SS Leader Reinhard Heydrich

In brief: Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was second in importance to Heinrich Himmler in the Nazi SS organization. Nicknamed "The Blond Beast" by the Nazis, and "Hangman Heydrich" by others, Heydrich had insatiable greed for power and was a cold, calculating manipulator without human compassion who was the leading planner of Hitler's Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Early Years

Born in the German city of Halle, near Leipzig on March 7, 1904, Reinhard Eugen Tristan Heydrich was raised in a cultured, musical environment. His father founded the Halle Conservatory of Music and was a Wagnerian opera singer, while his mother was an accomplished pianist. Young Heydrich trained seriously as a violinist, developing expert skill and a lifelong passion for the violin.

As a boy, he lived in an elegant home with his family enjoying elevated social status. But young Heydrich also suffered as the target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his very high pitched voice and his devout Catholicism in the mostly Protestant town. He was also beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish slurs amid rumors of Jewish ancestry in his family.

At home Heydrich's mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, Heydrich was a withdrawn, sullen boy, unhappy, but also intensely self-driven to excel at everything. As he grew he excelled at academics and also displayed natural athletic talent, later becoming an award winning fencer.

Too young to serve in World War One, after the war at age 16 Heydrich teamed up with the local Freikorps, a right-wing, anti-Semitic organization of ex-soldiers involved in violently opposing Communists on the streets. Young Heydrich was also influenced by the racial fanaticism of the German Völk movement and its belief in the supremacy of the blond haired, blue eyed Germanic people which he resembled. He took delight in associating with these violently anti-Semitic groups to disprove the persistent, but false rumors regarding his possible Jewish ancestry.

The German defeat in World War One brought social chaos, inflation and economic ruin to most German families including Heydrich's. In March of 1922, at age 18, Heydrich sought the free education, adventure and prestige of a Naval career and became a cadet in the small, elite German Navy.

Once again, however, he was teased. Heydrich was by now over six feet tall, a gangly, awkward young man who still had the high, almost falsetto voice. Naval cadets took delight in calling him "Billy Goat" because of his bleating laugh and taunted with "Moses Handel" because of rumored Jewish ancestry and his unusual passion for classical music.

But the intense, driven Heydrich persevered and rose by 1926 to the rank of second lieutenant, serving as a signals officer attached to Intelligence under Wilhelm Canaris. The teasing and taunting soon gave way to resentment over the extraordinary arrogance of this young man who was already dreaming of becoming an admiral.

Heydrich also developed great interest in women and pursued sex with the same self-driven desire for achievement he applied to everything else. He had many sexual relationships and in 1930 was accused of having sex with the unmarried daughter of a shipyard director. According to popular Nazi legend, as a result of his refusal to marry her, Heydrich was forced by Admiral Erich Raeder to resign his Naval commission in 1931 for "conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman."

With his Naval career wrecked, his fiancé, Lina von Osten, an enthusiastic Nazi Party member, suggested he join the Nazi Party and look into the SS organization which at that time served mainly as Hitler's personal bodyguard and had about 10,000 members.

Joins Nazi Party and the SS

In 1931, at age 27, Heydrich joined the Nazi Party and became a member of the SS (Schutzstaffel), the elite organization of black-coated young men chosen on the basis of their racial characteristics.

An interview was soon arranged with the new SS Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler, who was seeking someone to build an SS intelligence service. During the interview Himmler posed a challenge to Heydrich by asking him to take 20 minutes and write down his plans for a future SS intelligence gathering service. Himmler was impressed by Heydrich's Aryan looks, his self-confidence, and diligent response to the challenge and gave him the job.

Heydrich proceeded to create the intelligence gathering organization known as the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), or SS Security Service.

It began in a small office with a single typewriter. But Heydrich's tireless determination soon grew the organization into a vast network of informers that developed dossiers on anyone who might oppose Hitler and conducted internal espionage and investigations to gather information down to the smallest details on Nazi Party members and storm trooper (SA) leaders.

