Lina Heydrich, Reinhard Heydrich’s widow, with his death mask

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Lina Heydrich, Reinhard Heydrich’s widow, with his death mask, Fehmarn, Germany, 1979

Pension Schmidt, better known as “Salon Kitty,” was one of the most glamorous bordellos in Nazi Germany. Among its illustrious clientele were foreign diplomats, government ministers, generals, and regime functionaries. The interior of the grand bourgeois building—located at 11 Giesebrechtstraße in Berlin, close to Kurfürstendamm—was elegant, with expensive rugs, crystal chandeliers, plush armchairs, and thick velvet drapes. The madam of the establishment was Kitty Schmidt, who had run brothels across the German capital since the early interwar years. “She didn’t take stupid women,” one of her employees later told an interviewer. “She liked women who were married and who wanted to earn a bit on the side.” Salon Kitty remained in business even after the fall of the Third Reich.

After the war, reports emerged that the prostitutes who worked there had been informers for Reinhard Heydrich’s SS Security Service (SD). Walter Schellenberg, Heydrich’s chief of foreign intelligence, recounted in his memoirs that he had been ordered to turn the brothel into a nest of espionage. He even claimed that the rooms were wired with hidden microphones that allowed SS men to listen in. “‘Salon Kitty’ certainly brought results,” he wrote. “One of the biggest catches was the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano.” The Nazi-era diplomat (and chief Italian interpreter) Eugen Dollmann noted in his autobiography that Ciano had once expressed his suspicions about the establishment.

Werner Raykowski, another German wartime diplomat, later recalled that the spying activities at Salon Kitty were widely known in Foreign Office circles at the time. Kitty Schmidt spoke after the war with the German journalist Klaus Harpprecht about the SS takeover of her bordello, though without providing much detail. When she passed away in 1954, an obituary in Der Spiegel remembered her as the “renowned owner of an establishment run along Paris customs and favored arranger of gallant entertainment for foreign guests of the Reich government” during the war.

Over the years, the brothel has been the subject of sensationalist books, articles, and films. The most famous is Tinto Brass’s notorious sexploitation movie Salon Kitty (1976), a crass collage of perversities, based on Peter Norden’s semifictional best seller of the same name, published six years earlier. Little, however, is actually known about the brothel’s history, and the involvement of the SD remains obscure.

In any case, Heydrich, as Hitler’s intelligence and secret police chief, was one of the best-informed functionaries of the Third Reich. Through his vast espionage network, he knew more secrets of Nazi Germany than anyone else in the regime—he even kept files on Hitler and Himmler. Dubbed the “Blond Beast,” he was feared by his rivals. At the height of the war, his SS Reich Security Main Office was responsible for organizing the Final Solution. Yet he was never part of Hitler’s inner circle. And in postwar memory, he tends to stand in the shadow of men like Himmler, Goebbels, and Göring.

Nancy Dougherty’s The Hangman and His Wife offers some intriguing insights into Heydrich’s world. The book, which Dougherty began working on in the 1970s, is heavily based on several conversations she had with his unrepentant wife, Lina, whom she visited three times at her home on the small Baltic island of Fehmarn. Dougherty died in 2013, leaving behind the manuscript, which was edited with much care by the late Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Dougherty offers a portrait of a man who “lived his life with a reckless, almost demonic intensity” and was constantly driven by an urge to prove himself. He was cultured, energetic, and highly intelligent, with a photographic memory. He had great musical talent, playing the violin well enough to consider a professional concert career, and considerable athletic skill, excelling at skiing, sailing, tennis, hunting, and fencing. In his spare time he trained as a pilot, and during the war he flew reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. He was also a mass murderer notorious for his ice-cold analysis, lack of empathy, and ruthlessness.

Born into a bohemian home in the eastern German town of Halle in 1904, the future SS leader was a frail, serious, sensitive boy who was often bullied by other children. To gain more physical strength, he took up fencing at an early age. He was also an excellent student, showing more ambition than his classmates. In the aftermath of World War I, shocked by the wave of Communist revolutions in Germany, he supported the right-wing paramilitary groups that sprang up, which exposed him to revanchist nationalism, militarism, and violence.

To escape the uncertainties of the tumultuous early Weimar years, the eighteen-year-old Heydrich decided in 1922 to become a cadet in the German navy. There he was an unpopular loner, ridiculed for playing the violin, laughed at for his high-pitched voice, and teased for not drinking or smoking. Refusing to give up, he focused on sports, was sent to a special navy sports training school, and soon was competing in major fencing and sailing tournaments.


