The Tegernsee, Heinrich Himmler, and the Night of the Long Knives

The Tegernsee proves once again that, whatever else one might think of the Nazi leadership, they had taste in real estate. A picturesque lake south of Munich, framed by mountains and towns that bring to mind the middle ages, the Tegernsee seems like the sort of lake from whose waters a lady’s hand, proffering a sword, might arise.

It was on the shores of this lake that SS overlord Heinrich Himmler owned a residence.

Himmler’s Home, as seen in May 1945. (from Third Reich in Ruins)
Himmler at the house, with his daughter Gudrun. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Himmler bought the house in 1934, moving out of the prefabricated residence he’d shared with his wife Margarete and their daughter Gudrun. It had the serious disadvantage of being a very long drive from the Obersalzberg complex. Because proximity to Hitler meant proximity to power, Himmler was often away from the Tegernsee house, leaving his wife and child to themselves. Margarete, taking her duties as First Hostess of the SS seriously, often invited the wives of other high-ranking SS leaders to tea at the Tegernsee house.

By 1938, Himmler had started an affair with his secretary, Hedwig Potthast. He eventually bought a home for her in Berchtesgaden, which allowed Himmler to divide his time more efficiently between his Fuehrer and his mistress. Because Margarete refused to make a fuss about her separation from Himmler in the way Magda Goebbels had about her husband’s affair with the actress Lida Baarova, Hitler (despite his reputation as a prude in matters of his subordinates’  marital conduct) didn’t interfere. Margerete and Gudrun continued to dwell at Tegernsee until they fled the advancing allied soldiers in 1945.

Also at Tegernsee lake is an inn that was in the center of an early power struggle within the Nazi state. About three miles north of Gmund is Bad Wiessee, a small town whose name tells all. “Bad” means spa, and Wiessee translates as “meadow lake”. One of the hotels here, Kurheim Hanselbauer, was the place where SA Chief Ernst Roehm and his cronies were partying on June 30th, 1934. It was late on that night that Adolf Hitler arrived with a troop of SS men to arrest Roehm and take him to his death.

Kurheim Hanselbauer, where Ernst Roehm was staying when Hitler arrested him for High Treason on June 30th, 1934

Hitler brought down his close comrade–Roehm was one of the few Nazis on a first name basis with the Fuehrer–for two reasons. Under Roehm’s leadership, the SA had grown to some four million men. Roehm’s success had made him bold and hungry for additional power. Specifically, he wanted the SA to supplant the Wehrmacht as Germany’s armed force, and he wanted to press the Nazi revolution deeper into economics, threatening the industrialists and traditional conservatives whose backing Hitler had courted to get into power. Roehm’s demands were becoming a complication Hitler didn’t feel he needed. But Hitler also got a push from Roehm’s deputies in the SS (then a subordinate organization within the SA), Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich and Himmler, who sensed an opportunity to advance by eliminating their boss, concocted evidence that Roehm was plotting a coup against Hitler. Hitler, after some convincing, believed them.

Hitler had Roehm and others with him taken to Stadelheim prison in Munich, where he offered Roehm the opportunity to commit suicide. When Roehm refused, Hitler gave the order to have Roehm shot. Afterwards, SS death squads hunted down other enemies of the regime. The SA was decapitated, at least 85 people were killed, and thousands were arrested. Hitler proclaimed himself supreme judge of the German people, and the Himmler’s bodyguard unit emerged as the new third leg in the strange tripod of Nazi government: the Party, the Ministries, and the SS.

Just another night on the Tegernsee in the 1930s.

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