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On the afternoon of July 2, 1936, Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler and a coterie of his senior officers paraded on foot through the winding cobblestone streets of Quedlinburg, one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in all Europe. Himmler’s staff had been planning the trip to the small city in central Germany for weeks. They ordered the streets to be cleaned and the old houses along the main thoroughfares to be painted. They draped Nazi banners from the rooftops and garlands along the walls. They rehearsed the SS band, drilled the local chapter of Hitler Youth and arranged for an SS photographer to record the proceedings from beginning to end. Nothing of importance was overlooked.

Dressed in a shiny black helmet, immaculate black uniform and tall black boots, Himmler made his way up the city’s Castle Hill. Pale and anemic-looking, with a spindly frame and a head one or two sizes too small for his body, he looked strangely out of place among his entourage of tall, athletic-looking SS men. He stopped to admire Quedlinburg’s splendid stone castle, then proceeded to its large medieval cathedral—the ultimate object of his pilgrimage. Himmler despised Christianity, a religion that preached compassion for the weak and the brotherhood of all men and accepted a Jew as the son of God. But the Quedlinburg cathedral guarded something of immense importance to him—the tomb of an obscure 10th-century German king, Heinrich I.

Himmler was enthralled by ancient history, and he wanted all SS men to share his passion. Indeed, he regarded the feudal past as a blueprint for the future glory of the Third Reich. He viewed Heinrich I as a great leader who could serve as a model for Adolf Hitler and planned to transform the cathedral’s dusty tomb into an SS shrine. Himmler stood at the foot of the crypt and gave a speech exhorting his officers to pay careful heed to Germany’s proud ancient past, “Just as a tree withers if its roots are removed, so a people fall if they do not honor their ancestors,” he later warned.

For years, scholars of the Third Reich have ridiculed Himmler’s intense interest in the German past, dismissing occasions such as his visit to Quedlinburg as the foolishness of a fanatic drunk on power. Even some senior Nazis poked fun at his ardor for history. As Albert Speer, Hitler’s former chief architect, jeered after the war, Himmler “was half schoolmaster, half crackpot.” But Himmler was deadly serious about returning the Third Reich to the lost golden age of his imagination. In 1935 he founded a large SS research institute, employing more than 100 German scholars to study the past and help tutor SS men in the ways of their ancestors. With such research, he intended to transform vast stretches of the Reich into medieval fiefdoms ruled by SS lords, a plan he began acting on before the war. Far from being a dreamer lost in fantasy, Himmler was a careful, methodical planner who worked diligently toward this sinister future in much the same tireless way that he labored on creating the concentration camp system and implementing a “final solution.” Indeed, these were the twin poles of his existence, the yin and yang of his world: the squalid, crowded camps and the sunny SS farm villages.

Himmler set about constructing this future in three ways. He recruited tall, blond-haired men to the SS in order to scientifically rebreed what he believed was a primeval master race. With the help of his researchers, he instructed SS men and their families in ancient German religion, lore and farming practices. And before the war started, he began installing SS families in “feudal” villages of newly fabricated medieval-style houses. He planned to create thousands of these antique colonies in conquered lands across Eastern Europe. In this way, Himmler hoped to give birth to a new golden age, thereby reversing the decline of Western civilization and rescuing humanity from its mire. This was social engineering in its most swaggering, arrogant form—utopianism gone horribly wrong. But Himmler, who rose to become the second most powerful man in the Reich by early 1945 as Hitler’s health failed, fully intended to carry out that plan if Nazi Germany won the war. Only crushing defeat by the Allies stopped him.

Himmler inherited his passion for ancient history and for scientific classification from his schoolmaster father, Gebhard. The elder Himmler had majored in philology at university, a discipline defined by the Athenaeum in 1892 as “a master science, whose duty is to present to us the whole of ancient life, and to give archaeology its just place by the side of literature.” Gebhard Himmler took a strong hand in the education of his sons. Often in the evenings, he and his wife read aloud to them from books on German history or from the sagas of the medieval European bards. Young Heinrich grew to love the old tales of savage violence and vengeance. Steeped in dark medieval lore, he had studiously memorized details of Germany’s most famous battles by the age of 10. In high school, his knowledge of ancient weaponry and warfare rivaled that of his teachers.

