Reinhard Heydrich

Dark Lessons Learned from the Nazi “Butcher of Prague”

December 19, 2022

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Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, a universal wolf,
So double seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Agamemnon, William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida


Everyone feared him, however high above him they might stand in the official hierarchy, and they watched his inexorable rise with a mixture of fascination and impotence, like an approaching doom.

—Joachim Fest


A young, evil god of death.

—Carl Jacob Burkhardt

I.

They called him the “Blond Beast.”

Imposing in his six-foot, three-inch height and lithe build, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich frightened everyone. With hatchet face and icy stare, the Nazi leader was third in command behind only Himmler and the Führer himself. If anyone would replace the Führer someday, it was whispered, it would be Heydrich. 

But he wasn’t always so fearsome. 

Politically agnostic in his youth (though possessing a nationalistic pride), Reinhard was raised in a celebrated musical home in the eastern German city of Halle. His father, Bruno, was a renowned musician who founded the Halle Conservatory and composed dozens of operas, orchestral, and choral works, even naming Reinhard after the hero in his opera Amen. Though Reinhard was only a schoolboy during the First World War, he learned the bitter lessons of German defeat. A local Communist uprising followed by the nation’s economic collapse destroyed his family’s livelihood and forged a steeliness in Reinhard’s soul that would prove to be unshakeable.  

In 1922, Reinhard joined the navy to secure a reliable income and a promising career. He would be dishonorably discharged, however, when he found himself arrogantly contesting accusations that he was simultaneously engaged to two women. With no money and fewer prospects, one of these women (his future wife, Lina von Osten), introduced him to a mouse-faced official in a burgeoning German political party. That man was SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. The party was the National Socialists, aka the Nazis.

One day, while Himmler interviewed Heydrich for a position devising an intelligence branch for Adolf Hitler’s elite squad, the SS, Heydrich was tasked with crafting an organizational plan in a mere twenty minutes. With no intelligence experience, he drew deeply from his past dalliances with fantastic spy novels and potboiler crime fiction. Himmler, naive to the nuances of intelligence and the sources of Heydrich’s “wisdom,” was deeply impressed. The Nazis had found their man. Thus began the rise of Heydrich. 

In a short time, Heydrich would prove to be so capable at producing the Nazi party intelligence service (the SD), an unforgiving machinery of spying and terror, that he was promoted to head the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police). In its murder of rivals (the infamous “Night of the Long Knives”) and arrest of enemies (Communists, Catholics, Jews, gypsies), the Gestapo would fill both concentration camps and graveyards. The Nazi secret police earned its dark reputation for being arbitrary and pitiless. 

In time, drop by drop, a “man” becomes “like a man.”

In 1939, eight years after Heydrich’s twenty minute interview with Himmler, he was appointed head of the Reich Security Main Office charged with oversight of SS intelligence, the Gestapo, and the criminal police. It was in this capacity that Heydrich, in 1942, summoned senior Nazi government leaders to the posh Berlin suburb of Wannsee for a conference to organize “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Over hot tea and under sublime chandeliers, this gathering aspired to organize a coldly efficient mechanized system to murder eleven million European Jews. The conference ended after only ninety minutes with Heydrich smoking, drinking brandy, and sharing laughter with a few of his high-ranking friends.

Next, Heydrich would be moved to occupied Czechoslovakia to become the “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.” His rule was efficient and merciless. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, fawned in his diary, “Heydrich has worked brilliantly.” The bloated, self-absorbed President of the Reichstag and crony of Hitler, Hermann Göring, insinuated that Heydrich was even eclipsing Himmler. “Himmler’s brain,” Göring quipped, “is called Heydrich.” Even the Führer would, however briefly, smile with admiration. The tall, cool Aryan of the Nazi elite, it was reasoned, embodied the German ideal. The future of Nazi Europe was bright.

And that is why, in the eyes of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, Heydrich had to die. 

II.

