Berlin, Germany · September 27, 1937

On this date in 1937 the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Reich Security Head Office (known by its acro­nym RSHA), was created by Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler through the merger of the Nazi Party’s Schutz­staffel (SS) intel­li­gence ser­vice; the Sicher­heits­dienst (SD), or Secu­rity Ser­vice; and the Sicher­heits­poli­zei (SiPo), or Secu­rity Police. The SiPo com­prised the noto­rious Geheime Staats­polizei (Gestapo, or Secret State Police) and the Krimi­nal­polizei (Kripo, Crimi­nal Police). The first RSHA chief was SiPo head SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer (Gene­ral) Rein­hard Hey­drich. Hey­drich’s secu­rity ser­vice activ­ities in­cluded over­seeing for­eigners, moni­toring public opin­ion, and Nazi indoc­tri­na­tion. Its stated duty was to find and eli­mi­nate “enemies” of the Third Reich. “Enemies” included Jews, Com­mu­nists, Freemasons, pacifists, and Christian activists.

The RSHA also oversaw the death squads of para­mili­tary Ein­satz­gruppen (“task forces”) that followed the in­vading Ger­man armed forces (Wehr­macht) into East­ern Europe. It is esti­mated that between 1941 and 1945 these death squads and related aux­il­iary troops (even regu­lar Wehr­macht units acting on their own initi­a­tive) mur­dered more than 2 mil­lion people, including 1.3 mil­lion Jews, pri­marily in open-air shootings. Civil­ians were the main vic­tims. It was the nefa­rious Hey­drich who chaired the Janu­ary 1942 Wann­see Con­fer­ence out­side Berlin, which drew up plans for the elim­i­na­tion of Jewry in Nazi-occu­pied Europe. And it was Hey­drich’s RSHA that con­structed the con­cepts and oper­ated the admin­is­tra­tive apparatus that carried out the Holocaust.

In Lon­don the British Special Opera­tions Exe­cu­tive (SOE) and the Czecho­slo­vak govern­ment-in-exile drew up a death warrant for Hey­drich, who by then was Acting Reich Pro­tector of the Pro­tec­torate of Bohe­mia and Mora­via—the part of Czecho­slo­va­kia that was incor­po­rated into the Third Reich in March 1939. On May 27, 1942, Opera­tion Anthro­poid suc­ceeded in mor­tally wounding Hey­drich, known locally as the “Butcher of Prague.” Even­tu­ally the equally intim­i­dating, scar-faced, and vola­tile-tem­pered Dr. Ernst Kalten­brun­ner moved into the top posi­tion at the RSHA, heading that organi­za­tion until his cap­ture by U.S. forces on May 12, 1945. Tried by the Allies at Nurem­berg, Kalten­brun­ner was con­victed of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed by hanging on October 16, 1946.

Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942) is widely recog­nized as one of the great vil­lains of Nazi Ger­many, a nation that had a sur­plus of loath­some individ­uals. Robert Ger­warth’s bio­graphy of Rein­hard Hey­drich, titled Hitler’s Hang­man: The Life of Hey­drich—“hang­man” being one of three nick­names Hey­drich wore with pride—exa­mines Hey­drich’s years in Hein­rich Himm­ler’s SS, his role as a leading planner of the “Final Solution” and the Holocaust of European Jewry, and his eight months as Reich Pro­tector of Bohe­mia and Mora­via, an auto­no­mous Nazi-admin­istered ter­ri­tory in what is today’s Czech Repub­lic. Up till his fatal en­coun­ter with two Czech nation­alists, Hey­drich was widely viewed as the most dan­gerous man in Ger­many. Ger­warth explains why in this autho­ri­ta­tive biography of evil incarnate.—Norm Haskett

The Reich Security Head Office, Its Two Notorious Leaders, and Its Legacy of Death

Reinhard Heydrich, head of Reich Security Main Office, 1940Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Heydrich’s successor at the RSHA

Left: One of the darkest figures in the Nazi pan­theon was SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer (Gene­ral) Rein­hard Hey­drich (1904–1942), head of the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) from Septem­ber 1939 to his death. Hey­drich served as (of all things!) Presi­dent of Inter­pol (Inter­na­tional Crimi­nal Police Organ­i­za­tion) and chaired the Janu­ary 1942 Wann­see Con­fer­ence, which for­malized plans for the “Final Solution” to the Jewish Ques­tion—the depor­ta­tion and exter­mi­nation of all Jews in German-occupied Europe.

Right: Another President of Interpol was Dr. Ernst Kalten­brun­ner (1903–1946). He was an intimi­dating figure owing to his height, vola­tile tem­per, and facial scars (dueling and acne). It was said that even Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler—the second most-power­ful person in Nazi Ger­many—feared him. Kalten­brun­ner suc­ceeded the mur­dered Hey­drich as RSHA chief. An Ober­gruppen­fuehrer (gene­ral) in the Schutz­staffel (SS) between Janu­ary 1943 and May 1945, Kalten­brun­ner was the highest-ranking mem­ber of the SS to face trial at the first Nurem­berg Trial (Novem­ber 1945 to Octo­ber 1946). He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed by hanging.

SS execution of Poles in Kórnik, October 20, 1939Execution in Ukraine, July 1941

Left: Execution of Polish hostages (hard to see but facing wooden beams leaning against the house wall in the middle of the photo) by an Einsatz­gruppe (a SS mobile death squad) in Kór­nik, occu­pied West­ern Poland, on Octo­ber 20, 1939, a little over one-and-a-half months after the Ger­man inva­sion of Poland. The Kór­nik execu­tion was part of Opera­tion Tannen­berg, the code­name for one of the exter­mi­na­tion actions directed at the Polish people. A special unit dubbed Tannen­berg was created within the Reich Security Head Office. Con­scrip­tion lists pre­pared by Ger­mans before the war identi­fied more than 61,000 mem­bers of the Polish elite (acti­vists, intel­li­gent­sia, scho­lars, actors, poli­tical and mili­tary offi­cers, and others) who were to be in­terned or shot. Mem­bers of the Ger­man minor­ity living in Poland assisted in pre­paring the lists. Opera­tion Tanne­nberg ended in Octo­ber 1939 and was respon­sible for at least 20,000 deaths in 760 mass executions by Ein­satz­gruppen with some help from regular Wehrmacht units.

Right: This photo, a copy captioned by the United States Holo­caust Memo­rial Muse­um, was allegedly taken on July 5, 1941, in Slo­row, Ukraine. In it we see a “Jewish” teen­ager standing just left of cen­ter starring at the corpses of his “family.” On both sides are his pur­ported exe­cu­tioners. The photo is reversed and may have been pur­posely mis­iden­ti­fied. The fact remains that in the sum­mer of 1941, four units of Einsatz­gruppen, along with rein­force­ments, were sent to the Soviet Union and mur­dered approx­i­mately one million Soviet civil­ians in open-air shootings and gas vans. The Babi Yar mas­sacre, which took place in a ravine of the same name in the Ukrai­nian capital of Kiev, killed 33,771 Jews in a single operation on September 29–30, 1941.

Biography of Reinhard Heydrich, “Hitler’s Hangman”