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Reinhard Heydrich chief of the Reich Security Main Office

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich
Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich (7 March 1904 - 4 June 1942) was an SS-Obergruppenführer, chief of the Reich Security Main Office (including the Gestapo, SD and Kripo Nazi police agencies) and Reich governor of Bohemia and Moravia. Adolf Hitler considered him a possible successor. Heydrich was one of the architects of the Holocaust, chairing the 1942 Wannsee conference, which finalized plans for the extermination of all European Jews. Heydrich was wounded in an assassination attempt in Prague on 27 May 1942 and died over a week later from complications arising from his injuries.

Early life

Heydrich was born in Halle an der Saale to composer Richard Bruno Heydrich and his wife Elisabeth Anna Maria Amalia Kranz; Heydrich held a life-long passion for the violin. His two forenames were patriotic musical references: "Reinhard" from an opera of his father's, in a portion called "Reinhard's Crime". His first middle name, 'Tristan' stems from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. His third name probably derives from military hero Prince Eugene of Savoy, Eugen in German (the German cruiser Prinz Eugen was also named for Eugene of Savoy as was the 7th Waffen SS Division).

As a young boy, Heydrich was teased for his high pitched voice and his devout Catholicism in a mostly Protestant town.

Although shy, Heydrich excelled physically and grew handsome and fit excelling in fencing and swimming. Too young to have fought in World War I, he joined the quasi-military Freikorps after the war.

In 1922, Heydrich joined the navy; however, he was dismissed in 1931 (Bullock 1962). The dismissal never has been satisfactorily explained.

Heydrich's, own, bizarre version was that he had sex with, then refused to marry a woman whose important industrialist father was a major naval contractor, and friend of Erich Raeder, the naval Commander-in-Chief. The woman revealed her difficulties to her father, who took the matter to Raeder. The Admiral summoned Heydrich to his office where he and the aggrieved father demanded that Heydrich marry the girl, only to be told that he already was engaged to Lina von Osten, and considered himself bound by his "honour as a naval officer" to not dissolve the engagement. At this, the appalled Raeder is supposed to have summarily cashiered Heydrich. The tale is apparently false. Intensive post-war efforts by journalists failed to identify the woman, though Heydrich's version would have her as socially prominent. Raeder himself scoffed at that tale, while refusing to disclose his reasons for sacking Heydrich.

Another version was that the girl in question was upset at Heydrich's engagement to Lina von Osten because she was under the belief that he would marry her. She complained to her father who went to Raeder. During the court of inquiry summoned by Raeder, Heydrich's contemptuous answers did not help his case and though he was exonerated, the officers demanded that he be cashiered for "conduct unbecoming a naval officer".

This leaves the question as to why Heydrich would have concocted a tale which clearly discredited him, and why would Lina Heydrich and others also maintain that Heydrich was contemptuous of the Nazis before his dismissal from the navy, which others of his acquaintance at the time categorically deny. One theory was submitted by Edouard Calic, namely that Heydrich was discharged once it emerged that he had been spying on the navy in the service of the Nazis. While Heydrich's lifelong radical-rightism and fascination with espionage would make this feasible and would explain why SS head Heinrich Himmler appointed him to head the SD immediately following his discharge, direct evidence is lacking.

Family of Heydrich

In December 1930 Heydrich met Lina Mathilde von Osten (14 June 1911 - 14 August 1985). She was the daughter of Jürgen von Osten, a minor German aristocrat. They were married on 26 December 1931 in Grossenbrode.

The couple had four children:

  • Klaus (born 17 June 1933) died in a traffic accident in Jungfern-Breschan on 24 October 1943
  • Heider (born 28 December 1934)
  • Silke (born 9 April 1939)
  • Marte (born 23 July 1942)

As of 2006, Heider, Marte and Silke are still alive.

