Reinhard Heydrich

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

When Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated on May 27, 1942, by agents of the Czech government in exile, Günther Deschner was only a year old. As a child too young to remember such events, he grew up and was educated in postwar, American-dominated West Germany. He earned the Ph.D. and went from success to success in the world of West German publishing and journalism. His biography of one of the most powerful and most feared members of the Nazi hierarchy was published in West Germany in 1977 and appears here in an English translation without any additions or revisions for the American reader. It is significant not only for the information it offers on the history of the Third Reich, but also as one example of the way in which popular historians in postwar West Germany are dealing with their country’s past.

Deschner’s approach is evident from his opening sentence: None of the major figures of the Third Reich, he writes, was “more enigmatic” or “more controversial” than Heydrich. He was a “historical giant” whose career paralleled the rise of Hitler’s empire to brief hegemony. As head of the SS intelligence service (called the SD) and of the German secret state police (called the Gestapo) he literally had the power of life and death over millions. Adolf Eichmann transported Europe’s Jews to their deaths at his order. Czechoslovakia was pacified under this “protection.” He was a skilled amateur violinist and a model husband and father, whose widow is still loyal to his memory. He was called “Hitler’s most evil henchman” by the British, and Hitler himself called him the “man with the iron heart.” Yet the Czech press under the Prague Protectorate of 1942, the author pointedly notes, hailed him as the “darling of the Czech workers.” This “conflict of opinions,” writes Deschner, presents a difficult challenge for a historian. Deschner’s overall thesis—the key to solving the enigma he poses—is that Heydrich was simply “a technocrat par excellence,” a man without any basic ideology. He was scornful of the “old fighters” of the Nazi Party and even of the “dogmas and phantasies” of his immediate superior in the hierarchy, Heinrich Himmler. He was driven not by the hates and desires of the true believer, but by the restless urge of a perfectionist of power. He emerges, concludes Deschner, as “one of those technocratic geniuses” whose goodness or evil depends on the nature of the tasks put before them.

Deschner does not avoid mention of the terrible actions taken at Heydrich’s commands. He admits that Heydrich was “partially responsible” for the killings during the purge of June, 1934, “the night of the long knives,” as well as for the large-scale detentions in concentration camps of Germans suspected of anti-Nazi opinions and activities during the mid-1930’s. He recognizes Heydrich’s role in the faked “Polish attack” on Germany territory used to justify the start of World War II. He briefly and dispassionately describes the mass shootings of Jews and other individuals carried out by Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen in 1941. He reports the Wannsee Conference of January, 1942, at which the “final solution of the Jewish problem” was laid out by Heydrich before the top echelons of the German government. He recounts the draconian measures taken by Heydrich to emasculate Czech resistance when he was sent to Prague to pacify the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” in late 1941. The facts of the Nazi crimes and Heydrich’s part in them are clearly stated. Deschner is not part of that perversely dedicated group of self-styled revisionists which is attempting to prove that the Holocaust never took place. Indeed, though he is critical of the Nuremberg Trials in general, he agrees that had Heydrich survived to stand trial there, he would certainly have deserved to have been convicted and executed.

Nevertheless, the reader is led again and again to an implied conclusion that Heydrich was really not such a bad fellow after all. He was forced out of his naval career with little justification on a matter of personal honor, and he was more or less “trapped” into his job with the SS intelligence service by chance and by his own ambition. If he had any real political hates, they were directed against the Roman Catholic Church (though he had been reared a Catholic) because of its “quasi-totalitarian” claims and its “Jesuitism.” Anti-Semitism was far less important to him. In his own view, the Jews deserved to be expelled from Europe, but genocide was not his chosen instrument; forced emigration from Europe was his preference, and mass murder was only undertaken when emigration was rendered impossible by the exigencies of war. The policy did not “win from him any degree of approval.” When given the chance to take control of Bohemia, he was...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Library Journal. CVI, December 15, 1981, p. 2386.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, November 13, 1981, p. 79.