Known as "The Hangman" and "The Blond Beast," Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was the chief lieutenant of the German secret police during the Nazi regime. He organized mass executions in occupied countries during the early years of World War II.
Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich was born March 7, 1904, into a Catholic family in the German city of Halle. The second of three children, his father Bruno was a singer and minor composer, and his mother Elizabeth came from a well-to-do musical family. The Heydrichs intended Reinhard to have a musical career, and taught him to play the violin, a skill he retained for the rest of his life. The family's ambitions to be accepted in the high society of Halle, were thwarted by rumors about the ancestry of Heydrich's father. Hatred of Jews was common in Germany at that time, and it was rumored that Bruno Heydrich was the son of a Jew. These rumors applied to Reinhard as well, and he was well aware of them at a young age.
Throughout his life, Heydrich would be known for his ruthless, cold personality. Even among Nazis colleagues, he was feared rather than liked. According to Callum MacDonald in The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, Heydrich's protege Walter Schellenberg said that Heydrich had "an incredibly acute perception of the moral, human, professional and political weaknesses of others. His unusual intellect was matched by the ever-watchful instincts of a predatory animal. He was inordinately ambitious. It seemed as if, in a pack of ferocious wolves, he must always prove himself the strongest and assume the leadership." Another Nazi, Wilhelm Hoettl, said, "Truth and goodness had no intrinsic meaning for him; they were instruments to be used for the gaining of more and more power. To debate whether any action was of itself right appeared so stupid to him that it was certainly a question he never asked himself." Hoettl also remarked that Heydrich's life was "an unbroken chain of murders."
Heydrich began his violent career at the age of 14, when he joined a "Free Corps" youth group, which trained him in terrorist tactics, looting, and street fighting. He joined the German Navy four years later and attained the rank of first lieutenant. In 1931, he was discharged as a result of a scandal involving a young woman he had treated badly. As MacDonald noted, "It was the height of the Depression and he found himself on the beach, neither an officer nor a gentleman, one of over five million unemployed." Nostalgic for military life but unable to get into any branch of the service because of the scandal, he joined the Nazi party, which was increasingly gaining power as the economic depression undermined the power of the ruling government.
Heydrich was assigned to create the intelligence-gathering organization that would later be known as the Sicherheitsdienst (SD or SS), security service. This organization gathered information on citizens who resisted the Nazis and were perceived as a threat to the Nazi party. When it began, the organization was run out of a small office, with one typewriter. But under Heydrich's control, the organization grew into a vast network of informers, enforcers, and information sources, with files on anyone of interest-not only rebellious elements, but also Nazi party members and leaders.
Heydrich quickly rose through the ranks, from major in 1931, to colonel in 1932, to brigadier general in 1933. His ambitions were clouded, however, by the continuing rumors that he had Jewish branches in his family tree—a grave accusation in the anti-Semitic world of Nazi Germany. According to the rumors, his grandmother had married again after the birth of Heydrich's father, to a man with a "Jewish-sounding" name. Despite the fact that this man was not actually Jewish, and the fact that he was not related to Heydrich by blood, these rumors were extremely damaging.
Adolf Hitler, the Nazi chancellor of Germany, and Heinrich Himmler, his right-hand man, heard the rumors, and Heydrich was almost expelled from the SS. Hitler decided that, regardless of his family tree, Heydrich's ruthless desire to kill and control could be useful to the Nazis. According to The History Place, Hitler later said that Heydrich was "a highly gifted but also very dangerous man, whose gifts the movement had to retain. He would eternally be grateful to us that we had not expelled him and would obey blindly."
Hitler's summation of Heydrich's character was correct. Heydrich remained in the Nazi ranks, and developed great hatred for Jews as a result of the accusations against him. He also developed a great deal of self-hatred. One evening, according to The History Place, he went out drinking. When he came home drunk and saw his reflection in a mirror in his apartment, Heydrich took out his pistol and fired two shots at his own reflection.
Power Was Extended
When the Nazis took control of Germany in January 1933, Heydrich and Himmler were placed in charge of the mass arrests of anyone who might resist, including Communists, members of trade unions, Catholics, and other anti-Nazi elements. There were so many arrests that the authorities ran out of prison space, and soon converted an abandoned munitions factory at Dachau, a town near Munich, to a concentration camp for enemies of the Nazis.
At Dachau, prisoners worked 11-hour days and were fed little or nothing. Frightened, punished, and demoralized, the few who survived were initially set free. Dachau seemed so successful to the Nazis that they opened other concentration camps for political prisoners at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and Lichtenburg.
