Even within the loathsome Nazi hierarchy, Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the most appalling figures. Hailed by Adolf Hitler as “one of the best National Socialists,” Heydrich was indeed an iconic villain.
As head of the political and criminal police apparatus, as exemplified by the Gestapo and the SS, he was directly responsible for the Nazi reign of terror in Germany and the occupied territories. As the official designated to resolve the “Jewish question” in Europe, he was in charge of implementing the Holocaust. And in his last position as ruler of Bohemia and Moravia – where he was assassinated by partisans in a daringly bold strike – he plunged Czechoslovakia into darkness.
And yet, as Robert Gerwarth suggests in his superb book, Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich (Yale University Press), he was an accidental Nazi dogged by persistent rumors of Jewish ancestry.
Although thousands of books have been published on the Nazi era, this one seems unique, described by Gerwarth as the first scholarly biography on Heydrich, a “remarkably neglected figure.” A professor of modern history at University College Dublin, he refers to his subject as arguably “the most radical figure within the Nazi leadership,” quite a claim when diehard Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher are considered. Gerwarth’s assessment, sober as it is, may be debatable. But few observers would doubt that Heydrich was one of the most diabolical figures in the Nazi regime. No less a person than Heydrich’s longtime deputy, Werner Best, called him the “most demonic personality” in the Third Reich.
Despite his zeal as a Nazi, Heydrich was forced to fend off accusations that he was of Jewish origin. Karl Dietrich Bracher, Joachim Fest and Hugh Trevor-Roper, all reputable historians, have argued that Heydrich was an antisemite driven by the shame of his Jewish ancestry. Gerwarth, however, rejects “the myth of Heydrich’s Jewish origins.”
The fervent speculation about his non-Aryan ancestry was fueled by his paternal grandmother, Ernestine. In 1877, following the death of her first husband, she married Gustav Robert Suss, a Protestant locksmith whose Jewish-sounding surname prompted some to surmise he was Jewish. Her son, Bruno Heydrich, a composer, opera singer and proprietor of a conservatory in the city of Halle, sued a German encyclopedia of music for libel when it labelled him a Jew.
Bruno won the court case, and in its next edition, the encyclopedia removed the reference to his alleged Jewish background. But the rumours of his Jewishness did not disappear, gaining further currency by the marriage of one of his relatives to a Hungarian Jewish woman.
Gerwarth, rightly so, attributes Bruno’s touchiness to the general climate of antisemitism in Imperial Germany. He adds, “For the young Reinhard Heydrich, the accusation of being a half-Jew was a nuisance, but, although it may have made him hostile towards those spreading the rumours, it certainly did not turn him into a racist antisemite.”
Germany’s defeat in World War I did not transform Heydrich into a proto-Nazi, but did impel him to embrace beliefs that would align him ideologically with the newly established Nazi party.
Heydrich embarked on a naval career, and as a cadet, he was viewed as a liberal and a Jew by his generally right-wing colleagues. By way of countering these accusations, Heydrich claimed he was a member of an anti-Jewish political organization.
According to Gerwarth, Heydrich’s drift into reactionary politics was accelerated by his future wife, Lina von Osten, a convinced Nazi and vehement antisemite. Virtually penniless after leaving the navy, he joined the Nazi party in 1931, less than two years before Hitler assumed Germany’s chancellorship. He was assigned to Heinrich Himmler’s staff at the SS, a tiny paramilitary group.
Heydrich was largely apolitical when he entered the SS. Nor had he read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The Nazi movement offered him a steady job during the Great Depression, a structured life in uniform and a sense of purpose. It also drew him closer to von Osten, his fiance.
Heydrich’s rapid rise in the SS earned him many enemies, some of whom reignited the old rumour of his Jewish ancestry. The Nazi party’s chief genealogist studied the matter and, in a detailed report released in 1932, confirmed that Heydrich was of “German origin and free from any influence of coloured or Jewish blood.” Heydrich was so deeply shaken by the reemergence of this allegation that he privately engaged a Nazi investigator to look into it. In 1940, a baker from Halle was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment for spreading gossip that Heydrich was a Jew.
Gerwarth says that Heydrich’s personal hatred of Jews was not shaped by a reading of classic antisemitic texts but by immersion in an intensely anti-Jewish milieu. In his eyes, Jews were “rootless plunderers” and enemies of the state who fed like leeches on the host nation. He wanted to disenfranchise German Jews, but above all else, he sought to drive them out of Germany without the use of excessive violence. During Kristallnacht, in 1938, he ordered looters to be arrested, but ruled that participants in the nation-wide pogrom should not be subjected to criminal investigations.
In a sign of his growing radicalism, he suggested that Jews should wear a distinguishing mark on their clothing, a yellow star, for instant identification. Although rejected, his proposal was adapted several years later.
The systematic mass murder of Jews was a concept he would embrace only after the outbreak of World War II. Before 1940, he envisaged an organized and orderly expulsion of Jews, supporting the resettlement of Jews on the tropical island of Madagascar.
On July 31, 1941, Hermann Goring, Hitler’s deputy, formally entrusted him with the task of preparing “the complete solution to the Jewish question in the German area of influence in Europe.”
Acting resolutely on this order, Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen mobile murder squads were sent into action to kill Jews en masse following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Alongside these atrocities, Heydrich’s SS encouraged local people to take part in pogroms.
By now, the SS was a brutally seasoned force, having terrorized Jewish and Catholic Poles in the wake of Germany’s occupation of Poland in 1939.
In accordance with his mandate to exterminate the Jews of Europe, Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Roughly 11 million European Jews were to be slaughtered under the exterminationist plan hatched in that leafy, sedate Berlin suburb.
After being appointed the “protector” of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich, based in Prague, expropriated the mansion of a Jew for his own use and intensified anti-Jewish measures in Czechoslovakia.
Heydrich’s funeral, one of the most elaborate ever staged in Nazi Germany, was a solemn affair, with Himmler, his boss, praising his “noble” and “decent” character.
In response to his assassination, the Nazis levelled a village in Czechoslovakia, Lidice, and stepped up the mass murder of Polish Jews in Aktion Reinhard. Gerwarth, in a chilling comment, writes, “At the time of Heydrich’s death, about three-quarters of the six million Jews whom the Nazis and their accomplices would murder … were still alive.”