Things changed after his promotion to junior officer. As he grew increasingly self-confident, his relationships with his peers improved. He also developed some charm and became involved in numerous affairs. In 1930 he met his future wife, the nineteen-year-old Lina von Osten, at a ball in Kiel. Their engagement only three days later caused a scandal. Heydrich’s spurned previous girlfriend, the daughter of an influential associate of Navy Chief Erich Raeder, had a breakdown. A military court of honor ruled that his behavior did not meet the standards of the navy’s strict moral code and discharged him cum infamia for sexual impropriety. “The commander of the navy, Herr Raeder, was such a little man,” Lina remarked to Dougherty. “He was so moralistic.”

Looking for a job that would enable him to make use of his military training, in the summer of 1931 Heydrich met Himmler, chief of the SS, then a small, elite paramilitary unit of the rising Nazi Party. Impressed by the tall, blond Heydrich, Himmler, on impulse, offered him the position of head of SS intelligence. Provided with a shoebox full of cards on Himmler’s enemies within the party, Heydrich rapidly built a substantial, well-run organization, the SD. He recruited the brightest young men he could find, and the SD quickly gained a reputation for being staffed by the SS’s most intelligent members—an elite within the elite. Many had university degrees, most were under thirty, and all were ambitious. Heydrich’s model was England, which, Dougherty writes, he considered a “paradise of espionage”—a country of patriotic informants eager to report irregularities to a widely admired secret service. “This wouldn’t happen in England!” he would remark when one of his men made a mistake.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Heydrich’s SD expanded its intelligence networks beyond the party into every sphere of German society. Its general reports about the Germans’ attitudes toward the regime were often frank, sometimes critical, and not very popular among the party’s higher echelons. Heydrich also established a foreign intelligence branch, splitting the SD into the domestic security service (Inland-SD) under Otto Ohlendorf and the foreign security service (Ausland-SD) under Heinz Jost and his powerful aide (and later successor) Schellenberg. A few years later, in 1936, he was also put in command of the Security Police (SiPo), formed by combining Arthur Nebe’s criminal police (Kripo) and Heinrich Müller’s political police (Gestapo). On the eve of World War II, Heydrich merged his organizations into the newly founded Reich Security Main Office, which employed around 100,000 men.

Dougherty offers fascinating insights into the witches’ cauldron of the Reich Security Main Office, which was marked by intrigue and infighting. “Many people were scared out of their skins when they met my husband—even sometimes, Heinrich Himmler,” Lina remarked in one of the interviews. Heydrich ruthlessly played his rivals in the regime against one another by feeding them information about their adversaries. Similarly, his men exploited the system, using it to denounce rivals and settle personal scores, to further their own greed by detaining and robbing people, and to coerce sexual favors in return for help during arrests, interrogations, and deportations.

The most chilling chapters of Dougherty’s book concern the war years. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Heydrich expanded his influence, organizing the infamous SS Einsatzgruppen. Composed of men recruited across SS branches, these mobile military units took over various security and intelligence tasks in the German-occupied territories of Eastern Europe. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen advanced behind the German army, murdering Jews, Communists, and partisans—around 600,000 people in the first six months. The executions mostly took place outside villages and towns, and the victims were usually shot while standing or kneeling on the edge of a trench. At times the units would shoot a thousand men, women, and children before taking a break. Firing simultaneously helped them avoid any sense of individual responsibility.1 Demanding “unparalleled hardness” from his men, Heydrich constantly had to deal with officers who couldn’t cope anymore and, despite extra rations of alcohol, suffered breakdowns.

Heydrich was deeply involved in the Nazi persecution of Jews from the outset. He was one of the perpetrators of Kristallnacht on November 9–10, 1938, and was instrumental in the regime’s schemes for the forced migration of German Jews. After the outbreak of the war, as plans for the Final Solution shifted from expulsion to extermination, he was involved in all of its aspects—screenings, arrests, expropriations, deportations, murder. At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, to which he summoned senior government and SS officials, he led the discussion, in the language of bureaucratic rationality, about the organization of the complete extermination of the 11 million Jewish people in Europe.2


The final chapter of The Hangman and His Wife concerns Heydrich’s appointment as Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the heartland of Czechoslovakia, on September 27, 1941, a post he held (while keeping all his other positions) until his death eight months later. Turning the labyrinthine Prague Castle into his official residence, he and his family enjoyed a luxurious life of operas, concerts, and sporting events. “I feel I am not just a ‘person’ anymore. I am a princess, and I live in a fairy-tale land,” Lina wrote in her memoirs. “It was the nicest time of my marriage,” she told Dougherty.

Heydrich used both terror, which earned him the nickname “Butcher of Prague,” and munificence—free film screenings, soccer games, and concerts—to control the country. On May 27, 1942, he was assassinated in his unescorted open convertible in Prague by two Czechoslovak special operations officers, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, who had been parachuted into the protectorate by the British. In a dramatic scene, Gabčík’s gun jammed, while Kubiš ran toward the car and threw a grenade that landed under one of the rear fenders. Heydrich’s back, spleen, and diaphragm were pierced by metal splinters and bits of upholstery. He died a few days later. A Nazi official who saw his body declared that his facial expression had the “perverted beauty of a Renaissance cardinal.”