Nazi Party and the SS

In 1931, Himmler began to set up a counter-intelligence division of the SS. Acting on a friend's advice, he interviewed Heydrich, and, it is alleged, after a twenty minute test whereby Heydrich had to outline plans for the new division, Himmler hired him on the spot. In doing so Himmler also effectively recruited Heydrich into the Nazi Party. He would later receive a Totenkopfring from Himmler, for his service.

At this time, he was relatively insignificant within the Nazi intelligence apparatus. He and his staff spent their time building up a card-file system on all people who were considered a threat to the Party, often including party officials themselves. Heydrich supported his family on a meager salary and worked in a tiny office.

American journalist John Gunther, during his trip to Germany in 1934, while collecting research materials for his book Inside Europe, showed considerable knowledge of Nazi intrigues and backgrounds when he said that Himmler actually had a relatively small tolerance for butchery compared to a man like Heydrich, who was far more cruel. At this time, Heydrich was regarded as an obscure medium-ranked officer in the SS bureaucracy.

In July 1932, Heydrich became the head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), an intelligence organisation wholly committed to the defence of Nazism. He built it by recruiting agents from unusual sources, some of whom were not really committed Nazis, just people Heydrich found talented or useful, from whom reports could be compiled on various aspects of life in Nazi Germany. The organisation benefitted from close cooperation with the Gestapo, which Heydrich was also gained control of in 1936, as part of a combined security police force. Later, the SD and the Gestapo were united under the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) under Heydrich.

While Heydrich's abilities were never doubted by superiors and subbordinates alike, his constant sarcasm, occasionally boorish behaviour, extreme oversensitivity to being underestimated (in contrast to Himmler who, more rationally, preferred to be underestimated by would-be opponents) and aggressiveness won him few loyalists, while his propensity for rash actions such as the arrest of a Kreisleiter in 1935, or telling Göring and the council of ministers in 1940 that the security police would exercise limitless powers whether they granted them or not, was an ever present annoyance for Himmler, who had to clean up the messes. Himmler would occasionally lose his patience with Heydrich berating and abusing him, sometimes calling him "Genghis Khan", but generally found him indispensable, though exasperating.

Upon the establishment of the Third Reich, Heydrich helped Adolf Hitler "dig up dirt" on many political opponents, keeping an impressive filing system listing individuals and organizations who opposed the party and the regime. He is believed to be the creator of the forged documents of Russian correspondence with the German High Command. While it is now known that the Stalinist Great Purge of the Soviet military officer corps was at most tangentially related to these forgeries, at the time it was widely believed to have resulted from Heydrich's actions, enormously adding to his prestige. He was also instrumental in establishing the false 'attack' by Poland on German national radio at Gleiwitz, intended to provide the Nazi justification for the beginning of World War II, though this failed miserably and only came to light post-war when allied investigators began researching the captured German documents, since the station selected was merely a relay station for Radio Breslau whose stronger signal drowned out the fake `Polish propaganda` emanating from Gleiwitz.

Heydrich was one of the main architects of the Holocaust during the first years of World War II. He had initially gained some control over Jewish policy, when in November 1938, Göring assigned him as head of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration following Kristallnacht. In this position, he worked tirelessly both to coordinate various initiatives for the Final Solution, and to assert SS dominance over Jewish policy. Most famously in this respect, on 20 January 1942, Heydrich chaired the Wannsee Conference, at which plans for the deportation of the Jews to extermination camps were discussed. Heydrich was one of the very few prominent Nazi leaders to actually serve in combat, as he flew 97 missions in a Messerschmidt 110 twin engine fighter and won two Iron Crosses (first and second class)for his bravery. In fact, Heydrich was actually shot down over Russia but was rescued by German forces.

Assassination in Prague

Reinhard Heydrich (middle) together with Heinrich Himmler, Karl Wolff and an unidentified assistant at the Obersalzberg, May 1939
Reinhard Heydrich (middle) together with Heinrich Himmler, Karl Wolff and an unidentified assistant at the Obersalzberg, May 1939

On 27 September 1941 Heydrich was appointed acting Reichsprotektor in the Czech puppet state called the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He replaced Konstantin von Neurath whom Hitler considered ineffective (but who remained titular protector until 20 August 1943).

