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Reinhard Heydrich and the Genocide of Nations Home

Reinhard Heydrich was the key figure in the Nazi terror against the population in the Third Reich and the occupied territories. He entered the European history as one of the most influential masterminds of the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. His role in the office of Reich Protector was only a minor episode. How did the path to genocide and planned extermination of tens of millions of people develop?

Autumn 1941, from the Nazi leadership perspective, was the peak of their expansive politics and successful war operations. The most massive attack on the Soviet Union launched by the Nazi armies on 21st June 1941 on one side confirmed the more or less stable control of the Nazis over the conquered Western Europe, on the other side it was fulfilling the ideological, economic and racial policy programme directing its aggression towards the east. Existential struggle of the Nazi and communist dictatorship was in autumn 1941 clearly in favour of the Third Reich, whose troops were advancing towards Leningrad and Moscow. The Nazis ruled Europe from the Atlantic to the suburbs of Moscow, from the Baltic to the coast of Africa. Unprecedented success of the Wehrmacht and the SS units enabled the initiation of massacres of civilians who stood in the way of Germanization of conquered territories. The mass purges were primarily aimed at Jews and political exponents of the Communist Party, and then captured soldiers of the Red Army and civilian Slav population. The Nazi regime looked from summer 1941 until autumn 1942 for the most effective means how to kill as many unwanted people as possible. In the spring of 1942, 25% victims of holocaust were already dead. That amounted to almost 1.5 million people. The system of personal confrontation of the perpetrators with their victims proved ineffective not only due to excessive load of time of each execution, but also due to mental exhaustion of unprepared executioners. The journey to impersonal mass murders led from a blow to the back of the head, failed attempts with explosives and exhaust gasses blown to closed trucks to technically mastered gas chambers in Auschwitz crematoriums.  Murdering people with exhaust gasses (Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor camps) and eventually with Cyclone B proved to be the most effective. Progressive refinement of the system during one year, ie from summer 1941 until summer 1942, provided the perfect “slimming down” of numbers of unwanted personnel and increase the capacity of extermination facilities and camps.

The successful launch of decimation of the Jewish and Slavic population in relation to the progress of a promising campaign in the east filled the party leaders of the NSDAP with optimism. Reich SS leader Heinrich Himmler, his subordinate Reinhard Heydrich (commander of the Reich Main Security Office RSHA) (1) and Kurt Daluege (commander of the Anti-riot Police) determined directions of further progress in the race question and practically coordinated military-police operations from the highest positions of the party officials of the Third Reich. In the rear of the advancing armies, the members of the SS task forces and the anti-riot police, under the control of Himmler, Heydrich and Dalueg began with their first cleansing. At the beginning of July 1941, the units began to eliminate the Jews in Minsk; in the second half of the same month, thousands of civilians in Bialystok were killed. The riot police, which had previously stayed out of the mass terror, finally began to actively intervene in the final arrangements of the elimination programme.   

Heydrich, due to his ability in fulfil the anti-Semitic programme of the NSAD, was twice rewarded by being on the highest position of the anti-Jewish system of the Nazi regime. On 24th January 1939, Heydrich was appointed “the solution of the Jewish question”. Between the years 1939-1941, the Nazis were just looking for forms and definitions of the word “solution”. The planned relocation of the Jewish population within the Madagascar and Nisko programme ran into insurmountable problems of transportation and military characters.  The chaotic relocation actions to areas of a Polish town Nisk in eastern Prussia failed, while relocating the Jews to Madagascar was thwarted by unsuccessful attempt to conquest England, which dominated the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of Africa. During these failed attempts there was still an ongoing action called T4, thus elimination of physically and mentally ill patients in German and Polish hospitals. In the years 1940-1941 Heydrich planned large-scale transfers of Germans living scattered outside the Reich into the area of continuous settlement. On the contrary, primarily the original Polish population was deported further east. In order to vacate all kinds of accommodation facilities of all kinds, including hospitals and medical institutions, gassing and injection killing applied on civilians was put into practice. On 31st July 1941 Heydrich was appointed commissioner of “the final solution of the Jewish question”. At that time the true nature of the “final solution” had been already decided. The enthusiasm for finding a method and coordination enforcement components, creating an effective system of killing, internal stability of the regime and the constant excitement from the eastern campaign led to Heydrich’s supreme rise in power which he was awarded on 27th September 1941 with a post of Acting Reich Protector and General of the police with the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer. His arrival in Prague was not only a reaction to continuous forms of resistance of Czech civilians, but also a preparation of large-scale plans to Germanize the Bohemia-Moravia territory. A year earlier, in connection with the deportation of Jews and Poles problems, the means of resettlement of Czechs into eastern areas was refused. Hitler chose the second option, namely Germanization, which was not so technically demanding and it seemed more effective. The military situation in the summer and autumn of 1941 allowed the start of Germanization of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia with far greater intensity. Heydrich’s vision for evacuation of inadaptable Czechs started to show feasible outlines, however ultimately was not implemented.

