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Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 393pp.

HHhH: A Novel by Laurent Binet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012. 327 pp.


The title for Robert Gerwarth’s meticulously researched biography of Reinhard Heydrich is derived from a Time magazine cover story dated 23 February 1942, “Heydrich, Gestapo Executioner,”

To combat rebellion in Europe it seemed logical that Germany should choose its bloodiest man. Reinhard Heydrich is six feet tall, lean, yellow hair . . . 37. He is pale, thin nosed, thin lipped. His features might be of a great brutalitarian [sic] or a great ascetic. He is no ascetic! Within the Gestapo he has a fancy nickname, “The Green Basilisk.” Most Germans call him simply der Henker (the Hangman).

Born in 1904 to a highly cultured family, Reinhard Heydrich, before his assassination in 1942, was Heinrich Himmler’s second-in-command in regard to the implementation of the Final Solution. As head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), as well as the notorious SS security service known as the SD, Heydrich issued the directives that mobilized the bureaucratic machinery and Einsatzgruppen killing squads that resulted in the mass murder of more than a million Jews following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1942.

Heydrich’s father, Bruno, was a musician who composed operas and orchestral music. Reinhard was taught the violin at an early age and became an accomplished musician, and he was exposed to the best in German high culture. The Heydrich family was also exposed to the prevalent antisemitism of prewar Kaiser Germany, when they suffered from the rumor that Bruno was a Jew whose real name was Sűss. Throughout his career as a Nazi, Heydrich placed a great deal of importance in denying that he had Jewish “blood” and threatened libel action against those who spread these rumors. Yet,as Robert Gerwarth notes in his indispensable biography, the family’s relationship with the Jewish citizens of Halle—who numbered no more than 1,400 in 1910—were quite normal and there is no evidence suggesting that Bruno Heydrich’s attitude towards Jews was hostile. On the contrary, the Jews of Halle sent their children to Heydrich’s conservatory, and Reinhard became friends with the son of the cantor of the Halle Jewish community, Abraham Lichtenstein.

When then did Reinhard Heydrich evolve into a virulent racist and antisemite, thus forgoing his cultured upbringing and becoming one of history’s most brutal mass murderers? According to Gerwarth, Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for War Studies at the University of Dublin, Heydrich’s conversion to Nazism occurred in 1931 when he was expelled from the Navy for a sexual dalliance at the same time that he was engaged to Lina von Osten, the daughter of German aristocrats and a rabid antisemite. Gerwarth states that his dismissal from the Navy meant an abrupt end to his dream of a military career; and, but for the growing influence of his fiancée and her family of committed Nazis, Heydrich might never have joined the SS as a staff officer, where he quickly caught the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who made him the head of the new SS intelligence service (SD). States Gewarth, “the opportunity for a second career in uniform and a desire to please Lina and her family” were the dominating factors in Heydrich’s decision to apply for a position in the SS.

Gerwarth notes that by the mid-1930s Heydrich, influenced by Himmler’s racial ideology, had reinvented himself and become one of the most radical perpetrators of the increasingly extensive policies of the Nazi persecution of Jews and other “undesirables.” The author argues that unlike Hitler and Himmler, who were dystopian visionaries, Heydrich was a highly talented organizer of terror who surrounded himself with a capable technical administrative staff whose racial ethos differed fundamentally from that of other Nazi and state institutions in its ideological drive and commitment, especially once the decision was made to implement the Final Solution.

A true believer in Hitler’s war against the Jews, Heydrich increasingly became immune to bourgeois European moral standards, convincing himself that his only ethical criteria was the protection of the Aryan people and the future of the Greater German Reich. Heydrich, writes Gerwarth, firmly believed that these objectives required the most ruthless and violent exclusion of those elements deemed dangerous to the German people. Toward these ends, he believed that the SS, the Gestapo, and the Einsatzgruppen, first in Poland and then in the Soviet Union, were best equipped to carry out the execution of Hitler’s will. As Gerwartz informs us, “Only by cleansing German society of all that was alien, sick, and hostile could a new ‘national community’ and ‘better world’ emerge—a world dominated by a racially purified Aryan German people.”

With regard to the Holocaust, Gerwarth contends that the mass extermination of the Jews would have been inconceivable to Heydrich before the outbreak of war in 1939. His views, however, evolved over the years before his assassination. Gerwarth suggests that it was a combination of wartime brutality and frustration over failed expulsion schemes (The Lublin Plan, The Madagascar Plan), and the pressure from German administrators in the occupied East, as well as an ideologically motivated determination to solve the Jewish problem once and for all, that led to a situation in which Heydrich perceived systematic mass murder to be both feasible and desirable.

Gerwarth concludes that Heydrich’s turn to the murder of European Jews through bullets and gas was more than the action of a career-oriented desk perpetrator in the maze of the Nazi bureaucracy. Rather, Heydrich “played a decisive role in developing and promoting the notion of an elusive conglomerate of political and racial enemies that could be defeated only by an ever expanding terror apparatus that was unconfined by any laws.”

