The Life of HeydrichHitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, by Robert Gerwarth, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011.

Apart from Hitler, Nazism is generally associated with Göring, Goebbels and Himmler, by times Bormann, his most notorious accomplices in the destruction of Europe. Most of the time, we forget Heydrich the man in the shadows. We are wrong. Heydrich is the only Nazi leader who was assassinated during the war on direct order from Churchill. Why this special treatment? For once, Allied and Nazi sources agree:
– In October 1941 a British military intelligence report described Heydrich as “probably the second most dangerous man in German-occupied Europe after Hitler himself”.
– In June 1942, in his diary, Goebbels described the death of Heydrich “as the irreplaceable loss of the most radical and most successful persecutor of all enemies of the state.

Robert Gerwarth succeeded to write an exhaustive biography about Heydrich without casting a moral judgement as too often the case in books about Nazism and World War 2. He let the facts speak for themselves. To say the least, the facts speak loud and clear in “Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich”. Written by an historian specialized in German history, this book may well be the best introduction to the understanding of Nazism.

The assertion may seem paradoxical when some 40,000 books have already been published on Nazi Germany. But as Robert Gerwarth explains: “Nazi Germany was not a smoothly hierarchical dictatorship, but rather a ‘polycratic jungle’ of competing party and state agencies over which Hitler presided erratically.” No global approach, no synthesis can help understand the Nazi State. This is why it is instructive to follow the fortune and misfortune of an archetypal leader such as Heydrich.

At the head of the Bavarian police and SD (1934)

The Man

Reinhard Heydrich’s life provides a fascinating perspective because the man was entirely rational – contrary to Hitler. He entered relatively late in the national-socialist party, in 1931, after being dismissed from the Navy for a trivial cause (a broken affair with a general’s daughter). He was 27 and had never shown before very much interest in politics, apart from being a patriot. He had no Jewish background as many commentators (even historians) pretended.* Reinhard Heydrich was simply looking for a job and his mother had a friend whose son was a SA. At the time, the SS was a small squad created under the SA leadership to protect Hitler – nothing more than a group of glorified bodyguards.

Thanks to this distant connection, a meeting was organized between Himmler and Heydrich on 14 June 1931. It was love at first sight. Heydrich was hired immediately to develop an intelligence service within the SS – later to be known as Sicherheitsdienst or SD. In fact, Himmler had misinterpreted Heydrich’s function in the Navy (transmission officer, not intelligence officer). There was one condition though: Heydrich had to become a member of the National-Socialist Party…

Robert Gerwarth shows with subtlety how the first goal of the SS after Hitler’s seizure of power was the suppression of the left, which was done in a few months. The following year, it was the turn of the SA unruly leaders – Ernst Rohm in first place. But in 1935, there were no more internal threats to the Nazi government. This is the moment Himmler chose to extend police power by transforming criminality into a racial issue. Any deviant behaviour became an indication of ‘bad blood’. The Nazi State separated from all the previous reactionary dictatorships and transformed itself into a totalitarian State.

The Organizer of Jewish Persecution

There comes the Jewish question. Heydrich who had never shown much interest in the Jews, suddenly started to become obsessed with the Jewish question. He mentioned it in every speech and article he wrote. This is not to say he has become a theoretician of anti-Semitism: as a man of deeds, Heydrich was only interested in actions and results. He quickly became responsible of all affairs related to Jewish persecution. His approach consisted in forbidding the use of mob or party thugs violence to get rid of the Jews, and to favour administrative solutions, of course under his guidance.

As genocide was “still beyond the conceivable” Heydrich organized an orderly Jewish emigration. In the mid-thirties, Jews were already banned from most jobs; it was not very difficult to convince a majority of them to leave the country. However, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the problem was to convince other countries to open their doors. Heydrich issued an internal SD Memorandum in May 1934 specifying “that Zionist organizations openly promoting emigration to Palestine should be given preferential treatment over assimilationist organizations.”