In April 1934, Himmler took control of the new state secret police, known as the Gestapo; Heydrich was his second in command. Shortly after this, Heydrich, Himmler, and Nazi official Hermann Goering drew up a list of Nazi police officials who would be murdered, allowing the SS to take total control of the German police. By 1937, all local police forces, as well as other security forces, were under the control of the SS, and the Gestapo could do whatever it wanted. The security forces could arrest anyone and execute anyone, without a trial and without providing any reason. Heydrich's agents used terrorist methods of torture, threat, murder, blackmail and other tactics to enhance his power and increase people's fear of him.
When the Nazis took control of Austria in 1938, the SS rounded up Jews and others opposed to the Nazi government. Heydrich set up the "Gestapo Office of Jewish Emigration," which supposedly gave permits and safe passage to Jews who wanted to leave Austria. A hundred thousand Jews gave all their possessions to the SS, and managed to leave. On November 9 and 10, 1938, widespread terrorist attacks on the remaining Jews began. 25,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II officially began. Heydrich was put in control of the combined police forces of the SS, Gestapo, criminal police and foreign intelligence services. This huge, centralized information and punishment network would eventually terrorize all of Europe and inflict mass murders so vast that they were unsurpassed in all human history.
Prepared the "Final Solution"
Heydrich was placed charge of destroying Poland as a nation, killing anyone who was educated or held a position of power, including professionals, religious leaders, aristocrats, and political leaders. All other Polish citizens were considered by the Nazis to be subhuman, and were made to work for the Nazis as slave laborers. Heydrich ordered that the two million Jewish citizens of Poland either be killed immediately or forced into crowded ghettos. Disease and starvation resulted in the deaths of a half a million Jews by the middle of 1941.
In June 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Heydrich organized SS groups to seek out and execute anyone who was considered a threat to the Nazis. After this, they turned their attention to the Jews. According to The History Place, Otto Ohlendorf, one of the men involved in the mass murder of Jews, later explained, "The unit selected would enter a village or city and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of resettlement. They were requested to hand over their valuables and shortly before execution, to surrender their outer clothing. The men, women and children were led to a place of execution, which in most cases was located next to a more deeply excavated antitank ditch. Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch."
On July 31, 1941, Hitler ordered Heydrich to prepare a "final solution" to the "Jewish question"-in other words, find a way to kill all the Jews in Europe and the Soviet Union-about 11 million people. "Europe would be combed from east to west," Heydrich said, according to The History Place. Heydrich devised a plan in which Jews would be rounded up, loaded on trains, and taken to death camps, where they were killed by poison gas, starvation, disease, shooting, or burning. In Poland alone, as many as three million people were killed in these camps. Throughout Europe, Heydrich became known as "The Hangman" because of his ruthless killing.
Assassination by Czech Patriots
In September 1941, Heydrich was given control of Bohemia and Moravia-previously known as Czechoslovakia-and continued his murdering spree. He had become arrogant with his unlimited power, and demonstrated his complete control of the country by riding around in an open-topped green Mercedes, with no guard. The Czechs had taken notice of this habit, and on May 27, 1942, as Heydrich slowed to take a sharp turn on the Prague-Berlin highway, Czech agents who had been trained in England attacked. They threw a bomb into his open car. In spite of the explosion, Heydrich managed to get out of the car and shoot at them before falling in the road. He was later found to have a broken rib, a ruptured diaphragm, and shrapnel from the bomb. Mortally wounded, Heydrich lasted for several days under the care of Himmler's private doctors. He died on June 4, 1942 in the Czech capital of Prague, as a result of blood poisoning from the shrapnel.
In revenge for his death, German officials killed more than a thousand people they thought might have been involved, including Czech agents, resistance fighters, and 3,500 Jews. They also massacred the entire male population of the Czech village of Lidice, and deported all the women and children to the concentration camps, where most of them died. A few children, who looked like Germans, were taken to Nazi orphanages. After removing or killing all the people of Lidice, Nazis bombed and destroyed all the buildings in the village, leveled the ground, planted grain on the exposed soil, and removed the village's name from all German maps.
Despite Heydrich's death, his "final solution" plans were not forgotten. Other Nazis stepped in to continue his campaign against the Jews. This murderous campaign was not stopped until the Germans were defeated by Allied forces.
Further Reading on Reinhard Heydrich
MacDonald, Callum, The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, Free Press, 1989.
The New Encyclopedia Brittanica, Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1997.
The History Place, //www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-heydrich.htm(February 3, 2000).