May 27, 1942—He had so effectively wiped out resistance to the Third Reich in the area under his control, Reinhard Heydrich reasoned, that he didn’t need to take the most elementary security cautions. But hubris led this most calculating and feared member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle to overestimate his safety, resulting in his fatal wounding at the hands of Czech assassins trained for the task by British intelligence.
Heydrich stands out from the rest of the gallery of malcontents and misfits who enlisted early in Adolf Hitler’s cause as much for what he represented as for what he did. Just looking at him, you might think he embodied the German ideal in a way that Hitler, for instance, never could. His blond good looks seemed to epitomize the Aryan heritage so often evoked by the Fuhrer; his violin-playing was so evocative that even rivals (not to mention himself) would weep. With a mother who was an actress and a father who was an opera singer, he seemed to represent the zenith of German culture, too.
Yet someone meeting him once was driven to exclaim that in looking at Heydrich, he saw two different people. The accompanying photo, I think, testifies to a coldness of character, a consummate bureaucrat who could outwork and outmaneuver many a foe--all in the service of a boundless racial fanaticism. “The Blond Beast” was so ruthless that even his boss, SS head Heinrich Himmler, confessed that he feared him.
For the past year, in addition to his other duties as the head of the Reich Security Head Office--a vast directorate blending the SS and the police--Heydrich had gone by the Orwellian title of Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Hitler had decided that the prior occupant of the office was too conservative, too elderly, too languid in extinguishing resistance in his conquered territory.
Promptly upon assuming office, Heydrich instituted high-profile repressive measures: the execution of 400 Czechs in his first two months alone, the deportation of 1,300 more to concentration camps in the Third Reich, and the show trial and execution of puppet Prime Minister Alois Elias.
These measures earned Heydrich the nickname "the Butcher of Prague." But he needed at the same time to motivate the population for the task Hitler had set: raising Czech agricultural and industrial output enough to supply Gemany's armed forces. Following the repressive measures, then, Heydrich raised food rations, improved social security, and even sent workers to luxury hotels in spa towns. Resistance to the Nazi regime weakened noticeably through use of this carrot-and-heavy-stick regime.
Surveying the security landscape, Heydrich felt so satisfied with what he had accomplished that he thought nobody would dream of killing him. Thus, he continued to follow the same route to his Prague office every day at the same time, with his only companion a chauffeur--no security escort, no armor for the vehicle. With the spring weather especially fine that late May day, he told his chauffeur to drive with the top down, too.
Heydrich might have been correct that those living directly under his rule had largely given up the struggle, but he hadn't reckoned with the Czech government in exile, which, watching from Great Britain, decided he needed to be eliminated. They prevailed on their ally to train a small group of partisans in sabotage and espionage, then to fly them over Prague, where they parachuted into a field on the city outskirts.
When Heydrich’s car slowed down on a curve in the road on the way to work, one assassin threw a hand grenade that, upon exploding, sent bits of the vehicle’s upholstery flying into the Reich minister’s ribs, shoulder and spleen. During the operation to remove these fragments, infection set into the wound, leading to Heydrich’s death eight days after the attack.
Publicly, Hitler hailed Heydrich as “indispensable”; privately, he damned the aide’s lack of caution as “stupid and idiotic.” The minister’s death did, however, furnish his leader with a pretext for terrible vengeance on the Czechs.
Hitler had decided to shoot 10,000 Czechs at once and to repeat the strategy he had adopted in Poland of making that nation into what governor-general Hans Frank called “an intellectual desert”—i.e., mass roundup and execution of professionals, along with wholesale closings of universities and even high schools.
At the urging of Heydrich’s successor, who argued that wholesale bloodshed would undermine German arms production, Hitler relented—to a point.
One town, Lidice, would be made the scapegoat for the Heydrich assassination. On June 10, the community was rounded up on the false charge of aiding the assassination, with the men summarily executed, the women hauled off to concentration camps, and the children corralled for racial cataloguing, adoption or assignment to concentration camps. The town was then razed to the ground, with even its name removed from all German maps. Altogether, 5,000 Czechs died in the next few weeks.
As for their “Protector”: the atrocities following his death merely continued the catalogue of terror he had created so assiduously on Hitler’s behalf. Heydrich's principal claim to infamy was his leadership role at the Wannsee Conference, in which he advised participants that Hitler desired a “coming final solution of the Jewish question” on the continent. Six million Jews would die in the wake of the effort he initiated. Even this only culminated a series of actions that, had he lived to war’s end, would have made him an especially strong target of the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials, including:
*faking an incident—the storming of a German-language radio station in Poland—as an excuse for Hitler’s invasion of that country;
*manufacturing evidence against Ernst Rohm, head of Hitler’s SA (Brownshirts), later used in his execution;
*using the SS to eliminate resistance in conquered Austria;
* subjecting a third of Roman Catholic priests to state disciplining and harrassment, with punishment extending to prison, following a Pope Pius XI encyclical that castigated Nazism as an "idolatrous cult";
* deporting Germany’s Gypsies to occupied Poland;
* establishing ghettoes where Jews were to be herded and controlled; and
* approving the use of gas chambers against the Jews.