Top positive review
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on 18 October 2011
Reinhard Heydrich was labelled "Hitler's Hangman" by Thomas Mann after his assassination, at the age of thirty eight. This excellent biography actually begins with his death in Prague, May 1942. The background to the assassination is examined in great detail, with the Czech underground under pressure to perform, despite (quite rightly as it turned out) fearing reprisals if Heydrich was the target.
The book then turns to Heydrich's early life. He was born into a musical family of good financial means and social standing. During WWI his father was mentioned in a German encyclopaedia of music and musicians, published in 1916, as a Jewish composer. It turned out a former pupil of his fathers musical conservatory had inserted this as revenge for being expelled and it was removed from the next edition, but rumours of a Jewish background would plague Heydrich throughout his life.
Rather than running his fathers business, Heydrich turned to the navy and found the rumours of a Jewish background followed him, making him an outsider - although playing the violin probably also helped to mark him out as different. However, he became a second naval liutenant and was both ambitious and arrogant. He met his future wife, Lina Von Osten in 1930, whose brother was an early member of the Nazi party. However, the relationship eventually led to his dismissal from the navy and left Heydrich at a loose end.
It is hard to say whether, had Heydrich remained in the navy and not met Lina, he would have simply remained a career officer. However, an interview with Himmler changed his life. Himmler gave him a chance and Heydrich remained conscious of the debt he owed him and gave total loyalty. He was less qualified than the other applicant, but used his love of crime and spy novels to impress Himmler so much that he was offered the job of creating the SS intelligence agency.
This biography looks at Heydrich's early career in the SS. Securing control over the Gestapo, the night of the long knives in 1934, kristallnacht and Heydrich's attacks on the church, the communists, the Jewish population and others. With the invasion of Poland, Heydrich unleashed a campaign of terror which exceeded anything he had managed before. He was also given the responsibility, by Hitler, of the maintenance of order in Germany 'at all costs'. In 1939 he issued the "Principles of Inner State Security during the War" and a ruthless approach to the threat of defeatism.
Heydrich was convinced that only he could deal with the 'Jewish problem' and appointed Eichmann as special advisor carrying out evacuations in the East. He favoured a Jewish reservation in Madagascar, but this plan was dropped when sea routes could not be secured. The book goes on to look at the Wannsee Conference in 1942, set up by Heydrich when Goring authorised him to make "all necessary preparations" for a "total solution of the Jewish question." Wannsee affirmed Heydrich's overall authority in dealing with the Jews, a responsibility he seems to have embraced without any kind of difficulty or being troubled about what he was asked to do.
Hitler then decided to replace Baron von Neurath, his 'weak' representative in Prague with Heydrich. This was a man whose power was constantly growing - he had wealth, power and was the only leading SS officer occupying key positions at both the centre of the Nazi empire and on the territorial periphery. He travelled regularly between Prague and Berlin, taking up new challenges without meaning to lose any of his previous responsibilities. His time in Prague dealt huge blows to the people. He saw the Czech people as a race of slaves, considering education an unnecessary luxury and attempting to undermine and eradicate Czech culture and national identity. He pushed for cultural Germanization and stamped on resistance movements with harsh measures.
When Heydrich was assassinated, his funeral was stage managed by Goebbels and the Nazi's sought revenge. The most well known act of retaliation was the complete annihilation of the Bohemian village of Lidice, where the assassins allegedly received support. Himmler also ordered his subordinates to take less risks, saying, "after all we want to kill our enemies; our enemies are not supposed to kill us." The author goes on to tell us what happened to the assassins, the implications of the death of Heydrich and what happened to the people involved after the war. Lina, who survived, never expressed any regret or remorse for her husbands crimes. It is interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Heydrich survived - suicide in 1945 or Neuremberg perhaps? Either way, that the well brought up son of musicians ended up steeped in such savagery - embraced such violence - is staggering and this is a very well written and interesting account of his life and his death. Highly recommended.