Heydrich also had a taste for gossip and maintained folders full of rumors and details of the privates lives and sexual activities of top Nazis, later resorting to planting hidden microphones and cameras.

Heydrich's ruthless diligence and the rapid success of the SD earned him a quick rise through the SS ranks - appointed SS Major by December, 1931, then SS Colonel with sole control of the SD by July of 1932. In March of 1933, he was promoted to SS Brigadier General, though not yet 30 years old.

The only stumbling block occurred as the old rumors surfaced about possible Jewish ancestry on his father's side of his family. Heydrich's grandmother had married for a second time (after the birth of Heydrich's father) to a man with a Jewish sounding name.

Both Hitler and Himmler quickly became aware of the rumors which were spread by Heydrich's enemies within the Nazi Party. Himmler at one point considered expelling Heydrich from the SS. But Hitler, after a long private meeting with Heydrich, described him as "a highly gifted but also very dangerous man, whose gifts the movement had to retain...extremely useful; for he would eternally be grateful to us that we had kept him and not expelled him and would obey blindly."

Thus Heydrich remained in the elite Aryan order but was haunted by the persistent rumors and as a result developed tremendous hostility toward Jews. Heydrich also suffered great insecurity and some degree of self loathing, exampled by an incident in which he returned home to his apartment after a night of drinking, turned on a light and saw his own reflection in a wall mirror then took out his pistol and fired two shots at himself in the mirror, uttering "filthy Jew!"

Dachau Founded

Following the Nazi seizure of power in January, 1933, Heydrich and Himmler oversaw the mass arrests of Communists, trade unionists, Catholic politicians and others who had opposed Hitler. The total number of arrests were so high that prison space became a problem. An unused munitions factory at Dachau, near Munich, was quickly converted into a concentration camp for political prisoners.

Once inside Dachau, prisoners were subjected to harsh military style treatment and beatings. Stealing a cigarette could bring 25 lashes. Other punishments included suspension from a pole by the wrists, incarceration in a stand-up cell or dark cell, and in some cases death by shooting or hanging.

The gates at Dachau bore the cynical slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets you free). Political prisoners who survived the 11 hour workday and meager amounts of food were frightened and demoralized into submission, then eventually released. After Dachau, large concentration camps were opened at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and Lichtenburg.

By April 1934, amid much Nazi infighting and backstabbing, Himmler assumed control of the newly created Secret State Police (Gestapo) with Heydrich as his second in command actually running the organization.

Night of the Long Knives

Two months later, in June, Himmler and Heydrich, along with Hermann Göring, successfully plotted the downfall of powerful SA chief Ernst Röhm by spreading false rumors that Röhm and his four million SA storm troopers intended to seize control of the Reich and conduct a new revolution.

During the Night of the Long Knives Röhm and dozens of top SA leaders were hunted down and murdered on Hitler's orders, with the list of those to be murdered drawn up by Heydrich. As a result, the SA Brownshirts lost much of their influence and were quickly overtaken in importance by the black-coated SS.

In June of 1936, all of the local police forces throughout Germany along with the Gestapo, the SD, and the Criminal Police, were placed under the command of SS Reichsführer Himmler, who now answered only to Hitler.

By 1937, any remnants of civilized notions of justice were thrown out as the police, especially the Gestapo, were placed above the law with unlimited powers of arrest. Anyone could be taken into Schutzhaft (protective custody) for any reason and for any amount of time without a trial and with no legal recourse.

A dictate from Hitler in October of 1938 stated: "All means, even if they are not in conformity with existing laws and precedents, are legal if they subserve the will of the Führer."

Criticizing the Nazis or even making a joke could land one in a concentration camp, never to be seen again. Some arrests were made under suspicion that a person might commit a crime in the future. The average German could trust no one as anyone, even a family member, might be an informant working with the SD or Gestapo.

"We know that some Germans get sick at the very sight of the (SS) black uniform and we don't expect to be loved," said Himmler.

