Book review: 'Heydrich' explores the mind of evil brilliantly

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

“HITLER's HANGMAN: The Life of Heydrich,” by Robert Gerwarth, Yale University Press, $35, 336 pages (nf)

Robert Gerwarth, a historian at University College Dublin, offers a first rate biography of one of history's most notorious villains in his wonderful new work, “Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich.”

In this highly readable book, Gerwarth brilliantly reconstructs the life of Nazi minister and security police chief Reinhard Heydrich. From his bourgeois musical family background to his years as a junior officer in the German navy of the Weimar Republic and dishonorable discharge to his rise under the wing of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, the study is both highly enlightening and absolutely chilling.

In 1931, Himmler recruited Heydrich to create and run the Nazi Party's Security Service, the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD. Also in command of the Gestapo after the Nazis came to power, Heydrich was instrumental in the crackdown on Germany's communists, socialists and trade unionists, as well as in eliminating Hitler's Nazi Party rivals during the bloody “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.

Gerwarth expertly explores Heydrich's hatred and persecution of Germany's Freemasons and the political elements of the Catholic Church, though he himself had been raised Catholic. All this as Heydrich ambitiously pursued not only his career but a host of hobbies and talents.

Possessing a brilliant mind that could have turned to any purpose, Heydrich was said to be a concert level violinist, an Olympic level fencer, and a highly skilled fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Norway and on the Russian front during World War II — against Hitler's orders.

Heydrich's 1939 creation of the Reich Security Main Office, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA, was a watershed in the growth of Nazi violence during the Third Reich. The creation of this umbrella organization for all of Germany's security and police forces empowered Heydrich and Himmler to unleash a new level of barbarity against the conquered peoples of Europe.

Heydrich's favorite target, as one can imagine, was the Jews. Gerwarth suggests that Heydrich's intense hatred for the Jews was in part a product of his background, in which his family had falsely been accused of being Jews when Heydrich was young.

A chief architect of the Holocaust, Heydrich chaired the infamous Wansee Conference in January 1942 in which various Nazi agencies were coordinated under SS authority for the purposes of the mass murder of Europe's Jews.

Gerwarth opens the book with the details of Heydrich's assassination in May 1942 by Czech partisans. Having been appointed Hitler's viceroy to Prague, which had fallen to the Nazis in 1939, Heydrich's brutal methods and indifference to Czech suffering, as well as the desire by the Czech government-in-exile to distance itself from the Nazis, led to Heydrich's death in a dramatic scene that reads like spy fiction and was followed by disastrous consequences for the Czech people.

Gerwarth's biography is a remarkable study that easily stands beside GÜnther Deschner's classic 1977 biography of Heydrich, and offers many new insights into one of history's most evil characters.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is the co-developer of the "History Challenge" iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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