On 4 June 1942, the Nazi wartime leader of occupied Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, died. He had been the victim of an assassination attempt a week earlier. Aged 38, the ‘Butcher of Prague’ was dead.
Six months earlier, on 28 December 1941, two Free Czech agents, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík, trained by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (the SOE), had parachuted into Czechoslovakia. Their objective, almost certain to end in their deaths, was to assassinate the ‘Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, to give Reinhard Heydrich his full title.
On the 27 May 1942, the agents, on learning of Heydrich’s movements that day, went into action. As the car taking Heydrich to a meeting slowed to navigate a hairpin bend, the two men attacked. Heydrich, as was his routine, was without an armed escort. Gabčík tried to shoot Heydrich but his submachine gun jammed at the fatal moment. Instead of ordering his chauffeur to drive off, Heydrich chose to fight. He attempted to fire back but a small bomb, thrown by Kubis, exploded, injuring him. Heydrich and his driver gave chase on foot, but the two agents escaped before Heydrich, bleeding profusely, collapsed from his injuries. He was rushed to hospital. Surgeons operated and initially it seemed the stricken Nazi was recovering. On 2 June, a week after the attack, he received a visit from his superior and mentor, Heinrich Himmler. Following Himmler’s visit, Heydrich slipped into a coma and died on 4 June. He was given a sumptuous funeral in Prague followed by a second ceremony in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Heydrich’s assassins, Kubis and Gabčík, hid in the crypt of a Prague church. Three-weeks later they were betrayed and the church was surrounded by 800 members of the SS. The men held out for as long as possible before turning their guns on themselves.
Reinhard Heydrich was born in the eastern German town of Halle on 7 March 1904. His mother was an actress and his father, Richard, a music teacher and occasional opera composer inducing in his sons (Reinhard and his younger brother, Heinz) a love of the operas of Richard Wagner. Reinhard became an accomplished violinist. Heydrich’s father, a fervent German nationalist, was sometimes known as Heydrich-Süss. Süss having a Jewish ring to it, fuelled rumours that that the family had Jewish blood. Later, Reinhard Heydrich was so haunted by the thought, he ordered an SS investigation into his family ancestry. The report concluded, unsurprisingly, that Reinhard Heydrich’s family contained no trace of Jewish descent.
Too young to enlist as a soldier during the First World War, in 1919, the fifteen-year-old Heydrich joined the post-war Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary group, an unruly rabble of de-mobilized soldiers. In 1922, Heydrich joined the German Navy and steadily rose through the ranks, soon becoming a first lieutenant. In 1930, he became engaged to Lina von Osten, a member of the Nazi Party. In doing so, he broke off a previous engagement to a shipyard director’s daughter, whom he may have got pregnant. The affair earned him a dismissal from the navy for ‘conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman’. He was granted a monthly allowance for two years by way of compensation.
Up until now, Heydrich had lampooned the Nazis, the ‘privates from Bohemia’, as he called them. But depressed by his loss of career and the uniform he so highly-prized, and with Von Osten’s influence, whom he had married in December 1931, Heydrich joined the Nazi Party and became a member of its security wing, the SS. His skills soon came to the attention of SS boss, Heinrich Himmler, who, on knowing the rumours of Heydrich’s Jewish background, was able to demand complete obedience of his protégé.
Heydrich was Adolf Hitler’s archetypal Aryan – tall, blond, and athletic. He was placed in charge of the SD, the ‘Security Service’, the intelligence and surveillance side of the SS. The promotion was, for Heydrich’s wife, the ‘finest hour of my life, of our life’.
In 1934, Heydrich played a leading role in organising Hitler’s purge of the SA, a rival paramilitary organization that displayed greater loyalty to its leader, Ernst Rohm, than Hitler. The killing of Rohm and his henchmen was remembered as the Night of the Long Knives.
In 1936, Heydrich again was promoted and became responsible for the SD, the criminal police and the Gestapo.
Enemies of the Reich
Heydrich helped organise Kristallnacht, an organised series of attacks on Jews and Jewish property during the night of 8-9 November 1938. A leading proponent of forcing Jews to emigrate, Heydrich, along with Adolf Eichmann, looked into the feasibility of deporting four million Jews to Madagascar but the plan failed and from it came the conclusion that extermination was easier than mass deportation.
On the eve of war, in 1939, Heydrich was appointed head of the Reich Main Security Office. Its aim was to fight all “enemies of the Reich” within Germany and occupied Germany. Together with Eichmann, Heydrich established the first Jewish ghettos within occupied Poland.
The Wannsee Conference
In 1941, Hermann Goering set Heydrich the task of finding a ‘total solution of the Jewish question’ in German-occupied territories. One of Heydrich’s earlier solutions was the establishment of roving killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, which followed up the German armies’ advances into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, rounding-up and murdering Jews. But the killing of Jews by bullet was a time-consuming task and often detrimental to the mental health of those carrying out the mass executions. A more efficient means of murder was needed. On 20 January 1942, Heydrich chaired the one-day Wannsee Conference in Berlin during which senior Nazis discussed and planned the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish question’.
The Butcher of Prague
In September 1941, Heydrich was appointed the Reich governor of Bohemia and Moravia, part of modern-day Czech Republic, where he promised to ‘Germanize the Czech vermin’. He soon earned the sobriquet, the ‘Butcher of Prague’. It was in Prague that Reinhard Heydrich met his death.
Following Heydrich’s assassination, the Gestapo retaliated by executing hundreds of Czechs and wiping out the entire villages of Lidice, about thirteen miles north of Prague, and Ležáky. The villages were razed to the ground and the 173 male inhabitants of Lidice were murdered. The 198 women were sent to concentration camps where most were gassed. Thousands of Czech people were also deported to extermination camps as a direct consequence of Heydrich’s death. The Bishop of Prague was also executed, held responsible for allowing the assailants to hide in one of his churches.
Lina von Osten, Heydrich’s wife, survived the war and in 1976, published a memoir, Life with a War Criminal. Despite its title, Von Osten, who had remarried, defended her first husband’s name right up to her death in 1985.
Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during World War One, is now available.