If a young German naval officer had not made a girl pregnant, and if that girl had not been the daughter of Großadmiral Erich Raeder, it’s quite possible that millions of lives might have been spared, but instead the young sub-lieutenant was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and was kicked out of the navy.
As events would later confirm, the navy was right. This 27-year-old officer was far from a gentleman.
Not only would he turn out to be a sex addict and a drunkard, but also a gifted administrator and a cold-blooded psychopathic killer. Not to mention a concert violinist of considerable talent.
Stung by the humiliation of his dismissal from the service, young Reinhardt Heydrich managed to secure an interview with 31-year-old Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who was setting up a new counter-intelligence unit. Whatever descriptions you could apply to Himmler, “educated” and “well-read” would not be among them, and neither would Ubermensch by any stretch of the imagination.
Heydrich’s sales pitch, based on any old nonsense he could remember from reading spy novels, impressed the nasty little Reichsführer so deeply he hired this tall, athletic, cultured, walking embodiment of Aryan manhood on the spot.
Heydrich was logical.
Heydrich was ruthless.
Heydrich played classical violin.
Heydrich was everything that Himmler was not and now, suddenly he was head of the nascent Gestapo even though to begin with he only had a typewriter and a desk, but that wouldn’t last long.
Thus a monster was born.
I’ve often said that we should never be shocked by the actions of monsters, because monstrous things are in their nature. It’s far more shocking when ordinary men and women carry out monstrous acts but Heydrich is the exception. Heydrich, for many people – even Hitler – was the very embodiment of Nazi evil. A cold, heartless functionary with no scruples about murdering millions. A man whose inner darkness is written on his merciless face and in his dead, unfeeling eyes.
There’s something about Heydrich that proclaims the very essence of totalitarian cruelty and something also that suggests he might well have ended up behind the Führer’s desk if his own arrogance hadn’t opened up the opportunity for his Czech killers to exterminate him. This man, after all, was speaking of being an Admiral when he was only an 18-year-old naval cadet. This is the individual described by Hitler after a long private meeting as a highly gifted but also very dangerous man.
You’d need to fear someone who made Hitler nervous.
I’ve just finished a fascinating book called HHhH by Laurent Binet. A meta-novel, you might call it, since it’s Binet’s attempt to describe his struggle as he writes about the assassination of Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. The man with the iron heart as Hitler once called him.
Yes, it’s a strange title for a book and we’ll come to the reason for it presently, but it offers such interesting juxtapositions that I couldn’t put it down. In some ways, it reminds me of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, a novel about a modern-day detective investigating a series of murders, who somehow finds himself connected across the centuries with the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, formerly an apprentice to Christopher Wren and designer of six churches in the reign of Queen Anne, laid out in a Satanic pattern on the map of London.
It’s rare that a novel sets me on a quest, but I once visited all of those Hawksmoor churches the same day, even though I was already familiar with four of them before I read the book. The only other novels to have raised such an urge in me are Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by the great Hunter S. Sadly, though, I have yet to visit Bombay or go on a savage acid and alcohol-fuelled journey with my Samoan attorney to the heart of the American dream.
But maybe there’s time yet. Who knows?
Let’s return to Laurent Binet’s book HHhH and the conundrum of why it’s listed as fiction even though the subject is clearly historical and political. I don’t know the answer to that, except to say that Binet has somehow managed to write a book about writing a book while at the same time keeping scrupulously to the historical facts as far as he can establish them. And after all, what historical account of anything can claim to be completely factual?
What about this cold-blooded reptile? I’m as trapped in his cobra stare as Binet is. I detest him as much as the other high-ranking Nazis did. Even now, seven decades after his death, I fear him a little, because this man had the darkest soul I have ever encountered and who’s to say that, like Hawksmoor, he might not reach out across time and touch me with his bony dead fingers?
This man swept into Prague at the age of 37, already head of the entire German security apparatus. The most senior secret policeman in the Reich, commanding the Gestapo, the Sipo, the Sicherheitsdienst, immediately set to work executing Czechs and banishing people to concentration camps, but this Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia didn’t allow his onerous task to distract him from planning the Holocaust. And of course, in good time, he would chair the Wannsee conference during which the administrative details of the Holocaust would be agreed, permitting the destruction of all European Jews and other undesirables.
Heydrich was an absolute monster, without feelings, without scruples, without emotion. Even his boss Himmler, the appalling little toad, had the good grace to faint when the SS murdered Jews in front of him, but everyone knew that crossing Heydrich was tantamount to suicide.
He was crude, he was aggressive, he was a vile drunk. He haunted whorehouses. He was a cruel thug. He was a merciless organiser of industrial death.
Yet, when he played the violin, his face lost its coldness, its arrogance, its cruelty.
When Heydrich played the violin, he became human for a time, and he became transported into the vaults of the spheres.
Somebody who knew him said of Heydrich that two souls lived in his breast and I can almost believe that. I can almost believe in the religious notion of possession when I contemplate somebody like Reinhardt Heydrich, but of course that’s nonsense. He was simply a cold, vicious, calculating swine who happened to love music.
They killed him and they were right to kill him, even though everyone knew there would be reprisals.
In return, the Germans murdered hundreds. They wiped out two villages that had nothing to do with the killing. I won’t call it an assassination, since that word would imply some sort of decency on Heydrich’s part. They killed him like a rat and they were right to do it, even if the killing had elements of farce about it.
Actually, in a second or two, I will call it an assassination because that suits what I want to say. Forgive me
They trained in England and they parachuted into Czechoslovakia. They knew there was almost no chance of surviving, but they did it anyway. They picked the best place on the route where the arrogant Pro-Consul travelled every day from Prague Castle in his open-top Mercedes-Benz driven by a giant SS bodyguard. Called Klein!
They waited at a bend where the car had to slow down. One of them stepped out in front of the vehicle, aimed his British-made Sten gun and
and the fucking thing jammed.
And the assassin stared at Klein, the giant SS driver.
And Klein, the giant SS driver stared back.
And Heydrich stared at the assassin. And Heydrich stared at Klein.
And then the other assassin crept up behind the car and threw his bomb but he missed and it exploded beside the wheel and didn’t blow Heydrich to bits as it was supposed to. But it did enough to hurt him. Far more than he suspected at the time and far more than the assassins thought. For those were the days before effective antibiotics, and therefore the Butcher of Prague, the architect of the Holocaust was a dead man walking or at least a dead man staggering.
Eventually, Heydrich just died of an infection. Horribly.
Of course the SS tracked the killers down, but it took 800 of them after a tip-off from a traitor, and the shoot-out in the cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius cost the Germans dozens of casualties before the commandos (that’s a better word than assassin) in a final act of defiance, took their own lives.
That’s where I want to go. Though I have been in Prague many times I never visited the Orthodox cathedral where Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík fought the SS to the death, killing and injuring many of them.
I want to honour the memories of the men who ensured that all we had to deal with was Hitler.
Oh. I nearly forgot to tell you what HHhH means.
Himmlers Hirm heisst Heydrich. Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.
It was German humour, but at least some of them were poking fun at the monsters, so let’s not judge their jokes too harshly.
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