The death of “Butcher of Prague” Reinhard Heydrich – one of the most feared men in the Third Reich – meant the Nazis lost a key organizer of terror. Was he an ideological zealot or careerist aiming to be leader one day?
He was described by Adolf Hitler as “the Man with the Iron Heart.” Other names attributed to him include “the Butcher,” “the Hangman” and “Himmler’s Evil Genius.”
Given such epithets, it stands to reason that Reinhard Heydrich’s record is one of reprehensible brutality.
Heydrich, who led the Nazi Protection Squadron, or SS, and the Gestapo, also sent the telegraph giving the orders that precipitated 1938’s Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in Germany.
As the lead planner of Hitler’s Final Solution, Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference – where details about the murder of millions of Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe was debated and toasted with cognac.
Heydrich was also regarded by some as a potential future leader of the Third Reich.
By the time of the assassination attack against Heydrich in May 1942, he was regional governor of the Nazis’ Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – today’s Czech Republic. He died 75 years ago on June 4, 1942.
Only 11 years earlier, Heydrich had been dismissed from the navy for unbefitting conduct after breaking a marriage engagement. It had been a meteoric rise, as historian Robert Gerwarth points out in his book “Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich.”
“His life is quite unusual – his career trajectory is quite unusual in the sense that he’s a late Nazi,” Gerwarth told DW.
“Most of the people who had comparable careers in the Third Reich were followers of Hitler from the early 1920s onwards,” he said. “In his case, it’s a relatively late conversion to Nazism.”
The largely apolitical Heydrich had broken his engagement after meeting his wife-to-be, Lina von Osten, a Nazi Party follower for some time. It was she who convinced him to apply to join the SS.
Heydrich’s rapid ascent was partly based on chance, a meeting with Heinrich Himmler, who was setting up a counterintelligence division of the service.
“The two men had what you might call complementary talents,” said Gerwarth, a professor of modern history at University College Dublin’s Centre for War Studies. “Himmler was very good at building networks, which was quintessential in Nazi Germany, and Heydrich was a talented organizer.
“The two managed to rise through the ranks so that by the mid-1930s, 1936 to be precise, Himmler controls the entire police in Germany, including the political police, and Heydrich is basically his No. 2.”
Convert or careerist?
Some historians have assumed that Heydrich was a careerist, but Gerwarth thinks not. Instead, he described Heydrich’s radicalism as that of an extremely ambitious late convert.
“I think that by the mid-1930s he is actually quite committed to the cause and he is a very devout follower of both Himmler and Hitler,” Gerwarth said. “They recognize that, and they advance his career steadily over time.”
Heydrich’s newly found political zeal saw him drive much of the anti-Jewish policy in the Third Reich. As well as his role in Kristallnacht, he oversaw the Einsatzgruppen, which murdered intellectuals and clergy in Czechoslovakia and Poland, which at the time were both occupied by the Nazis, then he moved on to Jews and Roma.
“By 1941 it’s become quite clear that Heydrich is the one driving anti-Jewish policies,” Gerwarth said. “He controls not only the political police organizations but also is twice entrusted by Hermann Goering as the kind of intermediary between him and Hitler to find and implement a Final Solution.
“The thing is of course that, in 1942, when he dies, most of the Jews who will die in the Holocaust are still alive,” Gerwarth said, adding that, although Heydrich was a central figure, “even without him the Holocaust continued to unfold.”
A prime target
The attack that would ultimately lead to his death was instigated by Czech intelligence with support from Britain’s Special Operations Executive. It gained approval from Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile and planning began well in advance.
After two aborted attempts, the attack that killed Heydrich took place on May 27, 1942. Slovak Jozef Gabcik and Czech Jan Kubis – who had been flown to Czechoslovakia the previous December carried it out.
Heydrich was on his daily commute from home. The pair hoped to kill their target at a curve in the road and Gabcik stepped in front of the vehicle with his submachine gun. It jammed, and Heydrich ordered the car to stop, pointing a handgun at his would-be assailant.
It was here that Kubis threw a grenade that fatally injured Heydrich, who did not die until a week later. The Nazi leadership was outraged by what had happened.
“This is a very serious blow, and both Hitler and Himmler were very angry and shocked,” Gerwarth said. “It showed a vulnerability that they didn’t want, but also they’re losing one of the most important organizers of terror. It was a huge blow.”
“The underground movement, the resistance in Bohemia and Moravia, was not informed about this at all,” Gerwarth said. “They only found out by chance just before the assassination, and were horrified because they knew the ramifications would be terrible.”
Indeed, the consequences were horrific for the village of Lidice, which was falsely linked to the assassination. Of its residents, 199 men were killed and 195 women sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. A further 81 children died in gas vans.
The men and women of another village, Lezaky, were also murdered.
The assassination itself has also been retold in several movies. The 75th anniversary itself seems to have created some interest with one film – “Anthropoid” – released less than a year ago and another – “HHhH,” also titled “The Man With The Iron Heart” – slated for release later this month.
Visions of power?
Whether Heydrich had visions of ever becoming leader of the Third Reich is open to speculation.
In his book “Fatherland,” Robert Harris penned a vision of a world where Heydrich survives into the 1960s and is seen as the likely successor to Hitler. It deals with Heydrich’s imagined Machiavellian attempts to cover up the fate of murdered European Jews.
Amazon’s series “The Man in the High Castle,” loosely based on a book of the same name by Philip K. Dick, envisions a world where the Nazi Reich occupies much of the United States, and where Heydrich is vying to replace an ailing Hitler.
Gerwarth, though, said he harbors some doubt that was ever in Heydrich’s plan.
“It’s uncertain exactly what he aspired to. He didn’t really like to be a public figure, and he found that part of the job difficult in Prague,” Gerwarth said. “He’s not really someone for big public speeches. He’s someone who operates in the shadows, so I think his career objective would have been to succeed Himmler, which is a more realistic scenario.”