Hitler staged the grandest state funeral in the short history of his regime. At the carefully choreographed ceremony in the Mosaic Hall of the new Reich Chancellery, Himmler proclaimed “the holy duty to expiate his death, to take over his tasks and, now more than ever, to annihilate the enemies of our people without pity or weakness,” while Hitler honored him as “one of the best National Socialists, one of the strongest defenders of the idea of the German Reich.” The funeral march from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was played. The British press described the spectacle as a “gangster-style burial.” “He was the man with the iron heart,” Hitler murmured later that day. In retaliation, he ordered the total destruction of the Czech village of Lidice and its residents, on suspicion that they had helped the assassins.

The Hangman and His Wife confronts the reader with the unsettling contrast between Heydrich’s violent professional career and his private life as a caring husband and father of four. There seems to be no doubt that he had a profound love for his wife, but this did not stop him from engaging in countless extramarital adventures or spending long nights drifting through bars, cabarets, and clubs. “Heydrich was not a perfectionist about women,” Dougherty notes; “he took them as he found them—and he tried to find them often.” His SS men joked that the golden angel on top of the dome of the Reichstag was the only virgin in the capital that he hadn’t touched. Lina tolerated her husband’s promiscuity: “If a man wants to go out dancing after work, if he is tired and needs to relax and have a drink, well, how does that harm me?”

Dougherty grapples with the question of Heydrich’s ideological commitment. “Heydrich wasn’t very interested in ideology. Almost always, he left that to Himmler,” she claims. “An ambitious young man who came late to Nazism, Heydrich had never been deeply interested in its so-called philosophy” but “wanted primarily to make dramatic progress along one of the few career paths open to him. Confronted by the rules of the game, he played by them.” Dougherty even casts doubt on the sincerity of his anti-Semitism. Heydrich, she argues, merely “jumped on the rolling bandwagon” when the Nuremberg Laws were adopted in 1935. Even his organization of the mass murder of Jews was not motivated ideologically:

It was widely believed within the SS that Heydrich was not especially enthusiastic about his duties as organizer of the Einsatzgruppen, but simply performed them coldly and efficiently as he would any other job that enhanced his power.

In short, she portrays him as an unscrupulous, apolitical technician of power and downplays his ideological investment in Nazism.

Dougherty seems unaware of the substantial scholarship on the nature of Nazi perpetrators that has emerged since the 1980s. In the early postwar years, they were predominantly characterized as savage, brutal, and socially deprived rogues who “think in slogans and talk in bullets,” as George Orwell once put it. This view was criticized in the 1960s and 1970s by scholars who, influenced by the innovations of social and structural history, began to portray them as cold technocrats in a criminal bureaucracy who carried out murderous orders without any moral scruples. This is the image popularized by Hannah Arendt, who used the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Adolf Eichmann. Although Dougherty acknowledges that neither Heydrich’s “career nor his personality could be described as banal,” she views him as a cold, amoral Nazi functionary.

Yet the groundbreaking work of Ulrich Herbert and Michael Wildt, among others, into the SS leadership has shown that the Reich Security Main Office was staffed by neither brutal outcasts nor apolitical bureaucrats.3 Born around the turn of the century, most of them were not only young, intelligent, highly educated, and elitist, but also deeply ideological. Heydrich, who was both ideologically committed and ruthlessly rational in his work, shared these characteristics. Since his political views are not seriously explored in Dougherty’s book, we learn little about the radicalization that led him to knock on Himmler’s door in 1931 and nothing about his worldview—his nationalism, racism, anticommunism, antiliberalism, and anti-Semitism. The image of Heydrich as an apolitical functionary was mainly promoted by Lina after the war, in line with the standard Nazi apologias of her time. In her interviews with Dougherty, she never tired of explaining that his work at the SS was like a normal job for him.

In 1945, as the Third Reich collapsed, Lina escaped to her childhood home on Fehmarn. She only came to public attention in the early 1960s, after she successfully claimed a pension granted under West German law to widows of soldiers who had died during World War II. In the following years, she increasingly gave interviews trying to exculpate her husband. In 1976 she published her memoirs with the—in her view—ironic title Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher (Life with a War Criminal). The irony was lost on many.