He did not make friends easily. He spent part of his childhood in a small town outside Munich, where Gebhard Himmler was a deputy headmaster at the local school. The students there discovered that Heinrich regularly reported their schoolyard pranks to his father, resulting in stern disciplinary action. So the other boys shunned him, going silent at his approach and resuming their conversations only when he was safely out of earshot. Rather than make amends, Heinrich determined to get the upper hand by supervising the after-class punishments that his father liberally doled out.

On vacations, Gebhard took his sons on visits to archaeological and historical sites. Together, they searched for rune stones to read and collected coins and small artifacts to study at home. Archaeology at the time was largely a science of classification. Its disciples sought to identify and sort artifacts into precisely defined categories, an important step toward making sense of objects recovered from the ground. Gebhard followed suit, classifying the family’s collection of artifacts and organizing them in a filing system he set up in a special room in their Munich apartment. Young Himmler relished this process of turning the chaos of ancient life into a rigid, unbending order, and the pleasure he took from it seems to have stayed with him all his life. Under his direction, concentration camp officials later issued prisoners color-coded badges so that individuals could be classified at a glance into one of 18 precise categories, from political prisoners to Gypsies.

At his father’s behest, Heinrich also developed an almost fanatical devotion to organization. He often noted in his diary the exact time of day, sometimes down to the minute, when he received letters and birthday greetings from friends and family members. He recorded the precise time his train departed from a station, as if in training to become an inspector, and kept a lengthy list of all the books he read, often penning the dates he started and finished each, followed by a few brief sentences neatly encapsulating his response to them. Everything, it seems, was to be observed, documented, organized and neatly pigeonholed.

By his late teens, however, he chafed under his father’s iron grip. World War I had ended in Germany’s defeat, leaving the German economy in ruins. Eager to escape to a simpler, more bucolic world, Himmler decided to study agriculture, enrolling at what is now called the Technical University of Munich. There he developed an intense personal interest in breeding livestock—both animal and human. To Himmler, a born micromanager, it was one way of perfecting an increasingly imperfect and troubled modern world. Around this time he fully embraced right-wing political extremism. He joined the Nazi party in the summer of 1923, and when the first volume of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, came out two years later, he fell upon it like a starving man.

Himmler was much struck by Hitler’s ideas on the origins of the German people. The Nazi party leader believed that many of his countrymen could trace at least part of their pedigree to a primordial master race—the Aryans, who had brought civilization to a primitive world. This was pure fiction, but Hitler employed it skillfully to stroke German vanity. “All human culture,” he wrote, “all the results of art, science, and technology that we see before us today, are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan.” The world had lost its spark of genius, he argued, when the Aryans married into lesser races, thereby diluting their superior blood.

Himmler found these ideas of a lost Aryan golden age immensely appealing. He had long soaked up tales of feudal lords and kings, soldiers and peasants, Teutonic knights and Roman emperors. Indeed, nearly a third of the books that he had read since his teenage years explored historical subjects. In the charismatic Hitler, he believed, he had at last found someone who shared his passion for the past.

Hitler saw something appealing in Himmler as well: a deep, unwavering fervor and a blind obedience to his authority that he demanded of all members of his inner circle. Himmler, who had served the party well as a young election campaigner, also showed signs of organizational genius. So in January 1929, Hitler placed him at the head of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, an elite bodyguard formed four years earlier. The SS had, however, failed to live up to Hitler’s expectations, and he thought it was time for a major shake-up.

Himmler was hungry to succeed in his new post and began reorganizing the SS from top to bottom. He ended the chaotic group meetings where SS men merely lounged about, smoking and telling stories and boasting about the Communist heads they had smashed. With Himmler at the helm, members paraded in a brisk military drill before each meeting. They sang SS songs and listened attentively to the political speeches that consumed most of the meetings. By the end of 1931, the SS boasted 10,000 members, with stacks of new applications arriving daily.

Still Himmler was far from satisfied. In his own mind, he saw SS men as the new aristocracy of the Third Reich: human livestock that could be used to rebreed the old master race. In 1931 he instructed his senior staff to accept only young males who possessed traits of the Aryan—or, as the SS preferred to call it, the Nordic—race. To select these men, Himmler’s advisers developed a racial grading system and approached their work, as Himmler later noted, “like a nursery gardener trying to reproduce a good old strain which has been adulterated and debased; we started from the principles of plant selection and then proceeded quite unashamedly to weed out the men whom we did not think we could use for the build-up of the SS.”

