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History

Letters from Heinrich Himmler: father, mass-murderer

Nearly 700 of the former Nazi SS chief's private letters and photos have surfaced. The documents are deemed authentic, though experts debate their actual historical value.

Hundreds of private letters written by SS chief Heinrich Himmler to his wife Marga between the years 1927 - 1945 have been found. The letters have been analyzed and published in parts. In addition to the letters, photographs, diaries, household journals and a recipe book allegedly from Marga Himmler have also recently come to light. Michael Hollmann, president of the German Federal Archives, told German daily newspaper "Die Welt" that he deems the documents authentic, although their exact origins have yet to be clarified, and the letters exist only as photo negatives.

US soldiers allegedly took the documents from Himmler's home on Tegernsee after the war ended in 1945. When and how they found their way to Chaim Rosenthal in Israel remains unclear. In 2007, Rosenthal is said to have sold the documents to the father of director Vanessa Lapa. Today the estate is reportedly located in a safe in Tel Aviv.

Findings questionable

Black and white portrait of Heinrich Himmler with his children
Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Heinrich Himmler with his children, 1935

In the letters Himmler professes his love for his wife and talks about his daily life - without specific mention of his crimes. He presents himself as a wild, depraved fighter and staunch anti-Semite. The letters, photos and household journals shed some light onto the Himmler family. But it's nothing new, said philosopher and historian Bettina Stangneth.

"The private Himmler isn't some newly discovered country," Stangneth said. "Excerpts from his wife's diary were published 10 years ago. At that time nobody considered it something of historical significance."

Generally speaking, relics from the private lives of the Nazis are neither new nor particularly exciting, said the scholar, who has extensively researched Adolf Eichmann, a member of Hitler's regime.

"A year and a half ago, Joseph Goebbels' love letters, for example, were said to have been up for auction," Stangneth said. "But no body wanted to have them."

Jan Erik Schulte, a historian at Dresden's Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research on Totalitarianism disagreed. He said he sees the collection of private letters and notes as "unique" and enlightening as they present new facets of Heinrich Himmler's persona.

Voyeuristic interests

Black and white portrait of Heinrich Himmler in Nazi uniform
Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Heinrich Himmel in Kiel, 1936

The experts were in agreement as they explained the public's fascination behind a mass-murder's letters. "The large public interest could be explained by the fact that the letters and private papers help us feel like we can understand the person better," Schulte said.

"Details from private lives are coveted," Stangneth said. "The desire is as old as voyeurism. An embarrassing 'Heini' is easier to digest than a regime leader who preaches that one can simultaneous be decent and a mass-murderer. Trivia doesn't hurt, it's just boring."

A racist and anti-Semite, Heinrich Himmler was a top member of Hitler's Nazi party and was among the people most directly responsible for the Holocaust. Shortly before the end of World War Two, Himmler secretly and unsuccessfully attempted to negotiation a peace deal with the Allies. He committed suicide after being taken prisoner by the British in 1945.

In the research arena, the letters are new source material. Nevertheless, the material is far from spectacular, Stangneth said. "Of course researchers will find new details here and there that could be interesting. But Himmler doesn't need to be reinterpreted. No one ever doubted his conviction to the Nazi cause. The letters simply reinforce that image."

Schulte, from the Hannah-Arendt Institute, said he hopes that the public doesn't divide its perceptions of the political and the private Himmler; the father and the mass-murderer. "Both images belong together. There are not two Himmlers, just one," Schulte said.

Movie and book deal

In February 2014 the Himmler letters are set to be published by the Piper publishing company, edited by historian Michael Wildt and the great-niece of the of SS chief, Katrin Himmler. Director Vanessa Lapa also crafted a film from the letters, "The Decent one," The film will premiere at the Berlinale international film festival in February.

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