She was, of course, not the only wife of a high-ranking Nazi to attempt to rehabilitate her husband’s reputation after the war. Emmy Göring’s memoirs An der Seite meines Mannes (1967; My Life with Goering, 1972), Henriette von Schirach’s autobiography Der Preis der Herrlichkeit (1956; The Price of Glory, 1960), and Luise Jodl’s hagiography Jenseits des Endes (Beyond the End, 1976) all portrayed the authors’ husbands as loyal patriots. Others, like Annelies von Ribbentrop, Ilse Hess, and Brigitte Frank, publicly defended their spouses’ legacies to the end. While Margarete Himmler remained secluded, her daughter, Gudrun, took on the task of defending her father’s honor. The women’s patterns of exculpation were remarkably similar, interweaving selected personal experiences and carefully chosen episodes of their husbands’ and fathers’ lives while blaming others, mainly Hitler, for the regime’s crimes.

Dougherty first went to interview Lina on Fehmarn, where she ran a small bed and breakfast, on June 4, 1974, the anniversary of Lina’s husband’s death. In her gloomy living room, decorated with Heydrich’s bronze death mask, they spoke for five hours. Dougherty recorded the conversation on tape. She went back three more times. On August 14, 1985, two years after the final interview, Lina died.

In their conversations, Lina portrayed herself as a powerless outsider. Dougherty, surprisingly, accepted this interpretation, writing that she was no more than a “quiet supporter of the leadership” and “‘responsible’ for nothing, except that she built a household for her husband and did her best to back him in every way possible”—“Heydrich’s homemaker.” Hence, paradoxically, while Lina is at the center of Dougherty’s book as an interviewee, she is mainly reduced to a passive witness rather than treated as an active historical figure in her own right.

In fact, there is little doubt that she was a driving force behind her husband’s radicalization. A staunch Nazi, she joined the party in 1929, well before he did, following her brother, Jürgen, who was an SA man. It was she who advised Heydrich to join the party in 1931. And as Dougherty acknowledges, it was she who advised him after his dismissal from the navy to meet with Himmler to ask to join the SS. Later, when he was a powerful Nazi leader, his SS comrades, including Himmler, felt that his wife had far too much influence on him. Lina also had no scruples about lashing out against victims of the regime: after her husband’s assassination, she stayed at her country estate outside Prague, where she used concentration camp prisoners—Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses—as slave laborers. One day, when galloping in on horseback to inspect work they had done in her garden, she tried to beat some of them with her riding crop. She remained a committed Nazi until her death.

Oral history is a highly complicated method of inquiry, and there are good reasons why many professional historians are skeptical of it. Yet Dougherty does not seem to critically assess the interviews that are her most important primary sources. Moreover, her conversations with Lina did not reveal anything fundamental that Lina had not already expressed in previous interviews or writings. Nor did Dougherty consult sources from German archives. Her assertation that there are only “scattered documents that remained after the Nazis’ last-minute efforts to destroy incriminating evidence” is incorrect. The records of Heydrich’s Reich Security Main Office alone—stored in the German Federal Archives in Berlin—contain no fewer than 10,000 files. Other Heydrich biographies, such as Robert Gerwarth’s superb standard work, Hitler’s Hangman (2011), have made extensive use of these sources.

Dougherty’s book offers a readable overview of Heydrich’s life, though it also includes long-winded passages with background information on Nazi Germany and its leadership clique that are not directly related to Heydrich himself. It is not free of factual mistakes. For example, we read: “In Mein Kampf Hitler argued that if one tells a ‘big lie’ frequently enough, it will eventually be believed.” Yet Hitler never made such a statement: in Mein Kampf he wrote that ordinary people are more likely to accept a “big lie” than a “small lie,” but he did not say that repeating a lie frequently enough would make people believe it; besides, he did not advocate the use of big lies in Nazi propaganda but accused Jews and Marxists of adopting this tactic. Dougherty also claims that Felix Kersten, Himmler’s physical therapist, “used his influence with Himmler to save many Jews,” although it has long been established that this story, spread after the war by Kersten in his memoirs, is exaggerated. And it was Göring, not Hitler, who ordered Heydrich in the summer of 1941 to “make all necessary organizational, functional, and material preparations for a complete solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.”

Finally, Dougherty’s vivid passages on Salon Kitty include some colorful details that have never been conclusively proven. A recent book, Kittys Salon: Legenden, Fakten, Fiktion (2020) by Urs Brunner and Julia Schrammel, has debunked many of the myths about it that sprang up in the postwar years. Lina Heydrich’s remarks about her husband’s involvement in the bordello are nevertheless intriguing. In her memoirs she wrote about the “highest-level establishment for diplomats” served by “the elite of the Berlin ladies of the rough trade,” which was used as an “intelligence center” equipped with “the most modern technology” integrated “in the walls and furniture.” To Dougherty, she explained that the idea had not come from her husband: “It was the young people! I believe it was Schellenberg—I don’t know exactly.” She approved: “My husband told me about it in full detail and we were very amused by it.” Heydrich, she explained, was “a police perfectionist,” or as Dougherty put it, the Nazi’s “Grand Inquisitor, all-knowing, arrogant critic of the morals of others.”