HCH 18 / September 2017
Heydrich: The Hangman, by Jared Sorhaindo
(Heydrich caricaturized on the cover of TIME Magazine: February 23, 1942)
Reinhard Heydrich was in many ways the personification of 20th century totalitarianism. The security chief of the Third Reich, he was more responsible than anyone else for creating the police state that spread its tentacles throughout German society and into Nazi-occupied Europe. More than anyone other than his chief Heinrich Himmler and the Führer, he was the chief architect of the Holocaust. Contemporaries described him as “wolf-like” and “demonic”, a man of sinister intellect who overshadowed Himmler (Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, they said – “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). He appeared to many of those who worked with him as completely devoid of human warmth – the German historian Joachim Fest wrote in an important essay on Heydrich that the man radiated a “Luciferian coldness.” His biographer Robert Gerwarth makes the careful and important point in his book Hitler’s Hangman that many of these men had reason to paint him in as brutal colors as possible – some, though not all, of the descriptions came after the war, when these men of the SS and SD were trying to distance themselves desperately from the man who had become known to history as The Butcher of Prague and The Hangman. Nonetheless, there must have been a core of truth to it. He was legitimately feared in his lifetime by other Nazis – he had dirt on them, and had shown throughout his loathsome career that he was not afraid to use this tactic to end careers, and lives. He had proven throughout the 1930s that he was willing to walk over anyone and everyone’s corpse to attain power.
Heydrich’s name is, of course, well known to anyone who is well-read (or not even that well-read) in the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. But at the same time, he is ultimately a shadowy figure. Center stage is taken by Hitler, Himmler, or Heydrich’s subordinate Eichmann, who has become one of the major symbols of Nazi evil not due to any rank held, but to his responsibility for rounding up and dispatching millions of Jews to their deaths. Despite the importance and centrality of Heydrich’s role, he appears somehow always off screen, a mysterious phantom just tantalizingly out of reach of the reader. I can think of no other prominent Nazi leader save Bormann of whom this is true. But it was Heydrich who drew up the policies that Eichmann implemented. He ordered ghettoization, the Jewish Councils (Judenräte), deportations, the creation and operations of the mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen), the marking of Germany’s Jews with the yellow star, and, the act for which he is perhaps most notorious, chaired the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was streamlined. But somehow he is always just off-stage.
He stares at us through narrow eyes in the official photographs, somehow blasting us with that “Luciferian coldness” through the page (or computer screen) and over the distance of seven decades. I remember watching a scene in an old History Channel documentary in which Heydrich is walking out of a building through a phalanx of onlookers. He walks right up to the camera and stares into it with such an intense and predatory look before turning away that I was jolted from my seat, my heart jumping up to my throat. I had recorded the program and rewound it back a couple of seconds. Sure enough, even though I knew what was coming, every time Heydrich fixed me with that glance (and I did feel that he was looking at me, and even through me), my body gave the same biological response. In watching this scene, my body was instinctively reacting not to a man, but to a wild animal. When I saw the same couple of seconds being played on another documentary that I was watching recently, the same thing happened – a fight or flight reflex kicked in.
Who was this man? He was born in Halle an der Saale, northwest of Leipzig in Saxony-Anhalt, on March 7, 1904. He was too young to fight in the First World War, but the reverberations from that war certainly shaped his outlook. His childhood was filled with revolutionary violence from the radical left, and their violent suppression by the radical right, which certainly shaped his later political views. His father, a composer, owned and operated a Conservatory. As Heydrich’s biographer Gerwarth explains, Heydrich’s father has been unfairly untarnished as a third-rate composer in hindsight not because of his actual musical talents or lack thereof, but because of the nefarious reputation of his son. Heydrich himself was from a young child a talented musician, playing violin concerts well into adulthood, supposedly playing Haydn while sentimentally weeping. This from a man who ordered the deaths of millions with a heart of granite (or “of iron”, as Hitler said admiringly at Heydrich’s funeral in June 1942).
Heydrich’s father Bruno is not unimportant because a man who felt slighted by Bruno accused him of being Jewish. This was not true. But Bruno’s stepfather was named Süss, a common Jewish surname at the time. Süss was not Bruno’s biological father, nor was he Jewish, but nonetheless rumors of Jewish blood chased Bruno (and his son Reinhard) throughout the rest of his life. Some have ascribed Heydrich’s later murderous anti-Semitism to being in reaction to this false accusation of Jewish blood; perhaps he believed he was Jewish, and in seeking relentlessly to destroy the Jews of Europe, he was in fact really seeking to extinguish the Jew in himself. As in most psychoanalytical history, this does not hold much water.
