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The Most Terrible of Hitler’s Creatures

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Reinhard Heydrich and Secretary of State of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia Karl Hermann Frank in Prague Castle, Czechoslovakia, September 1941

A brief career as a naval signals officer was abruptly terminated by dismissal in 1931, after a military court of honor found him guilty of breach of promise to a girlfriend with whom he’d been sexually involved before he became engaged to Lina von Osten, an ardent Nazi from Holstein. She later asserted that being cashiered was “the heaviest blow of his life.” Heydrich cried for days, in rage and self-pity. Desperate for employment, he refused an offer of a job as a sailing instructor when Himmler provided an opening in the SS. Gerwarth asserts that Heydrich accepted not out of ideological conviction, but because he needed the money—a year later, he was still sufficiently broke to have his phone cut off because the bill was unpaid.

He proved an enthusiastic street fighter. His comrades found him arrogant, as had his schoolfellows and naval brethren. But he forged a close relationship with Himmler despite the fact that his wife Lina disliked Margarete, whom she thought irredeemably vulgar. Heydrich was a much bolder man than his boss: for instance, he proscribed the works of Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest novelist, and confiscated his accessible assets. In April 1934, he became acting chief of the Gestapo, with SS rank equivalent to that of an army lieutenant general, though only thirty.

He displayed his ruthlessness in private affairs by refusing financial assistance to his distressed parents, even when his own fortunes were prospering. Like many leading Nazis, he became skilled in exploiting power for personal enrichment: his first purchase of a house was funded by a loan from the industrialist Willy Sachs. He also renovated a hunting lodge for himself near that of Göring at Karinhall.

Heydrich argued that Bolshevism was only a front for Germany’s real enemies—the Jews and political clerics, especially Jesuits. Already by 1935 he could claim to be Germany’s foremost policymaker on Jewish matters, promoting enforced emigration and confiscation of assets. Like Himmler, Heydrich insisted that crimes against humanity should be conducted in an orderly fashion: he deplored the random violence against Austria’s Jews that followed the Anschluss, and likewise the November 1938 Kristallnacht outrages, provoked by Goebbels.

Heydrich instead focused upon creating the Reich Central Office of Jewish Emigration. When war came and the Einsatzkommandos were established—task forces for the killing of Jews—he demanded that they should be led by men who possessed “relevant experience and faultless military bearing.” It was something of an embarrassment to the SS that most of its men fell short of this ideal, and comported themselves as common thugs or obvious psychopaths.

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, for instance, became one of Himmler’s foremost mass murderers, as Higher SS and Police Leader for Russia Center. In March 1942 he suffered a physical and mental breakdown, and the Reich Medical Officer reported him as “torturing himself with notions of inferiority (‘exaggerated sensitivity to pain, lassitude, lack of will power’).” Although he supposedly recovered, a specialist later reported him as suffering severely from constipation and “weak anal muscles.” Oskar Dirlewanger, another prominent SS killer, was described at the end of his earlier World War I service as “a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs.”

Himmler indulged such men because he needed them. Many of his subordinates displayed a doglike devotion to him, because nobody else would have had any use for them, far less promoted them to positions of power, with privileged access to luxury.

At the time of Heydrich’s assassination—he died of his wounds on June 4, 1942, a week after being ambushed on his way to work by a Czech group parachuted from Britain—he and Lina were living in considerable state at a country mansion outside Prague. He did not lack personal courage. He took leave of absence from his SS duties to fly some Luftwaffe fighter sorties against the Russians, and perished only because he rashly stopped his car to shoot it out with his ambushers, rather than seek prudent flight.

Wholesale reprisals exacted from the local population caused many people in the Allied camp, both Czech and British, to conclude that Heydrich’s killing was ill-judged. Nazi governance of occupied Europe showed that repression worked everywhere save Yugoslavia and Russia.

Heydrich’s death changed little, because he had already made his most notable contribution to Nazism by setting in motion the machinery of the Holocaust. After many months in which Jews had merely been killed arbitrarily across Eastern Europe, the January 1942 Wannsee conference chaired by Heydrich proved a historic turning point. Thereafter, debate about Jewish emigration, mass deportations to Madagascar, and suchlike was replaced by a commitment to bring about their deaths.

Under appropriate leadership,” he told his guests at the Wannsee villa, “the Jews should be put to work in the East in the context of the final solution…. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes.” Any “final remnants that survive” would “have to be dealt with appropriately.” There was no need to discuss the fate of those unable to work, who would be summarily killed.

Heydrich, like Himmler, saw no moral difficulty about the policies he promoted: defined enemies of Nazism were simply excluded from any claim upon justice, compassion, humanity. He wrote to his wife in a testament drafted in 1939:

Educate our children to become firm believers in the Führer…that they strictly adhere to the eternal laws of the SS, that they are hard towards themselves, kind and generous towards our own people and Germany and merciless towards all internal and external enemies of the Reich….

It seems mistaken to view Himmler, Heydrich, and their colleagues in historical isolation, and more profitable to assess them alongside—for instance—Stalin’s chief enforcer, Beria, and the Soviet Union’s corps of killers, quite as dedicated to their work as was the SS. The conclusion is obvious: there was nothing uniquely German about such people. It is not difficult to persuade a substantial minority of mankind, and even of its educated elements, to commit mass murder, as long as such a course is legitimized and successfully put into practice by the authority of somebody at the top.

Many of the Serbs and Croats who killed tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s would have been taught in school about the iniquity of the Holocaust. But this did not inhibit them from following the same path, albeit on a lesser scale, pursuing the wholesale elimination of unwanted citizens of their own community of all ages and both sexes.

The Nazi death camps were Heydrich’s legacy. After his passing, Himmler continued to enlarge his empire, becoming Reich interior minister in August 1943. The Holocaust was steered toward what its architects deemed a highly successful conclusion. The Waffen SS expanded immensely, its formations proving themselves superb battlefield fighters: in Germany’s years of retreat, they made a critical contribution to delaying final collapse.

Following the failed July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, Himmler assumed extraordinary security powers, for instance imposing “clan custody” on the families of declared traitors or suspects. Early in 1945 he served briefly in a role he had always coveted, as a field commander—commander in chief of Army Group Vistula. This imposture exposed his absolute lack of military gifts. When he ordered his senior staff officer Colonel Eismann to produce a plan for throwing back the Russians, Eismann said, “It was difficult to avoid the reaction that this was a blind man discoursing on colour.”

In the last days of the war, Himmler’s attempts to offer himself as a plenipotentiary to negotiate terms with the Allies caused Hitler to strip him of all his offices shortly before his own suicide. Himmler, in turn, killed himself by biting on a concealed cyanide capsule a few hours after falling into British hands on May 23, 1945.

Peter Longerich, already the author of a distinguished history of the Holocaust, has written a biography that tells us everything that the world could ever need to know about this most terrible, yet dreary, of Hitler’s creatures. Like Robert Gerwath’s book, Longerich’s work contains nothing significantly new, but establishes an authoritative record. Himmler, a wretched and inadequate human being, made himself Hitler’s indispensable enforcer, and successfully reinvented the SS again and again through the years of Nazi mastery.

If the two authors’ explanations of Himmler and Heydrich remain somehow unsatisfactory, this is surely because it is impossible to explain how two such contemptibly small people could encompass such vast horrors. The response of the German people not so much to National Socialism, as to its risibly unimpressive human representatives, seems much more interesting than the men themselves. The manner in which one of the most educated and civilized societies in the world acquiesced in the dominance of gangsters, thugs, and inadequates, possessed of negligible gifts for anything beyond mass murder, will baffle and terrify humanity until the end of time.

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