In the autumn of 1936, Heydrich’s SD made contact with the Haganah underground movement in Palestine in order to facilitate emigration to this country. The man Heydrich put in charge of the negotiations was Adolf Eichmann. Feivel Polkes, the Haganah correspondent was invited to Berlin and then he reciprocated by inviting Eichmann to Haifa. But the results proved disappointing, though Heydrich’s conclusion was that the Zionists “were pleased with Germany’s radical Jewish policies… because they ensured the growth of the Jewish population in Palestine to such an extent that it was fairly certain that in the near future Jews would outnumber Arabs in Palestine”.

The invasion of Poland led to a series of Jews and educated Poles massacres by soldiers, and even by uncontrolled members of the SS. “Heydrich lost no time in threatening to arrest those Nazis who were responsible for mob violence”. However, Hitler’s ongoing victories put Heydrich in an untenable situation.Up to September 1939” estimates Robert Gerwarth, “Heydrich’s forced-emigration had led to a drop in the Jewish population of the Reich by more than half – from just over 500,000 to 215,000.”

The invasion of Poland cancelled out this result by bringing under Heydrich responsibility an additional 1.7 million Jews. With Austria and Czechoslovakia swallowed the previous year, this made up for a total of 2 million people. How to achieve the goal of a Jew-free German Empire? Interestingly enough, Robert Gerwarth asserts the Nazis had no plan to get rid of this massive Jewish population. Their first idea was to deport all Jews in a sort of ‘reservation’ in Eastern Poland. Heydrich even tried to send the Jews into Soviet occupied Polish territories. This solution obviously never materialized.

From Persecution to Massacre

Heydrich as a SS-Gruppenführer (1940)

Heydrich then decided to act swiftly, even before a geographical zone could be found for the future Jewish ‘reservation’ under German administration. He proposed to concentrate Jews in ghettos in larger cities for the purpose of facilitating their future deportation to a yet unknown destination. This is how Robert Gerwarth explains the ghettoization:
Heydrich clearly distinguished between ‘short-term measures’, notably the concentration of Polish Jews, and the ‘long-term goal’: the deportation and expulsion of all Jews in the region.

After the new victories on the western front (Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium, Netherlands…), the number of Jews under German control increased once again (Eichmann advanced the figure of 5.8 millions). It is at this moment that some Jewish affairs “specialists” brought the idea of Madagascar as a possible homeland for the Jews… But its implementation required a victory over Britain whose merchant fleet was indispensable for the envisaged deportation. Once again, the plan failed.

It is in November or December of 1940 that “Heydrich received the order from Hitler (via Göring) to prepare a first draft for a ‘final solution project’ to be implemented after the war’s end.” According to Robert Gerwarth, this was the first time Heydrich heard of mass murder of all the Jews, not only from Poland, but as well Germany, and all occupied countries including French colonies. Heydrich presented the plan to Göring in January 1941, but more importantly, from now on he never ceased to press his superiors to enter the operational phase of the project.

Hitler first rejected his zealous subordinate requests. As mentioned, deportations to extermination camps should only take place after the defeat of the Soviet Union. In September 1941, the magnitude of the Wehrmacht breakthrough on the Eastern Front incited Hitler to change his mind and to agree to the mounting pressures. Indeed, Heydrich was not the only proponent of the immediate application of the “final solution”, so were most Reich’s Gauleiters who wanted to turn their respective fiefdoms into ‘Jew free’ zones.**

Heydrich quickly developed a plan and convened the notorious Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942. Fourteen high ranking civil servants representing all concerned departments of the German government were invited to fine-tune details for the most comprehensive genocide of modern history. The majority of the guests had a doctorate, mainly in law. At this time, Heydrich’s project included all Jews living in Europe, including in neutral countries (Sweden, Turkey, Ireland…) and countries still at war (Great Britain and Russia). Roughly 11 millions Jews were affected by Heydrich’s plan.