Neurath's role in the Protectorate was based on giving privileges to the nobility and people from higher society. This led to passive resentment among ordinary people, mainly workers. The Protectorate was a vital weapons and war material producer for the Third Reich at the time. During Neurath's service as a protector, productivity of the war industry substantially dropped. Heydrich came to Prague to restore production quotas.

As the governor of Bohemia and Moravia for Hitler, Heydrich became brutal. He punished many who did not produce up to the quotas demanded. Anyone associated with the resistance movement in any way was tortured and/or executed. Under Heydrich, Prague and the rest of the Czech lands became quite pacified because of the harshness of the Nazi rule. Because of his success in Prague, Hitler was considering making Heydrich the governor of Paris. When British intelligence heard this, they wanted to stop this at all costs. They would not let a man who butchered the Czechs and Jews of Prague to do the same to the French Resistance.

While virtual military governor of Bohemia and Moravia, exercising real executive power above the Czech President and Prime Minister, Heydrich often drove alone in a car with an open roof - a show of confidence in the occupation forces and the effectiveness of his government (See Czech resistance to Nazi occupation).

Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík were Czechoslovak soldiers who had fled the country earlier in 1941. After receiving training from the British they parachuted back into the region that December and on May 27, 1942 ambushed Heydrich while he rode in his open car in the Prague suburb of Kobylisy. As the car slowed to take a hairpin bend in the road, Gabcík drew a concealed British-made Sten sub-machine gun but it failed to fire, so Kubiš threw a bomb near the rear of the car which wounded Heydrich and Kubiš himself. The reason the Sten failed is open to speculation, although the type was prone to jamming and stoppages, due to the design of the single column 32-round magazine and poor quality control among some of the myriad small workshops producing Sten gun magazines. Most of these possessed no prewar experience in the manufacture of firearms parts.

Heydrich appeared not to be injured seriously. He gave chase and tried to return fire but his pistol was not loaded. However, after running some distance, he became weak from shock, and sent his driver Klein off on foot to chase the escaping Gabcík, but he, in the ensuing fire-fight was shot in the leg by Gabcík. He would be the only leading Nazi figure who would be assassinated by the Allies during the war. Despite Himmler sending his best doctors, Heydrich died in a Prague hospital at the age of 38. The autopsy stated Heydrich's death was the result of septicemia caused by bacteria and toxins from horsehair and upholstery fragments from the car seats and driven into his blood stream by the bomb fragments.

The Nazi retaliation was brutal, a clear warning against any further armed resistance. About 13,000 people were arrested, deported, imprisoned or killed. On June 10 all males over the age of 16 in the village of Lidice, 22 km north-west of Prague, and another village, Ležáky, were murdered, the towns were burned and the ruins levelled.

There is a special memorial to both the assassins and the dead of Lidice and Lezaky in Jephson Gardens, Royal Leamington Spa, UK. This was the town where the Czech forces were stationed during the war, and where their training took place. The memorial fountain is in the form of a parachute, with water running over the centre fold. Planted around the fountain is the special white Lidice Rose, grown in commemoration of the dead. This memorial is believed to be the only place outside of Czechoslovakia where the special rose is grown. The fountain was designed and is maintained by Warwick district council.

An elaborate funeral was conducted for Heydrich in Prague and Berlin, with Hitler attending (and placing Heydrich's decorations on his funeral pillow, the highest grade of the German Order and the Blood Order Medal). Hitler himself perhaps best encapsulated Heydrich's general attitude in his acknowledgment that Heydrich was partly to blame for his own death through arrogance and a blasé attitude:

"Since it is opportunity which makes not only the thief but also the assassin, such heroic gestures as driving in an open, unarmoured vehicle or walking about the streets unguarded are just damned stupidity, which serves the Fatherland not one whit. That a man as irreplaceable as Heydrich should expose himself to unnecessary danger, I can only condemn as stupid and idiotic."

