Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

Even in the upper echelons of the Third Reich, one man's cruelty stood out, writes Richard J. Evans

October 6, 2011

Few leading Nazis have exerted such fascination over posterity as Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS security service and the Gestapo, and the leading figure, after his boss Heinrich Himmler, in the planning and execution of the mass murder of 6 million European Jews.

The Swiss diplomat Carl J. Burckhardt called him the Third Reich's "young evil god of death"; one senior SS man described him after the war as "the most demonic personality in the Nazi leadership"; another said his "unusual intellect was matched by the ever-watchful instincts of a predatory animal" who, "in a pack of ferocious wolves, must always prove himself the strongest". Ruthless, cold-blooded and ambitious, Heydrich has been seen by some as a technocrat of mass murder who treated ideology as a political tool; by others as a complex, self-loathing personality whose fanaticism expressed his paranoid hatred of his own Jewish background.

In this new book, Robert Gerwarth tackles these and other judgements of Heydrich in a full-length biography, the first serious attempt at a scholarly life. He has tried to make up for the lack of any personal papers by scouring archives across Europe and in the US, and he succeeds in disposing effectively of many myths, including, decisively, that of Heydrich's supposed Jewish ancestry: the Gestapo head not only looked like a blond, blue-eyed "Aryan", he actually was one. Gerwarth shows, too, that far from being a Nazi of the first hour, Heydrich was a relatively late convert to Hitler's cause.

Born in 1904, he was part of what has been called "the generation of the unconditional", men too young to play a part in the First World War and who sought to make up for their self-perceived inferiority by propagating a no-holds-barred version of German nationalism that would avenge the defeat of 1918 and overcome the failings that had caused it.

Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, he was no fanatical nationalist in the 1920s; indeed, after joining the German Navy he was quickly ostracised by his fellow officers for being insufficiently nationalistic. Heydrich's naval career was, however, an inglorious one: in 1931 he had to face a military court of honour after the parents of a girlfriend complained that he had seduced her with a false promise of marriage. Instead of owning up and apologising, he arrogantly sought to place the blame on the girl, and was drummed out of the navy in consequence.

The court proceedings were sparked by Heydrich's marriage to another young woman, Lina von Osten, already a convinced Nazi and anti-Semite at the age of 19. With her parents and Heydrich's godmother Elise von Eberstein, whose son was a prominent Nazi stormtrooper, she procured for him a job in the SS security service. This not only gave him a salary at a time of mass unemployment, and a structured life in a uniform after an adolescence and early adulthood spent in circumstances of political, social and economic instability, it also brought him into contact with Himmler, to whose star the young man hitched his wagon. Gerwarth argues persuasively that Heydrich now internalised the ideology of Nazism, which helped to give order and meaning to a life that had come apart at the seams. He embraced Nazism in its most extreme form, with all the zeal of the late convert, believing that he had to atone for his earlier sins by becoming more Nazi than the Nazis themselves.

Within the SS, still a small and unimportant organisation, he found a purpose and a goal. Impressed by his abilities, Himmler asked him to head up a new internal Nazi Party police and intelligence unit, the Sicherheitsdienst or SD. After Hitler's purge of the stormtroopers in the "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934, the SS gained rapidly in power and importance, and with it Heydrich and the SD. By 1936, Himmler had taken over the entire German policing apparatus, including the Gestapo.

Sensibly, Gerwarth will have no truck with the view, fashionable among some historians, that the Third Reich was a "dictatorship by consent" in which terror and intimidation played only a minimal role. The Gestapo and other agencies of the regime ruthlessly repressed opposition and dissent from the very beginning. Heydrich's contribution, besides organising the repression, was to regard the struggle against Nazism's enemies as a struggle against the Jews, and to get his men to think of it as permanent and ongoing, rather than relaxing their vigilance in the mistaken belief that the Third Reich had become secure after the "seizure of power" in 1933.

Heydrich proved to be a talented manager of terror, appointing competent men with a strong work ethos and a fanatical commitment to the principles and beliefs of National Socialism. Often they were educated and intelligent, and indeed (a depressing thought) the higher one looks up the ranks of the SD, the higher the proportion of officers one finds not just with university degrees, but also with PhDs.

For someone like Heydrich, who had grown up in an era of world war, revolution and unremitting political violence, mass murder was nothing strange. As the senior SD officers fanned out across Eastern Europe in charge of mobile death squads, Heydrich became convinced that physical extermination rather than resettlement or deportation was the only way to solve the "Jewish problem". In the autumn of 1941 he convened the notorious Wannsee Conference, held at the beginning of 1942, to organise the implementation of the Final Solution.

Heydrich himself did not live to see this historically unparalleled genocide carried out in full. Appointed Reich governor of Bohemia and Moravia with the brief of eliminating Czech resistance, he introduced a policy of racially defined divide and rule, aimed at Germanising "suitable" Czechs and sterilising or deporting the rest. He ordered mass arrests and executions to suppress the resistance while improving conditions for Czech workers in order to cut the ground from under the resisters' feet. Alarmed, the Czech government in exile arranged with the British to parachute agents into Prague to kill him. On May 1942 they ambushed his open-top car on his way to work and threw a bomb in. Heydrich died in hospital shortly afterwards. He was 38.

At the subsequent grand public funeral, Nazi leaders eulogised Heydrich as the perfect Nazi. This intelligent and readable biography shows how he had made himself into one, and Gerwarth explains persuasively what motivated Heydrich to do so. During his career he played a central part in Nazi policies of repression, control and racial extermination, and he did so with a ruthlessness and extremism that were virtually unmatched. Yet he was more than just another Nazi thug. It is not only his obvious intelligence, tactical subtlety and political sophistication that strike one today, and did at the time, it was above all the fact that he combined all this with a cultured and civilised private existence.

His father Bruno was an opera singer, musical administrator and composer; his mother a piano teacher; they named Reinhard after one of the characters in Bruno's first opera. Reinhard himself could play Czerny's piano studies perfectly by the age of 10 and became an accomplished violinist who was said to show deep emotion when he played.

Gerwarth solves many of the riddles of Heydrich's life convincingly, but he does not in the end explain how a man who orders the death of millions can weep while playing a Mozart sonata; perhaps nobody can.

The Author

Robert Gerwarth grew up in Cold War Berlin, and was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down. "It was almost impossible not to be interested in history living in a city so inseparably linked with 20th-century history," he says.

"I have no regrets in following this career path; I love being a historian."

He gained a master's in history and politics from Humboldt University of Berlin in 2000 and, three years later, completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford. In his final year, Gerwarth was appointed to a two-year lectureship in modern European history and was later awarded a British Academy postdoctoral fellowship.

He is the author of The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor (2005) and editor of volumes including Twisted Paths: Europe 1914-1945 (2007) and Political Violence in Twentieth-Century Europe (2011).

Now director of the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin, Gerwarth says he felt instantly at home in Ireland when he moved there with his wife in 2007. However, the arrival three months ago of twin sons Oscar and Lucian has meant that skiing, rowing and reading for pleasure are presently on hold.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

By Robert Gerwarth

Yale University Press, 336pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780300115758

Published 5 October 2011

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