"I liked him. I made him the head of my SA. He is the only one of its heads that ran the SA properly. I gave him a dishevelled rabble. In a very short time he had organised a division of 11,000 men."— Adolf Hitler
Göring was born on 12 January 1893 at the Marienbad Sanatorium in Rosenheim, Bavaria. His father, Heinrich Ernst Göring (31 October 1839 – 7 December 1913), a former cavalry officer, had been the first Governor-General of the German protectorate of South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia). Heinrich had five children from a previous marriage. Göring was the fourth of five children by Heinrich's second wife, Franziska Tiefenbrunn (1859–15 July 1943), a Bavarian peasant. Göring's elder siblings were Karl, Olga, and Paula; his younger brother was Albert. At the time that Göring was born, his father was serving as consul general in Haiti, and his mother had returned home briefly to give birth. She left the six-week-old baby with a friend in Bavaria and did not see the child again for three years, when she and Heinrich returned to Germany.
Göring joined the Prince Wilhelm Regiment (112th Infantry) of the Prussian army in 1912. The next year his mother had a falling-out with Epenstein. The family was forced to leave Veldenstein and moved to Munich; Göring's father died shortly afterwards. When World War I began in August 1914, Göring was stationed at Mulhouse with his regiment.
During the first year of World War I, Göring served with his infantry regiment in the area of Mülhausen, a garrison town less than 2 km from the French frontier. He was hospitalized with rheumatism, a result of the damp of trench warfare. While he was recovering, his friend Bruno Loerzer convinced him to transfer to what would become, by October 1916, the Luftstreitkräfte ("air combat forces") of the German army, but his request was turned down. Later that year, Göring flew as Loerzer's observer in Feldflieger Abteilung 25 (FFA 25) – Göring had informally transferred himself. He was discovered and sentenced to three weeks' confinement to barracks, but the sentence was never carried out. By the time it was supposed to be imposed, Göring's association with Loerzer had been made official. They were assigned as a team to FFA 25 in the Crown Prince's Fifth Army. They flew reconnaissance and bombing missions, for which the Crown Prince invested both Göring and Loerzer with the Iron Cross, first class.
After completing the pilot's training course, Göring was assigned to Jagdstaffel 5. Seriously wounded in the hip in aerial combat, he took nearly a year to recover. He then was transferred to Jagdstaffel 26, commanded by Loerzer, in February 1917. He steadily scored air victories until May, when he was assigned to command Jagdstaffel 27. Serving with Jastas 5, 26, and 27, he continued to win victories. In addition to his Iron Crosses (1st and 2nd Class), he received the Zaehring Lion with swords, the Friedrich Order, the House Order of Hohenzollern with swords third class, and finally, in May 1918, the coveted Pour le Mérite. According to Hermann Dahlmann, who knew both men, Göring had Loerzer lobby for the award. He finished the war with 22 victories. A thorough post-war examination of Allied loss records showed that only two of his awarded victories were doubtful. Three were possible and 17 were certain, or highly likely.
On 7 July 1918, following the death of Wilhelm Reinhard, successor to Manfred von Richthofen, Göring was made commander of the famed "Flying Circus", Jagdgeschwader 1. His arrogance made him unpopular with the men of his squadron.
Göring remained in aviation after the war. He tried barnstorming and briefly worked at Fokker. After spending most of 1919 living in Denmark, he moved to Sweden and joined Svensk Lufttrafik, a Swedish airline. Göring was often hired for private flights. During the winter of 1920–1921, he was hired by Count Eric von Rosen to fly him to his castle from Stockholm. Invited to spend the night, Göring may at this time have first seen the swastika emblem, which Rosen had set in the chimney piece as a family badge.
Göring joined the Nazi Party in 1922 after hearing a speech by Hitler. He was given command of the Sturmabteilung (SA) as the Oberster SA-Führer in 1923. He was later appointed an SA-Gruppenführer (Lieutenant General) and held this rank on the SA rolls until 1945. At this time, Carin—who liked Hitler—often played hostess to meetings of leading Nazis, including her husband, Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Ernst Röhm. Hitler later recalled his early association with Göring:
Hitler and the Nazi Party held mass meetings and rallies in Munich and elsewhere during the early 1920s, attempting to gain supporters in a bid for political power. Inspired by Benito Mussolini's March on Rome, the Nazis attempted to seize power on 8–9 November 1923 in a failed coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Göring, who was with Hitler heading up the march to the War Ministry, was shot in the leg. Fourteen Nazis and four policemen were killed; many top Nazis, including Hitler, were arrested. With Carin's help, Göring was smuggled to Innsbruck, where he received surgery and was given morphine for the pain. He remained in hospital until 24 December. This was the beginning of his morphine addiction, which lasted until his imprisonment at Nuremberg. Meanwhile, the authorities in Munich declared Göring a wanted man. The Görings—acutely short of funds and reliant on the good will of Nazi sympathizers abroad—moved from Austria to Venice. In May 1924 they visited Rome, via Florence and Siena. Göring met Mussolini, who expressed an interest in meeting Hitler, who was by then in prison.