Lina Heydrich later stated that she believed Heydrich had expected an early death, saying that she saw his frequent unnecessary risk-taking (such as his recklessness during his stint as a fighter pilot as an attempt to ensure that, should he die, his would be a dramatic death. Heydrich was buried in Berlin's Invalidenfriedhof, which had the misfortune to be on the border between West and East Berlin. His plot was between those of two famous German war heroes, Oven and Scharnhorst.. In 1945, however, his headstone and grave marker were removed by the Allies, who feared his tomb would become a rallying point for Neo-Nazis. During the time when the Berlin Wall was standing, the grave was part of the so-called "death strip" between the two Berlins and inaccessible to the public. Heydrich's eventual replacements were Ernst Kaltenbrunner as the chief of RSHA, and Karl Hermann Frank 27 - 28 May 1942 and Kurt Daluege 28 May 1942 - 14 October 1943 as the new acting Reichsprotektors. After Heydrich's death, his legacy lived on; the first three "trial" death camps were constructed and put into operation at Treblinka, Sobibór, and Belzec. The project was named Operation Reinhard in Heydrich's honor.

Possible Jewish ancestry

Since Heydrich's death, historical evidence has come to light that Heydrich may very well have had a Jewish grandparent and that this fact was known to high Nazi leaders including Hitler and Himmler. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 Jewishness was defined as any person with one Jewish grandparent. That would have classified Heydrich as "a person of mixed Jewish blood in the second degree", meaning he had one pure German and one half Jewish parent. As a "Mischling" (of mixed blood) Heydrich would, at the very least, have been subject to expulsion from the SS.

The most compelling evidence of Heydrich's Jewish ancestry is the testimony of Walter Schellenberg who stated, in the 1950s, that Heinrich Himmler had held a private meeting with Heydrich in 1935, after learning that one of Heydrich's relatives had held the surname of "Süss", a common Jewish name. According to Schellenberg, Heydrich admitted that one of his grandparents was Jewish and Himmler had reportedly informed Hitler. Hitler, however, stated Heydrich was a special case since "his Aryan blood far suppressed his Jewish heritage". Shortly thereafter, Gestapo personnel were dispatched to Halle, where Heydrich had been born, to erase certain records of Heydrich's past.

It was not long before other Nazis had heard insinuations that Heydrich might have had a Jewish relative in his background. Dr. Achim Gercke, the Nazi Party's leading genealogist, was commissioned by Gregor Strasser to look into Heydrich's background after a Nazi official, Rudolf Jordan, revealed Heydrich's suspected Jewish grandfather to Party Headquarters in 1932. Gercke claimed that research showed that not only was the Süss in question, a locksmith, not even a Jew, but that he wasn't even Heydrich's genetic grandfather, whose name was Reinhold Heydrich. Also of note is that the investigation was concluded in the summer of 1932, rather than 1935.

The accuracy of both Schellenberg's and Gercke's testimonies are today still debated among historians. Some works on Heydrich have thus far dispelled the story as a rumour.

His younger brother's anti-Nazism

Interestingly Reinhard Heydrich's younger brother Heinz, though initially as fanatical a Nazi as his brother, gradually became disenchanted with Nazism and even became involved in the obtaining of false identification documents for Jews in order to save them from persecution. When his activities were uncovered by the Gestapo he was given the choice of committing suicide rather than face trial with the attendant hardships for his family (and embarrassment to the regime). He shot himself on 19 November 1944.

The second marriage of Lina Heydrich

Heydrich's wife Lina lived as a restaurant keeper on the island of Fehmarn. During a holiday trip to Finland, she fell in love with the Finnish theatre director and poet Mauno Manninen (1915-1969) who was not reputed to have been a Nazi; they got married in 1965. She passed away in 1985, claiming till the end that she had known nothing about the atrocities committed and ordered by her first husband.

