that they get the proper medical care and that the camps be surrendered to the Allies without resistance once the front lines got close. Also we ask that the requests mentioned in several lists of the Swedish Foreign ministry be fulfilled and that freedom be given to the prisoners listed by name, be they Swedish, French, Jews, Dutch and a number of Norwegian hostages.”
Kersten vigorously supported all requests. I asked Himmler to tell us the number of Jews still alive in the camps and he listed the following figures: Theresienstadt 25,000, Rawensbrück 20,000 Mauthausen 20 to 30,000, in addition to smaller numbers in several other camps. Also he claimed that in the camps captured by the Allies the following numbers of Jews were left: Auschwitz 150,000, Bergen Belsen 50,000, Buchenwald 6,000. It seemed to me that his claims were false, and certainly, with respect to Auschwitz greatly exaggerated.
In Hungary, Himmler claimed to have left 450,000 Jews. “So what were the thanks for this?” he said sanctimoniously. “The Jews shot at our troops in Budapest.” I objected: “If there were 450,000 Jews left of the original 850,000 it means that 400,000 Jews were deported to an unknown destiny. The Jews left in Hungary could not know what fate the Germans had in mind for them, and that was the reasons for this kind of reaction.” Himmler pushed such arguments aside apparently he appropriated the well-known verse of LaFontaine, “This animal is very bad, when attacked it defends itself” to his own purpose.
Himmler continued on: “It was my intention to turn over the concentration camps without defending them, as I had promised. I turned over Bergen Belsen and Buchenwald, but I got no thanks for this. In Bergen Belsen they tied up a guard and photographed him with a few prisoners who had just died. And such pictures are now being published all over the world press. I also turned over Buchenwald without a struggle. Suddenly the advancing American tanks opened fire, hit the hospital building which consisted of a wooden barrack, and which of course caught on fire, burned down completely and the burned corpses were later photographed. With these kind of pictures the world press is now printing hate propaganda. When I released 2700 Jews into Switzerland yea ths also resulted in a press campaign again me personally. It was written that I only released these people in order to establish an alibi for myself. I do not need an alibi as I only did what I thought was necessary for my people, and I will stand on that. I did not become a rich man. Nobody has been covered with dirt in the newspapers in the last 12 years as much as I have been. It never made any difference to me, even in Germany anybody could write about me whatever they wanted. But the publication of atrocities as incitement against myself does not encourage me to continue my policy to turn over the camps without resistance. That is why, a few days ago, when the American tank columns closed in on a camp in Saxony, I had this camp evacuated. Why should I do anything differently?”
I was afraid that Himmler’s repeated complaints about the publication of the terrible deeds in the concentration camps, which he tried to label as hate propaganda, would result in a request to stop such publicity as compensation in order to fulfill my requests. Without a doubt Himmler believed, after constantly hearing Goebbel’s propaganda, that we Jews really had the power to control the world press, as stated by the Nazi lie propaganda. And maybe he thought that I, as a representative of the Jews, could influence the press of the allied and neutral countries, even though he had been told that I had come as a private citizen.
In order to prevent a direct request by him, I interrupted and called to his attention the freedom of the press concept in democratic countries: “Even the government of a democracy is unable to prevent publication of unwanted or embarrassing news. Only deeds count, not what is printed in newspapers. The freeing of 2700 Jews last year was well received in the world press, especially that these prisoners coming from Theresienstadt, were in relatively good health. I have the impression that Theresienstadt is the best of the camps. A continuation of the policy to release prisoners is the only correct thing regardless of what the press is writing about it. The freedom of the remaining Jews is of interest not only to the Jewish people, but also to the Swedish government inasmuch as it had given its blessing to both Dr. Kersten and myself to make this trip. Without a doubt the granting of our requests by you would make an excellent impression with the people and governments of the Allies. And before the judgment of history, the release of the remaining Jews is of great importance. A continuation of the forced evacuation can only be detrimental for Germany, since the roads are clogged or closed, and the feeding and housing of the people becomes more difficult, etc.”
Himmler stressed that Theresienstadt is not a camp per se, but is a town inhabited by only Jews, is completely governed by Jews, and all the necessary labor is performed by Jews. “This is the kind of camp created by myself and my friend Heydrich,” he said, “and we hoped to make all the camps this way.”
There followed considerable discussions about the various means of rescue suggested by us, and Kersten supported me strongly. We particularly came back several times to the need to permit the evacuation of the camp at Rawensbrück to Sweden.
I do not trust any vague and general promises made by Himmler, however if specific promises were made, they would probably be kept because Himmler’s aides would see to it that his demands would be met. Also I was afraid that the last weeks of the war would be critical to the situation of the people in the camps. The publicity about Buchenwald could possibly let the Nazi bosses, be it Himmler himself or the Hitler-Kaltenbrunner group, to cause the complete disappearance of the remaining concentration camps in order to completely wipe out any living evidence and witnesses to these atrocities. The last days of the death struggle of the Third Reich could therefore also be the death knell of the few remaining inmates who came through all the tortures alive.
