fredag 4 mars 2011

Knut Kristofersen: Heydrich. Förintelsens arkitekt ("Heydrich. Architect of the Holocaust")

If you're making a list of evil people, Reinhard Heydrich would certainly be qualified to be on it. You'll learn why in this well-written popular history that turns out to actually be two books in one.

Brought up by a distant, ultra-nationalist father and a cold, disciplinarian mother, Heydrich grew up arrogant – and bullied at school. He got into the Navy, apparently with big plans for advancement. He remained arrogant, still had problems relating to his peers, worked hard to improve himself as an athlete, and becomes quite the womanizer. Engaged to his future wife, he was then thrown out of the Navy for scandalizing an influential man's daughter, and wound up with little remaining of his career.

So things look reasonably bad for Heydrich in 1931, when he meets with Himmler to apply for the post as leader of the Nazi party's Sicherheitsdienst. However, Himmler is impressed by Heydrich's use of the correct military vocabulary and a sketched-out organization chart, so he's hired, and starts working very energetically to chart all the enemies of the Nazi party. In order to protect the SS from infiltrators and saboteurs, the SS needs to have Heydrich's men detailed to every SS unit. So Heydrich tells the party, so it must be true. Later, the Münich SS leadership of Himmler and Heydrich will prove their invaluable worth to Hitler by exposing numerous plots against him, originating in Bavaria. Naturally, this means that Himmler and Heydrich needs more and more resources to expose and stop all of these plots...

By being a hard worker, a skilled bureaucratic infighter and having no qualms about ruthless murder (for example, he helped with the preparations for the Night of the Long Knives) and torture, Heydrich rises to become an ever-more powerful player in the party. He still has problems gaining actual friends, though, as his personality doesn't appear to have improved one bit with his increased power. Something that really surprised me was the revelation that Heydrich flew combat air missions during the war – I'd never heard of it before, and it seems idiotic to risk a high official's life on him playing the role of a hero pilot (though considering how idiotic – in addition to evil – the Nazi regime was in many other ways when it came to waging war, I guess I shouldn't be surprised by practically anything).

Anyway, Heydrich was intimately involved in setting the stage the Holocaust, chairing the Wannsee conference, and in 1941 he was also appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia because Konstantin von Neurath, who's had the post up until then, is considered too soft. Combining vicious terror with carrots like increased food rations for workers, Heydrich keeps the country under control.

And this is where the book makes a big, 90-degree turn. From having been a Hydrich biography combined with a brief popular history of the Third Reich, in its second half it becomes a war thriller about the planning and execution of the assassination of Heydrich. While this story isn't bad as popular histories go, the 90° turn perplexed me a bit at first.

Kristofersen sees the assassination in part as a way for the Czech exile government to prove that they were a force to reckon with, and is critical of how the decision was made – and of how they, while preparing the assassination, kept sending agents to Czechoslovakia even though they had to know that any network they were able to build up would be severely damaged by the repression that would follow after an assassination attempt.

After many problems, the paratroopers sent in to do the deed – Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, whom I mention by name because I think their bravery and integrity deserves recognition – managed to kill Heydrich, but only barely (he died after a week of horrible pain from the wounds he sustained by a grenade attack), but couldn't get out of the country. They died, along with a couple of other operatives, after a long shootout with German soldiers from the cellar of an Orthodox church where they had been hiding. German reprisals against the civilian population were vicious and horrifying, as were the methods they used in their attempts to find the assassins. These parts of the book is really not for the faint of heart.

Kristofersen hasn't done any original research, but has compiled the book from other works and created a pretty good popular history of a man who was anything but decent, and that man's far too deserved and far too late-in-coming death. Worth the read, at least if you're not already a scholar on these issues.

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