Summary of SS career

Dates of rank

  • SS-Mann: 14 July 1931
  • SS-Sturmführer: 10 August 1931
  • SS-Hauptsturmführer: 1 December 1931
  • SS-Sturmbannführer: 25 December 1931
  • SS-Standartenführer: 29 July 1932
  • SS-Oberführer: 21 March 1933
  • SS-Brigadeführer: 9 November 1933
  • SS-Gruppenführer: 30 June 1934
  • SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei: 27 September 1941

The earliest official photographs of Heydrich wearing an SS uniform are from 1933 when he held the rank of SS-Oberführer. Some private photographs exist showing him as a SS-Standartenführer from 1932, but there are no known pictures of Heydrich wearing a junior SS rank from before this time, making any such photographs extremely valuable and rare.

Service history

  • July 1931: Appointed as an SS member under SS Number 10120
  • August 1931: Appointed as SS officer and tasked with forming the SS Security Service
  • July 1932: Founded the Sicherheitsdienst
  • 1936: Appointed Commander of the Sicherheitspolizei
  • September 1939: Founder and first Commander of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt
  • September 1941: Appointed as Deputy Reichsprotector of Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
  • January 1942: Chairman of the Wannsee Conference
  • May 1942: Attacked by British supported Czechoslovak partisans in Prague
  • June 1942: Died from wounds received in partisan attack
Reinhard Heydrich Poster
Reinhard Heydrich Poster

Notable decorations

  • German Order (Posthumous)
  • Blood Order (Posthumous)
  • Golden Nazi Party Badge
  • Iron Cross Second (1940) and First (1941) Classes
  • Luftwaffe Pilot's Badge (Flugzeugführerabzeichen)
  • Luftwaffe Front Pilot Badge (Frontflugspange) in bronze (1940) and in silver (1941)
  • Danzig Cross (First Class)
  • Anschluss Medal
  • Sudetenland Medal with Prague Castle Bar
  • Memel Medal
  • Olympic Games Decoration (First Class)
  • Social Welfare Decoration (First Class)
  • NSDAP Long Service Ribbon for 10 years service
  • Police Service Ribbon for 18 years service

Additional service as fighter pilot

Reinhard Heydrich also served as Reserve Hauptmann, then Major in the Luftwaffe. Some sources claim that he served in the Invasion of Poland as a bomber gunner, but this is not confirmed. Then, despite his advanced age, he completed a fighter pilot course in 1940, probably due to his ambition. Heydrich wanted to set an example and show that the SS was not "asphalt" soldiers behind the front lines, but the elite of the Third Reich. In April 1940 he flew a Bf 110 in the Fighter Group II./JG 77 "Herz As" in Norway. The planes flown by Heydrich had an ancient Germanic runic character S for Sieg -- "victory" painted on the side of the fuselage. On May 13, 1940 he crashed his plane during take-off and was injured. For a short time in May, he flew patrol flights over North Germany and the Netherlands. Then, after another accident, he returned to Berlin. In mid-June 1941, before the German attack on the USSR, he resumed flying, ignoring Himmler's orders. He flew his personal Bf 109E-7 again with Group II./JG 77 from Balti, Romania on the southern Eastern Front, which put the wing commander under pressure due to Heydrich's position and lack of experience. On July 22, 1941, his plane was badly damaged over Yampil by Soviet AA artillery. Heydrich managed to crash-land in no-man's land, and run back to the German lines. After this, he was forbidden to fly once more, as it was realized that Heydrich's capture as a POW would be a major security breach for Germany, and he never again returned to active flying.

