‘Becoming’ Reinhard Heydrich: Extract from ‘Hitler’s Hangman’ by Robert Gerwarth

Hitler's Hangman

Hitler’s Hangman

Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich (out now in paperback) is a chilling biography of the head of Nazi Germany’s terror apparatus, Reinhard Heydrich, a key player in the Third Reich whose full story has never fully been told. In this extract, Gerwarth discusses Heydrich’s life, introducing the central theme of his important book: how did he ‘become’ Heydrich?

Extract from Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth

Reinhard Heydrich is widely recognized as one of the great iconic villains of the twentieth century, an appalling figure even within the context of the Nazi elite. Countless TV documentaries, spurred on by the fascination with evil, have offered popular takes on his intriguing life, and there is no shortage of sensationalist accounts of his 1942 assassination and the unprecedented wave of retaliatory Nazi violence that culminated in the vengeful destruction of the Bohemian village of Lidice. Arguably the most spectacular secret service operation of the entire Second World War, the history of Operation Anthropoid and its violent aftermath has inspired the popular imagination ever since 1942, providing the backdrop to Heinrich Mann’s Lidice (1942), Bertolt Brecht’s Hangmen Also Die (1943) and Laurent Binet’s recent Prix Goncourt-winning novel HHhH (2010).

The continuing popular fascination with Heydrich is easily explained. Although merely thirty-eight years old at the time of his violent death in Prague in June 1942, he had accumulated three key positions in Hitler’s rapidly expanding empire. As head of the Nazis’ vast political and criminal police apparatus, which merged with the powerful SS intelligence service – the SD – into the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in 1939, Heydrich commanded a sizeable shadow army of Gestapo and SD officers directly responsible for Nazi terror at home and in the occupied territories. As such he was also in charge of the infamous SS mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, during the campaigns against Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union. Secondly, in September 1941, Heydrich was appointed by Hitler as acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, a position that made him the undisputed ruler of the former Czech lands. The eight months of his rule in Prague and the aftermath of his assassination are still remembered as the darkest time in modern Czech history. Thirdly, in 1941 Heydrich was instructed by the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, Hermann Göring, to find and implement a ‘total solution of the Jewish question’ in Europe, a solution which, by the summer of 1942, culminated in the indiscriminate and systematic murder of the Jews of Europe. With these three positions, Reinhard Heydrich undoubtedly played a central role in the complex power system of the Third Reich.

Yet, despite his major share of responsibility for some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of Nazi Germany and the continuing interest of both historians and the general public in Hitler’s dictatorship, Heydrich remains a remarkably neglected and oddly nebulous figure in the extensive literature on the Third Reich. Although some 40,000 books have been published on the history of Nazi Germany, including several important studies on other high-ranking SS officers such as Heinrich Himmler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Adolf Eichmann and Werner Best, there is no serious scholarly biography that spans the entire life of this key figure within the Nazi terror apparatus. […]

For a biographer of Heydrich, the revisionist arguments of the past decades pose a whole series of difficult questions. If, as some historians quite rightly suggest, the Holocaust was merely a first step towards the bloody unweaving of Europe’s complex ethnic make-up, what role did Heydrich play in the evolution and implementation of these plans? Even more fundamentally: how did he ‘become’ Heydrich?

The answers provided in Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich revise some older assumptions about Heydrich’s personal transition to Nazism and his contribution to some of the worst crimes committed in the name of the Third Reich. Born as he was in 1904 into a privileged Catholic family of professional musicians in the city of Halle, Heydrich’s path to genocide was anything but straightforward. Not only was his life conditioned by several unforeseeable events that were often beyond his control, but his actions can be fully explained only by placing them in the wider context of the intellectual, political, cultural and socio-economic conditions that shaped German history in the first half of the twentieth century.

Heydrich was both a typical and an atypical representative of his generation. He shared in many of the deep ruptures and traumatic experiences of the so-called war youth generation: namely, the Great War and the turbulent post-war years of revolutionary turmoil, hyperinflation and social decline, which he experienced as a teenager. Yet while these experiences made him and many other Germans susceptible to radical nationalism, Heydrich refrained from political activism throughout the 1920s and was even ostracized by his fellow naval officers for not being nationalist enough. The great turning point of his early life came in spring 1931 when he was dismissed from military service as a result of a broken engagement promise and his subsequent arrogant behaviour towards the military court of honour. His dismissal at the height of the Great Depression roughly coincided with his first meeting with his future wife, Lina von Osten, who was already a committed Nazi and who convinced him to apply for a staff position in Heinrich Himmler’s small but elite SS.

Until this moment, Heydrich’s life might have taken a very different direction, and indeed he initially possessed few obvious qualifications for his subsequent role as head of the Gestapo and the SD. Crucial for his future development were his experiences and personal encounters within the SS after 1931, and in particular his close relationship with Heinrich Himmler. In other words, the most significant contributing factor to Heydrich’s radicalization was his immersion in a political milieu of young and often highly educated men who thrived on violent notions of cleansing Germany from its supposed internal enemies while simultaneously rejecting bourgeois norms of morality as weak, outdated and inappropriate for securing Germany’s national rebirth.

