Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Himmler's Death in Allied Custody

It was him all right, thought the intelligence officer when they brought the little man into the room. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, biggest mass murderer in history. Problem was, he didn’t look like anything. Meek little man, that’s what he looked like, not a military leader, not the head of a grand police state, not the architect of genocide.

He’d come in wearing dirty, shabby clothes, a makeshift eye patch and papers identifying him as a sergeant in the Geheim Feldpolizei, but then he readily admitted who he was.

They made him undress and took his clothes away. Searching them, they found two brass capsules. One still held a glass phial that looked like poison. The other one was empty, but he wouldn’t say why. Then they’d offered him some British army trousers and a shirt to put on, but he refused them, saying he was afraid they’d let photographers in to take his photo. So instead they let him have an army blanket to wrap around himself.

And for the next few hours, it was just the two of them sitting in a room waiting for the interrogators from Headquarters to arrive. ‘Don’t try interrogating him yourself,’ they’d told him. ‘Leave him alone until we get there. Just keep an eye on him, that’s all.’

Except that Himmler wanted to talk. So they talked. They talked about the weather, and how the intelligence file photo they had of him was out of date, since it had him in his black SS uniform and he hadn’t worn that since the beginning of the war. He clucked with visible self-satisfaction at that. Then the intelligence officer asked him about his hobbies. Did he garden, have children, keep pets? Dogs?

“No, I don’t like dogs,” snapped Himmler, like it was something everybody was supposed to know.

After that they talked about other things; automobiles, airplanes, travel, dancing. Himmler told him how he’d been walking since that morning, that things had not gone well, and that the people wandering about were miserable and disorderly and that he hoped they would all be put to something useful in exchange for food.

“I’ll bet you must be hungry,” the intelligence officer said.

Himmler brightened. “Yes, I am,” he said. “I haven’t had anything all day.”

“I’ll get something for you to eat.”

“Yes, that would be nice,” he agreed eagerly.

“Stay in the chair,” ordered the intelligence officer. Then he opened the door and shouted, “Bring up some food.”

“Bring up some food,” repeated Himmler, recognizing that it might be a useful phrase to know in the future.

The intelligence officer smiled at Himmler. “We’ll have something for you in just a minute. But first I’d like you to look at some photos I took.”


"Bergen-Belsen,” said the intelligence officer, handing Himmler the photographs. “I was just there. Take a look.”

Politely Himmler examined them, one after another, each for a couple of seconds then he’d move on to the next. Stacks of dead bodies, ditches filled with skeletal figures, children. He looked at the last one and then handed them back. His expression wasn’t any different. Bland, accommodating, uninvolved.

“So, do you have anything to say?” the intelligence officer asked.

Himmler looked almost surprised by the question. “Am I to blame for the excesses of my subordinates?”

“Are you?”

Himmler seemed affronted. “Should I be?”


“Well, that’s just your opinion,” said Himmler.

The intelligence officer was about to suggest something else, but then Himmler asked, “Do you know when the food will be here?”

There was a knock on the door and a corporal brought in a tray with bread and thick slices of cheese. The intelligence officer set the tray down on the table and gestured for Himmler to eat. With a nod, Himmler began chewing on the bread and cheese.

“Good?” asked the intelligence officer.

Himmler smiled and nodded that, yes, it was good.

After that they talked some more. Himmler told him how he’d get terrible stomach cramps, but that he’d had an excellent masseur who also did his horoscope and was a wonderfully sympathetic person, who’d previously been a famous entertainer.

“Really?” asked the intelligence officer, wondering if Headquarters might know anything about it.

Then the door opened and three men came in. One was Colonel Murphy, commander of the unit. He’d just been made colonel two weeks earlier and was, by the intelligence officer’s own estimation, something of a massive prick. Along with him was Command Sergeant Major Austin, who wasn’t that much better, and an older man in the uniform of a captain in the Medical Corps named Wells, whom he had never seen before.

“How is everything?” asked Murphy.

“Everything is just fine, sir,” the intelligence officer answered.

“Any problems?”

“None at all, sir. He’s just had his lunch and before that he was telling me about how much he loves dancing.”

“You don’t know if he speaks English,” asked Murphy.

“No sir, I don’t believe he does.”

Himmler coughed, covering his mouth with his hand momentarily.

“What else did he talk to you about?”

“He has two children and doesn’t like dogs or gardening.”

“Ah,” said Murphy, like it might mean something.

“I showed him the photographs.”

“You did?” Murphy’s face colored. “You weren’t supposed to do that on your own. I was supposed to be there to record the reaction.”

“Well, there wasn’t much reaction, sir.”

“What do you mean, no reaction? Did he deny it?”

“He doesn’t seem to think it has anything to do with him, sir.”

“He doesn’t?” asked Murphy angrily. “You’ve ruined the whole thing. This was supposed to have been done in an expert way so we could maximize the effect and properly document the proceedings.”

The intelligence officer shrugged apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir, but the prisoner wanted to talk. So we talked. I merely obeyed the first rule of intelligence, ‘strike while the iron is hot!’”

Murphy didn’t like that. For the next two minutes he rained abuse down on his head, much to the amusement of Himmler, who grinned at him from his chair. He opened his mouth a crack and in that moment, the intelligence officer thought he saw something lodged in his upper back teeth.

“Sir,” he said to Murphy, sotto voice. “I think I just saw something in the prisoner’s mouth. Don’t turn, don’t say anything.”

“I thought you said he’s already been searched and poison has been removed.”

“Yes, sir, but ...”

“Plus you just fed him lunch. How is he going to eat a sandwich with a poison phial between his teeth?”


Murphy was livid. “You’ve completely fouled this investigation, captain.” He turned to Wells and barked, “You’re the doctor, examine the prisoner for poison.”

“Sir,” snapped Wells. “I am a doctor, not a detective. Let the sergeant conduct the search.”

At that, the young colonel exploded. “You will do as you’re told!” he shouted.

With much unpleasantness, Wells approached Himmler and began looking into his half-opened mouth. “Yes, I think I do see something in there in between his back teeth,” he said.

“Colonel,” said the sergeant, standing behind Himmler. “If you’d like, I can sandbag the prisoner.”

“No don’t,” said Murphy. “Look closer,” he shouted to Wells. “What do you see?”

Wells moved closer to Himmler, who had now shut his mouth. “Open your mouth,” he ordered.

But as Wells grabbed him, Himmler jerked his head back and bit down on what he had in his mouth. There was the tiny crunch of thin glass and the harsh smell of cyanide filled the air. Himmler fell to the floor, twitched a few times and then went still.
(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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