The examiners required applicants to take a medical examination and submit both a detailed genealogy chart and a set of photographs of themselves. In the SS offices, examiners pored over these pictures, searching for supposed Nordic traits—long head, narrow face, flat forehead, narrow nose, angular chin, thin lips, tall slender body, blue eyes, fair hair. They rated the physiques of the applicants on a scale of one to nine, then graded them on a five-point scale from “pure Nordic” to “suspected non-European blood components.” They also scanned the men’s family medical histories, searching for congenital illness. Finally they decided. A green card meant “SS suited”; red marked rejection.

Those accepted into the SS were encouraged to think of themselves as a new genetic aristocracy. While most Germans of the day traveled on the country’s superb system of urban trains, for example, a fleet of drivers in private cars chauffeured SS officers around to their appointments. And Himmler made certain that his SS men looked trim and elegant. The German firm Hugo Boss supplied their uniforms. In contrast to the scruffy brown tunics and pants of another security force, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, Himmler’s men were decked out impressively in black with silver collar-flashes. On their hats, they wore a silver death’s head, an ominous touch that supposedly symbolized “duty until death.” Such sartorial splendor clearly served a dual purpose. It intimidated victims and was also meant to add to the men’s sex appeal, boosting the chances of “success with the girls,” as Himmler once candidly remarked to a potential recruit.

Himmler, after all, was particularly keen on making his men as attractive as possible to women. But like any careful breeder, he did not want his prize stock to mate with just any partner. Potential wives had to undergo racial screening themselves after December 21, 1931, submitting medical reports, genealogy charts and photographs to SS racial examiners. If they found fault with the racial quality of a woman, Himmler would deny his permission for the couple to marry. Only in this way, Himmler believed, could the SS breed a new master race; Germany’s future depended on this. “Should we succeed in establishing this Nordic race again from and around Germany,” he later observed in a speech to SS leaders, “and inducing them to become farmers and from this seedbed produce a race of 200 million, then the world will belong to us.”

Even so, it was not enough to rebreed a racial elite in Himmler’s view. He wanted SS recruits to think and live as their ancestors had. So on July 1, 1935, Himmler founded a new SS research institute to reconstruct all aspects of primeval German culture. Officially, the organization was known as the “Deutsche Ahnenerbe” Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte—meaning “German Ancestral Heritage” Society for the Study of the History of Primeval Ideas. But most soon began calling it the “Ahnenerbe.”

In 1939 Himmler relocated the headquarters of the rapidly growing institute into a grand villa in one of Berlin’s wealthiest neighborhoods and secured for it ample funding. He equipped it with laboratories, libraries and museum workshops, and he personally supervised its operations. At its peak before the war, the Ahnenerbe counted 137 German scholars and scientists on its payroll, many of whom possessed doctorates and taught at German universities.

At Himmler’s urging, the staff studied a broad range of subjects, from ancient Germanic building styles to old “Nordic” horse breeds and primeval musical instruments. Himmler even asked the Ahnenerbe researchers to study the sexual practices of ancient Germanic tribes—presumably so he could develop guidelines for SS men on the most propitious times for having sexual relations.

Like other senior Nazis, Himmler believed the future master race needed to be weaned from the moral decay of the cities and restored to the rustic lives of their forefathers. One of Himmler’s close colleagues, Richard Walther Darré, had argued in 1929 in a book titled Farming as a Source of Life for the Nordic Race that it was the old agricultural traditions that had refined and honed Nordic men and women into a superior race. In times past, suggested Darré, each farmer had picked just one son—the strongest, toughest and most courageous—to inherit his land. As a result, only the very fittest had farmed the fields over generations, creating a superior human bloodline. Himmler agreed with this analysis. “The yeoman on his own acre,” he once observed piously, “is the backbone of the German people’s strength and character.”

As the leader of the SS, Himmler resolved to settle as many of his men and officers as possible in special farm communities in Germany. He ordered senior SS officials to prepare plans for those settlements, drawing on Ahnenerbe research. The communities were to take a standard, cookie-cutter form. At the heart of each was an outdoor amphitheater known in Nazi parlance as a Thingplatz. The idea was borrowed from the old Scandinavian Thing, an assembly of free men who met in a field or village common to elect chieftains and resolve disputes. The SS Thingplatz, however, was far less democratic. Himmler envisioned it as a place where SS families would hold torchlight rallies, stage SS solstice celebrations and present their own propaganda plays.

