Heydrich earned his title as Hitler’s reviled ‘hangman’

Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

Robert Gerwarth

Yale University Press, £20

Review: Geoffrey Roberts

Not for nothing was Reinhard Heydrich called ‘Hitler’s hangman’ by the German writer Thomas Mann. In the 1930s, Heydrich headed the German political police, crushing domestic opposition to Hitler’s rule. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, Heydrich was in charge of the Einsatzgruppen — SS teams tasked to eliminate Polish resistance. Some 10,000 Polish intellectuals and politicians were executed by the Einsatzgruppen, who played a similar role in the Soviet Union: a million Soviet Jews were murdered by the SS in 1941-1942.

Heydrich was key to the radicalisation of Nazi policy towards the Jews. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Nazi policy was to persecute German Jews and force them to emigrate. When the war started in 1939, the plan was to resettle Jews, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, in Poland. Anticipating rapid victory in Russia, the Nazis planned to deport Europe’s Jews east, expecting many would die in the inhospitable terrain.

In Jan 1942, Heydrich held a meeting at Lake Wannsee of Nazi officials interested in the ‘final solution’ of the Jewish question. But the solution agreed at Wannsee was deportation of Europe’s Jews to Russia. It was only after Wannsee that mass murder became the preference. The policy transition from deportation to genocide was prompted by the assassination of Heydrich in Jun 1942.

In Sep 1941, Heydrich had been appointed ‘Reich protector’ of Bohemia and Moravia — the Czech lands annexed by Hitler in 1939. There was no great Czech resistance but Heydrich still arrested thousands and executed hundreds. Heydrich’s actions made him a target of the Czech exile government in London, who sent assassins to Prague to kill him. Heydrich’s death provoked one of the most infamous of Nazi atrocities when the inhabitants of the village of Lidice were ‘implicated’ in the assassination. Nearly 200 men were shot and its women deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp. How do you write a biography of a monster? Gerwarth’s solution is ‘cold empathy’ — the detached telling of Heydrich’s story, capturing the subject’s point of view but at a critical distance.

How did Heydrich, a conventional middle-class Catholic, became ‘Hitler’s hangman’. Gerwarth rejects the idea that Heydrich was psychotic or an unfeeling technocrat. Heydrich, says Gerwarth, was a Nazi zealot, a true believer. Heydrich was a late convert to the Nazis, joining the SS in 1931 following his discharge from the navy. Heydrich compensated for his lack of party credentials by adopting radical ideological positions when he joined the SS. For Heydrich, killing the Jews was part of a broader plan to re-order the ethnic make-up of Europe by mass murder and enslavement

Gerwarth, who is professor of modern history at UCD, has written as definitive a biography of Hitler’s Hangman as there is ever likely to be.

* Professor Geoffrey Roberts is head of the school of history at UCC. His biography of Marshal Zhukov will be published in June.

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