Reinhard Heydrich was born in 1904, to a family of musicians near Leipzig. Though too young to fight in World War I, at age 16 he took up with a street-brawling Freikorps unit, before joining the German navy in 1922. Forced out of the navy in 1931 after a sex scandal, Heydrich joined the NSDAP. His Aryanism, military bearing, intelligence and ruthless streak impressed SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who took the young Heydrich under his wing. By 1933, 29-year-old Heydrich was an SS general; the following year he was put in charge of the newly-formed Gestapo. Heydrich played a leading role in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in June 1934; the success of this purge saw him promoted to SS lieutenant-general.
In many respects, Heydrich was the archetypal Nazi. He was politically radical but cultured and restrained; obviously Aryan but intensely anti-Semitic. Heydrich had a cool, military-like manner but a sharp tongue when roused. He was also ruthless, merciless and pitiless – qualities that seemed ideal for managing Nazi security and police operations. By 1935 Heydrich was in charge of the Berlin Gestapo, which under his leadership compiled a comprehensive database of potential spies, dissidents and troublemakers. The following year he was also put in charge of the Kripo (criminal police) and given responsibility for security at the Berlin Olympic games. Heydrich’s agencies relied on an expansive network of intelligence agents and informers – but he was not averse to using underhanded tactics like blackmail or the fabrication and planting of evidence.
Heydrich’s role expanded with the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Europe. In September 1941 he was put in charge of the former Czechoslovakia. There Heydrich suppressed resistance with terror and mass executions, acquiring the epithet the ‘Butcher of Prague’. He also oversaw Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squad) operations, which were deployed to exterminate Jewish civilian populations behind Nazi lines. All this made Heydrich a significant target for local resistance fighters. In May 1942 he was assassinated in the streets of the Czech capital by local partisans. Hitler was so enraged by Heydrich’s murder that he ordered SS troops to capture two Czech towns, executing all adult males and destroying all buildings.
1. Reinhard Heydrich was a former naval officer and Freikorps member who joined the NSDAP and the SS in 1931.
2. Heydrich’s Aryanism and manner impressed Himmler, who elevated him through SS ranks (he was a general by 1933).
3. In 1934 Heydrich was given command of the Gestapo, a position that suited his intense and efficient ruthlessness.
4. Heydrich was responsible for producing evidence on Ernst Rohm that resulted in his arrest and execution in mid-1934.
5. During World War II, Heydrich oversaw occupied Czechoslovakia and the murderous Einsatzgruppen ‘death squads’ – factors that led to his own assassination by Czech partisans in 1942.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Reinhard Heydrich”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/reinhard-heydrich/.