The Reich Protector possessed several important tools for the implementation of the pro-Nazi policies. Heydrich ruled the apparatus of the security police consisting of the secret police, security services and parts of criminal police. The command of this unit fell under the commander of the security police SS- Standartenführer Horst Böhm, based in Prague. Two secret police head offices based in Prague were established (SS commander-Obersturmbannführer and Oberregierungsrat Dr. Hans Ulrich Geschke), with authority power over Bohemia, and in Brno (Commander Wilhelm Nölle), with authority power over Moravia. In Bohemia, there were 11 offices of the secret police and in Moravia there were 8 offices. Security Service was base in Prague with the main field office in Brno, and throughout the entire territory of the Protectorate there were 14 field offices. The criminal police had its headquarters in Prague and Brno.  

Higher Regional Court was established in Prague, Regional Court was established in Prague and Brno, as well as a network of branches of provincial and district courts. In addition, there were established Special Courts in Prague and Brno, as well as SS Police Court in Prague. In case of declaration of civil emergency there was established a martial court. In the Protectorate, the headquarters of riot police were in Prague. It was led by Lieutenant General Paul Riege. The chief of uniformed protectorate police and he supervised two police regiments - 20 “Böhmen“ and 21 “Mähren“, which had their regiments deployed in large industrial cities and major transportation hubs. In the territory of the Protectorate there were also stationed units of wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Waffen-SS and the Reich Labour Service.    

Even though the Bohemia-Moravia region was affected by two major waves of persecution of the population, until the arrival of Heydrich there had been no forms of mass persecution similar to the ones applied in Poland. The first wave of arrests came during 1939. In connection with the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia after 15th March 1939 and during the first declaration of war on Poland on 1st September 1939 the real and potential opponents of the Nazi regime were being arrested as a precaution. The mass unrest on the day of anniversary of the Czechoslovak Republic on 28th October 1939 had its own strong anti-Czech reaction in the Nazi approach against university students. On 17th November 1939; after the funeral of killed Jan Opletal and subsequent demonstrations, nine people connected to the student riots were shot and all Czech universities were to be closed for three years. The precedent of the procedure of arresting nine officials was the manner of the executed warning. At least five of the mentioned number of executed advocated in their public positions the best acceptable cooperation with the occupiers, plus all nine men presented a political spectrum from supporters of the Communist Party to the National Democracy, but acted as members of the National Conviviality. The demonstrative execution of people who were representatives of the entire student community was supposed to confuse those who took their social status as a form of protection, but were willing to develop anti-German activities. Nine officers formed a bridge between the occupation code and the students’ spontaneity, which was sacrificed by the Nazis first. One thousand two hundred students from turbulent Prague, quiet Brno and Ostrava were dragged to a concentration camp in Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, If they did not die they were, of course, during the following years released. During their imprisonment they played a role of “an argument” which was supposed to bring the Protectorate government to active Nazi politics. The incident brought about an unusually strong reaction of international public who watched the brutal procedure in Prague from 28th October to 20th November 1939 with undisguised horror. The Nazis authorities intervened decisively against national intellectual elite from whose ranks there was a threat of future leaders of the resistance movement and desired renewed Republic. Trampling academic freedom or even the destruction of the education system has to automatically result in devaluation of cultural values and social achievements of every national community. Realizing this fact, during the war years the date of 17th November was emphasised in the national community as a symbol of struggle of students for freedom. How powerful a symbol of oppression it was proved 50 years later when the Czechoslovak communist regime started to break down.

