Hitler’s Hangman (published this month) is the chilling full biography of Reinhard Heydrich, the ‘Butcher of Prague’. One of the most dangerous men in the Third Reich, Heydrich commanded the SS Security Service, the Gestapo and the Nazi Criminal Police; organized the SS killing squads; and helped plan the ‘Final Solution’. Today we look at this important new book, the first of its kind, by historian Robert Gerwarth.
Reinhard Heydrich (or ‘the Hangman’, as he has come to be known) is widely recognized as one of the great iconic villains of the twentieth century, an appalling figure even within the context of the Nazi leadership.
Chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service, and the Gestapo, ruthless overlord of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and leading planner of the ‘Final Solution’, Heydrich played a central role in Hitler’s Germany. He shouldered a major share of responsibility for some of the worst Nazi atrocities, and up to his assassination in Prague in 1942, he was widely seen as one of the most dangerous men in Nazi Germany.
Despite the media’s morbid fascination with Heydrich (he has been the subject of countless TV documentaries focusing on his evil nature), he has received remarkably modest attention in the extensive literature of the Third Reich. In Hitler’s Hangman: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich Robert Gerwarth, who is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for War Studies, University College Dublin, weaves together little-known stories of Heydrich’s private life with his deeds as head of the Nazi Reich Security Main Office.
Gerwarth begins with the famous assassination of Heydrich on 27 May 1942 in Prague by a team of Czech and Slovak soldiers (Operation Anthropoid). The assassination is famous for provoking a series of retaliatory deportations and executions in the town of Lidice, ordered by Himmler, which included the execution of all male residents over the age of 16.
Gerwarth then goes back to Heydrich’s childhood, fully exploring his progression from a privileged middle-class youth to a rapacious mass murderer. Gerwarth sheds new light on the complexity of Heydrich’s adult character, his motivations, the incremental steps that led to unimaginable atrocities, and the consequences of his murderous efforts toward re-creating the entire ethnic makeup of Europe.
In the book’s preface Gerwarth discusses the difficulties of writing a biography of such a despicable figure, and in particular the challenge that life-writing usually involves a certain degree of empathy with the book’s subject:
Biographers often use the contrasting images of autopsy and portrait to describe their work: while the autopsy offers a detached, forensic examination of a life, the portrait relies on the biographer’s empathy with his subject. I have chosen to combine both of these approaches in a third way best described as ‘cold empathy’: an attempt to reconstruct Heydrich’s life with critical distance, but without reading history backwards or succumbing to the danger of confusing the role of the historian with that of a state prosecutor at a war criminal’s trial.
Gerwarth aims to avoid the sensationalism and judgemental tone that has characterized earlier accounts of Heydrich’s life, allowing Heydrich’s actions, language and behaviour to speak for themselves. Although published later this month, Hitler’s Hangman and its use of ‘cold empathy’ is already gaining widespread respect from historians of the era, including Ian Kershaw (Hitler), Tim Kirk (Nazi Germany) and R.J.B. Bosworth (Mussolini).
“Drawing on profound research, Robert Gerwarth presents a penetrating, authoritative analysis of the ruthless personality and murderous career of the man who directed the Third Reich’s police state and became a driving-force in the programme to exterminate Europe’s Jews.” – Ian Kershaw
Hitler’s Hangman is the first full biography of Reinhard Heydrich, and is a must-have for those who wish to know more about this murderous figure, and the Nazi regime in general. In the words of the historian R J B Bosworth Hitler’s Hangman ‘allows us to see what evil means in its subtlety and complexity, its seeming reasonableness on occasion, its starkness and its terror’.
Hitler’s Hangman is available now from Yale University Press.
More recent books on the Nazi regime from Yale