All over Germany, Heydrich's SD and Gestapo agents used torture, murder, indiscriminate arrests, extortion and blackmail to crush suspected anti-Nazis and also to enhance the immense personal power of Heydrich, now widely feared throughout Germany.

Many top Nazis even feared meeting him or being in his presence during the few official gatherings he attended. With his murderous glare, Heydrich could frighten even the most hardened Nazis.

Heydrich preferred to operate behind the scenes. He generally avoided publicity and was rarely seen in public, unlike Himmler. Photos of Heydrich usually show him peering suspiciously into the camera.

Heydrich was also a friendless man whose only companions were senior SS subordinates who accompanied him during drinking bouts and womanizing at a few favored night spots. Those few women who resisted his advances could likely expect a visit from the Gestapo.

International Espionage

Heydrich was a master of intrigue and pulling strings behind the scenes, sometimes on an international scale. His exploits included involvement in prodding Soviet leader Stalin into conducting a purge of top Red Army generals in 1937 by supplying evidence to Soviet secret agents of a possible Soviet military coup against Stalin.

In Germany, Heydrich had a hand in the downfall of two powerful, traditionalist German Army generals who had expressed opposition to Hitler when he announced his long range war plans in November, 1937. War Minister, Werner von Blomberg and Commander in Chief of the Army, Werner von Fritsch, were disgraced by framed-up attacks on their personal character and forced out, thus eliminating their influence. Following their dismissal, Hitler himself assumed the position of commander in chief of the German Army.

Soon afterward, Hitler looked to increase the size of the German Reich at the expense of other nations, first targeting Austria then Czechoslovakia.

In Austria, Himmler and Heydrich worked behind the scenes to encourage pro-Nazis there to spread unrest and commit sabotage.

Following the Nazi annexation of Austria in March, 1938, the SS rushed in to round up anti-Nazis and harass Jews. Heydrich then established the Gestapo Office of Jewish Emigration, headed by Austrian native, Adolf Eichmann. This office had the sole authority to issue permits to Jews wanting to leave Austria and quickly became engaged in extorting wealth in return for safe passage. Nearly a hundred thousand Austrian Jews managed to leave with many turning over all their worldly possessions to the SS. A similar office was then set up back in Berlin.

As Hitler turned his attention toward Czechoslovakia, Heydrich encouraged the Nazification of ethnic Germans to spread political unrest in the area bordering Germany (the Sudetenland). On October 1, 1938, under the threat of German invasion, the Czech government gave up the Sudetenland to Hitler.


On November 9/10, 1938, Kristallnacht occurred with the first widespread attacks on Jews and mass arrests throughout the Reich. On Heydrich's order, 25,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

In January of 1939, Heydrich helped destabilize Czechoslovakia by inciting unrest in the eastern province of Slovakia and also sent in a sabotage squad to cause panic.

In March, after representatives of France and England failed to challenge him at Munich, Hitler gambled and sent in the German Army to 'protect' Czechoslovakia from the crisis which the Nazis themselves had deliberately created.

Behind the Army, the SS rushed in - the pattern now established - with the SS always following the German Army into conquered lands. And by now, nearly a hundred concentration camps of various sizes had sprung up throughout the Reich.

On September 1, 1939, World War Two began with the Nazi invasion of Poland. As a prelude to the invasion, Heydrich had engineered a fake Polish attack on a German radio station at Gleiwitz, Germany, a mile from the Polish border, thus giving Hitler an excuse for military retribution.


After the invasion of Poland, Heydrich was given control of the new Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) which combined the SD, Gestapo, Criminal Police, and foreign intelligence service into an enormous, efficient, centralized organization that would soon terrorize the entire continent of Europe and conduct mass murder on a scale unprecedented in human history.

In Nazi occupied Poland, Heydrich vigorously pursued Hitler's plan for the destruction of Poland as a nation. "...whatever we find in the shape of an upper class in Poland will be liquidated," Hitler had declared.