The transfer of diplomat Karel von Neurath, who was slowing down Frank’s ideas for dealing with ethnic Czechs and appointing dedicated Heydrich, who was moreover supported by awards of high ranks and orders for brutal methods against the opposition of any kind in the Empire, it augured badly for the protectorate situation. (2). With Heydrich’s arrival he brought with him a second wave of persecution of Czechs in the Protectorate and initiated the deportation of Czechoslovak Jews. On 28th September 1941 Heydrich declared martial law that applied only for ethnic Czechs. Over one hundred thousand Czechoslovaks of Jewish lineage or faith gradually fell into the mud of Nazis persecution. During meetings in Prague on 10th and 17th October 1941 Heydrich decided on setting up a special ghetto in Terezín for Jews deported from the Reich, Protectorate and western Europe. First transporters with Jews left the Protectorate towards Lodz, Riga and Minsk.

Commanders of operational units and safety police put emphasis mainly on the composition, psychological preparedness and ideological training of the units that were to implement “the final solution”. Emergency units (Einsatzgruppen) had to establish their procedures of killing hundreds of thousands of Jews from eastern areas of Poland and the Soviet Union. Interrogation protocols of members of security police and contemporary execution protocols help us to analyze equal principles in the search for the most suitable ways of genocide in the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. This process required “small wheels” for the whole machine to operate, as it was said by Judge Dr. Klaus-Dietrich Zimmermann in case of two main defendants in the Process 101 of reserve police battalion Julius Wohlauf and Wolfgang Hoffmann, responsible for the deaths of 38,000 civilians.

At a time when the structure of the extermination system was crystallizing, Heydrich was deciding about the fate of German, Austrian and Czech Jews who were to be gradually exterminated at execution sites set up in eastern conquered territories. In September and October 1941, when Heydrich took up the post of Acting Reich Protector, joined the functions of “a pacificator” of inadaptable Czechs and with his colleagues looked for the easiest and fastest solution to the Jewish question. The centre of the Nazis interest, next to the eastern campaign, included the question of racial restructuring of Central and eastern Europe. Next to the Jewish population, there was also an increasing number of Slavic “submen”, who were in the order of Eurasia demographic reorganization in second place, appearing in the finders of the Nazis’ rifles. Ethnic cleansing started to spread from occupied Poland to western territories of the Soviet Union and in a hidden form to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The attack on Poland launched a war surge that was used by special units of Einsatzkommando and NKVD for mass elimination of the Nazi and communist regime enemies. Obvious forms of terror, amounting to tens of thousands of dead Poles and Jews, remained hidden in remote graves. The Czech public learnt about these crimes only in the war-crime trials.

The hidden form means the idea of genocide of Czechs with the help of ‘legal’ means such as “protective custody” in the concentration camp or the decision of the Dresden or Berlin Courts of Justice about executions. Heydrich’s arrival brought new forms of semi-public disposal of the regime enemies. This radicalization during the second martial law in June 1942 had manifested in full force with a relatively small number of victims so far. The martial law tested the ability of the systematic killing of Czechs in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia without violating any economic objectives of the Nazis. The procedures required not only special forms of killing, but also specific forms of work with the Czech ethnic group, primarily with the use of mass media. The territory of the Protectorate was not meant for mass killing of civilians as it was in Poland. All Czech Jews, instead of being killed en mass in forests or fields as in the Polish countryside or Ukrainian suburbs, were taken to Terezín out of sight of ethnic Czechs. In the protectorate, the war in its raw form was yet to burst out.

Experience from occupied Poland was offered by Governor-General Hans Frank who had to face the pressure of new transporters with tens of thousands of Jews. From July 1941, the techniques for exterminating civilians were being gradually developed with shooting in the back of the head, then the use of mass explosions and finally the technically perfected gas chambers (3). Until the spring of 1943, the main method of killing people was the contact method of shooting in the back of the head until it was beaten by mass killing in mobile and fixed gas chambers. Especially “the method” of contact killing, carried out mainly in 1941-1942, was highly demanding on the logistics, but also on the psyche of the executioners. Even for the most deeply convinced Nazis this extreme brutality was mentally very demanding. Heydrich, with his relentless negotiation, organizational skills and precise targets, directed all the attention to the racial transformation of conquered Europe.

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