Heydrich, always fascinated with all things military and grated by the fact that he had missed out on the Great War, joined the Navy at the age of 18. There he was apparently an efficient officer although disliked by his subordinates for his arrogant attitude. In a further sign of his arrogance, he impregnated a lover and then refused to wed her; the woman’s father brought him before a court of honor, which cashiered him, not so much for the offense as for the high-handed demeanor with which he carried himself in court.
Heydrich was, in fact, already engaged at that point, to his future wife Lina von Osten, a decidedly Lady Macbeth-type figure. While Heydrich at this point was fairly apolitical (although sympathetic to the parties of the radical right), his wife was a convinced Nazi and came from a family of others of like mind. After Heydrich was dismissed from his post as an officer, he locked himself in his apartment and wept for days; this was a man who had gloried in the uniform, and what would he do now for a career? He was finished, he thought. This was, after all, the time of the Great Depression. Through her connections, his fiancée was able to set up a meeting with the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who was keen on setting up a counterintelligence unit of his organization. Wrongly believing that Heydrich had been an intelligence officer in the Navy (he had in fact been a communications officer), Himmler agreed to meet with Heydrich and told the young man to demonstrate how he would organize a spy agency. Heydrich drew up a plan based upon his knowledge of spy novels and Himmler was impressed. Heydrich was hired and, drawn by the quasi-military nature of the SS and happy to have a job again (and happy to please his rabid Nazi of a wife), he accepted the position. This, born of largely if not entirely opportunistic motives, was to be the watershed moment of what would become an almost unimaginably murderous career.
Heydrich worked around the clock, arriving at his desk very early and only leaving very late, on an exceedingly modest salary. Nonetheless, he seems to have found his passion. The SS intelligence service that he created from scratch became known as the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, or SD). Heydrich set about drawing up index cards of anyone and everyone, enemies and even friends, gathering dirt on individuals to use later in the pursuit of power. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Heydrich deployed these index cards to round up leftist political opponents, who were thrown into concentration camps such as Dachau. In 1934, he was a crucial player during the Night of the Long Knives, when the SS murdered key leaders of the SA to rid Hitler of a potentially dangerous enemy to his right. Heydrich was instrumental in drawing up the death lists in this purge. Later, he and Himmler were able to take over the Bavarian police and, in April 1934, the Gestapo, which beforehand had only operated in Prussia (albeit the largest German state) under the auspices of Hitler’s deputy Hermann Göring. In 1936, Himmler became the chief of the police in every German state and with him came Heydrich, who took operational control. He used his power as Gestapo chief to pre-emptively arrest anyone who might be a threat to the Nazis, or anyone he might not like. He incarcerated such individuals in concentration camps or even had them killed. While Heydrich had almost complete sway over individuals outside of the concentration camp gates, that is where his authority stopped – this hindrance later led Heydrich to clash with Theodor Eicke, first commandant of Dachau and then head of the entire concentration camp system.
After the Anschluss of March 1938, in which Germany annexed Austria, Heydrich oversaw the forced emigration of Austrian Jews, executed through the office of the aforementioned Eichmann. At this point, Jews were not being forcibly deported to ghettos or camps, but rather abroad – anywhere, just out of the Nazis’ hair. This was to be Eichmann’s grooming before he deployed his considerable talents to transporting the Jews to the gas chambers. Heydrich was also instrumental in the notorious pogrom of Kristallnacht, which occurred throughout the Reich (including Austria) in November 1938. Heydrich ordered that any fires raging in synagogues or Jewish shops or homes should not be stopped unless if the flames endangered “Aryan” dwellings or places of business. Jewish homes and shops could be destroyed, but not looted (we don’t want to look like hooligans, after all!). As long as everything was “proper,” the police were not to interfere with the pogrom. In the end, nearly 100 Jews were murdered, hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned shops destroyed, and 30,000 Jews sent to concentration camps. In January 1939, Hermann Göring charged Heydrich with organizing a solution to the Jewish “question” within the Reich.
