New film shows SS head Heinrich Himmler as mass murderer, family man

In 1941, Heinrich Himmler took time out from organizing the Final Solution to write to his 12-year-old daughter, Gudrun: “In life, one must always be decent, courageous and kind-hearted.”

This fatherly advice illustrates one side of the SS Reichsfuehrer and the real architect of the Holocaust, who could write the most banal love letters to his wife and dream of running a horse farm after the — of course, victorious –- world war.

In a fascinating documentary titled, ironically, “The Decent One,” Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa dissects the personality of the devoted family man as mass murderer.

Image of Heinrich Himmler from “The Decent One”

However, in a phone call from Tel Aviv, Lapa warned against applying the clichéd “banality of evil” to the mild-looking, bespectacled Himmler.

Following seven years of work on her project, Lapa concludes, “Himmler was not mentally ill, but he had a deeply perverted and twisted personality.”

After swearing his devotion to Margarete, before and after their marriage, Himmler easily rationalized his decision to start an affair with his secretary, who bore him two children.

Previously, he had declared that every German family should have at least four children. But when Margarete passed childbearing age after conceiving only once (followed by the adoption of a second child), Himmler felt he had to turn to another partner to fulfill the four-child quota.

When American GIs occupied the Himmler home on May 6, 1945, they stumbled across a large cache of family letters, documents, photos and silent-film footage. Ignoring standing orders, the soldiers failed to turn over the treasure trove to army intelligence specialists, and it eventually found its way to a collector in Israel.

Several years ago, the cache came to the attention of Lapa, the Belgian-born granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. After making aliyah at 19, she established herself as a successful Israeli documentary filmmaker and then founded her own company, Realworks Ltd.

For “The Decent One,” Lapa decided early on to forgo two staples of documentary filmmaking: a narrator to supply background and connections, and talking head experts to explain what the viewer was seeing.

Instead, she stuck to the verbatim text of letters and interrogations read off-screen by German actors (with English subtitles).

Filmmaker Vanessa Lapa

In one such interrogation shortly after the war, Margarete Himmler was asked whether her husband ever spoke to her about concentration camps, to which she replied, “No.” Indeed, in the hundreds of letters, Lapa found only one such reference, in a quick note from husband to wife, “I am traveling to Auschwitz,” signed “Kisses, your Heini.”

The earliest document in the collection, dating back to 1900, is a letter from Himmler’s father, a devout Catholic, petitioning the royal prince of Bavaria to stand in as godfather to his newly born son, Heinrich.

A decade later, the 10-year-old Heinrich was deeply impressed by seeing the local staging of the “Passion Play,” which blamed Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.

To his great regret, Heinrich never saw action in World War I, but, in 1919, when he joined a nationalistic college fraternity, he wrote, “If only there were another war, so I could put my life on the line.” He added that Germany needed more living space because, in contrast to the present generation, “Our ancestors were pure.”

He also confessed that at a party he had danced with what seemed to be a very nice girl. Unfortunately, she turned out to be Jewish, although, in his own defense, Himmler noted, “I didn’t think she was.”

After reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” Himmler joined the budding Nazi Party in 1923. He became a fervent follower, to the point that Margarete, an ardent anti-Semite in her own right, asked her husband plaintively why he had to constantly run off to Hitler rallies, “when you know what he is going to say.”

Himmler joined the SS in 1925 after proving his pure Aryan ancestry dating back to 1750. Thanks to his devotion and considerable organizing skills, he advanced to head of the national SS within four years, and in his first speech exhorted his troops to always behave decently.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, he tasked the “Faithful Heinrich” with drawing up the blueprint for Dachau as the first concentration camp “for Communists and Social Democrats.” During World War II, Himmler took his family for a nostalgic visit to Dachau, which his young daughter, Gudrun, described as “so nice … we had a big dinner.”

For the girl’s 13th birthday, her doting father sent her an anti-Semitic cartoon.

Three weeks before the German surrender, Himmler wrote, “I still firmly believe that the Almighty will protect us.” He was captured a month after the war’s end, and two days later committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule.
After seven “stomach-turning” years on the project, Lapa confessed, “I am happy that I’m done ‘living’ with Himmler and analyzing him.”

“The Decent One” screens 7 p.m. Sunday, June 14 and Thursday, June 18 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, S.F., during the 14th annual S.F. Docfest.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent