Reinhard Heydrich was born in the German city of Halle, near Leipzig on March 7, 1904. Reinhard Eugen Tristan Heydrich was raised in a cultured, musical environment. His father founded the Halle Conservatory of Music and was a Wagnerian opera singer, while his mother was an accomplished pianist. Young Heydrich trained seriously as a violinist, developing expert skill and a lifelong passion for the violin.
Too young to serve in World War One, after the war at age 16 Heydrich teamed up with the local Freikorps, a right-wing, anti-Semitic organization of ex-soldiers involved in violently opposing Communists on the streets. Young Heydrich was also influenced by the racial fanaticism of the German Völk movement and its belief in the supremacy of the blond haired, blue eyed Germanic people which he resembled. Many historians regard Heydrich as the darkest figure within the Nazi regime; Adolf Hitler described him as “the man with the iron heart”. He was the founding head of the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, SD), an intelligence organisation charged with seeking out and neutralising resistance to the Nazi Party via arrests, deportations, and murders.
The German defeat in World War One brought social chaos, inflation and economic ruin to most German families including Heydrich’s. In March of 1922, at age 18, Heydrich sought the free education, adventure and prestige of a Naval career and became a cadet in the small, elite German Navy.
Joins Nazi Party and the SS
In 1931, at age 27, Heydrich joined the Nazi Party and became a member of the SS (Schutzstaffel), the elite organization of black-coated young men chosen on the basis of their racial characteristics.
Heydrich proceeded to create the intelligence gathering organization known as the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), or SS Security Service.
It began in a small office with a single typewriter. But Heydrich’s tireless determination soon grew the organization into a vast network of informers that developed dossiers on anyone who might oppose Hitler and conducted internal espionage and investigations to gather information down to the smallest details on Nazi Party members and storm trooper (SA) leaders.
Heydrich’s ruthless diligence and the rapid success of the SD earned him a quick rise through the SS ranks – appointed SS Major by December, 1931, then SS Colonel with sole control of the SD by July of 1932. In March of 1933, he was promoted to SS Brigadier General, though not yet 30 years old.
Heydrich remained in the elite Aryan order but was haunted by the persistent rumors and as a result developed tremendous hostility toward Jews. Heydrich also suffered great insecurity and some degree of self loathing, exampled by an incident in which he returned home to his apartment after a night of drinking, turned on a light and saw his own reflection in a wall mirror then took out his pistol and fired two shots at himself in the mirror, uttering “filthy Jew!”
Night of the Long Knives
Two months later, in June, Himmler and Heydrich, along with Hermann Göring, successfully plotted the downfall of powerful SA chief Ernst Röhm by spreading false rumors that Röhm and his four million SA storm troopers intended to seize control of the Reich and conduct a new revolution.
During the Night of the Long Knives Röhm and dozens of top SA leaders were hunted down and murdered on Hitler’s orders, with the list of those to be murdered drawn up by Heydrich. As a result, the SA Brownshirts lost much of their influence and were quickly overtaken in importance by the black-coated SS.
In June of 1936, all of the local police forces throughout Germany along with the Gestapo, the SD, and the Criminal Police, were placed under the command of SS Reichsführer Himmler, who now answered only to Hitler.
By 1937, any remnants of civilized notions of justice were thrown out as the police, especially the Gestapo, were placed above the law with unlimited powers of arrest. Anyone could be taken into Schutzhaft (protective custody) for any reason and for any amount of time without a trial and with no legal recourse.
Heydrich was a master of intrigue and pulling strings behind the scenes, sometimes on an international scale. His exploits included involvement in prodding Soviet leader Stalin into conducting a purge of top Red Army generals in 1937 by supplying evidence to Soviet secret agents of a possible Soviet military coup against Stalin.
In Germany, Heydrich had a hand in the downfall of two powerful, traditionalist German Army generals who had expressed opposition to Hitler when he announced his long range war plans in November, 1937. War Minister, Werner von Blomberg and Commander in Chief of the Army, Werner von Fritsch, were disgraced by framed-up attacks on their personal character and forced out, thus eliminating their influence. Following their dismissal, Hitler himself assumed the position of commander in chief of the German Army.
Soon afterward, Hitler looked to increase the size of the German Reich at the expense of other nations, first targeting Austria then Czechoslovakia.
In Austria, Himmler and Heydrich worked behind the scenes to encourage pro-Nazis there to spread unrest and commit sabotage.
Following the Nazi annexation of Austria in March, 1938, the SS rushed in to round up anti-Nazis and harass Jews. Heydrich then established the Gestapo Office of Jewish Emigration, headed by Austrian native, Adolf Eichmann. This office had the sole authority to issue permits to Jews wanting to leave Austria and quickly became engaged in extorting wealth in return for safe passage. Nearly a hundred thousand Austrian Jews managed to leave with many turning over all their worldly possessions to the SS. A similar office was then set up back in Berlin.
On November 9/10, 1938, Kristallnacht occurred with the first widespread attacks on Jews and mass arrests throughout the Reich. On Heydrich’s order, 25,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.
In January of 1939, Heydrich helped destabilize Czechoslovakia by inciting unrest in the eastern province of Slovakia and also sent in a sabotage squad to cause panic.
In March, after representatives of France and England failed to challenge him at Munich, Hitler gambled and sent in the German Army to ‘protect’ Czechoslovakia from the crisis which the Nazis themselves had deliberately created.
Behind the Army, the SS rushed in – the pattern now established – with the SS always following the German Army into conquered lands. And by now, nearly a hundred concentration camps of various sizes had sprung up throughout the Reich.