First Einsatz Groups

Heydrich then formed five SS Special Action (Einsatz) Groups to systematically round up and shoot Polish politicians, leading citizens, professionals, aristocracy, and the clergy. Poland's remaining people, considered by the Nazis to be racially inferior, were to be enslaved.

German-occupied Poland had an enormous Jewish population of over 2 million persons. On Heydrich's orders, Jews who were not shot outright were crammed into ghettos in places such as Warsaw, Cracow, and Lodz. Overcrowding and lack of food within these walled-in ghettos led to starvation, disease, and the resulting deaths of half a million Jews by mid 1941.

Invasion of Soviet Union

After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Heydrich organized four large SS Einsatz groups (A,B,C,D) to operate in the Soviet Union with orders stating "... search and execution measures that contribute to the political pacification of the occupied area are to be undertaken." As a result, all Communist political commissars taken into custody were shot along with suspected partisans, saboteurs, and anyone deemed a security threat.

As the German Army continued its advance deep into Soviet territories and the Ukraine, the Einsatz groups followed, now aided by volunteer units of ethnic Germans who lived in Poland, and volunteers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Ukraine.

"The Führer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews," Heydrich told his subordinate Adolf Eichmann, who later reported that statement during his trial after the war.

Mass Murder of Jews

The Einsatz groups now turned their attention to the mass murder of Jews. At his trial in Nuremberg after the war, Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D, described the method...

"The unit selected would enter a village or city and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of resettlement. They were requested to hand over their valuables and shortly before execution, to surrender their outer clothing. The men, women, and children were led to a place of execution, which in most cases was located next to a more deeply excavated antitank ditch. Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch."

Einsatz leaders kept highly detailed records including the daily numbers of Jews murdered. Competition even arose as to who posted the highest numbers. In the first year of the Nazi occupation of Soviet territory, over 300,000 Jews were murdered. By March of 1943, over 600,000 and by the end of the war, an estimated 1,300,000.

Einsatz Execution PhotosAn Eyewitness Account of Einsatz Executions

In the city of Minsk, Heinrich Himmler witnessed Einsatz Group B conduct an execution of 100 persons, including women, and became visibly ill. After nearly fainting, he frantically yelled out for the firing squad to quickly finish off those who were only wounded.

After this Himmler ordered the Einsatz commanders to employ a more humane method of extermination by using mobile gas vans. These trucks fed their exhaust into a sealed rear compartment containing 15 to 25 persons, usually Jewish women and children. However this method was judged unsatisfactory due to the small numbers killed and the subsequent unpleasant task of having to remove the bodies.

Another Nazi extermination program, euthanasia of the sick and disabled in Germany, provided the SS with a better opportunity to experiment. At Brandenburg in Germany a former prison was converted into a killing center where the first experiments with gas chambers took place. They were disguised as shower rooms, but were actually hermetically sealed chambers connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. The drugged patients were led naked to their deaths in the gas chamber. The killing center included a crematorium where the bodies were taken for disposal. Families were then falsely told the cause of death was medical such as heart failure or pneumonia.

The head of the euthanasia program, SS Major Christian Wirth, used the technical knowledge and experience gained at Brandenburg and the five other euthanasia killing centers to construct a pilot gas chamber plant at Chelmno in occupied Poland, to be used for Jews.

On July 31, 1941, on Hitler's order, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring issued an order to Heydrich instructing Heydrich to prepare "a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution (Endlösung) of the Jewish question."

Wannsee Conference

As a result, on January, 20, 1942, Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference in Berlin with 15 top Nazi bureaucrats to coordinate the Final Solution in which the Nazis would attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe and the Soviet Union, an estimated 11,000,000 persons.

"Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west," Heydrich bluntly stated.

The minutes of that meeting, taken by Adolf Eichmann, have been preserved but were personally edited by Heydrich after the meeting using the coded language Nazis often employed when referring to lethal actions to be taken against Jews.