Yet his immersion in this violent world of deeply committed political extremists does not in itself explain why Heydrich emerged as arguably the most radical figure within the Nazi leadership. At least one of the reasons for his subsequent radicalism, it will be argued, lies in his lack of early Nazi credentials. Heydrich’s earlier life contained some shortcomings, most notably the persistent rumours about his Jewish ancestry that led to a humiliating party investigation in 1932, and his relatively late conversion to Nazism. To make up for these imperfections and impress his superior, Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich transformed himself into a model Nazi, adopting and further radicalizing key tenets of Himmler’s worldview and SS ideals of manliness, sporting prowess and military bearing. Heydrich even manipulated the story of his earlier life to shore up his Nazi credentials. He supposedly fought in right-wing militant Freikorps units after the Great War, but his involvement in post-1918 paramilitary activity was at best minimal. Nor do any records exist to prove that he was a member of the various anti-Semitic groups in Halle to which he later claimed to have belonged.

By the mid-1930s, Heydrich had successfully reinvented himself as one of the most radical proponents of Nazi ideology and its implementation through rigid and increasingly extensive policies of persecution. The realization of Hitler’s utopian society, so he firmly believed, required the ruthless and violent exclusion of those elements deemed dangerous to German society, a task that could best be carried out by the SS as the executioner of Hitler’s will. Only by cleansing German society of all that was alien, sick and hostile could a new national community emerge and the inevitable war against the Reich’s arch-enemy, the Soviet Union, be won. The means of ‘cleansing’ envisaged by Heydrich were to change dramatically between 1933 and 1942, partly in response to circumstances beyond his control and partly as a result of the increasing Machbarkeitswahn – fantasies of omnipotence – that gripped many senior SS men, policy planners and demographic engineers after the outbreak of the Second World War: the delusional idea that a unique historical opportunity had arisen to fight, once and for all, Germany’s real or imagined enemies inside and outside the Reich. While the mass extermination of Jews seemed inconceivable even to Heydrich before the outbreak of war in 1939, his views on the matter radicalized over the following two and a half years. A combination of wartime brutalization, frustration over failed expulsion schemes, pressures from local German administrators in the occupied East and an ideologically motivated determination to solve the ‘Jewish problem’ led to a situation in which he perceived systematic mass murder to be both feasible and desirable.

Heydrich and HItler

Heydrich looks on as Hitler observes the front line in Poland, 1939. During the German attack on Poland Heydrich repeatedly visited the front line, encouraging his SS Einsatzgruppen to speed up the process of murdering the Polish elites in the rear of the advancing German armies.

The ‘solution of the Jewish question’ for which Heydrich bore direct responsibility from the late 1930s was, however, only part of a much broader wartime plan to recreate the entire ethnic make-up of Europe through a massive project of expelling, resettling and murdering millions of people in Eastern Europe after the Wehrmacht’s victory over the Soviet Union. As Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia – a position he held between September 1941 and his violent death in June 1942 – Heydrich underlined his fundamental commitment to these plans by initiating a uniquely ambitious programme of racial classification and cultural imperialism in the Protectorate.

Despite his drive for the Germanization of East-Central Europe, Heydrich was fully aware that its complete realization had to wait until the Wehrmacht’s victory over the Red Army. It was simply impossible from a logistical point of view to expel, resettle and murder an estimated 30 million Slavic people in the conquered East while simultaneously fighting a war against a numerically superior alliance of enemies on the battlefields. The destruction of Europe’s Jews, a much smaller and more easily identifiable community, posed considerably fewer logistical problems. For Heydrich and Himmler, the swift implementation of the ‘final solution’ also offered a major strategic advantage vis-à-vis rival agencies in the occupied territories: by documenting their reliability in carrying out Hitler’s genocidal orders, they recommended themselves to the Führer as the natural agency to implement the even bigger post-war project of Germanization.

Heydrich’s life therefore offers a uniquely privileged, intimate and organic perspective on some of the darkest aspects of Nazi rule, many of which are often artificially divided or treated separately in the highly specialized literature on the Third Reich: the rise of the SS and the emergence of the Nazi police state; the decision-making processes that led to the Holocaust; the interconnections between anti-Jewish and Germanization policies; and the different ways in which German occupation regimes operated across Nazi-controlled Europe. On a more personal level, it illustrates the historical circumstances under which young men from perfectly ‘normal’ middle-class backgrounds can become political extremists determined to use ultra-violence to implement their dystopian fantasies of radically transforming the world.

Robert Gerwarth is professor of modern history and director of the Centre for War Studies, University College Dublin. Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich is available now in paperback from Yale University Press.

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