Meanwhile, the NSDAP was in a period of rebuilding and waiting. The economy had recovered, which meant fewer opportunities for the Nazis to agitate for change. The SA was reorganised, but with Franz Pfeffer von Salomon as its head rather than Göring, and the Schutzstaffel (SS) was founded in 1925, initially as a bodyguard for Hitler. Membership in the party increased from 27,000 in 1925 to 108,000 in 1928 and 178,000 in 1929. In the May 1928 elections the party only obtained twelve seats out of an available 491. Göring was elected as a representative from Bavaria. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to a disastrous downturn in the German economy, and in the next election, the NSDAP won 6,409,600 votes and 107 seats in the Reichstag. In May 1931, Hitler sent Göring on a mission to the Vatican, where he met the Future Pope Pius XII.
One of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which had been in place since the end of World War I, stated that Germany was not allowed to maintain an air force. After the 1926 signing of the Kellogg–Briand Pact, police aircraft were permitted. Göring was appointed Air Traffic Minister in May 1933. Germany began to accumulate aircraft in violation of the Treaty, and in 1935 the existence of the Luftwaffe was formally acknowledged, with Göring as Reich Aviation Minister.
In the July 1932 election, the Nazis won 230 seats to become far and away the largest party in the Reichstag. By longstanding tradition, the Nazis were thus entitled to select the President of the Reichstag, and were able to elect Göring for the post.
Göring was appointed Reich Master of the Hunt in 1933 and Master of the German Forests in 1934. He instituted reforms to the forestry laws and acted to protect endangered species. Around this time he became interested in Schorfheide Forest, where he set aside 100,000 acres (400 km) as a state park, which is still extant. There he built an elaborate hunting lodge, Carinhall, in memory of his first wife, Carin. By 1934, her body had been transported to the site and placed in a vault on the estate. The main lodge had a large art gallery where Göring displayed works that had been plundered from private collections and museums around Europe from 1939 onward. Göring worked closely with the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce), an organisation tasked with the looting of artwork and cultural material from Jewish collections, libraries, and museums throughout Europe. Headed by Alfred Rosenberg, the task force set up a collection centre and headquarters in Paris. Some 26,000 railroad cars full of art treasures, furniture, and other looted items were sent to Germany from France alone. Göring repeatedly visited the Paris headquarters to review the incoming stolen goods and to select items to be sent on a special train to Carinhall and his other homes. The estimated value of his collection—numbering some 1,500 pieces—was $200 million.
Hitler was deeply concerned that Ernst Röhm, the chief of the SA, was planning a coup. Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich plotted with Göring to use the Gestapo and SS to crush the SA. Members of the SA got wind of the proposed action and thousands of them took to the streets in violent demonstrations on the night of 29 June 1934. Enraged, Hitler ordered the arrest of the SA leadership. Röhm was shot dead in his cell when he refused to commit suicide; Göring personally went over the lists of detainees—numbering in the thousands—and determined who else should be shot. At least 85 people were killed in the period of 30 June to 2 July, which is now known as the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler admitted in the Reichstag on 13 July that the killings had been entirely illegal, but claimed a plot had been under way to overthrow the Reich. A retroactive law was passed making the action legal. Any criticism was met with arrests.
Joseph Goebbels and Himmler were far more antisemitic than Göring, who mainly adopted that attitude because party politics required him to do so. His deputy, Erhard Milch, had a Jewish parent. But Göring supported the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, and later initiated economic measures unfavourable to Jews. He required the registration of all Jewish property as part of the Four Year Plan, and at a meeting held after Kristallnacht was livid that the financial burden for the Jewish losses would have to be made good by German-owned insurance companies. He proposed that the Jews be fined one billion marks.
During a cabinet meeting in September 1936, Göring and Hitler announced that the German rearmament programme must be sped up. On 18 October, Hitler named Göring as Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan to undertake this task. Göring created a new organisation to administer the Plan and drew the ministries of labour and agriculture under its umbrella. He bypassed the economics ministry in his policy-making decisions, to the chagrin of Hjalmar Schacht, the minister in charge. Huge expenditures were made on rearmament, in spite of growing deficits. Schacht resigned on 8 December 1937, and Walther Funk took over the position, as well as control of the Reichsbank. In this way, both of these institutions were brought under Göring's control under the auspices of the Four Year Plan. In July 1937, the Reichswerke Hermann Göring was established under state ownership – though led by Göring – with the aim of boosting steel production beyond the level which private enterprise could economically provide.