On September 1, 1939, World War Two began with the Nazi invasion of Poland. As a prelude to the invasion, Heydrich had engineered a fake Polish attack on a German radio station at Gleiwitz, Germany, a mile from the Polish border, thus giving Hitler an excuse for military retribution.
After the invasion of Poland, Heydrich was given control of the new Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) which combined the SD, Gestapo, Criminal Police, and foreign intelligence service into an enormous, efficient, centralized organization that would soon terrorize the entire continent of Europe and conduct mass murder on a scale unprecedented in human history.
First Einsatz Groups
Heydrich then formed five SS Special Action (Einsatz) Groups to systematically round up and shoot Polish politicians, leading citizens, professionals, aristocracy, and the clergy. Poland’s remaining people, considered by the Nazis to be racially inferior, were to be enslaved.
German-occupied Poland had an enormous Jewish population of over 2 million persons. On Heydrich’s orders, Jews who were not shot outright were crammed into ghettos in places such as Warsaw, Cracow, and Lodz. Overcrowding and lack of food within these walled-in ghettos led to starvation, disease, and the resulting deaths of half a million Jews by mid 1941.
Invasion of Soviet Union
After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Heydrich organized four large SS Einsatz groups (A,B,C,D) to operate in the Soviet Union with orders stating “… search and execution measures that contribute to the political pacification of the occupied area are to be undertaken.” As a result, all Communist political commissars taken into custody were shot along with suspected partisans, saboteurs, and anyone deemed a security threat.
“The Führer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews,” Heydrich told his subordinate Adolf Eichmann, who later reported that statement during his trial after the war.
Mass Murder of Jews
The Einsatz groups now turned their attention to the mass murder of Jews. At his trial in Nuremberg after the war, Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D, described the method…
“The unit selected would enter a village or city and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of resettlement. They were requested to hand over their valuables and shortly before execution, to surrender their outer clothing. The men, women, and children were led to a place of execution, which in most cases was located next to a more deeply excavated antitank ditch. Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch.”
Einsatz leaders kept highly detailed records including the daily numbers of Jews murdered. Competition even arose as to who posted the highest numbers. In the first year of the Nazi occupation of Soviet territory, over 300,000 Jews were murdered. By March of 1943, over 600,000 and by the end of the war, an estimated 1,300,000.
Another Nazi extermination program, euthanasia of the sick and disabled in Germany, provided the SS with a better opportunity to experiment. At Brandenburg in Germany a former prison was converted into a killing center where the first experiments with gas chambers took place. They were disguised as shower rooms, but were actually hermetically sealed chambers connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. The drugged patients were led naked to their deaths in the gas chamber. The killing center included a crematorium where the bodies were taken for disposal. Families were then falsely told the cause of death was medical such as heart failure or pneumonia.
The head of the euthanasia program, SS Major Christian Wirth, used the technical knowledge and experience gained at Brandenburg and the five other euthanasia killing centers to construct a pilot gas chamber plant at Chelmno in occupied Poland, to be used for Jews.
On July 31, 1941, on Hitler’s order, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring issued an order to Heydrich instructing Heydrich to prepare “a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution (Endlösung) of the Jewish question.”
By mid 1942, mass gassing of Jews using Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide) began at Auschwitz in occupied Poland, where extermination was conducted on an industrial scale with estimates running as high as three million persons eventually killed through gassing, starvation, disease, shooting, and burning.
Attacked by Czechs
On May 27, 1942, as his car slowed to round a sharp turn in the roadway it came under attack from Free Czech agents who had been trained in England and brought to Czechoslovakia to assassinate him. They shot at Heydrich then threw a bomb which exploded, wounding him. He managed to get out of the car, draw his pistol and shoot back at the assassins before collapsing in the street.
WeHimmler rushed his own private doctors to Prague to help Heydrich, who held on for several days, but died on June 4 from blood poisoning brought on by fragments of auto upholstery, steel, and his own uniform that had lodged in his spleen.
Meanwhile the Gestapo and SS hunted down and murdered the Czech agents, resistance members, and anyone suspected of being involved in Heydrich’s death, totaling over 1000 persons. In addition, 3000 Jews were deported from the ghetto at Theresienstadt for extermination. In Berlin 500 Jews were arrested, with 152 executed as a reprisal on the day of Heydrich’s death.
Liquidation of Lidice
As a further reprisal for the killing of Heydrich, Hitler ordered the small Czech mining village of Lidice to be liquidated on the fake charge that it had aided the assassins.
In one of the most infamous single acts of World War Two, all 172 men and boys over age 16 in the village were shot on June 10, 1942, while the women were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp where most died. Ninety young children were sent to the concentration camp at Gneisenau, with some taken later to Nazi orphanages if they were German looking.
The village of Lidice was then destroyed building by building with explosives, then completely leveled until not a trace remained, with grain being planted over the flattened soil. The name was then removed from all German maps. Photos of Lidice
For months after Heydrich’s death, Heinrich Himmler hesitated on appointing a successor, finally settling on Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a trained lawyer (and alcoholic) who possessed little of his predecessor’s skills for intrigue. Thus after Heydrich’s death, Himmler’s personal power vastly increased as he took over many of Heydrich’s duties.
The Final Solution plans begun by Heydrich were further developed under Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, and Eichmann, with the help of SS subordinates, Nazi bureaucrats, industrialists, scientists, and people from occupied countries.
Until the end of war in 1945, Jews were transported from all over Europe to killing centers such as Auschwitz where they were exterminated, along with gypsies, homosexuals, priests, prisoners of war, and ultimately persons of every nationality, religious faith, and political persuasion.