Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Third Reich’s SS and police forces, had an obsession with delivering endless speeches. Many if not most of his speeches were delivered in front of non-public audiences usually consisting of high-profile personalities of politics and military. The topics Himmler covered reach from the mundane to the top secret. Surprisingly, many of these speeches were recorded and have been preserved, both as sound recordings and as transcripts. It is as if Himmler did not want to keep top secret issues a secret, but rather have them eventually announced to the world.
When it comes to the treatment of the Jews, Himmler’s attitude underwent a remarkable shift from late 1942 to late 1943. In 1942, he was talking about the National-Socialist policy of deportation and resettlement. For instance, in a speech of 23 November 1942, he stated:
“The Jewish question in Europe has completely changed. The Führer once said in a Reichstag speech: If Jewry triggers an international war, for example, to exterminate the Aryan people, then it won’t be the Aryans who will be exterminated, but Jewry. The Jews have been resettled outside Germany, they are living here, in the east, and are working on our roads, railways etc. This is a consistent process, but is conducted without cruelty.”
Not even a year later, Himmler gave two speeches in the West-Polish city of Poznan (German: Posen) where he gave a completely different picture of what his forces were in the process of committing. On 4 October 1943, he said in a brief passage of his long sermon in front of the gathered leadership of SS and police the following:
“I am thinking now of the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easy to say: ‘The Jewish people will be exterminated,’ says every Party comrade, ‘that is quite clear, it is in our program: deactivation [Ausschaltung] of the Jews, extermination; that is what we are doing.’ And then they all come along, these 80 million good Germans, and every one of them has his decent Jew. Of course, it is quite clear that the others are pigs, but this one is one first-class Jew. Of all those who speak this way, not one has looked on; not one has lived through it. Most of you know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 lie there, or if 1,000 lie there. To have gone through this, and at the same time, apart from exceptions caused by human weaknesses, to have remained decent, that has made us hard. This is a chapter of glory in our history which has never been written, and which never shall be written; since we know how hard it would be for us if we still had the Jews, as secret saboteurs, agitators, and slander-mongers, among us now, in every city – during the bombing raids, with the suffering and deprivations of the war. We would probably already be in the same situation as in 1916/17 if we still had the Jews in the body of the German people.
[…] We had the moral right, we had the duty to our own people, to kill [umzubringen] this people which wanted to kill us [umbringen].”
Here, Himmler uses the term “evacuation” and “deactivation” as equivalent with “extermination.” However, the National-Socialist’s program he refers to nowhere mentions extermination, but only rescinding the Jew’s citizenship, hence pushing them out of Germany. So, was “extermination” a word for “evacuation,” or vice versa?
This speech was not only recorded, but at war’s end, the Allies found a stash of shellac disks with that speech. In other words: Himmler had seen to it that his “secret” speech – containing stuff no one should ever talk about – was multiplied!
Just two days later, on 6 October 1943 and in that same city, Himmler was at it again, this time in front of the political elite of the Third Reich. In a brief excerpt from his long speech, we read the following (Smith/Peterson 1974, pp. 169f.):
“I ask of you that that which I say to you in this circle be really only heard and not ever discussed. We were faced with the question: what about the women and children? – I decided to find a clear solution to this problem too. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men – in other words, to kill them or have them killed and allow the avengers of our sons and grandsons in the form of their children to grow up. The difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth. For the organization which had to execute this task, it was the most difficult which we had ever had. […] I felt obliged to you, as the most superior dignitary, as the most superior dignitary of the party, this political order, this political instrument of the Führer, to also speak about this question quite openly and to say how it has been. The Jewish question in the countries that we occupy will be solved by the end of this year. Only remainders of odd Jews who managed to find hiding places will be left over.”
The following day, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary about Himmler’s speech, stating that Himmler had claimed, quote, “that the whole of Jewry will be exterminated,” thus corroborating what Himmler had stated (see the entry on Joseph Goebbels).
But it is all wrong. Great efforts were being made at that time to save the lives of the Jews incarcerated at Auschwitz, for example. The Jews in Hungary had not been touched, and no plans existed in October 1943 to change that. In Poland, nobody had yet been deported from the large ghetto of Lodz, and many other ghettos were still around as well. None of them had been “eliminated” by the end of 1943. In France, three quarters of the Jews remained unmolested until the end of the war. And in any case, it would have been technically impossible to kill and vaporize the 1.5 million or so Jews remaining under German control, in just under three months.
In truth, Himmler was something of a babbler who loved to hear himself talk tough. Despite all the talk about not spreading the word about what he was about to say, he had it all recorded for posterity to read and hear! It is clear that Himmler was a security liability for the Third Reich. Hitler wised up to him only toward the end of the war, when he had the secretive Heinrich Müller take over for Himmler.
While Himmler’s orders to his subordinates demanded ever-increasing efforts to save the lives of the Jews and to put everyone to productive work, in his speeches he ranted about having killed, by the end of 1943, each and every single Jew in the German sphere of influence his henchmen could lay their hands on. Himmler was a grandiloquent liar! Or perhaps just a typical politician.
He showed a little more restraint in a speech two and a half months later, on 16 December 1943, delivered to the commanders of the German Navy. In it, he mentioned the killing of partisans and political commissars, including their families, but not of all Jews within reach. That was closer to the truth, even though the order to execute the Red Army’s political commissars had been rescinded in May 1942 (see the entry on the Commissar Order), and since 1943, partisans weren’t shot automatically anymore either, if they operated as recognizable units.
(For more details, see Rudolf 2023, pp. 356-360.)