Say what you like about Adolf Hitler -- he possessed a number of critical qualities for effective leadership. I watched yet another of the awesome History Channel exposes the other night: this one was about the infamous "Night of the Long Knives" in June, 1934, during which Hitler used his growing SS organization to destroy potential opposition to his taking absolute power in Germany. Chief among those destroyed were Ernst Rohm, leader of the SA or "Brownshirts," an independent brigade of 3 million disaffected young men who had helped bring Hitler to initial power.
More than a thousand people were arrested, and about a hundred were confirmed to have been killed. This carefully-orchestrated orgy of terror was meant to ensure Hitler's complete, unquestioned authority as leader of his newly-minted Reich - the one with the thousand-year plan.
But one very important part of leadership is the ability to recruit the best people for the job, whatever that job may be. In the case of the SS - personal guard to Hitler, not the eventual 2-million member military arm of the SS, the Waffen SS - the job was removal of obstacles or difficulties to Hitler and his vision for a pure, dominant, "Aryan" Reich. Efficiency and permanency were the by-words of this part of the SS. The architects of these plans, beginning with the "Nacht de Langen Messer," or Night of the Long Knives, were Mr. Commemorative Death Mask Stamp pictured here (Reinhard Heydrich) and Heydrich's boss, in what must surely have been a very odd relationship, a man known today as history's most famous mass-murdering former chicken farmer - Heinrich Himmler.
It's easy to laugh today at the funny Nazi names, at their pomp and circumstance, and consider the murderous, yet compelling ideas they espoused to be insane. We have seen films dramatizing the famous 1942 "Wannsee Conference," at which Reinhard Heydrich called 15 top Nazi bureaucrats to the table, outlining his detailed plan for ridding Europe of 11 million Jews and assorted other "undesirables."
It's probably worth noting that, in the extensive, thorough minutes of the Wannsee Conference, which were all carried out as discussed, Heydrich said that, "The possible final remnant [of Jews not killed in forced labor or concentration camps] will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as a the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history)." Emphasis is mine.
It should be clear by only a brief review of the Wannsee minutes, that the people at the meeting, Heydrich included, were not insane. They had a plan, it was detailed, and their reasons for doing it were quite clear. So in what box do we put "organized, orchestrated, persistent mass murder of millions"? Clearly, this is a thought many people have had throughout history. Historically, we know that Hitler, and quick-study Heydrich, learned from Stalin's tactics of repression (imprisonment, exile, torture, work camps, starvation and mass murder). We know also that other brutalities have been perpetrated in organized, horrific ways throughout history -- and that many of the perpetrators were quite clear-thinking.
However, also very interesting: only 5 months after this horrific conference that directed the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich was riding in an arrogant, unprotected fashion through his protectorate of Prague, capital of what the Germans were calling "Bohemia and Moravia" (Czechoslovakia) - having already earned the title of "Butcher of Prague." Heydrich purposely drove around in an open, unprotected green convertible car to show the population how effective his intimidation had been, and how futile any resistance would be. Therefore, on May 27, 1942, at a sharp turn in the road in Prague, Heydrich's open car slowed down and was attacked by Free Czech resisters who had been trained in Britain and sent back to occupied Prague to do exactly what they did: fire at the car and throw a bomb into it. They succeeded in fatally wounding Heydrich with the gunshots and bomb, and he died eight days later from blood poisoning from the infected wounds -- shrapnel, pieces of the car upholstery, and even pieces of his own "death's head" SS uniform.
