A New Biography of a Lesser-Known Nazi Confounds the Reader

How to explain the evil of Reinhard Heydrich?

Who's the most popular Nazi? I thought of asking this as a poll question on Facebook, but I've been in Facebook jail so many times I dared not risk it. I turned to Google. Adolf Hitler gets thirty-one million hits. Eva Braun, two and a half million. Joseph Goebbels, two and a quarter million. Heinrich Himmler, almost two million. Albert Speer, a million and a half. Hitler's dog Blondi, 638 thousand. Reinhard Heydrich is just slightly more represented in my Google search than Hitler's dog. Heydrich racks up 787 thousand hits. The numbers change day by day, but the proportions remain about the same. Heydrich's relatively low profile astounds me, given the immense evil this – entity – I can barely stand to call him a "man" – wreaked upon the world.

The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich, is a May, 2022 book published by Knopf. The book is 656 pages long, with 570 pages of narrative followed by notes and an index. There are 110 black-and-white photographs. Author Nancy Dougherty knew Lina Heydrich, Reinhard Heydrich's widow, and interviewed her for the book, as well as other surviving Nazis, including Albert Speer. Dougherty is a gifted writer who can report horror in beautiful prose. I'd recommend this book to anyone curious about Nazism or simply about human evil. 

I grew up with parents whose close intimates were affected by Nazism. In addition to the incalculable damage the Nazis did to Poland and Czechoslovakia, close family members and friends of my parents were imprisoned and killed, including a Jewish boy who saved my mother's life when, as a child, she almost drowned in the River Nitra. Like many children of such parents, I grew up with a sense that the world can be a scary and unjust place, and a drive to understand, and to resist, terror and injustice.

I adopted the explanation of many. Germany suffered shock after shock, starting with mass death in the trenches of World War I, and continuing with the Versailles Treaty and all of its ramifications, the Depression, rapid modernization in the Weimar Republic, and the violent and terrifying rise of Soviet Communism. Even before all this, in the nineteenth century, Romantic Nationalism, Scientific Racism, inspired by Social Darwinism, rising atheism, and Neo-Paganism inadvertently provided a theoretical grounding for Nazism. Hitler was ruthless and crafty; Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher brainwashed the masses expertly through media. Etc, etc, etc. Those explanations for Nazism work well enough. But then you get to Reinhard Heydrich.

In spite of his relatively low profile, Heydrich is an inescapable figure. After reading Dougherty's biography of him, I have to wonder how successful Nazism would have been had he never existed. He has been called the architect of the Holocaust. That would be enough to damn any soul to Hell for all eternity, but Heydrich was an intelligent, energetic, driven, high achiever. He was chief of the Gestapo, Kripo, and SD – the intelligence agency of the SS. He issued the decree mandating that Jews wear a badge in the shape of a yellow Star of David. He chaired the Wannsee Conference which laid out the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." He was Heinrich Himmler's underling and Adolf Eichmann's boss. He gave the world the Einsatzgruppen, squads that followed German troops, and shot unarmed civilians perceived to be a potential enemy of the Third Reich. Einsatzgruppen killed two million people, including 1.3 million Jews, and also tens of thousands of Poles, including priests, teachers, and professors, and also handicapped and disabled Poles. Communists and Roma, or Gypsies, were also killed.

Hitler commanded, "Whatever we can find of an upper class in Poland is to be liquidated" and "The increased severity of the racial struggle permits of no legal restrictions. Jews, Poles, and similar trash are to be cleared from the old and new Reich territories." Heydrich delivered. He reported, "Of the Polish upper classes in the occupied territories, only a maximum of 3 percent is still present." Heydrich became a pilot and flew reconnaissance and combat missions over Poland. His plane crashed and he had to make his way back to German lines. Hitler disapproved of this; had Heydrich been captured, the Reich might never recover from his loss. He was also sexually omnivorous, and he commandeered a brothel, Salon Kitty, in order to surveil his fellow Nazis as they made use of prostitute spies.

In 1935, Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick argued that opposition to the Nazis had been crushed. There was no longer any need for the SS to have the extra-legal powers of repression that it commanded. Frick's argument did not carry the day. Hitler appointed Himmler head of the police in 1936. Himmler and Heydrich pushed for a permanent police state. Heydrich advanced this victory for repression by publishing, in 1935, a series of articles for Das Schwarze Korps, the SS journal. These articles were republished in 1936 as The Transformation of Our Struggle. Jews, Freemasons, and Catholic priests were Germany's eternal enemies, Heydrich wrote, and Germany would have to struggle long and hard to defeat them. Heydrich darkly warned that Nazism's victory, Hitler's control, and the crushing of the opposition shouldn't fool Germans into complacency. To justify Germany's long-term struggle against Jews, Freemasons, and priests, Heydrich cited a perverted conception of Darwinian "survival of the fittest."

Heydrich's articles were carefully honed propaganda not just for repression of all Germans in a permanent totalitarian state; they also foreshadowed the upcoming Holocaust. Did Heydrich believe a word he wrote? We can't know. But this much is certain. In publishing these propaganda articles, Heydrich protected and advanced his own personal power as chief of the Reich Security Main Office.

As Reinhard Heydrich was rising in the SS, his parents were facing penury and possible starvation. During the depths of the Depression, in 1933, after his father suffered a stroke, Heydrich's parents repeatedly begged him for a loan. He turned them down. Finally, he presented them with a contract outlining how he expected them to behave if he did give them a fraction of the money requested. Apparently they never signed their son's humiliating contract.

Clearly, Reinhard Heydrich was an evil man. And yet, while reading Dougherty's compelling, disturbing, and unforgettable biography, I did not feel normal human anger at Heydrich. This is because I could never feel that he was a human being. I felt I was reading about an insect. Insects and other parasites can do unspeakable things to a human body, but we don't tend to get angry at them. The mosquitos that transmit malaria that has killed millions are just little machines programmed by nature functioning without conscience. I know that I should say that I recognize that Heydrich was a human being in the same way that I am a human being, but even as I say that, I don't believe it.

Heydrich, in spite of the ambitious trajectory of his life, may have been himself as little more than a bug acting according to a plan he never wrote. According to one story, one of his final comments was a quote from one of his composer father's operas. "The world is just a barrel-organ which the Lord God turns Himself. We all have to dance to the tune which is already on the drum." Maybe, had he survived, he would have offered that defense at Nuremberg.

Dougherty's book, interweaving, as it does, conversations with Heydrich's widow, includes Heydrich the man. Heydrich, a loving spouse who held his wife's hand as she underwent the agonized pangs of childbirth. Heydrich, newly assigned to Prague, breathing a sigh of relief that his daily tasks demanded sending many fewer innocent civilians to their sadistic deaths. Heydrich, trying to win hearts and minds, "generously" increasing Czechs' fat ration. Heydrich, the sensitive musician who played violin so well his listeners were moved to tears. Heydrich, the stiff, awkward youth, teased and ostracized by his peers. Heydrich, the denizen of Hell, awash in the blood of millions.

Heydrich's nicknames include, "The blond beast," "The young, evil, god of death," "The Butcher of Prague," "The Hangman," and "The Man with the Iron Heart." That "iron heart" sobriquet came from Hitler himself. He was "a professional criminal of Luciferian magnitude," and "the king of the underworld," "the puppet master of the Third Reich," "the murderer-in-chief," and "the hidden pivot around which the Nazi regime revolved." He was, according to Himmler, "a walking file cabinet" jam packed with information he used to destroy lives. Werner Best, a fellow Nazi, called Heydrich "the most demonic personality" of all Nazi leaders. A Nazi defector called Heydrich "the all-powerful power behind the throne." Then there is this, in German, "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." If you are thinking, "Gee, those are cool nicknames," you are, alas, not alone. Marduk, a Swedish, allegedly neo-Nazi, heavy metal band produced a song celebrating Heydrich; you can sample its cacophony here.

Young men seeking a macho role model might be attracted to the "strength" in Heydrich's nicknames. In fact there is no manly strength to be found behind this curtain. See this photo. A uniformed Nazi soldier shoots an unarmed Jewish mother attempting to protect her child. As Wikipedia explains, "The photo was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted at a Warsaw post office by a member of the Polish resistance collecting documentation on Nazi war crimes." Or think of this photo. Einsatzgruppen march Polish women to their deaths. The last woman, Janina Skalska, appears to be barefoot, and wearing a bathrobe. This photo records Germans, under SS command, murdering Father Piotr Sosnowski. Sosnowski stares at his executioners. He has no weapons.