Each colony would also have a shooting range and a distinctive graveyard where the living could honor the dead. It would have buildings to house local branches of the Nazi party, the SS and Hitler Youth, as well as a variety of Nazi women’s organizations. And it would have a Sportplatz, where young men and women in the community could receive physical training in a wide range of sports and gymnastics. Hitler himself had stressed the importance of such training. Sport, he had noted in Mein Kampf, would “make the individual strong, agile and bold” and “toughen him and teach him to bear hardships.” Such training, he further opined, would produce both defiant men and “women who are able to bring men into the world.”

The colony’s wooden farmhouses would be spacious and solidly built, as befitting homes of a master race. SS planners favored a primeval housing style known as Wohnstallhaus, which dated back at least to the Roman era in Germany—and possibly earlier. One basic design called for a long, narrow building of nearly 9,500 square feet that combined both the family home and barn under one roof. The front half of the spacious building featured a downstairs parlor and a roomy kitchen, where several small children could run about freely, as well as a number of bedrooms upstairs. The back half housed the family’s stable and a barn for chickens, pigs and cattle. But the design was very flexible. SS men could add on more space as new babies arrived.

Everyone in the settlement would be expected to observe SS doctrine. Simply stated, this meant maintaining the purity of their Nordic bloodlines at all costs and producing as many children as possible. To prove the purity of its lineage, each family would be required to keep a detailed genealogical chart of its ancestors, as well as a copy of its Sippenbuch, or clan history. Moreover, settlers would be encouraged to research and display their clan symbols and family coat of arms.

Under Himmler’s direction, the plans rapidly took shape, and in 1937 the SS set to work founding its first model colony in the old, historic village of Mehrow, east of Berlin. It purchased part of a large estate from the daughter of a Berlin industrialist for a reported 1 million Reichsmarks, the equivalent of some $5.2 million today. Officials then proceeded to slice the property up among just 12 SS families. The largest block of land—some 100 acres—was given to an SS doctor. Smaller parcels then went to men of lower ranks. Before long, medieval-looking farmhouses dotted the landscape, each inhabited by an SS family.

But the SS could not hope to buy land enough to settle all its officers and men in rural bliss in Germany and Austria before the war. The costs were simply too steep. Still, Himmler had great hopes for the future, particularly after Germany claimed a stunning victory in Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in 1941.

During the summer of 1942, senior SS officers were struck by the high spirits of their leader. Himmler had taken great pleasure in the fall of Sevastopol on July 4, which significantly expanded German control of the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine. In the glow of victory, he began focusing his energies once again on the massive colonization project that had been turning and evolving in his mind for more than a decade. With its seemingly invincible army, the Third Reich had swallowed up much of Eastern Europe and an impressive swath in the western Soviet Union, and Himmler hoped to transform the richest farmlands in the new territories into feudal estates ruled by SS or Nazi party overlords. After organizing the mobile execution squads in Russia and overseeing the design of the first death camp in Poland, he welcomed the opportunity to turn his attention to the rural paradise he intended to build.

So in late January 1942, Himmler began working closely with a senior planner and agricultural scientist, Konrad Meyer, to develop a detailed blueprint to present to Hitler. The two men proposed planting three large German colonies in the East. One would encompass Leningrad and the lands directly south; the second would straddle northern Poland, Lithuania and southeastern Latvia; and the third would embrace the Crimea and the rich fields of southeastern Ukraine. Himmler estimated that it would take the Reich 20 years to completely “Germanize” those three regions. SS examiners would first have to select individuals living in the regions that they deemed racially valuable. These would be permitted to stay. Security forces would then expel all Slavs and other “racially unwanted” groups, killing most and enslaving the rest as “helots.”

The three regions would then be repopulated with small villages of ethnic German and SS settlers. Each village, Himmler explained to his personal physician Felix Kersten, “will embrace between thirty and forty farms. Each farmer [will receive] up to 300 acres of land, more or less according to the quality of the soil. In any case a class of financially powerful and independent farmers will develop. Slaves won’t till this soil; rather, a farming aristocracy will come into being, such as you still find on the Westphalian estates [in Germany].”

