In a time of barbarity, Reinhard Tristan Heydrich, “the Hangman,” stood out as one of the cruelest and most brutal mass murderers in Nazi Germany. Those who worked Heydrich feared him, as did those who were unfortunate enough to be under his control. Heydrich's own protégé, Walter Schellenberg, described him as a man with "a cruel, brave and cold intelligence" for whom "truth and goodness had no intrinsic meaning." (1) On the side, Heydrich was a fencer, a musician and a pilot. As his main job, Heydrich murdered thousands of Jews and other "enemies" of the Reich.
Heydrich was born on March 7, 1904, in Halle an der Salle, Germany. His father, Bruno, was a non-religious singer and composer who was kept out of the upper echelons of German society due to a humble background and a persistent, though false, rumor that he was Jewish. Reinhard's mother, Elizabeth Kranz, was a practicing Catholic from a rich musical family in Dresden. As Reinhard grew up, both his father and his classmates inculcated him with a virulent anti-Semitism. He was a loner who tried to prove his superiority through his studies and through sports.
Heydrich was in his early teens during World War I. When Germany lost the war, he followed his family's example in blaming the Jews for his country's defeat. At 15, he joined the paramilitary Maracker Freikorps, a band that fought against revolutionary groups in Germany. He later enlisted in a home defense force and joined the Deutscher Schutz und Truzbund, a nationalist and anti-Semitic organization. At age 18, he began work as an officer cadet in the Kiel naval dockyard. Six years later, he was promoted to first lieutenant and for the next three years, from 1928 to 1931, he worked in naval intelligence. He was a womanizer until he met Lina von Osten, a member of a nationalist, anti-Semitic family, and asked her to marry him. While they were engaged, Heydrich was brought to naval court by a girl who claimed he had tried to seduce her. In April 1931, he was discharged from the Navy. In June 1931, he joined the Nazi party as a member of the SA, a group of thugs who fought street battles and barroom brawls against communists.
In July 1931, he moved to Heinrich Himmler's chicken farm in Bavaria and subsequently became an intelligence officer in the SS in Munich. He married von Osten in December and asked Himmler and Ernst Rohm to be the godfathers of his first child, Klaus.
Heydrich earned a reputation for toughness and jailed a man for declaring that Heydrich did not have Aryan ancestry. He spent two years creating and building up the SD, a Nazi intelligence agency. Under Heydrich, the SD watched for dissent within the party and created files on all the Jews in Germany. Over time, Heydrich and Himmler used the power of political police forces to consolidate Nazi control throughout Germany. By April 1934, Heydrich ran the Prussian Gestapo, the largest political police force in the Reich, also known as the Security Police. In 1935, he described the police as "the state's defensive force that could act against the legally identifiable enemy" with the SS as "the offensive force that could initiate the final battle against the Jews." (2)
As violence against Jews grew with Kristallnacht in 1938, Heydrich continued to control the police force. His orders included: "Whatever actions occurred should not endanger German lives or property; synagogues could be burned only if there was no danger to the surrounding buildings. Healthy, nonelderly adult Jewish males were to be seized first, and concentration camps notified." (3)
On September 21 1939, Heydrich hosted a conference at which he stressed the necessity of keeping the Jews in "as few concentration centers as possible," as a prerequisite for the "ultimate aim." (4) He also mandated the creation of a Council of Jewish Elders to ensure that all orders given to the Jews were executed. If they were not, the Council members were to be threatened with "the severest measures." (5)
At a meeting on November 12, 1938, Heydrich stated that simply restricting the Jews, whom he called "the eternal subhumans," (6) was insufficient, one had to completely get rid of them. On January 24, 1939, Field Marshal Hermann Goering told Heydrich to solve the "Jewish problem" by "emigration and evacuation." (7) Goering created an agency for Jewish emigration and gave it over to Heydrich. In June 1940, after 200,000 Jews had emigrated, Heydrich wrote to the Reich Foreign Secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop that emigration alone could not take care of all the Jews and that "A territorial Final Solution has thus become necessary." (8) In May 1941, Heydrich sent his underlings out with the message that due to the pending "Final Solution," emigration of Jews from France and Belgium was forbidden.
Heydrich was involved in the execution of this "Final Solution" from the start. In the summer of 1939, Himmler assigned the job of mass murder to the Einstatzgruppen, killing squads under the control of Heydrich's security police. Most of the commanders came from Heydrich's SD. Heydrich oversaw the massacre of thousands of Jews, Polish leaders, communists and clergymen. He once commented, "We have had to be hard. We have had to shoot thousands of leading Poles to show how hard we can be." (9) In 1941, after the SS established extermination camps in Poland, Heydrich took the job of coordinating the deportation of European Jews to these camps.
On January 20, 1942, Heydrich invited senior officials from state and party offices to a conference in Wannsee, Berlin. He revealed to them his plan for the "Final Solution," which included Europe being "combed through from west to east for Jews." (10) According to Heydrich, these eleven million Jews would be held in transit ghettos, then sent east to form work gangs to build roads. Many would "doubtless …fall away through natural reduction" and those who survived would "be dealt with appropriately." (11) Heydrich did not mention the fate of Jews who were not fit to work, but according to attendee Adolf Eichmann, Heydrich's murderous intentions were obvious and understood.
On September 24, 1941, Hitler appointed Heydrich Reich Protector of Bohemia-Moravia. This position gave Heydrich the power to crush Czech resistance and to push for deportations of Czech Jews to Poland.
On May 27, 1942 at approximately 10:30 am, two Czech patriots, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, parachuted from Britain into Prague, ambushed Heydrich's Mercedes and threw a bomb into the front seat. Heydrich was seriously wounded and the driver of a baker's van took him to the Bulkova hospital. He remained in critical condition for days. On May 29, Joseph Goebbels blamed Jewish terrorists for the attack, arrested 500 Berlin Jews and warned the leaders of the Jewish community that "for every Jewish act of terrorism or sedition, one hundred or one hundred fifty of the Jews in our hands will be shot." (12) He also charged a crowd of Jews in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp with conspiracy and shot them on the spot. Nazi leaders proclaimed a state of emergency and a curfew in Prague. They offered a reward of 10,000,000 crowns for the capture of Heydrich's attackers. A wave of Nazi executions swept the Czech areas and the entire villiage of Lidice was wiped out. An SS general in charge of the deportation of Jews to Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor named the operation "Operation Reinhard" after Heydrich.
Meanwhile, Heydrich's condition deteriorated and he died on June 4 from "wound infection." Himmler delivered the key address at a state funeral on June 9. Hitler recognized Heydrich at the funeral for his contribution to Nazism.
Since the war, the man who felt it was his duty "to save the world from intellectual and moral decay" (13) has become notorious as one of the most heinous Nazi war criminals of the Holocaust. The surviving comrades of Heydrich's assassins erected a monument in their honor.