The Hero

As an Anonymous Luftwaffe Pilot

Organizing the repression of the ever growing number of political opponents and the genocide of Jews, Gipsies and a few millions Slavic people, were not enough to satisfy Heydrich’s urge for action. Already a sports pilot, he had trained during the summer of 1939 to become a fighter pilot. Having successfully passed his examination, he asked Himmler the permission to join the fighting. In April 1940, disguised in an anonymous air force captain, he stayed four weeks in Oslo with Fighter Squadron 77, flying attacks on retreating Norwegian troops.

During the early Russian campaign, “in the general euphoria of imminent victory”, Heydrich did not want to miss out on fighting before the war was over.” This time, he did not ask Himmler’s permission, he interrupted his work in Berlin and joined secretly his old Fighter Squadron 77. Robert Gerwarth describes this excursion this way:
As in Norway, Heydrich enjoyed his ‘adventure trip’, drinking wine and playing cards with ordinary soldiers and fellow officers until late at night, while flying a number of attacks on retreating Russian troops during the day.

The experience almost ended in a tragedy. On 22 July, Heydrich’s plane was hit by the flak and made an emergency landing behind Russian lines. Heydrich was not injured and on his way back he was rescued by a German patrol that sent an amazing message to the Luftwaffe base:
The pilot of the plane was seemingly uninjured, but had clearly suffered some brain damage since he kept insisting he was the head of the Reich Security Main office.

No need to say, Heydrich was expressly ordered no to fly again, under any circumstances. Himmler not only feared for the life of his best friend and protégé; but what would have happened had the NKVD captured him? Whatever his superiors officially said, they must have been proud of him since they appointed him in September 1941 acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the remnants of Czechoslovakia). From a second tier Nazi official, Heydrich was promoted to the highest level in the government with direct access to Hitler, while retaining his job at the SD, as number two of the SS.

The Viceroy

At the age of 37 Heydrich finally had total control of a territory which played a central role in the Nazi strategy since it was to become an integral part of Germany at the end of the war – even though there were only 245,000 ethnic Germans out of an overall population of 7.5 million. It took only a few months to transform the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia into a laboratory of ethnic engineering. Deportation of the Jews was immediately launched and this time there was no attempt to make them emigrate on the fringe of the German sphere of influence or abroad. In Heydrich’s mind, the problem was solved and they were directly sent to death camps.

More difficult was the Czech question. First of all, the Czech industry was at the core of the German war effort. In a few weeks, Heydrich had met all the workers trade-unions and encouraged them to voice their economic grievances. In the following weeks, their salaries and food rations were increased, and in general working conditions improved. These gestures of good faith coupled with an intensive anti-soviet propaganda rapidly produced positive results: the production of Bohemia’s armament industry increased dramatically.

Heydrich proved to be a skillful statesman and not only the first hangman of the Nazi regime. “He wanted”, says Robert Gerwarth, “a small but effective bureaucracy, run by a combination of reliable Reich and Sudeten Germans and the Czech underlings, that was able to strengthen the Nazi’s control over every aspect of socio-economic, political and cultural life in the Protectorate.” But beyond appeasement of the key sectors of the working class, his final aim remained the complete Germanization of Bohemia and Moravia.

In order to plan carefully this endeavour, Heydrich consulted prominent academics such as the social anthropologist Karl Valentin Müller and the demographer Hans Joachim Beyer. Their two reports concurred on key points, that is to say that the Czechs had the largest proportion of German blood of all the peoples of Eastern Europe – Müller estimated the ratio of the Czech population having German origins to 50%. Based on this ‘scientific evidence’, “Heydrich imagined four broad categories into which individuals should be placed:
Racially good and well intentioned Czechs would certainly become Germans.
Racially bad and ill-intentioned Czechs would be deported to the wide spaces of the East.
Racially inferior Czechs with good intentions would be sterilized and then resettled in the Old Reich where they would be exploited as slave labourers.
Ill-intentioned but racially good Czechs, the most dangerous of them all, would be put up against the wall…

Two-thirds of the population would immediately fall into one category or another. The remaining, less easily labelled people in the middle would be sorted out in a few years’ time.”

Beyond this ‘scientific’ analysis that met the requirements of the Nazi dogma, we are surprised to discover that Heydrich had his own theory of the Aryan master race: “often, he argued, it was non-physical characteristics that betrayed a German heritage. Clean houses, virility, sexual morality and social behaviour were criteria for membership.” In a few months, Heydrich’s race and Settlement Office experts had tested and registered the entire population under the cover of a campaign against tuberculosis. At the same time, his government expropriated huge amounts of land belonging to Jews and Czech loyal to the Republic, in order to create islands of Germandom.

As always, the Heydrich project was exhaustive and carried out with celerity and strength. What was the result of to this ambitious policy of ethnic cleansing? After a brief period of lull, due to the combined effects of increased repression against political opponents and targeted rewards to the workers of the armament industry, the Czech resistance activities got organized. It was mainly fuelled by the invasion of the USSR.

The Assassination

Postage stamp (1943) features the death mask of Heydrich

Death Mask Stamp

On the 27th of May 1942, Reinhard Heydrich was driving to work in his Mercedes convertible and without police escort. He was scheduled to fly to Berlin later in the day to meet Hitler. At around 10:20 AM, in the Prague suburb of Libeň, as the car slowed down at an intersection, two Czech resistants trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and parachuted a few weeks earlier, were waiting for him. The first leaped out with a sub-machine gun, but it jammed and failed to fire. Instead of ordering his driver to speed away, Heydrich ordered him to stop and drew out his pistol. The second assailant emerged from the shadow and tossed a hand grenade towards the immobilized car. The explosion wounded Heydrich.

However, as soon as the smoke cleared, Heydrich stood up out of the wreckage with his gun in his hand and ran after the attackers. However, at the moment of shooting, he suddenly collapsed in agony, giving to the two assailants the time to jumped on their bicycles and pedal away. Heydrich died at the hospital on June 4th. Hitler was so infuriated that he immediately ordered Heydrich’s second in command in Prague to shoot 10,000 hostages. “Later that evening, a deeply shaken Himmler reiterated Hitler’s order, insisting that the ‘one hundred most important’ Czech hostages should be shot that very night.

Police leader Karl Hermann Frank succeeded in appeasing Hitler who rescinded his order of killing 10,000 people, but insisted that the assassins be captured immediately. The largest police operation in modern history was unleashed: 12,000 men from the Gestapo, the SS, the Czech gendarmerie and the Wehrmacht were deployed – but were unsuccessful during a few days. On 9 June, while the most spectacular state funeral of the Third Reich was under way in Berlin, Hitler ordered the complete annihilation of the Bohemian village of Lidice where, in the absence of the assassins, the police had found evidence that the suspected assassins had received support (the evidence later proved to be false).

The Lidice killings became the symbol of the German terror policy in Europe – this was before Auschwitz was known. Shortly after the destruction of the village, several communities in the United States, Mexico, Peru and Brazil renamed their villages and towns Lidice. In his US exile, Thomas Mann wrote the novel Lidice (1943), director Humphrey Jennings filmed The Silent Village (1943) and Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang collaborated on the Hollywood blockbuster Hangmen Also Die (1943).

Let us leave the last word to Thomas Mann who remarked after Lidice: the Nazi “wanted to consign the name of Lidice to eternal oblivion, and they have engraved it forever into the memory of man by their atrocious deed. Hardly anyone knew this name before they murdered the entire population of the settlement and razed it to the ground; now it world famous.”

P.S. – The two Heydrich’s assassins were killed on 18 June 1942 in an Orthodox Church in Central Prague.



* Reinhard’s grand father, Carl Julius Heydrich was a protestant cabinet maker who died in 1874 at the age of 37. His widow, Ernestine Wilhelmine was left alone to raise her six children. In 1877, she remarried Gustav Robert Süss who was a Protestant, but had a Jewish name. There lays the origin of the many rumours about Reinhard Heydrich Jewish descent.
** Goebbels even demonstrated involuntary black humour by confiding to Heydrich that “in the end the Jews of the Reich would be transported into the camps that have been erected by the Bolsheviks.”