If there was one man in Nazi Germany more feared than its Chief of Police Heinrich Himmler it was his thin-lipped, cold-bloodied Deputy Reinhard Heydrich whose rise to prominence was so great and so rapid that many believed he was being groomed as the Fuhrer’s successor; and he was no less ruthless in pursuit of his own ambitions than he was determined to eradicate those he deemed enemies of the State and the mere mention of his name sent a chill down the spine of friend and foe alike for considered the architect of the Holocaust sentiment played no part in his life and compassion was but a non-sequitur from a by-gone age.
Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich was born in Halle an der Salle, Saxony-Anhalt, on 7 March 1904. His father, Richard, was a composer, music teacher, and an ardent nationalist who regaled his children with stories of Germanic heroism and of their unique place in the world. His mother, Elisabeth, was subservient to her husband in all things and dedicated herself to the raising of the children maintaining a strict discipline which often saw the children subjected to physical correction, but Reinhard was for the most part a good boy.
As a child the young Reinhard became an accomplished violinist and sportsmen but was in many respects a timid boy who was frequently bullied at school for both high-pitched voice and his Roman Catholicism.
Raised as a patriot he was excited by the First World War but was too young to serve but upon its completion he made up for lost time by joining the paramilitary Freikorps that was responsible for suppressing with great brutality the Communist led Spartakist revolt in Berlin.
In 1922 he joined the German Navy where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant but it was hardly a meteoric rise and he was intensely disliked by both his fellow Officers and those under his charge. He was dismissive of anyone he considered his social inferior and would often decline to dine in the Officer’s Mess if he thought he was in the presence of those he felt unworthy of his company.
He also had a reputation as a womaniser and his career in the Navy was curtailed in 1931 when he was dismissed for inappropriate behaviour after he had refused to behave honourably and marry a woman he had got pregnant claiming that she was of loose morals and had too easily allowed herself to be seduced. She was also socially inferior and it would be an insult to his family to take her as a wife.
Aware that his actions might jeopardise his career he was later to change his mind but for the time being he was devastated by his dismissal and his loss of rank and status but he remained determined to rebuild his career and in 1932, he joined Adolf Hitler’s recently formed personal bodyguard, the Schutzstaffel, or S.S. where he quickly rose to the rank of Major and was not long after interviewed personally by Heinrich Himmler for a post in the Counter Intelligence Division. Himmler was impressed by this man he found to be as bloodless as he was.
Heydrich played a prominent role both in the purge of Ernst Rohm and the S.A, known as the Night of the Long Knives and the anti-Jewish pogrom of Kristallnacht and over the next few years he was to build the Gestapo into a powerful weapon of intimidation and control. So much so that the perception was they had an agent on every street corner and access to every conversation as people were encouraged to spy upon one another and denunciations became commonplace.
On 17 June 1936, all German State Police and Intelligence Services were brought under Himmler’s control and he appointed Heydrich as his Deputy.
It was also around this time however that Heydrich’s rise to prominence was almost brought to a juddering halt.
Rumours of his Jewish ancestry had long been circulating and they were being used by his enemies, of which he had a great many, to undermine his position. They were soon brought to the attention of Himmler who ordered an investigation into his genealogy. The findings of the investigation were unclear and Himmler felt obliged to take the matter before Hitler who personally interrogated Heydrich on the subject.
Hitler was suitably impressed by the gaunt Heydrich with the steely look in his eye and concluded that he was suitably enthused with National Socialist ardour and that any suspicion of tainted blood was just that. It could not be proved one way or the other.
If Heydrich was shaken by the turn of events he did not show it and was soon back at his desk ever the remorseless bureaucrat resolute in his commitment to the Nazi cause.
In 1941, he was instrumental in implementing the Nacht und Nebel, or Night and Fog Decree, designed to crush resistance in German Occupied Europe. Suspects would be picked up in the dead of night and simply disappear, there was no formal arrest and no charges brought.
On 27 September 1941 he was appointed Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia where his cruelty soon earned him the title “The Hangman of Prague” but he was never going to be satisfied with merely being the Governor of a province of the Greater Germany.
On 20 January 1942 he convened a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to find the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Attending were representatives of all the leading Ministries of the Third Reich. Heydrich told them in no uncertain terms that all Jews who could do physical labour would be worked and starved to death. Those incapable of work or who could not be of use to the Reich would be physically eliminated.
That Jews were already being murdered in their tens of thousands by Nazi Einsatzgruppen, or Death Squads was already well known and the reason for the conference was not so much the implementation of policy but to formalise and speed up the process for the extermination of the Jewish Race in Europe, and no one was to be left in any doubt as to who was in charge of this process – Heydrich would direct it and he would benefit from its success.
The Conference at Wannsee allowed for little discussion and permitted no disagreement, and so in a meeting that lasted barely 90 minutes a commitment was made to mass-murder. This was Heydrich’s modus operandi, to bully, to work fast, and to get things done and he was untroubled by conscience. One of his subordinates, Walter Schellenberg, later said of him:
“He had a cruel, cold intelligence and was a man for whom truth and intrinsic goodness had no meaning.”
Meanwhile in Britain at a time when its very survival lay in the balance any serious military intervention on the Continent was out of the question nevertheless Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained determined to strike back and so the Special Operations Executive or S.O.E was formed to parachute agents into occupied Europe where they would liaise with resistance groups, commit acts of sabotage, and carry out assassinations. One of those targeted was, Reinhard Heydrich.