Invading Nazis shooting Jewish men, women, and children, and burying them in mass graves, murdering barefoot Polish women in housecoats, unarmed Catholic priests, and physically handicapped, institutionalized patients: none of this has anything to do with strength or courage or worthy manhood. The Einsatzgruppen knew they were doing wrong. They complained; they got drunk; they had nightmares and nervous breakdowns; they sometimes broke down and shot each other to death. But they kept on committing war crimes, because they were too cowardly and weak to refuse.

Can we explain Heydrich's evil by saying that he was steeped in, and blinded by, hatred? No, we can't. Heydrich's father Bruno interacted with Jews in a collegial way. Jewish students attended his music conservatory. A Jewish merchant stored goods in the Heydrich school. Young Reinhard was friends with the son of the Jewish cantor, Abraham Lichtenstein. Heydrich would later claim, possibly falsely, to have joined anti-Semitic organizations in his youth. Scholars guess that he made these claims to boost his Nazi credentials, since he joined the Party relatively late and to advance his own career.

Further, Heydrich persecuted Catholics and Freemasons. Heydrich's father was a Freemason. His mother was a devout Catholic. She objected to her son's plan to arrest the anti-Nazi Bishop Galen. After this falling out, Dougherty writes, mother and son rarely spoke. Heydrich's mother starved to death during post-World-War-II food shortages in Germany. She was just one of millions of Germans destroyed by the ideology that was meant to elevate Germans for the next thousand years.

Heydrich began, not by killing persons demonized by the Nazis, including Jews or Poles, but his fellow Germans. He co-organized the Night of the Long Knives. Germans killed Germans. Nazis killed Nazis. Men who had marched and fought together murdered each other for nothing but personal gain. Hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, died; a thousand were arrested. Heydrich sent his fellow Germans to concentration camps. Until 1938, most concentration camp inmates were German Aryans.

The explanations that help us to file away other Nazis don't help us with Heydrich. Hitler was so over the top that it's easy to write him off as insane. Mein Kampf and the many video and audio recordings of his speeches document Hitler's sick mind. Himmler, in his speeches in occupied Poznan, provided his own justification for the evil deeds he commanded. Eichmann testified at his 1961 trial, and, in May, 2022, an Israeli documentary, The Devil's Confession, was released that includes Eichmann speaking to a journalist in 1957. Goebbels kept a diary detailing what a sick SOB he was, and his unhinged speeches are also on video. Heydrich died relatively young and suddenly and we don't have his autobiography in speeches, diary entries, or trial testimony.

Unlike Hitler, Heydrich was not a soldier in World War I. Unlike Himmler, he was not invested in Nazi Neo-Paganism. Unlike Goebbels, there's no proof that he was an anti-Semite before joining the Nazi Party. Heydrich didn't join the Party until 1931, as he was looking for something to replace his lost naval career. He joined too late for him to be considered an "Old Fighter," that is the true believers who had joined the Party early on before it gained power.

His widow insists that when she met him he was apolitical. In fact she says he never read Mein Kampf, and he spoke disparagingly of Hitler and Goebbels. Unlike Eichmann, he was not a natural beta male. Eichmann would later offer his own lesser status as his alibi. "I was a  mere instrument in the hands of the leaders. I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty." (Eichmann was, of course, lying. See here and here.) Heydrich was no tool in anyone's hand. How did Heydrich become Heydrich?

Here's one potential origin story. One of the odder aspects of this incomprehensible life: there were persistent, unsubstantiated rumors, throughout his life, that Heydrich had Jewish ancestry. These rumors existed side-by-side with assessments of Heydrich as the picture-perfect Aryan. The absurdity of this contradiction is just one of the many absurdities of Nazism. People theorize that these rumors gave Hitler power over Heydrich. Others theorize that Heydrich was trying to prove how very not Jewish he was. This is all guesswork.

Heydrich's childhood was comfortable. His parents were respected and well off. His father Bruno was an opera singer, composer, and founder of the Halle Conservatory. His mother taught piano. Little Heydrich, it was assumed, would take his father's place someday, and he was taught music early. Heydrich was a good student and athlete. He was a fencer and swimmer. He was teased, though, for his high-pitched voice and alleged Jewishness. Kids called him "Moses."

Given his age, he missed participation in the irrational bloodletting of World War I. Over two million Germans died, constituting between three and four percent of the population. At just one battle, Verdun, 143,000 German soldiers died. But young Heinrich did not miss the bloodletting at home after the war. Extremists on the right and left were fighting it out in the streets. Fifteen-year-old Heydrich joined the Freikorps to defend conservative German nationalism. After that, wild inflation struck, and his family's fortunes, along with those of millions of other Germans, diminished.

Heydrich, abandoning hopes for a career in music, joined the navy. On paper, he did well, but, according to later reports, he had no friends. His fellow navy men regarded him as too refined; some would later say that he struck them as a "liberal." He was seen as gangly, womanly, and effeminate. The rumor of Jewish ancestry clung to him. His laugh, they mocked, sounded like a bleating goat. Ridicule even appeared in the ship newspaper. His violin was his only friend. When discussing music, "he changed completely."

In the navy, Heydrich established what would be a lifelong pattern of sexual promiscuity. He "compromised" one woman and then proposed marriage to another, Lina von Osten. As the "von" suggests, Lina was from an aristocratic, if declassee, background. Heydrich was kicked out of the navy for conduct unbecoming an officer. He was crushed; he retreated to his room and cried for days. Since Heydrich now had no income or position, Lina's family balked at the couple's marriage plans.

At the time, six million German men were out of work. But Heydrich's position was not as desperate as many others'. Scholar Robert Gerwarth published Hitler's Hangman, a well-received biography of Heydrich in 2011. Gerwarth says that Heydrich could have worked as a sailing instructor in a yacht club. (Heydrich the sailing instructor: dark comedy gold.) Heydrich rejected such work. He didn't want to become a "sailing servant to the children of the rich."

Heydrich's fiancée was a committed Nazi. His godmother was able to get him an interview with Himmler. Himmler gave Heydrich twenty minutes to sketch a plan for counterintelligence. Heydrich had no experience with espionage. This did not deter him. Heydrich had been a reader of American and British spy novels. He used what he had gathered from reading authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to prepare the document Himmler requested. Himmler was impressed both by Heydrich's proposal and by Heydrich's height of 6'3", his blue eyes, blond hair, and athleticism. Himmler hired, and swiftly promoted, Heydrich.

Hitler promoted rivalries unto death among his personnel; such rivalries, he believed, like Darwinian "survival of the fittest" would result in the strongest man rising to the top. Dougherty quotes a Nazi, "Everyone arrests everyone. Everyone threatens everyone with arrest. Everyone threatens everyone with Dachau." In this competitive arena, Himmler and Heydrich were one of the few successful partnerships. Lina would later say that Heydrich dealt with Himmler "by imagining him in his underwear."

So maybe this is what happened. Young Heydrich grew up comfortable, sheltered, and respected. One catastrophe after another rocked his world. He witnessed and participated in chaotic violence between Soviet-backed leftists and right-wing German nationalists. He fixated on the communist menace from the east; Hitler would conflate communism with Judaism and Jews. Heydrich was intelligent, ambitious, and his parents' first born son. He blew it in the navy, and he saw his new job with the SS as his last chance. The niche he stumbled into was perfect for his peculiar skills, including a memory that was such a steel trap that after he used a phone number once, he never forgot it. He was a spectacularly successful mass murderer and he enjoyed the perks of success. Does that narrative explain Heydrich?

Not for this reader. There were lots of intelligent and ambitious people in Germany. Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Erwin Rommel were also ambitious, intelligent men. They were also higher ups in Nazi Germany. They resisted Hitler. Yes, they all were all killed, but Heydrich was killed, as well. Heydrich died without honor.

Perhaps genes explains evil like Heydrich's. Perhaps, no less than an insect that wreaks havoc mindlessly, Heydrich didn't really realize what he was doing. Alas, no. Even the comfort of concluding that he didn't see the difference between good and evil just doesn't work. According to author Paul Donnelley, Heydrich went out of his way to spare the life of Paul Sommer, a German-Jewish fencer, and the Polish Olympic fencing team. In response to a query from me, Prof. Gerwarth wrote, "Unfortunately I have not seen any evidence of that. And in some ways, it would be out of character – he was not a particularly 'sentimental' type of person." Lina, his widow, though, reports that after he took up his station in Prague, he was relieved that his daily tasks did not involve sending so many innocent civilians to their sadistic deaths. Heydrich's nephew reports that Heydrich would release prisoners when requested to do so by his younger brother, Heinz. In other words, there are indications that Heydrich had some sense of right and wrong.