In order to begin what became the Second World War, Hitler needed a pretext, even a flimsy one. Heydrich carried out a plan whereby Polish-speaking SS men “captured” a German radio station on the German-Polish border. The bodies of “Poles” were provided by dead concentration camp prisoners. Using this staged incident as well as the supposed depredations of Poles on ethnic Germans within Poland (some of which was factual), Hitler launched his armies on September 1, 1939, beginning the Second World War. Following the army into Poland were SS and police units organized by Heydrich to fulfil the “cleansing” of Poland and the extermination of its intelligentsia, including priests, lawyers, academics, journalists, and others. The purpose was to destroy the Polish nation. Heydrich had delicately come to an arrangement with the army such that these Einsatzgruppen technically worked under military auspices but in reality took their orders directly from him, Heydrich. After the conquest of Poland and the handover of control from military to civilian authorities, Heydrich, acting on orders from Hitler and Himmler and operating through Adolf Eichmann, began the diabolical re-engineering of Poland. Poles and Jews were deported from western Polish territory annexed to Germany to make room for ethnic Germans from the Baltic States and Ukraine. German-looking Polish children were stolen from their families and taken to Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected by this.
Four weeks after the invasion of Poland, the Criminal Police was merged with the Security Police (the Gestapo and the SD) to form the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office, or RSHA), which was placed under Heydrich’s control, effectively placing him at the center of the National Socialist spider web. In Poland, Heydrich and his underlings, especially Eichmann, set about trying to “solve” the “Jewish question.” Poland was the heart of European Jewry. Heydrich ordered that the Jews be concentrated in ghettos in major cities near rail lines: ghettos were duly set up in major cities such as Warsaw, Kraków, and Łódź. At first, he had Eichmann toy with various places to dump these Jews: first near Lublin, in the eastern part of Nazi-occupied Poland, and then Madagascar, the island off of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Both schemes came to naught. But in the meantime, the Jews had been ghettoized, isolated from the rest of society, and were forced to live on top of one another, with little food and much disease. No “Final Solution” was yet in the offing, and the Jews were forced to stay in these confined spaces. Later, accommodations were made for them in the yawning maws of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka.
In the run-up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Heydrich set about organizing new Einsatzgruppen, who would be much more murderous than their forebears who had operated in Poland. They were ordered to murder all Comintern members, medium- and senior-ranking Communist party and state officials, and Jews in party and government posts. Because of the deliberate conflation of “Jew” and “Communist” in Nazi propaganda, this meant that these mobile killing units were essentially given carte blanche to kill any adult Jewish male. The Einsatzgruppen also made it their business to prod local anti-Semites to murder Jews in frantic pogroms, such as seen in Kaunas and Lviv, but to keep German “fingerprints” unseen so as to make the pogroms seem purely local in origin. Later on, the Einsatzgruppen’s brief extended beyond adult Jewish males: beginning particularly in August 1941, Jewish women and children were killed as well. In late August, 23,600 Jews were murdered in Kamenets Podolsky and, in September, 33,771 in the ravine of Babi Yar outside of Kiev. These were only the most notorious of the massacres. Heydrich was the primary author of all of this and when he visited his commanders in the field, he urged more radical measures and a higher body count.
Heydrich was in general one of the radical prods of the regime, particularly when it came to the Jews. In August 1941, both he and another fanatic, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, twisted Hitler’s arm to first mark the Jews of the Reich and then to deport them. Hitler was hesitant. He believed, as did so many Nazis, that Germany had never militarily lost the First World War; rather, it had only lost because of the disintegration of the home front, which the Nazis naturally blamed on Jews and socialists. Hitler was terrified of rocking the boat at this juncture and refused to either mark or deport the Jews. A month later, for whatever reason, he changed his mind – Heydrich was successful in introducing the yellow star to the Reich Jews (which he had first proposed at a meeting shortly after the Kristallnacht pogrom three years earlier). Furthermore, the Jews were deported out of the Reich. Jews in places like Minsk and Riga were shot to make room for the Reich Jews; beginning in December 1941, Jews from the Łódź Ghetto were sent to Chełmno to make room for the Reich Jews and, beginning in spring 1942, the Jews of the Lublin district were sent to Bełżec and Sobibór.
In addition to his responsibilities as the head of the RSHA, Heydrich was named the Acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (essentially the present-day Czech Republic) in September 1941 and was put up in Prague Castle. This gave him direct access to Hitler, whereas previously he had to go through Himmler. He announced that his goal was to “Germanize this Czech garbage” and set about crushing the Czech resistance through the adept use of carrots and sticks. The Czechs became quiescent and Heydrich, as was his wont, became exceedingly arrogant and careless. This would cost him his life in June 1942.
