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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich: The SS 'Butcher of Prague' by Callum MacDonald

Buried to the strains of Siegfried's Death March, more than a few people were quite relieved at the death of this hated man. Heydrich was a man feared by just about everyone, including his fellow Nazis. Much like J. Edgar Hoover, he was known to keep a dossier on everyone, and as head of SS intelligence and the secret police was well-placed to use it to his advantage. Killed by a couple of Czechs, the author documents the murder had less to do with British intelligence than Czech resistance and rooted in the political needs of the Czech president in exile.

Born into a family that suffered during the depression following World War I, Heydrich began his rise through the Navy where he excelled in languages and seemed to fit right in although he was bullied for his high voice and introverted ways. He was kicked out of the Navy thanks to an incident with a well-connected woman (he was a notorious womaniser), so he joined the ranks of Himmler's SicherheitsDienst (SD) the intelligence section of the SS. It was a perfect match and his rise was meteoric.

Heydrich had been sent to Prague to boost armaments production by the Czechs. The previous Reichs Protector, Neurath, was relieved of his duties in late 1941. Heydrich was assassinated barely 8 months later. The resistance had originally intended to use assault weapons, but they jammed so they threw a grenade which wounded Heydrich severely and he died of sepsis..

Considered exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, ambitious and totally amoral, Heydrich had achieved his rise to the top of the SS by mercilessly crushing his enemies and by creating the “Final Solution” for Hitler’s plan to destroy all Jews. By putting him in charge of Bohemia and Moravia the Czechs would soon learn what it meant to live under a master of suppression. Heydrich’s plan was to use the “carrot and stick” approach, increasing food supplies to reduce the power of the resistance on the one hand, and on the other dealing ruthlessly with any opposition.

Both sides, as is so common, were driven by political needs. Heydrich wanted to combat the rising power of Martin Bormann, and to do so he needed to successfully convert the Protectorate into an SS state thus accruing more power to the SS. Benes needed to prove that the Czech people opposed the Nazis, who, he suspected were still seen by many in Britain as a bulwark against Russian imperialism and power. That many ordinary people got caught in the political crossfire bothered few except perhaps the families of those killed.

Those on the ground in Czechoslovakia in the resistance, when they heard about the proposed assassination were horrified and argued with London that it would have disastrous consequences for the resistance and thousands of innocent people who would be swept up and killed as reprisal with little to show for it. Anton Heidrich (more irony), a high ranking resistance officer, sent a message to London requesting the operation be called off, although the message they received did include a note at the end saying if the assassination was deemed absolutely necessary to the national interest they were willing to make the sacrifice (other people’s lives are always easy to sacrifice.)

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Heydrich died following an almost bungled assassination. The reprisals that followed killed many innocent people. The book does a terrific job at portraying the multiple agendas of all those involved and the details of the assorted plots.
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