Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi Who Planned Murder of Millions

Vicious Nazi Coordinated Holocaust Plans Before His Own Assassination

photograph of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich
Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi architect of The Holocaust.

Getty Images 

Reinhard Heydrich was the high-ranking Nazi official in charge of planning Hitler's "Final Solution," which established the framework for the extermination of six million Jews in Europe. His role in the genocide earned him the title of "Reich Protector," but to the outside world he became known as "Hitler's Hangman."

Czech assassins trained by British intelligence agents attacked Heydrich in 1942 and he died from his wounds. However, his ambitious plans for genocide had already been put into action.

Fast Facts: Reinhard Heydrich

  • Full Name: Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich
  • Born: March 7, 1904, in Halle, Germany
  • Died: June 4, 1942, in Prague, Czech Republic
  • Parents: Richard Bruno Heycrich and Elisabeth Anna Maria Amalia Krantz
  • Spouse: Lina von Osten
  • Known For: Mastermind behind Hitler's "Final Solution." Convened the January 1942 Wannsee Conference that coordinated plans for mass murder.

Early Life

Heydrich was born in 1904 in Halle, Saxony (in present day Germany), a town known for its university and strong cultural heritage. His father sang opera and worked at a music conservatory. Heydrich grew up playing the violin and developed a deep appreciation of chamber music, an odd contrast to the villainous brutality for which he would become known.

Too young to serve in World War I, Heydrich was commissioned as a German naval officer in the 1920s. His career was scandalously ended when a military court found him guilty of dishonorable behavior toward a young woman in 1931.

Discharged into civilian life at a time of massive unemployment in Germany, Heydrich used family connections to seek a job with the Nazi Party. Though Heydrich had been skeptical of the Nazi movement, looking down on Adolph Hitler and his followers as little more than street thugs, he sought an interview with Heinrich Himmler.

Heydrich inflated his experience in the German military, leading Himmler to believe he had been an intelligence officer. Himmler, who had never served in the military, was impressed by Heydrich and hired him. Heydrich was tasked with the creation of the Nazi's intelligence service. His operation, run at first from a small office with one typewriter, would ultimately grow into a vast enterprise.

Rise in the Nazi Hierarchy

Heydrich rose quickly in the Nazi ranks. At one point, an old rumor about his family background—that he had Jewish ancestors—surfaced and threatened to end his career. He convinced Hitler and Himmler the rumors about a supposed Jewish grandparent were false.

When the Nazis took control of Germany in early 1933, Himmler and Heydrich were put in charge of arresting those who opposed them. A pattern developed of detaining so many political enemies that prisons couldn't hold them. An abandoned munitions plant at Dachau, in Bavaria, was converted to a concentration camp to house them.

The mass imprisonment of political enemies was not a secret. In July 1933 a reporter for The New York Times was given a tour of Dachau, which the Nazi administrators referred to as an "educational camp" for about 2,000 political opponents. Prisoners worked brutally long hours at Dachau, and were released when they were deemed demoralized and accepting of Nazi ideology. The camp system was considered successful, and Heydrich expanded it and opened other concentration camps.

In 1934, Himmler and Heydrich began making moves to eliminate Ernst Rohm, the head of the Nazi stormtroopers, who was viewed as a threat to Hitler's power. Heydrich became one of the leaders of a bloody purge, which became known as "The Night of the Long Knives." Rohm was murdered, and scores of other Nazis, perhaps as many as 200, were killed.

Following the purge, Himmler made Heydrich the head of a centralized police force that combined the Nazi Gestapo with the police detective forces. Throughout the late 1930s Heydrich ruled a vast police network with spies and informers strategically placed throughout German society. Ultimately, every police officer in Germany became part of Heydrich's organization.