Heydrich was really too old and too inexperienced to be a fighter pilot and he lacked the necessary free time for training flights. But despite his lack of experience, he was decorated with the Iron Cross Second (1940) and First (1941) Classes. The number of missions flown by Heydrich is not known, but he was awarded the Frontflugspange (Front Pilot Badge) in silver, which usually was awarded after 60 combat missions. According to Alan Wykes in Heydrich (War Leader book #22 as part of Ballantines Illustrated History of the Violent Century 1973), Heydrich flew 97 missions in a Me-110 twin engine fighter.


The events of the Wannsee conference are recreated in the 1984 TV Movie Wannseekonferenz (The Wannsee Conference) directed by Heinz Schirk, and remade in 2001 under the title Conspiracy , with Kenneth Branagh playing Reinhard Heydrich. The Conference was also the subject of a 1992 English language documentary film entitled The Wannsee Conference directed by Dutch director Willy Lindwer .

The plan to kill Heydrich is central to the plot of the 1998 novel As Time Goes By, a sequel to the movie Casablanca, written by Michael Walsh. (ISBN 0-446-51900-6). The assassination itself has been dramatised in the 1943 Fritz Lang film Hangmen Also Die (written by Bertolt Brecht) , the 1964 Czechoslovak film Atentát and the 1975 film Operation Daybreak, starring Anthony Andrews (Jozef Gabcik), Timothy Bottoms (Jan Kubis), Martin Shaw (Karel Curda) and Anton Diffring (Heydrich) . As another instance of Heydrich's courting of disaster, this film shows him risking death by wearing the crown of Bohemia which was fatal to anyone unentitled to do so.

Heydrich, as the "Reich's Crown Prince of Terror", plays a leading role in March Violets and The Pale Criminal, the first two novels in Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy (ISBN 0-14-023170-6), in which Bernie Gunther, a Berlin private eye in the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe who left the Berlin police when the Nazis came to power, finds his investigations embroil him in the internal feuding of the Nazi high command.

Heydrich and the events of the Wannsee conference are also the subject of Robert Harris's novel Fatherland. The novel also portrays an alternate history where Heydrich was promoted to the rank of Reichsführer-SS after the death of Heinrich Himmler. At the end of the movie for a brief three seconds at the end you see him standing with two other officials while the evidence of the Holocaust is given to US President Joseph P. Kennedy.

The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history novel by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick set in the 1960s describes Heydrich as head of the SS and challenging to become Reich Chancellor after Hitler and his immediate successor, Martin Bormann, are dead.

Heydrich also plays a pivotal role in William Harrington's novel "The English Lady".

Heydrich in popular culture

  • Kenneth Branagh reportedly said that he had trouble portraying Heydrich in Conspiracy due to the evil that surrounded him (Stanley Tucci also had similar reservations about playing Adolf Eichmann in the same film).
  • The actor Anton Differing played the central character Heydrich in the film "Operation Daybreak" about the assassination of the Reichsprotector.
  • Heydrich was portrayed by David Warner twice: in the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust, and in the 1985 TV movie Hitler's S.S.: Portrait in Evil. The movie followed the career of his subordinate Helmut Hoffmann, played by Bill Nighy.
  • The English indie band British Sea Power wrote a song called "A Lovely Day Tomorrow" about Heydrich's assassination by the Czech resistance. Originally a b-side, the song was re-recorded in 2004 as a limited edition single in collaboration with Czech band the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. The single included both English and Czech versions of the song.
  • The song SS-3 from thrash metal band Slayer's Divine Intervention album is about Heydrich, the title coming from the numberplate of the car he was killed in.
  • The Black metal band Marduk released a song called "The Hangman of Prague" in their Plague Angel album inspired by Heydrich's assassinations in Prague.
  • The song 1942 by Czech punk band Incrux is about Heydrich, referring to year of Heydrich's Assassination.
  • Heydrich appears as a fictional character in the book SS General by Sven Hassel.
  • The German neo-Nazi rock band Macht und Ehre refers to Heydrich by name in a song called "Schlafe".

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