Complete minutes of the Wannsee Conference

"Instead of emigration, there is now a further possible solution to which the Führer has already signified his consent - namely deportation to the east," Heydrich stated when referring to mass deportations of Jews to ghettos in Poland then on to the planned gas chamber complexes at Belsec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Heydrich also took cynical delight in forcing the Jews themselves to partially organize, administer, and finance the Final Solution through the use of Jewish councils inside the ghettos which kept lists of names and assets.

By mid 1942, mass gassing of Jews using Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide) began at Auschwitz in occupied Poland, where extermination was conducted on an industrial scale with estimates running as high as three million persons eventually killed through gassing, starvation, disease, shooting, and burning.

Protector of Czechoslovakia

In September of 1941, the ever-ambitious Heydrich had achieved favored status with Hitler and was thus appointed Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in former Czechoslovakia and set up headquarters in Prague. Soon after his arrival, he established a Jewish ghetto at Theresienstadt.

He also established a successful policy of offering incentives to Czech workers, rewarding them with food and privileges if they filled Nazi production quotas and displayed loyalty to the Reich. At the same time, Heydrich's Gestapo and SD agents conducted a brutal crackdown of the Czech resistance movement.

SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich was by now a supremely arrogant young man who liked to travel between his country home and headquarters in Prague in an open top green Mercedes car without an armed escort as a show of confidence in his intimidation of the resistance and successful pacification of the population.

Attacked by Czechs

On May 27, 1942, as his car slowed to round a sharp turn in the roadway it came under attack from Free Czech agents who had been trained in England and brought to Czechoslovakia to assassinate him. They shot at Heydrich then threw a bomb which exploded, wounding him. He managed to get out of the car, draw his pistol and shoot back at the assassins before collapsing in the street.

Himmler rushed his own private doctors to Prague to help Heydrich, who held on for several days, but died on June 4 from blood poisoning brought on by fragments of auto upholstery, steel, and his own uniform that had lodged in his spleen.

In Berlin, the Nazis staged a highly elaborate funeral with Hitler calling Heydrich "the man with the iron heart."

Meanwhile the Gestapo and SS hunted down and murdered the Czech agents, resistance members, and anyone suspected of being involved in Heydrich's death, totaling over 1000 persons. In addition, 3000 Jews were deported from the ghetto at Theresienstadt for extermination. In Berlin 500 Jews were arrested, with 152 executed as a reprisal on the day of Heydrich's death.

Liquidation of Lidice

As a further reprisal for the killing of Heydrich, Hitler ordered the small Czech mining village of Lidice to be liquidated on the fake charge that it had aided the assassins.

In one of the most infamous single acts of World War Two, all 172 men and boys over age 16 in the village were shot on June 10, 1942, while the women were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp where most died. Ninety young children were sent to the concentration camp at Gneisenau, with some taken later to Nazi orphanages if they were German looking.

The village of Lidice was then destroyed building by building with explosives, then completely leveled until not a trace remained, with grain being planted over the flattened soil. The name was then removed from all German maps. Photos of Lidice

For months after Heydrich's death, Heinrich Himmler hesitated on appointing a successor, finally settling on Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a trained lawyer (and alcoholic) who possessed little of his predecessor's skills for intrigue. Thus after Heydrich's death, Himmler's personal power vastly increased as he took over many of Heydrich's duties.

The Final Solution plans begun by Heydrich were further developed under Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, and Eichmann, with the help of SS subordinates, Nazi bureaucrats, industrialists, scientists, and people from occupied countries.

Until the end of war in 1945, Jews were transported from all over Europe to killing centers such as Auschwitz where they were exterminated, along with gypsies, homosexuals, priests, prisoners of war, and ultimately persons of every nationality, religious faith, and political persuasion.

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(Photo credits: US National Archives, courtesy of USHMM archives)

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Related Topic: The History Place three-part narrative history of Adolf Hitler (62 chapters)
I. The Rise of Hitler - from unknown to dictator of Germany.
II. The Triumph of Hitler - the prewar years of Nazi Germany.
III. The Defeat of Hitler - the quest for a Nazi empire.
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