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A Mild Murderer

July 2024
3min read

The horrid fascination which the Hitler epoch exerts on inquiring minds extends to the personalities involved; and the oddest of all the odd lot of queer fish who swam across that scene must by all accounts be the man who built up and operated the SS, Heinrich Himmler himself. If no man is a hero to his valet, no man is likely to be a hero to his masseur, either, and it is Dr. Felix Kersten, Himmler’s masseur, who presents this picture of him. It is as weird a picture as you are likely to find in all the literature of Hitler’s Germany.

Himmler suffered from some sort of stomach cramps, which assailed him every so often with agonizing, incapacitating pains. As a “manual therapist,” or masseur, Dr. Kersten was able to give him relief. He became, presently, a sort of captive court physician to the man who ran Hitler’s apparatus of terror, and for five years he held a position of strange influence over Himmler. No one else could relieve Himmler’s pains; so, after a time, there was very little that Dr. Kersten could ask for which Himmler would not readily give him. Being a person whose humane instincts had not been stunted by contact with the Nazi tyranny, Dr. Kersten made use of his position to save people from extermination; in the long run he kept thousands of people—Jews, Germans, and citizens of occupied lands—from the gas chambers.

Indeed, if Himmler was the greatest mass murderer in all history, Dr. Kersten must have been one of the greatest lifesavers. Mr. Trevor-Roper, who has dug about as deeply into the Nazi story as anyone, attests to the genuineness of his work. The World Jewish Congress, says H. R. Trevor-Roper, credits Dr. Kersten with rescuing no fewer than 60,000 Jews; and in 1941, when Hitler coolly proposed to transport three million Dutchmen to the dreary wastes of Polish Galicia and the Ukraine, it was Dr. Kersten who talked Himmler out of it. (He persuaded him that the additional strain on his health would probably be fatal; after all, an operation of that size would involve a lot of work and nervous strain.) It is only fair to say that Himmler later was sorry that he had not obeyed orders; it was all the fault, he said, “of my wretched health and the good Dr. Kersten.”

Which is as it may be; but somehow the chief interest in this book—and it really is absorbingly interesting—lies less in Dr. Kersten’s recital of the way in which he saved people’s lives than in the fantastic picture he presents of the completely incomprehensible Himmler himself.

The picture, one hastens to add, is of necessity somewhat lopsided. Dr. Kersten, who was never under any illusion about what the man was really up to, nevertheless saw him from a rather special angle. The Himmler he saw was a somewhat fatuous, bumbling, almost grandfatherly man.

The Kersten Memoirs, 1940–1945, by Felix Kersten, with an introduction by H. R. Trevor-Roper; translated from the German by Constantine Fitzgibbon and James Oliver. The Macmillan Company. 314 pp. $5.

That this is an accurate picture is open to substantial doubt. The same Himmler who—troubled by stomach pains and anxious to repay the favor to the manipulator who could make the stomach pains go away—could without much coaxing agree to spare the lives of three million Netherlander, was also the same Himmler who could send three million other persons to their deaths without batting an eye. Furthermore, the infighting among the various Nazi bigwigs during the period when the Nazis were counting on a thousand years as their own particular future tended now and then to get a little rugged; and in this infighting Herr Himmler always managed to come up with survival and additional power clenched in his own flabby hands, which is not the mark of a well-meaning bumbler. He was a man who could shake his head sadly over the inhumanity of a Goering, who liked to shoot innocent, inoffensive deer; he was also the man who, without giving the matter a second thought, could order the extermination of innumerable men, women, and children.

Still, there it is—this mild, soft-spoken, dismayingly jellyfish-like creature who killed more fellow humans than any other man whose name can easily be called to mind, did manage to have—in a queer, abstract, unreal way, not to be translated into terms that a really sane mind could grasp—an instinct for the things of the spirit. He was quite capable of saying, as Dr. Kersten quotes him:

“A man has to sacrifice himself, even though it is often very hard for him; he oughtn’t to think of himself. … I try to reach a compromise in my own life; I try to help people and do good, relieve the oppressed and remove injustices wherever I can. Do you think my heart’s in all the things which have to be done simply from reasons of state? What wouldn’t I give to be Minister for Religious Matters … and be able to dedicate myself to positive achievements only!”

Perhaps that expresses the real horror which the personality of Himmler inspires. The world has had its maniacal killers before, from the Assyrian kings on down, and they are usually men of blood and iron, rejoicing in cruelty, visibly dedicated to destruction. To find one who would not, if he could help it, hurt a fly and who would greatly prefer to tend his flower garden and guide the people in religious observances, dedicating all that he has to the service of his fellow men—this is the ultimate twist of the screw, this is the thing that could only come from the final depths.

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