Organized Persecution

As the persecution of Jews in Germany accelerated during the 1930s, Heydrich assumed a major role in organized antisemitism. In November 1938 he was involved in Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," in which his Gestapo and SS arrested 30,000 Jewish men and interned them in concentration camps.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Heydrich was instrumental in rounding up Polish Jews. His police units would enter a town after the military and order the local Jewish population to assemble. In typical actions, the Jews would be marched out of town, forced to line up beside recently dug ditches, and shot dead. The bodies were thrown into the ditches and bulldozed over. The gruesome procedure was repeated in town after town across Poland.

In June 1941, Heydrich's evil planning was put to devastating use when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. He assigned specialized troops—the Einsatzgruppen—the specific task of killing Jews and Soviet officials. Heydrich believed that Soviet Jews were the backbone of the communist state, and he sought the murder of any and all Jews in Russia.

Herman Goering, operating as Hitler's second in command, assigned Heydrich the task of formulating a plan to deal with all European Jews. With forced deportation off the table, Heydrich concocted ambitious plans for mass murder.

Wannsee Conference

On January 20, 1942, Heydrich convened a conference of high-ranking Nazi officials at a luxurious villa along Lake Wannsee, a resort in the Berlin suburbs. The purpose of the gathering was for Heydrich to detail his plan for various components of the Nazi state to work together to accomplish the Final Solution, the elimination of all Jews in Europe. Hitler had authorized the project, and attendees were informed of that by Heydrich.

There has been debate over the years about the importance of the Wannsee Conference. Mass killings of Jews had already begun, and some concentration camps were already being used as death factories by the beginning of 1942. The conference was not necessary to begin the Final Solution, but it is believed that Heydrich wanted to ensure that both Nazi leaders and key people in the civil government understood their role in the Final Solution and would participate as ordered.

The pace of killing accelerated in early 1942, and it seems Heydrich, at the Wannsee Conference, had succeeded in removing any impediments to his plans for mass murder.

photograph of Hiter at funeral of Reinhard Heydrich
Hitler saluting coffin of Reinhard Heydrich. Getty Images 

Assassination and Reprisals

In the spring of 1942, Heydrich was feeling powerful. He was becoming known as the "Reich Protector." To the outside press he was termed "Hitler's Hangman." After setting up his headquarters in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he oversaw the pacification of the Czech population with typically brutal tactics.

Heydrich's arrogance was his downfall. He took to riding about in an open touring car without a military escort. The Czech resistance noted this habit, and in May 1942 resistance commandos trained by the British secret service parachuted into Czechoslovakia.

The team of assassins attacked Heydrich's car as he traveled to the airport outside Prague on May 27, 1942. They succeeded in rolling hand grenades under the vehicle as it passed. Heydrich was severely wounded with fragments of the grenades in his spine and died on June 4, 1942.

Heydrich's death became international news. The Nazi leadership in Berlin reacted by staging a massive funeral attended by Hitler and other Nazi leaders.

The Nazis retaliated by attacking Czech civilians. In the village of Lidice, which was located near the ambush site, all the men and boys were killed. The village itself was leveled with explosives, and the Nazis removed the name of the village from future maps.

Newspapers in the outside world documented the reprisal killings of civilians, which the Nazis helped publicize. Hundreds of civilians were murdered in the revenge attacks, which may have dissuaded Allied intelligence services from assassination attempts on other high-ranking Nazis.

Reinhard Heydrich was dead, but he provided the world with a grim legacy. His plans for the Final Solution were carried out. The outcome of World War II prevented his ultimate goal, the elimination of all European Jews, but more than six million Jews would eventually be killed in the Nazi death camps.

Sources:

  • Brigham, Daniel T. "Heydrich Is Dead; Czech Toll At 178." New York Times, 5 June 1942, page 1.
  • "Reinhard Heydrich." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 20, Gale, 2004, pp. 176-178. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Reshef, Yehuda, and Michael Berenbaum. "Heydrich, Reinhard Tristan°." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 9, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 84-85. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Wannsee Conference." Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 5, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 2670-2671. Gale Virtual Reference Library.