On several occasions over the course of the trial, the prosecution showed films of the concentration camps and other atrocities. Everyone present, including Göring, found the contents of the films shocking; he said that the films must have been faked. Witnesses, including Paul Koerner and Erhard Milch, tried to portray Göring as a peaceful moderate. Milch stated it had been impossible to oppose Hitler or disobey his orders; to do so would likely have meant death for oneself and one's family. When testifying on his own behalf, Göring emphasised his loyalty to Hitler, and claimed to know nothing about what had happened in the concentration camps, which were under Himmler's control. He gave evasive, convoluted answers to direct questions and had plausible excuses for all his actions during the war. He used the witness stand as a venue to expound at great length on his own role in the Reich, attempting to present himself as a peacemaker and diplomat before the outbreak of the war. During cross-examination, chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson read out the minutes of a meeting that had been held shortly after Kristallnacht, a major pogrom in November 1938. At the meeting, Göring had plotted to confiscate Jewish property in the wake of the pogrom. Later, David Maxwell-Fyfe proved it was impossible for Göring not to have known about the Stalag Luft III murders—the shooting of fifty airmen who had been recaptured after escaping from Stalag Luft III—in time to have prevented the killings. He also presented clear evidence that Göring knew about the extermination of the Hungarian Jews.
After the Fall of France, Hitler awarded Göring the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross for his successful leadership. During the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony, Hitler promoted Göring to the rank of Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches (Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich), a special rank which made him senior to all field Marshals in the military, including the Luftwaffe. As a result of his promotion, he was then the top ranking soldier of all Germany until the end of the war. Göring had already received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 30 September 1939 as Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe.
The UK had declared war on Germany immediately after the invasion of Poland. In July 1940, Hitler began preparations for an invasion of Britain. As part of the plan, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had to be neutralized. Bombing raids commenced on British air installations and on cities and centres of industry. Göring had by then already announced in a radio speech, "If as much as a single enemy aircraft flies over German soil, my name is Meier!", something that would return to haunt him, when the RAF began bombing German cities on 11 May 1940. Though he was confident the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF within days, Göring, like Admiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine (navy), was pessimistic about the chance of success of the planned invasion (codenamed Operation Sea Lion). Göring hoped that a victory in the air would be enough to force peace without an invasion. The campaign failed, and Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely on 17 September 1940. After their defeat in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe attempted to defeat Britain via strategic bombing. On 12 October 1940 Hitler cancelled Sea Lion due to the onset of winter. By the end of the year, it was clear that British morale was not being shaken by the Blitz, though the bombings continued through May 1941.
In July 1941, Göring issued a memo to Reinhard Heydrich ordering him to organise the practical details of a solution to the "Jewish Question". By the time that this letter was written, many Jews and others had already been killed in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere. At the Wannsee Conference, held six months later, Heydrich formally announced that genocide of the Jews of Europe was now official Reich policy. Göring did not attend the conference, but he was present at other meetings where the number of people killed was discussed.
Meanwhile, the strength of the US and British bomber fleets had increased. Based in Britain, they began operations against German targets. The first thousand-bomber raid was staged on Cologne on 30 May 1942. Air raids continued on targets further from England after auxiliary fuel tanks were installed on US fighter aircraft. Göring refused to believe reports that American fighters had been shot down as far east as Aachen in winter 1943. His reputation began to decline.
Göring was noted for his patronage of music, especially opera. He entertained frequently and sumptuously, and hosted elaborate birthday parties for himself. Armaments minister Albert Speer recalled that guests brought expensive gifts such as gold bars, Dutch cigars, and valuable artwork. For his birthday in 1944, Speer gave Göring an oversize marble bust of Hitler. As a member of the Prussian Council of State, Speer was required to donate a considerable portion of his salary towards the Council's birthday gift to Göring without even being asked. Field Marshal Erhard Milch told Speer that similar donations were required out of the Air Ministry's general fund. For his birthday in 1940, Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano decorated Göring with the coveted Collar of Annunziata. The award reduced him to tears.
Göring's name is closely associated with the Nazi plunder of Jewish property. His name appears 135 times on the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) Red Flag Names List. compiled by US Army intelligence in 1945-6 and declassified in 1997.
Captain Gustave Gilbert, a German-speaking US intelligence officer and Psychologist, interviewed Göring and the others in prison during the trial. Gilbert kept a journal, which he later published as Nuremberg Diary. Here he describes Göring on the evening of 18 April 1946, as the trials were halted for a three-day Easter recess:
One theory as to how Göring obtained the poison holds that US Army Lieutenant Jack G. Wheelis, who was stationed at the Nuremberg Trials, retrieved the capsules from their hiding place among Göring's personal effects that had been confiscated by the Army and handed them over to the prisoner, after being bribed by Göring, who gave him his gold watch, pen, and cigarette case. In 2005, former US Army Private Herbert Lee Stivers, who served in the 1st Infantry Division's 26th Infantry Regiment—the honour guard for the Nuremberg Trials—claimed he gave Göring "medicine" hidden inside a fountain pen that a German woman had asked him to smuggle into the prison. Stivers later said that he did not know what was in the pill until after Göring's suicide.
Göring was flown to Camp Ashcan, a temporary prisoner-of-war camp housed in the Palace Hotel at Mondorf-les-Bains, Luxembourg. Here he was weaned off dihydrocodeine (a mild morphine derivative)—he had been taking the equivalent of three or four grains (260 to 320 mg) of morphine a day—and was put on a strict diet; he lost 60 pounds (27 kg). His IQ was tested while in custody and found to be 138. Top Nazi officials were transferred in September to Nuremberg, which was to be the location of a series of military tribunals beginning in November.