An Interview with Hangman’s Wife ‹ CrimeReads

Adolf Eichmann’s superior officer, the man he tried so hard to please, was Reinhard Heydrich; and with Heydrich at last we come to one with character and responsibility to match his terrible power. Heydrich was the official guardian of the new morality. Neither his career nor his personality can be described as banal; in fact, so many elements of social significance clashed with his office that one historian called him “a symbol and perhaps a representative figure of the Third Reich at the height of its internal and external power”.

It’s easy to see why: if ever a man killed in cold blood, that man was Reinhard Heydrich; if ever a man lived his life with carefree, almost demonic intensity, that man too was Heydrich. It’s the stuff of legend and nightmare, of philosophical speculation and psychological schlock, of B-movies and great drama – and, sadly, of the gravest historical consequence.

Much of what we know about the SS and its members comes from the work of historians, journalists, political philosophers – and purveyors of what might be termed rubbish. As I was reading about Heydrich, and the stories and outlandish speculations that still circulated about him (and still do), I thought that someone with a background in social science should try to do a study analyzing his role of “power technologist”. and also sought to understand how, as a human being, he could have become so inhuman.

Alas; perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the man who epitomizes everything we mean by “Nazi” was also their most enigmatic leader. Heydrich’s actions, taken individually, seem as clear, as obvious as the stabbing, but the man himself tends to blur and slip out of our grasp.

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Any effort to describe even the major events or the most important relationships in his life becomes a complicated historical problem. From his family background, to his real views on Adolf Hitler or Heinrich Himmler or the Holocaust, to why he died in Prague; From cradle to grave, in fact, Reinhard Heydrich remains a controversial figure. And that, unfortunately, makes it easier for everyone to fall back into the practical, conventional stereotype of Nazi leaders who, as George Orwell said, “think in slogans and talk in bullets.”

Reinhard Heydrich will also speak in words throughout this book, but the reader should note that his voice comes from afar and there is occasional static on the line. Like most young men who die suddenly in the middle of a war, he didn’t have time to write his memoirs. And Heydrich, unlike Himmler, kept no journals and wrote few letters. Most of our knowledge of his behavior comes from the testimony of men smart enough to survive both the war and the war crimes trials that followed it. Professional survivors have their uses, but they tend to make flawed historians.

Additionally, there are the scattered documents that remained after last-minute Nazi efforts to destroy the incriminating evidence. Heydrich speaks in them like a senior government official, giving orders or analyzing troubling situations, but they are often memos, written by someone else, and so they give us policies and arguments but little concrete speech. . After becoming Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich made official speeches to his new subjects, as well as to his subordinates, but these only cover the last eight months of his life, and only the public side of it .

And so it was that for the details of his personal life, many investigators ended up in the same place, the small windy island of Fehmarn, in the Baltic Sea between Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, where Heydrich’s wife was spent her childhood and where she returned in 1945.

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Most wives of former Nazi leaders, especially major war criminals, do not give interviews and tend to live in utter isolation, surrounded by a cordon of watchful family members. But Lina Heydrich was never like the other Nazi wives. After her husband’s death in 1942, she chose to remain in Czechoslovakia and led such an active life from her thirty-two-bedroom country villa that Himmler (who had assumed the role of her legal guardian) berated her. to be this almost unimaginable thing. , “a politicizing widow”.

After the war, and a wildly adventurous flight before the advancing Allied armies, Frau Heydrich resettled in Fehmarn with her children, only to emerge in the early 1960s when she actually tried to claim the pension. to which the widows of “fallen” soldiers were entitled under West German law. His trial made headlines when the court ruled that no one who “benefited” from the Nazi regime could claim such a pension. It was after this that the widow of “Heydrich the Hanged Man” began giving occasional interviews to historians, journalists and sifters of war documents. In 1976, she published her own book of memoirs, Living with a war criminal (an intentionally ironic title which she came to regret as, for the obvious reason, her husband, had he lived, would have been deemed a war criminal, the irony was lost on many); and a few years later, when the TV movie Holocaust aired on German television, she appeared in a television interview to speak out against the way her husband, played by English actor David Warner, had been portrayed in this drama.

From all of this, one would assume that interviewing Lina Heydrich would be a bit like listening to a Germanic version of one of Tokyo Rose’s propaganda broadcasts. I had no trouble getting in touch with her by telephone, nor obtaining her agreement to receive me at her home, where she had a small boarding house, or rooming house, for an interview at the end of 1974, two years before the publication. from his memoirs and a decade before his death in 1985. As I rode in a rental car on one of Hitler’s highways past the quaint villages and thatched-roof houses of Schleswig-Holstein towards the new bridge towards Fehmarn, I anticipated a cold, guarded, brittle and fanatical Valkyrie – but never in this exploration did I quite find what I expected.

By the time I arrived at her house, at dusk on a cold, windy evening, it was not a good time for either of them. Unbeknownst to him, I was exhausted, having already conducted an interview that morning in Hamburg, and unbeknownst to me, I had arrived on June 4, the anniversary of Reinhard Heydrich’s death.

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My husband had come with me as, to be honest, a kind of bodyguard, although unlike me he didn’t speak German. The woman who greeted us in the driveway, in front of a rectangular, two-story, white-brick house, had obviously been crying. Inside, the first thing she did was offer me cognac; the first thing I did was accept it. We sat nervously on a flowery couch while Frau Heydrich cooked dinner in a hidden little kitchen we weren’t invited to.

The room we were seated in, where my future interviews were to take place – three more following this one, over a period of seven years – would have been a fairly spacious rectangle had it not been so cluttered with furniture. There were a variety of tables, always with something on them – a bowl of apples, a vase of ferns – as well as a large cabinet of highly polished carved wood, an antique sailor’s trunk adorned with wrought iron scrollwork, a few pieces pink porcelain in a niche in the wall, and other cozy or elegant objects that appeared and disappeared from day to day. However, another object was still there – a bronze death mask of her late husband.


Extract of THE HANGED MAN AND HIS WIFE by Nancy Dougherty. Copyright © 2022 by James D. Dougherty. Foreword copyright © 2022 by the Estate of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

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