A “manor house” occupied by an SS or Nazi party leader would dominate each village. In addition, each settlement would feature a Thingplatz and a local party headquarters that Himmler envisioned as a “center for general intellectual training and instruction.” Himmler also planned to transform parts of the Russian steppes, with their sweeping grasslands, into his vision of a proper Teutonic homeland. “Germanic man,” he explained to Kersten, “can only live in a climate suited to his needs and in a country adapted to his character, where he will feel at home and not be tormented by homesickness.” So Himmler decided to plant thick groves of oak and beech trees to reproduce the ancient forests of northern Germany. “We’ll create a countryside something like that of Schleswig-Holstein,” he boasted.

Himmler was well aware that such a colonization scheme would help motivate SS officers to carry out his murderous orders. Many SS men had grown up in small, crowded apartments in German cities, and they craved what they saw as the outdoor life of a feudal lord: riding fine horses, dining on abundant fresh food and hunting game whenever they chose. As Himmler’s physician recalled after the war: “They all dreamed of the grand estates in the East that had been promised to them as the first fruits of victory. They waxed hot and eloquent on the subject. There were even quarrels, occasionally, over the exact dimensions of the farms that should be allotted to them, the comparative wealth of the reward according to the years of their service!”

So in early July 1942, Himmler began to press Hitler for a decision on his settlement plan. The Führer had privately ridiculed some of Himmler’s ideas on history, particularly his enthusiasm for Germany’s Iron Age tribes. “It’s bad enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts,” Hitler grumbled on one occasion to Albert Speer. “Now Himmler is starting to dig up these villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds.” But Hitler was pleased with Himmler’s program of racial selection in the SS. The countryside near his Alpine residence in Berchtesgaden, Hitler observed in April 1942, “is abounding with jolly and healthy young children,” thanks to the SS regiment stationed there. “It is a practice which must be followed; to those districts in which a tendency towards degeneracy is apparent we must send a body of elite troops and in ten or twenty years time the bloodstock will be improved out of all recognition.”

So Hitler listened attentively to Himmler as he presented his new plan for planting SS-led colonies along the far borders of the new Eastern territories. On July 16, 1942, the SS leader informed his physician that Hitler had at long last approved this massive settlement scheme. It was a great personal victory. Indeed, Himmler called it “the happiest day” of his life.

Such sweeping plans, involving the relocation of millions of people by rail, could not possibly be carried out in 1942—with a world war yet to win and the Final Solution to carry out. They would have to wait for victory. In the meantime, however, Himmler resolved to establish a small trial colony around his own field headquarters at Hegewald, not far from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. He proceeded with his customary blend of brutality and efficiency. On October 10, 1942, his troops began rounding up 10,623 Ukrainian men, women and children from around Hegewald, packing them at gunpoint into boxcars destined for labor camps in the south. By the middle of the month, many houses in the region stood eerily empty, with dishes still on the tables and linen neatly folded in the cupboards.

Soon after, trains began disgorging thousands of new settlers—ethnic German families forcibly removed from villages and towns in northern Ukraine. The local SS troops left them in no doubt, however, as to who ruled the new colony. SS agricultural specialists doled out parcels of land to the new arrivals and notified each family of the SS quotas of milk and produce that they would be required to meet. They also informed the settlers that they could expect to have their crops confiscated whenever the SS needed them.

This was not the sort of SS settlement Himmler had originally planned, but he intended to set matters straight as soon as Germany won the war, bestowing large parcels of land in the East on his SS men and officers. The opportunity never arrived. The tide of war turned against the Third Reich, forcing the SS leader to shelve the blueprint that he and Konrad Meyer had labored over so diligently. Soon after the German surrender in the spring of 1945, Himmler committed suicide. And in the months that followed, his senior officers found themselves housed in postwar internment camps, instead of the great estates they had been promised.

Today all that remains of Himmler’s sinister vision are a few former SS farmhouses straddling the road in Mehrow. ✯

Heather Pringle is a Canadian journalist whose work has appeared in the BBC History Magazine, Archaeology, Geo, National Geographic Traveler and Discover. She has written four books, including The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust (Hyperion, 2006).

This article was originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II.