Reinhard Heydrich, who implemented Nazi terror policies during the first years of the Holocaust, was intimately involved in all the major decisions that impacted the Jews of Europe and the murder of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs, and Germans considered politically or racially dangerous. As Gerwarth notes, Heydrich’s central role in the mass annihilation of European Jewry made him a key figure in the Third Reich’s murderous policies, which raises the still unanswered question as to how someone raised in a highly cultured and stable bourgeois household could become a cold-blooded and calculating murderer. Together with Peter Longerich’s recent biography of Heinrich Himmler, Gerwath’s work explains much about how the Holocaust unfolded from the perspective of its two main perpetrators. Had Reinhard Heydrich lived, he may well have become Himmler’s successor (if not Hitler’s). His brutality and gift for organization led many within the Nazi bureaucracy to both admire and fear him, whereby some would refer to Heydrich as Heinrich Himmler’s brain, which is the title of a recent novel by Laurent Binet, HHhH  (“Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” [“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”]).

It may be true that outside of academia many people gain their knowledge of the past from historical fiction rather than from scholarly tomes. As literary critic Jay Parini notes, “historical fiction has become our primary form of fiction . . . one gets ‘real’ history in novels such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Vidal’s Lincoln, Bank’s evocation of the abolitionist John Brown in Cloudsplitter” (“Making History: How Historical Fiction Went Highbrow,” The Atlantic, May 2009). Parini could just as easily have added Binet’s HHhH to his list of examples.

On 27 May 1942 Heydrich was assassinated by two Czech patriots, Joseph Gabćik (a Slovak) and Jan Kubiś (a Czech). Soon after the occupation and subsequent dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Hitler appointed Heydrich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, adding another responsibility to his position as head of the RSHA, SD, and the Gestapo. In his new charge Heydrich was ruthless in the suppression of any Czech opposition to German occupation, so much so that the Czechs referred to him as “the Butcher of Prague.” Binet’s book is a fictional biography of Heydrich but one based on a great deal of research. Much of the novel, therefore, follows Heydrich’s life and career as described in Gerwath’s biography, but Binet’s motivation and emphasis in writing his novel is to celebrate the Czech patriots who gave their lives to assassinate Heydrich.

Laurent Binet was born in France and HHhH, his debut novel, was awarded the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman prize in 2010. He is currently a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature. His HHhH is more than the traditional historical novel. Binet’s original intention was to write his book as a spine-tingling work of fiction, but soon decided that it was dishonest to invent descriptions, dialogues, and thoughts on a subject as serious as Heydrich’s bloody career. The result is a novel wherein Binet advises his readers, “just so there’s no confusion, all the dialogues I invent (there won’t be many) will be written like scenes from a play.” Along the way, the novel is also full of digressions, including discussions of films about Heydrich’s life, books about Nazis, and his personal life, and criticism of novelists of historical fiction. Unique to the novel is the manner in which Binet continually questions the methods he employs in providing the reader with an authentic life of his subject, with the caveat that he also recognizes that novelists have more freedom than historians in recreating the past. His writing includes passages such Heydrich telling two friends, “since when did Heydrich have friends?” in vivid terms, that he would not hesitate to “neutralize Hitler himself if the old man gives me any shit.” Binet asks, “what exactly did Heydrich mean by this? I would like to know.” Elsewhere, Binet invokes the testimony of Helmut Knochen, one of Heydrich’s underlings, that the assassination of Heydrich, which was orchestrated by the British (Operation Anthropoid), had been given the highest priority because Churchill absolutely refused to be deprived of a total victory over Hitler, and feared “that a wise Nazi like Heydrich might remove Hitler and save the regime through a negotiated peace.” Source? none; instead, the novelist’s prerogative.

Placing himself in Heydrich’s psyche, Binet reasons that it took some time for him to ascertain that the Einsatzgruppen shooting squads were not the ideal solution to resolving the Jewish question after witnessing mass shootings in Minsk. Both Himmler and Heydrich concluded, states Binet, that such mass slaughter “implicated the Third Reich in a realm of barbarism likely to be condemned by future generations. They had to do something to remedy this. But the process of extermination was already so advanced that the only remedy they found was Auschwitz.” Binet the novelist has compacted the evolution of the Holocaust by bullets to the Holocaust by gas in one paragraph.

Binet’s most original writing is in following Gabćik and Kubiś from their escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England, where they were recruited to parachute back to their country for the purpose of assassinating Heydrich. Following Heydrich’s assassination, they were hunted down by Nazi SS and brutally killed in the basement of a Prague church—betrayed by a fellow countryman. All of this is vividly, if not imaginatively, recreated by Binet, who also imagines the thoughts of Heydrich’s assassins as they prepare to kill their target. Binet has Gabćik, at the moment of the assassination attempt, justify his deed by convincing himself that Heydrich was “the worst creature ever forged in the burning fires of hell, the fiercest man ever to come from a women’s womb.” HHhH is great fiction that rings of passion and authenticity, but still a novel which blends history and remarkable imagination in recreating the life and death of Reinhard Heydrich.


Jack Fischel

Emeritus Professor of History

Millersville University