In November 1941, Heydrich had Eichmann send out invitations to a conference in the affluent suburb of Berlin, Wannsee. After a delay, the meeting convened on January 20, 1942. Its purpose was, essentially, to concretize Heydrich and the SS’ role as the spearhead against the Jews. Other ministries were to grasp the importance of the project and get in line. In this, the meeting was largely successful. During the meeting, Heydrich said that Europe would be swept east to west of Jews, who would be forced to work in labor columns building roads for the German armies until they were dead. Anyone who survived this murderous work would be “dealt with accordingly”: in other words, killed. Those incapable of working were implicitly to be murdered. According to Eichmann, the methods of killing Jews were intimately discussed at the meeting, scarcely 90 minutes long, at which the participants sipped brandy. It was determined that 11 million Jews – in countries under Nazi control, under the control of Germany’s allies, or in neutral/hostile countries – were to be subjected to the Final Solution. While none of the death camps (outside of the gas van station at Chełmno) were yet in operation, it was menacingly clear what was meant by this. After Heydrich was assassinated in Prague, Aktion Reinhard, comprising the camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka and administered out of Lublin, was named in his “honor.” These camps consumed some 1.7 million victims, predominantly Polish Jews.
As Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich had come to acquire a certain sense of international notoriety, appearing on the cover of TIME Magazine (February 23, 1942) in caricature form surrounded by nooses (due to his nickname of The Hangman). In addition, the Czech government-in-exile was feeling desperate to prove its worth to the Allies so that, after the defeat of the Nazis, it would get a proper seat at the table and its country would be able to win its independence (alas, it was to fall under crushing Communist rule until 1989). A Czech and Slovak team was trained by British special forces with the specific purpose of assassinating the ghoul ruling from Prague Castle. The team was later parachuted into Bohemia. After observing Heydrich and discovering his patterns, they attacked on May 27, 1942, firing guns and throwing grenades at Heydrich’s vehicle as he commuted to work. Like a horror movie villain, Heydrich jumped out of the car and chased his assassins, firing his pistol until he collapsed in pain. After a week of agony, Heydrich expired in a Prague hospital on June 4.
Hitler and Himmler spoke at his funeral, singing his praises as the ideal National Socialist, the “man with the iron heart” who could hardly be replaced. Hitler fumed at Heydrich’s idiocy and arrogance, driving through the streets of Prague with his car’s top down. He threatened to unleash hell in response, and he did. The Nazis got (false) information that a village outside of Prague, called Lidice, had harbored Heydrich’s killers. The entire male population of Lidice above the age of 16 was lined up and shot; the women were sent to concentration camps; and children, if of “suitable” racial appearance, were sent to German families or, if not, gassed at Chełmno. The village itself was destroyed: its buildings were demolished, and then the ruins detonated; the Nazis even salted the earth. A similar fate met another village, Lezaky. Thousands of people were executed to sate the Nazi bloodlust which was, in fact, insatiable.
Heydrich’s name stands alongside those of Hitler and Himmler as the most dastardly of the Nazi regime. Given his buildup of the German security state and his engineering of the Holocaust, his name should stand in the ring of dishonor of the 20th century, alongside not only Hitler and Himmler, but Stalin, Beria, and Mao Zedong. While students of the period are acquainted with his name, I have found all too often that he is not widely known by those with only a casual knowledge. His subordinate Eichmann, because of his sensational capture and trial in Jerusalem, is far better known. But the truth is that the Third Reich and its predatory policies are simply not understandable without looking at this man. He was, in a way, a microcosm of National Socialism itself: fanatical, utterly ruthless, and driven by a furious intensity toward power and domination. He loathed the Jews, and he murdered them in the millions. He despised the Catholic Church, in which he was baptized as a child, and hoped to one day bring about its ruin. He had supreme contempt for mankind, and so he terrorized, brutalized, and imprisoned hundreds of thousands, and brought misery to an entire continent. Indeed, for such a man, there is no more fitting epitaph than Aktion Reinhard, the program to exterminate Polish Jewry, and the destruction of Lidice. In the final analysis, Heydrich’s life’s work was a mountain of ashes and bones. His name and memory should send a chill down the spine of the entire civilized world.