Two soldiers from the Czech Army in Exile, Karel Svoboda and Jozef Gabcik were chosen to carry out the operation to assassinate Heydrich. When Svoboda was injured in training Jan Kubis was chosen to replace him.
This sudden change of personnel delayed the implementation of Operation Anthropoid for some months and it wasn’t until 28 December 1941 that Gabcik and Kubis landed near the town of Nevizdy from where they travelled onto Prague staying with families connected to the resistance and making contact with local anti-Nazi organisations.
For months Gabcik and Kubis remained in hiding in Prague whilst they made their plans the Nazis unaware of their presence. As such, they were able to roam the streets of the city relatively unmolested plotting their course of action as they did so. Finally they decided to intercept the Reich Protector on his daily commute from his home to his official residency at Prague Castle.
On 27 May 1942, the always meticulous and punctual Heydrich who travelled in an open-top Mercedes without an escort in a deliberate show of contempt for the Czech people, set out for work at the usual time. As the car slowed almost to a halt to round a curve in the road near the Bulovka Hospital, Gabcik, who along with Kubis had been waiting at a nearby tram stop, stepped out in front of the car and aimed his machine gun straight at Heydrich but it jammed and would not fire.
Instead of speeding off as might be expected, Heydrich stood up pulled out his revolver and ordered his driver Klein to stop the car but as he made to shoot the helpless Gabcik, Kubis emerged from the shadows to throw a grenade. It missed its intended target hitting the rear end of the car before exploding but it distracted Heydrich long enough for both Gabcik and Kubis, believing their assassination attempt had failed, to flee.
It appeared at first that Heydrich had escaped unscathed but he had in fact been wounded by shrapnel and soon collapsed. Even so, unable to do so himself he ordered Klein to pursue the assassins. He was later intercepted by Gabcik who shot him dead.
Heydrich was rushed to hospital where the diagnosis was that his wounds were not serious or life-threatening and that he should make a full recovery but on 3 June, as he sat up in bed eating his noon day meal he unexpectedly collapsed and went into a coma. By the following morning he was dead, it was said of blood poisoning.
Gabcik and Kubis who believed they had failed in their mission were as shocked as anyone to hear the news of Heydrich’s hospitalisation.
As Heydrich’s funeral cortege passed through Prague on 7 June the city’s inhabitants were forced onto the streets to pay their respects before his body was transported to Berlin where an elaborate funeral took place at which Hitler read the eulogy. The Fuhrer praised him as a heroic German and a National Socialist martyr but was to remark in private that he thought Heydrich’s behaviour in travelling around Prague unprotected to be both stupid and idiotic.
A furious Hitler ordered the S.S to wade in blood in their efforts to find the killers and over the next fortnight more than 13,000 Prague citizens were arrested. Many were shot or hanged whilst others were sent to Concentration Camps. The most notorious incident occurred in the village of Lidice where the S.S rounded up and shot dead its 199 male residents, took away 95 children, many of whom were later sent to Germany for adoption, and sent the 195 women to Concentration Camps. The village was then raised to the ground.
Yet for all their brutality the S.S and the Gestapo were unable to track down the assassins but the noose was tightening.
Gabcik and Kubis, who had been hiding in different houses in Prague, now left them for the sake of the families involved and along with five other resistance fighters who were on the run sought refuge in the Church of St Cyril and Methodius.
Unknown to them Karel Curda, a member of the Out Distance Resistance Group that had been parachuted into Czechoslovakia to carry out sabotage missions had been arrested and under the threat of torture and for a reward of 1 million Reichsmarks he agreed to tell all he knew and reveal the names of all the contacts and the addresses of the safe houses. It was with the information provided by Curda that the Gestapo were at last able to close in on their prey.
One of the safe houses where Gabcik and Kubis had stayed was that of the Moraver family. When the house was raided Mrs Moraver committed suicide by taking a cyanide tablet. Her husband, who had been unaware of his wife’s involvement in the resistance but she had confided in their young son Ata.
Taken to the Gestapo Headquarters at Pecek Palac the Gestapo focused their attention on the 14 year old boy who revealed nothing under torture but then stupefied with brandy and shown the severed head of his mother floating in a fish tank he cracked.
The following day 18 June the Church of Saint Cyril and Methodius was surrounded by 700 S.S troops. Aware of the fate that awaited them should they do so the seven men inside refused to surrender and a furious two hour gun battle ensued.
Jan Kubis and two others took up position in the Prayer Loft whilst Gabcik and remaining men sought refuge in the Church Crypt.
Kubis and his comrades fought furiously but were soon overwhelmed the Germans however could not gain entry into the crypt and in their frustration decided to flood it with water using the ventilation shafts. Unable to stem the flow of the water Gabcik and the others fought on until their ammunition was almost expended when close to drowning yet still unwilling to surrender they shot themselves.
In the fighting 14 SS troops had been killed and 21 wounded.
Reinhard Heydrich was the only senior member of the Nazi Regime assassinated during the war as the implementation by the Germans of collective responsibility and the levels of reprisal they were willing to undertake on the civilian population shocked Churchill into abandoning any further attempts on the lives of the leading Nazis.
Following the liberation of the Czech lands in 1945, Karel Curda made no attempt to flee but continued to live openly and well on the reward he had received for betraying his colleagues.
The high life didn’t last long and he was soon arrested, tried to for treason and hanged at Pankrac Prison on 27 April 1947.