Himmler wanted to dismiss the matter with his adjutant Dr. Brant, so I went into the next room together with Schellenberger, for about 20 minutes. During this time, Himmler also dictated two letters to Dr. Kersten. After we returned into the living room, Himmler said:
“I am willing to free 1000 Jewish women from the Rawensbrück concentration camp and you can pick them up through the Red Cross. The freeing of a number of French women, in accordance with the list of the Swedish Foreign Ministry is also approved. About 50 Norwegian Jews in camps will be freed and brought to the Swedish border. The case of the 20 Swedish prisoners in Grini who were convicted by German courts, will be reexamined favorably and if at all possible, they will be freed. The cases of the liberation of the Norwegian hostages will also be reclaimed favorably. A larger number of mostly Dutch prisoners who were listed by name in Theresienstadt will be freed as long as the Red Cross can pick them up. The Jewish women in Rawensbrück, however, will be designated as Polish women, rather than Jewish. It is very necessary that not only your visit here must remain secret, but also the arrival of the Jews in Sweden must remain that way. With respect to stopping the forced evacuation and the surrendering of the camps to the Allies I will endeavor to do my very best.”
It was significant that Himmler was afraid, even at this time to designate the freed women as Jews. This reflected the difference of opinion between Himmler and Hitler, which Schellenberg explained to me during the morning talk we had. Even though Himmler at that time certainly had the power in his own hands, he did not want to create any friction between himself and Hitler on account of the Jews. Schellenberg had already hinted to me that Hitler’s attitudes were completely undermined.
The conversation then touched on other political questions Himmler began to show his hatred for Bolshevism and talked in the standard manner of the Nazi propaganda. I am quoting below a few of his words:
“The Americans will agree that we were the last bulwark against Bolshevism.”
“Hitler will be remembered in history as a great man, because he gave the world the national-socialist solution, the only one which is able to stand up against Bolshevism.” This was the only time during the entire conversation that he mentioned Hitler by name.
“The American and British soldiers will be infected by the spirit of Bolshevism, and will cause severe social problems in their countries.”
"The German people are so radicalized that they will ally themselves with the Russians, if National Socialism falls by the wayside, and that will only strengthen the Russians further.”
“There will be starvation in German this fall and winter. There will be unforeseen difficulties and much wisdom will be needed in order to rebuild the world.”
“The Americans won their war. The Germans industrial competition has been destroyed for several decades.”
“We are asked to surrender unconditionally. That will never happen. I am not afraid to die.”
“During our occupation there was law and order in France, even though I only had 2000 German police there. Everybody had work and everybody had enough to eat. Only WE were successful to clean up the harbor area of Marseilles, institute healthy conditions and establish law and order, something that no French government ever achieved.”
“I have sympathy for people that are fighting for their freedom.”
“We never lowered ourselves to the methods employed by the British paratroopers, who dropped out of the sky in false uniforms, ie. German or in civilian clothes, in order to help the Maquis in France.”
Himmler learned to understand the idea of the partisan fights a little late! When he made the disdainful remark about the British paratroopers, I was thinking about Holland and especially Rotterdam, but the habit of using lies as a basis of his arguments, were typical during the entire conversation.
The talks lasted exactly 2 ½ hours. It finished at 5 o’clock in the morning, and Himmler left by car. We talked the entire time except for the 20 minutes that I spent in the adjacent room. For one half hour I was alone with him, a free Jew, face to face with the feared and unmerciful chief of the Gestapo, who had 5 million Jews on his conscience.
Himmler spoke calmly most of the time, even when interrupted with some sharp challenges. However, one could sense his inner agitation more and more in spite of his outward calmness. He talked a lot. Only the most important part of the conversation is contained herein, with my own wording only when there was a need for further clarification. My report is either word for word, or at least shows the meanings of what was said, even though not necessarily in the proper chronological order.
Without a doubt, Himmler was intelligent and well educated he was very interested in history. But the outward gloss could not hide his real attitudes. His cynicism became very evident when he expounded on the catastrophes which he believed to come. His words to Kersten, when saying good-bye, were typical: “The best part of the German people will be destroyed with us, what happens to the rest of them is immaterial.” In contrast to Hitler he was a rationalist in his dealings with the Jews. Hitler had a definite idiosyncrasy with respect to the Jews. Himmler never acted in accordance with his feelings. He would order coldblooded killings as long as it fit in with his purposes, and he would change his ways as long as that was in agreement with new proposes
What reason would he have had to agree to the small concessions during the last few months of the war and also vis a vis ourselves? He did not ask any concessions from us. For sure he did not think that he could buy his own life at this late hour. He was too clever to assume this, he knew very well that his list of sins was too large. Possibly he might have wanted to be judged by history in a better light than the other criminals in Germany.
The shallowness of his arguments was unbelievable. He used nothing but lies in his defense. No logic in building of thoughts, no deep thoughts, which even a criminal might have had though they might be counter to all what is considered lawful. Only lies and excuses. He only believed that the end justifies the means. The fact that he was one of those mostly reasonable for the mass murder of Jews, was evident from his own words. I remember distinctly when he was talking about the Jews in Hungary, he said:
“I left 450,000 Jews in Hungary, etc.” from which one can deduce that he was also in part responsible for the destruction of the other remaining Jews there. Even the number of the Jews left in Hungary was incorrect, and very much exaggerated. During the talks, he never said directly that Germany had lost the war, but with everything he said, it appeared that he believed it.
After Himmler left us at 5am, we tried to sleep for a few hours. My inner excitement was abating. Now it was important to get to Berlin and then to Stockholm as quickly as possible, in order to talk to the Foreign Ministry and the Red Cross about the evacuations.
End of Part II
Translated from original by Henry Karger, 1993
Published with kind permission, WJC
Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum