The Hater

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The Hater

Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich
by Robert Gerwarth
Yale University Press, 336 pp., $25

HE MIGHT WELL have been the cruelest among the many cruel National Socialist leaders. He hated, with a nearly unparalleled passion, all Jews; Gypsies; homosexuals; the Catholic church, and particularly the Jesuits; the Poles; the Freemasons; handicapped or retarded fellow-Germans; all Communists; the Soviet Union; socialists; liberals; democrats; members of the rival Abwehr, the German military counter-intelligence service; the inefficient and corrupt Old Nazi Party bosses; conservative generals; and anyone who had ideas different from his own on how to build an ever greater National Socialist Germany. He was an ideological fanatic, but also an opportunist who always sensed which way the wind was blowing.

Reinhard Heydrich successfully projected the image of an ideal family father and husband, although he behaved callously toward his parents when they fell on hard days, and he openly cheated on his devoted National Socialist wife. Yet Heydrich was also an accomplished violinist with a sincere love and talent for classical music. Owing to his charm, he was welcome in high society. He was a great athlete, a superb fencer, horseman, and sailing champion. And he was no coward: during the war Heydrich used his leave times to serve voluntarily as a fighter pilot. Mostly, however, he was engaged in his self-appointed task of building a world empire for his Führer, one that would conform to his own plans. This consisted of putting a violent end to the ethnic mix in Europe, all in the interest of the Germanic peoples and his own power. For that goal, he systematically and methodically engaged in the murder of millions and was preparing—when he was assassinated in 1942—to kill tens of millions more. Even in his violent end, Heydrich fulfilled the role of an angel of death: many thousands were executed following his murder by two Czech parachutists.

Even though Heydrich has entered history as one of the most infamous Nazi leaders, and even though he appears in some notable works of fiction, the biographies of Heydrich have been mostly journalistic in character, some emphasizing his alleged (and partial) Jewish origins. Now Robert Gerwarth has produced a thoroughly documented, scholarly, and eminently readable account of this mass murderer. Among many other things, Gerwarth documents the fact that there was no Jewish ancestry, and that when the gossipy charges arose, Heydrich was not yet a Nazi or an anti-Semite. The main difference between Gerwarth’s approach and that of some other historians is that whereas the latter emphasizes the bureaucratic character of Heydrich’s lethal activities, Gerwarth insists on his ideological fanaticism as well as on that of other SS leaders.        

There was much that could be described as pleasant about Heydrich. Since he died at the age of thirty-eight, the memory of a handsome, dashing, elegant young man—with the true Nordic features so lacking in Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders—remains. Yet Heydrich’s hips were far too wide for an Aryan superman, and there was something effete, something feminine, about him. Hence his relentless pursuit of sports; virility and strength had not come naturally to him.

Heydrich’s father was a respected composer and the owner-director of a music conservatory in the Prussian city of Halle. The family was Catholic in a Protestant environment, not that this seems to have made much difference to anyone. They were part of the Bildungsbürgertum, the most respected stratum of society, which combined an honorable profession with a genuine attachment to high culture and an absolute loyalty to the German Reich. World War I, in which Heydrich was too young to serve, interrupted the good life, as did the later turbulent Weimar years. The Conservatory at Halle eventually had to close and the family was reduced to poverty. Meanwhile there had been revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals in Halle in which young Reinhard played a modest role on the counter-revolutionary side. Yet there is no trace of any anti-Semitic or violently anti-socialist sentiments in Heydrich at that time.

He was without money, and the armed forces offered the opportunity for respectability. Heydrich chose the German navy, under the influence of Felix von Luckner, a legendary World War I sea-captain. Yet his career there, at first brightened by his talent, his ambition, and his playing the violin at social evenings, came to a sudden end in 1931 when, at the age of twenty-seven, he entered into an engagement with his future wife, Lina von Osten, and curtly dismissed another flame from a distinguished naval family. An official complaint by the girl’s father led to proceedings by a court of honor and to his immediate discharge from service. To be barred from all honorable occupations and from good society was for him a terrible tragedy; Gerwarth records that Heydrich cried for days.

But then a golden opportunity arose: in June, he was invited to join the SS as an officer. It is not difficult to fathom why the SS appeared as a salvation to Heydrich. Although still only a small organization, acting mainly as bodyguards to Hitler, the SS quickly gained in importance. Following the Nazi takeover in 1933, SS officers proudly wore the helmet, the shiny boots, and the sword decorated with the golden port-epée of commissioned army and navy officers. In an oblique way, Heydrich had made it back to respectability. Himmler himself took a great personal interest in the young man, who appeared so different from Himmler’s own mediocre personality.

Heydrich did not bring his politics into the SS; it was the SS that taught him to be political. Gerwarth ably describes Heydrich’s dedication to work; his unflagging energy; his love of order and his contempt for wild experiments and anarchical action. He himself helped to organize the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when Hitler used the SS to rid himself of his rivals in the National Socialist Party and in the government. Nearly the entire leadership of the SA (Sturmabteilung), a huge, loosely organized, and extremely violent Nazi Party militia, dedicated not only to Hitler but also to his own leaders, was annihilated. Every new assignment brought Heydrich more power: as head of the originally small Party intelligence service (the Sicherheitsdienst or SD) he quickly enlarged it into an important organization charged with spying and counter-spying for the Party and the state. He was also running the concentration camps. Inevitably, and always with the consent of Hitler and Himmler, he took over the supervision of German society, of the Jews and of all other minorities and dissenting groups as well as of the subjugated nations. In all this, he and his SD and even more his so-called RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Reich Main Security Office; an SS-dominated umbrella organization that included all state, Party, and SS intelligence, counter-intelligence, and police services in and out of the German Reich) played the role not only of investigators but also of prosecutors, judges, and executioners. The only difficulty was that other groups and institutions within the National Socialist system tried to fulfill similar roles: this led to endless turf wars and a surfeit of intrigues.

Sensing Hitler’s prime interest in the “final solution of the Jewish question,” Heydrich trained himself to become a foremost expert. As Gerwarth skillfully explains, while Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and Goebbels made some of the final decisions against Jews, the planning and the execution were greatly Heydrich’s responsibility, whether in the matter of the Kristallnacht in November 1938, or the organizing of Jewish emigration from Germany and, following the Anschluss, from Austria. With the assistance of Adolf Eichmann, his modest underling in the Gestapo, Heydrich directed the successful departure to the free world of the absolute majority of Austrian Jews. He also played assiduously with the mad plan of forcing millions of European Jews to the island of Madagascar. When emigration was no longer possible, Heydrich developed plans for the deportation of all Jews beyond the eastern confines of the ever expanding German Reich. This, incidentally, was to be the first step toward the massive expulsion of all undesirable nationalities from Germany and, per extension, Europe.

But before the grand plan could be executed, there was the immediate problem of the millions of Jews encountered first in occupied Poland and then in the conquered parts of the Soviet Union. Since it was always understood that deportation to the East meant the death of the majority of the deportees, and since the Soviet Union was still standing, the so-called Einsatzgruppen of the SS, under Heydrich’s overall command, engaged in massive shootings, at first in Poland and then in Belorussia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic countries.

In January 1942, Heydrich presided over the Wannsee Conference on the cooperation of all German authorities in the European-wide Final Solution of the Jewish Question. That he should have devoted so much attention to the Jews is quite understandable in view of the importance of the issue for the Führer. It is more difficult to understand why he also developed what seems to have been a genuine hatred for Jews. He definitely had not brought anti-Semitism with him from the cradle, and as a student he had some close Jewish friends. He became a National Socialist only at the age of twenty-seven, after the prospect of joining the SS led him in that direction. Gerwarth explains all this as part of Heydrich’s radicalization under the influence of National Socialist ideology, but this does not tell us why occasionally even Hitler had to restrain Heydrich’s anti-Semitic zeal.

Heydrich’s appointment as Acting Reich Protector or viceroy of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941 did not cause him to deviate from his general plan to create an Aryan-German Europe. In addition to being the head of the German political police, he was now the absolute ruler of a country of supreme importance for the German war effort: without the tanks, airplanes, and guns produced in the Protectorate, the German war machine would have ground to a halt. He now also had an ideal terrain for testing his ethnic and racial theories. For him, the Czech lands had been and would again become an integral part of the German Empire where only Germans and “Germanizable” Slavs should be allowed to live.

Heydrich estimated that one half of the population in the Protectorate might be worthy of Eindeutschung or Germanification; the rest would be deported or killed. Some of his academic advisers began the strenuous process of measuring cranial characteristics and testing the eye colors of the Czechs, but times were not propitious for the experiment because the war required the exploitation of the entire labor force in the Protectorate. Only in the case of the Jews was deportation and death preferable to all other solutions.

Heydrich demonstrated his organizational genius by ruthlessly cracking down on all opposition in the Czech lands and by offering comparatively easy working and living conditions to those willing to participate in the war effort. His famous carrot and stick policy proved to be a great success. Czech workers were paid virtually the same salary, and often received better food rations, than those in the Old Reich.

Heydrich was not unpopular among the Czechs; witness his custom of driving to work in the same open car, on the same road, at the same time, and without any bodyguards and other protection. On May 27, 1942, he was fatally wounded by a bomb thrown by two Czechs who had been parachuted earlier from the United Kingdom specifically for the purpose of killing the Reich Protector. The circumstances of Heydrich’s assassination have been the subject of a great deal of literature. Most of the details have been known for quite some time, and yet Gewarth’s contribution to the subject is valuable because of his emphasis on the political meaning and consequences of this event. Gerwarth is very critical of Hugh Dalton, the British minister of economic warfare, as well as of the former and future Czech president Edvard Beneš and the Czechoslovak intelligence chief František Moravec, all of whom were behind the plot to kill Heydrich.

Dalton and Beneš wanted to see the war industry weakened in the Protectorate and became impatient with the extent of Czech collaboration, as well as with the weakness of the resistance movement. They believed that an act of terror on the part of some alleged Czech resistance fighters might bring about the necessary persecution for the Czechs to turn, at last, against the occupiers. In addition, by being able to demonstrate active resistance in his country, Beneš hoped to gain the permission of the Allied Powers for the postwar expulsion of the German minority from Czechoslovakia. And so British war planes dropped a few dozen armed exiles, by parachute, into the Protectorate. Although leaders of the Czech resistance movement, fearing their own annihilation, had desperately protested in London against the plan, the parachutists were ordered to go ahead, and two among them succeeded in assassinating the Reich Protector. Subsequently, the parachutists were hunted down and killed and, as an immediate act of retribution, the adult male population of Lidice village was exterminated. Thousands of other Czechs would follow them into the grave and many thousands more into concentration camps.

Heydrich’s funeral, and the many memorial services, surpassed in pomp and solemnity all such previous Nazi exercises. As for Czechoslovakia and the Allied cause, the assassination brought mixed results: whereas the monster was done away with, so was nearly the entire Czech resistance movement, thousands of whom were killed or sent to concentration camps. Factories in the Protectorate continued to produce weapons for the German army into the last days of the war, and there was hardly a safer and more comfortable place for a German soldier to be than in the Protectorate. Still, Beneš did gain Allied permission to expel nearly three million German speakers from Czechoslovakia in the course of which thousands of civilians were murdered.

As for Heydrich’s grand plan, it proved to be a total failure: there were to be no more expulsions and killings of the alleged enemies of Germany, and in the case of Czech-German relations the Germans turned out to be the absolute losers. As Chad Bryant has shown in his masterful Prague in Black: Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism (2007), during the German occupation the Czechs succeeded in preserving their national pride as well as preparing for a brutal solution to the “German Question.” By expelling all Germans between 1945 and 1946, except some valuable miners, those married to ethnic Czechs, and most “half-breeds,” the Czech authorities turned Heydrich’s plan on its head and put an end to the centuries old Czech-German symbiosis. Theirs was indeed one of the most drastic and most brutal ethnic cleansings in European history.

Other East European countries matched the Czechoslovak effort, and thus nations which had generally not lifted a finger on behalf of their Jewish neighbors, or had even lent crucial assistance to the Final Solution, now turned with enthusiasm against their German neighbors. Having seized all Jewish property, East Europeans precipitated themselves on German property: lands, jobs, offices, shops, and dwellings, down to the silver spoons. This is definitely not what Reinhard Heydrich had in mind, although he could console himself in his grave that he had at least helped to solve the “Jewish Question” for Eastern Europeans. Gerwarth has chosen a sickening and heartbreaking topic for his research; he deserves praise for having accomplished his task without sensationalism and yet with great aplomb.  

István Deák is an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University. His latest book is Essays on Hitler’s Europe (2001) and he is working on a manuscript on collaboration, resistance, and retribution in World War II Europe.

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