An anecdote in Dougherty's biography, if correct, is one of many almost unbelievable biographical details about Reinhard Heydrich. After Heydrich was assassinated, Heinz received a large amount of his brother's private papers. He burned them. He later killed himself. The story is that after he was exposed to his brother's private papers, Heinz Heydrich saved as many Jews as he could. He realized that he was about to be investigated, and ended his own life. One of Heydrich's daughters, Silke, would fall in love with a Jew. We can't blame Heydrich's evil on bad genes.

Author Nancy Dougherty undertook to write a biography of Heydrich because she wanted to understand evil. In 1950, when she was eleven years old, she traveled with her parents to Cologne, Germany, and was shocked by the damage she saw. She worked for years on Heydrich's biography until she was overcome by Alzheimer's disease. She died in 2013. Her husband James asked Christopher Lehman-Haupt to produce a final edit of Dougherty's manuscript. Lehman-Haupt was an author and New York Times book reviewer. Like Dougherty, he had also traveled to war-ravaged Germany as a child. His father had German-Jewish ancestry. Lehman-Haupt finished most of the editing before he died in 2018.

In a recent interview, James Dougherty said that his late wife was "fascinated" and "intrigued" by a Nazi who wasn't "street trash." James said, "Don't dismiss Nazis as fringe characters. They were human beings like you and me in different circumstances."

In his Foreword, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt sounds less like James Dougherty; he appears to have shared my incomprehension. "One searches in vain for a rational explanation of Heydrich's descent into evil. No single biographical fragment satisfies. Not his awkward, ugly duckling childhood and adolescence. Not the sudden flameout of his promising naval career. Not the seemingly hopeless job prospects he suddenly faced in 1931 … Not the attraction to Nazism of his fiancée … not the rumor of a strain of Jewishness … Not even the inclination in the German character to excel at any job … Heydrich's monstrosity surpasses experiential evidence … one sees him falling through some trapdoor in his mind."

Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated by Jan Kubis, a Czech, a Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak. They attacked on May 27, 1942. Heydrich died on June 4. He was the most prominent Nazi to be assassinated during the war.

One might think that one Slovak and one Czech armed with only one gun and one hand grenade assassinating such an important Nazi would be an uncomplicated cause for joy. In the penultimate scene of his 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino gives his audience the vicarious, ahistorical thrill of watching Hitler and Goebbels being shot to death with machine guns. Who wouldn't want to be pulling that trigger? Alas, like so many war stories, this one is not as straightforward as it is sometimes presented. Heydrich was, of course, just replaced with another Nazi. And of course the Nazis famously wiped out an entire village, Lidice, in retaliation, in addition to other retaliatory massacres, tortures, and imprisonments.

Other ends may have been achieved, though. Heydrich had been using a carrot-and-stick approach that seemed to be working in the Nazis' favor. He was scheduled to be moved to France, where he'd use the same methods. Perhaps eliminating Heydrich from France advanced the Allied cause. Also, Heydrich's assassination communicated to the Nazis that they were not invincible. One of the more Machiavellian goals of the assassination was to rouse the Czech population, that had not mounted a resistance that compared to, say, that of the Poles. The idea was that the Nazis would punish the Czechs, and that that punishment would rouse them to action, or at least make collaboration less palatable. Also, Czechs and Slovaks opposed to the Nazis wanted to make their opposition crystal clear. They didn't want the Allies, in the post-war map-drawing, to reconfirm the Allies' shameful betrayal of Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

Possibly the weirdest aspect of the assassination is that Heydrich may not have been finished off by Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik at all. Heydrich may have been assassinated by Himmler. Gabcik's Sten submachine gun jammed. Heydrich stood and pointed his Luger pistol at Gabcik. Jan Kubis threw a grenade at Heydrich's Mercedes Cabriolet. Heydrich was wounded and taken to a hospital. He was treated by Himmler's doctor. Albert Speer told Dougherty that he thought it was "quite possible" that this doctor ended Heydrich's life.

Folklore scholars say that authentic folktales contain few adjectives. The audience is not told that Jack is "resourceful" or "brave" or "plucky." Rather, the folktale simply recounts Jack's actions that demonstrate how resourceful, brave, and plucky he is. Reinhard Heydrich could play violin so well he made the hearer weep. He had decent parents who raised him well. He had a happy marriage and he loved his kids. We don't have much of his writing or his speeches. We do, though, have the records of his actions. We may not know why he was so evil, although personal ambition clearly was one paving stone on his highway to Hell. But that he was one of the most evil people who has ever lived, of that there is no doubt.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.

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