Reinhard Heydrich was only 38 years old at the time he died with the blood of millions on his hands. When he started coming up in the Nazi hierarchy to become a favorite of Hitler, he was under 30. Even people who disliked him acknowledged his brilliance. He was without question a model of a certain sort of German gentleman, whose father was a composer, and whose mother also came from a highly-cultured German musical family. He was also a Catholic, which means he must have utterly cast aside all prior beliefs to kill as he did, and had some type of Jewish ancestry, which was used by other Nazis to exert some control over him once he came to power. It is possible that Heydrich's own background, being somewhat ostracized and teased for a Jewish background, could have met common cause with Hitler's own "issues" to create the excellently efficient plan of the "Final Solution". After an early career in the real German Navy, Heydrich was cashiered because of cheating, womanizing ways that got him into trouble with superior officers (maybe that's when Catholicism went out the window - it sounds like he was way too busy to even pretend to keep up with Confession). Almost immediately, in 1931, the 27 year-old good-looking former Naval officer was recruited to the SS by Heinrich Himmler, in what may have been one of his "best" hiring choices.
This thing snowballed all the way to the Wannsee Conference in 1942, with Heydrich proving his usefulness time and time again, and hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands lost their lives. Heydrich was also the one who created and instituted the use of the infamous SS and Gestapo "index cards" upon which the fate of life or death was so often written.
Although in pictures, he looks much older, Heydrich's recruiter and nominal boss, Heinrich Himmler, was in reality only four years older. He was 31 when he recruited Heydrich, and only 34 years old on the "Night of the Long Knives." He was barely 42 at the Wannsee Conference. After the end of the war, having unsuccessfully attempted to flee Berlin, Himmler bit down on one of the famous Nazi cyanide capsules, thus cheating the Nuremberg hangman. Himmler, like Heydrich, was born a Catholic. In one of the many ironies of the horrible Nazi period, Himmler's father, principal of the school that Himmler attended, recognized his son's talent at being an officious little prig eager to rat out his schoolmates, and recruited him to spy on kids misbehaving around the school and report back so they could receive punishment. Supposedly even his own father said he was a "born criminal." Prior to the famous "Beer Hall Putsch" in 1923, in which Himmler participated, fighting on behalf of Ernst Rohm, the man he would, 11 years later, advocate to assassinate, Himmler struggled financially, and was a poor chicken farmer at the time he met and married his wife.
By the end of the war in 1945, Himmler actually tried to negotiate with both the Americans and the British for German surrender, but the whole thing was falling apart, and nothing worked out for him. Abandoned and hunted by both sides, Himmler eventually fell into the path that led to his suicide after capture. However, I didn't know until today that Himmler's attempts to surrender while Hitler was in his bunker may have been one of the chief causes of Hitler's eventual suicide (I'm not sure, but I think there was at least a 6-hour delay between poor Eva Braun's suicide, and Hitler eventually putting a bullet through his sorry head).
Oh, these people are so pathetic and contemptible to us today. But in their day, they were worldly kings of all they surveyed. Hitler convinced people to do things that under nearly any other circumstances, they would never have done. Under normal circumstances, Heydrich would have been an ordinary Naval officer, he would have played the piano - maybe he would have been a womanizer - probably, considering what he did do during his life. Himmler might have been a weasel, spying on others, backtalking and backstabbing them, but mass murderer of millions? None of these people would have done these things had they not been whipped into a lather of paranoia mixed with fear for their own lives, and mad dreams of vast wealth, glory, and being famous for posterity. Hitler's approach was that of ultra-sophisticated schoolyard bully or "mean girl." Many, many accounts show how he used alternate reward and devious emotional punishment to extract the desired results from his subordinates. That -- is a quality of leadership. Leaders who produce "good" results use those techniques. No one ever said that the same tactics could not be used to produce horrific results as well.
Well, they are famous. Just look at Heydrich's "death mask" commemorative stamp. A "permanent" Nazi memorial was built for him at the corner where the Free Czech partisans got him dashing around in his convertible. When Czechoslovakia was finally freed, the first thing the Czechs did was tear the memorial to the ground and burn anything that was left.
How does one convince people to go against their upbringing and their culture -- their families and how they were raised -- to adopt or "create" a new morality (in Hitler's case, immorality presented as "morality")? Well, I suppose it would do well to study Hitler's qualities of leadership, wouldn't it? And step one is: recruit the right people for the right job - at the right time. Like Himmler and Heydrich.