The most distinctive coercive force in the Third Reich was not the Nazi Party itself; rather, it was the SS, which had grown from modest beginnings as a subsidiary group to become the most powerful and feared organization in the country. From 1929 onward, the SS developed as a tighter, more disciplined alternative to Röhm’s SA: it was a paramilitary force that also regarded itself as the Nazi elite. After the Nazi revolution, the SS expanded, diversified, became largely independent of the party organization, and merged with various parts of the government.
The SS was the brainchild of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). The son of a Bavarian schoolteacher, Himmler came across as dull, pedantic, and humorless. But he had a number of qualities that served the regime well: good organizational skills, absolute commitment to the cause, and a cunning inner nature that he concealed behind a placid exterior. As a young man, Himmler kept meticulous records, including a diary and an annotated reading list, both of which still exist (7). Himmler’s own annotated copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf has also survived and is preserved at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Himmler’s markings and marginal notes show that Hitler’s text provided him with a rich source of ideas, many of which he deemed suitable for practical application in the SS. For example, next to a passage on the importance of instilling self-confidence and a sense of racial superiority in Germany’s youth, Himmler wrote: “education of SS and SA.” In 1927, six years before the Nazis came to power, Hitler’s lengthy reflections on racial purity and the dangers of racial mixing had prompted Himmler to scribble: “the possibility of de-miscegenation is at hand.” Both Hitler’s text and Himmler’s annotations prove that ideas for purifying the German population by removing the sources of “biological corruption” were circulating well before 1933. Himmler’s later success is at least partially attributable to his early study of Hitler’s racial views and his ability to implement them within the SS.
Himmler had been raised Catholic but was a vehement opponent of the Church. Nonetheless, he was mindful of the success of the Jesuits and tried to turn the SS into an elite male “order” – more specifically, an elite order of warriors with its own distinctive cast and character. His first step was to ensure that SS members met the proper racial criteria, which meant pure “Aryan” descent. Whether or not they looked the part, SS officers had to prove that their family tree was free of Jews back to the year 1750; rank-and-file members had to offer evidence of Aryan ancestry back to 1800. Having absorbed the prevailing theories of eugenics during his training as an agronomist, Himmler charged his men with no less than improving the gene pool of the German population. But if SS men were to supply Germany with a future racial aristocracy, then equal attention needed to be paid to the racial “qualifications” of their wives. Therefore, the SS maintained the right to approve or reject the proposed marriages of its members. Applications were scrutinized by the SS Race Office (renamed the Race and Settlement Office in 1933), which was led by Richard Walther Darré (1895-1953) until 1938. The author of the Nazi “blood and soil doctrine” [Blut- und Bodenideologie], Darré championed the concept of a Nordic-German landed aristocracy. He became Reich Minister of Nutrition and Agriculture on June 29, 1933.
(7) On the young Himmler, see Bradley F. Smith, Heinrich Himmler: A Nazi in the Making, 1900-1926 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1971).