Study Guide

Reinhard Heydrich in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Reinhard Heydrich

When he was twenty-six years old, Heydrich was a young naval intelligence officer being booted from his position for "refusing to marry the daughter of a shipbuilder whom he had compromised" (2.8.168-69). After being thrown out of the Navy, he fell in with Heinrich Himmler, who eventually made him head of the S.S. Security Service (the Sicherheitsdienst, or S.D.) (2.8.168).

The S.D. was "[o]riginally formed by Himmler in 1932 as the intelligence branch of the S.S.," and "its initial function had been to watch over members of the party and report any suspicious activity. In 1934 it became also the intelligence unit for the secret police, and by 1938 a new law gave it this function for the entire Reich" (2.6.168).

Shirer writes:

Under the expert hand of Heydrich, the S.D. soon spread its net over the country, employing some 100,000 part-time informers who were directed to snoop on every citizen in the land and report the slightest remark or activity which was deemed inimical to Nazi rule. No one—if he were not foolish—said or did anything that might be interpreted as 'anti-Nazi' without first taking precautions that it was not being recorded by hidden S.D. microphones or overheard by an S.D. agent. (2.6.169)

As Himmler's right-hand man, Heydrich also played an instrumental role in the violent persecution and attempted extermination of Jewish peoples throughout the Reich. It was Heydrich who created the Office for Jewish Immigration in Austria, which, under the direct supervision of Adolf Eichmann, oversaw the systematic murders of millions of Jews (3.11.178). In the autumn of 1938, it was Heydrich who organized the Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—where hundreds of Jewish businesses, synagogues, and homes were destroyed.

It was no wonder that Heydrich soon came to be known as "Hangman Heydrich" (2.8.168). Shirer describes him as "a young man of diabolical cast," with an "arrogant, icy, and ruthless character" (2.8.157-70). He also calls him the "genius of the final solution" (5.27.392).

A total sweetheart, this guy.

Heydrich met a violent end in the summer of 1942. By then, as Shirer explains, "he had got himself appointed, in addition to his other offices, Acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia"—a position that essentially made him the governor of the territories that had recently been the country formerly known as Czechoslovakia (5.27.393). As Shirer writes, "as he was driving in his open Mercedes sports car from his country villa to the Castle in Prague a bomb of British make was tossed at him, blowing the car to pieces and shattering his spine" (5.27.393).

Heydrich survived the explosion itself, but died less than a week later. Tragically, the Nazis used his assassination as an excuse to take brutal revenge on Czechoslovakia, and thousands of horrific murders followed in its wake.