Gabčík and Kubiš, a Slovak and a Czech, were trained in London under Britain’s top secret Special Operations Executive for the loneliest and most dangerous mission imaginable. They were to parachute into Czechoslovakia on a suicide mission to assassinate “the Butcher of Prague,” Reinhard Heydrich. Calling the mission Operation Anthropoid, their intent was to demonstrate the strength of Czech resistance and the vulnerability of the most fearsome Nazi leaders. After weeks of planning and preparation, on May 27, 1942, Heydrich, who was notoriously cavalier about his personal security measures, was assaulted in his chauffeured Mercedes convertible en route to work in Prague. As Heydrich’s convertible slowed around a hairpin turn, Gabčík, standing nearby, dropped his raincoat to unleash a barrage of machine gun fire on the Reich Protector. But his gun jammed. As Heydrich drew his own pistol and demanded his driver stop, Kubiš threw an anti-tank grenade under the vehicle which detonated causing shrapnel to embed deeply in Heydrich’s chest and abdomen. Hitler’s Hangman, as Heydrich was known, would die from wound sepsis one week later. He was thirty-eight. During the entire twelve years of dark Nazi rule, this was the only successful government-sponsored assassination of a top-ranking Nazi official. 

Heydrich’s death led to mourning across the Nazi empire. Himmler eulogized his friend and apprentice saying, “From the depths of his heart and blood he made the world-view of Adolf Hitler a reality.” And the Führer himself, dubbing Heydrich, “The Man with the Iron Heart,” went on to observe, “I have only a few words. He was one of the best National Socialists, one of the strongest defenders of the German Reich idea, one of the biggest enemies of all the enemies of the Reich. He is a martyr.”

And how was “Hitler’s Hangman” memorialized? In keeping with Heydrich’s character, the Nazis selected a Czech village, Lidice, for a dubious connection to the assassination plot and executed every man over fourteen years old and deported the women and children to certain death in concentration camps. And for good measure, they blew up, burned down, and bulldozed the entire town. Subsequently, the operation establishing three killing centers (Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka) that murdered nearly two million Jews was named Operation Reinhard in honor of the mastermind of The Final Solution. 

III.


And so ends the malevolent story of Reinhard Heydrich. He dies. The Nazis ultimately fall. And we all get chills when we consider the monsters that once walked among us. But is that it? Is Heydrich’s tale little more than just another demon cast into hell? Is there anything we learn about ourselves from the dark life of Reinhard Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid?

Of course.

The word “anthropoid” (the assassination plot’s namesake) is derived from Greek roots meaning “like a man.” There is something disquieting in associating this word with Heydrich. For Heydrich, and countless others subsumed in ideology and ambition, there is a chilling phenomenon—a leaching of the humane out from their existence. Oddly, in a sort of inhuman incongruity, their lives become simultaneously ruthless and impassive. A callousness, a mercilessness, an unflinching utilitarianism replaces warmth, charity, and empathy. In time, drop by drop, a “man” becomes “like a man.” Himmler’s private reflection on Heydrich, unwittingly rife with brutal paradox, speaks volumes to this monstrous deformation of man:


The Führer could really have picked no better man than Heydrich for the campaign against the Jews. For them he was without mercy or pity.

But without a breath, Himmler continued:

For the rest it will interest you to know that Heydrich was a very good violinist. He once played a serenade in my honor; it was really excellent—a pity that he did not do more in this field.

Essayist George Steiner who, as a young boy, fled the oncoming Nazi invasion of France would later reflect,


We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.

This should come as a warning to us all. In the abstract, I may convince myself that, in times of crisis, I am St. Maximillian Kolbe or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irena Sendler, or Martin Niemoller. But there is a terrible chance in the encroaching abyss of fear that I could weaken enough to be an informant, a loyal party member, or even a camp guard. As George Kennan darkly warned, “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security that keeps this evil genius down.” Perhaps all it takes to devolve from being a “man” to being “like a man” is to lose track of the dignity of my neighbor, to excuse the intractable fallibility within myself, and overlook the grace-filled redemption that awaits me in God’s time.

Reinhard Heydrich was once a husband, father, and violinist. He became the Blond Beast, the Butcher of Prague, and Hitler’s Hangman. He was once a “man” and became “like a man.”

Let us learn the lesson and learn it well. Beware ideology, beware ambition, beware the darkening of Conscience that could do the same to you and the same to me.

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