For my father
for my son
Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence division of the SS, stood to one side, a few yards away from the group of generals and admirals gathered around Adolf Hitler. An unfamiliar figure in his eyeglasses, the Führer was standing, looking down at a large map of Europe spread out across an enormous Teutonic oak table that had been moved for the purpose of the meeting into the centre of the main hall of the Berghof, Hitler’s summer residence high in the Bavarian Alps. One by one, the military leaders took turns to brief their commander-in-chief on the state of preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the high command’s code name for the invasion of England. It was due to be launched any day now according to timetables that had been agreed upon at previous conferences held during the summer either here or at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
The line of the sharp late-summer sunlight coming in through the panoramic picture window at the back of the hall lit up the group around the table but left Heydrich a man apart, lurking in the shadows. He hadn’t been called on to speak yet, and he knew that this was unlikely to happen while the meeting remained concerned solely with issues of invasion strategy. He was here not as a soldier, but because it was his responsibility to plan and organize the control measures that would need to be taken against resistance groups and other undesirables once the panzer divisions had seized control of London, and he had already identified a suitably ruthless SS commander to take charge of the six Einsatzgruppen cleansing squads assigned to carry out the first wave of arrests and deportations. A special list of high-value targets assembled on Heydrich’s orders contained 2,820 names ranging from Winston Churchill to Noël Coward and H. G. Wells.
This was a military conference, so other than Heydrich and the Führer and Hermann Goering – here by virtue of his command of the Luftwaffe – there were no party men present. Heydrich’s thin upper lip curled in a characteristic expression of contempt as he watched the debate unfold. He hated these army and navy grandees bedecked in their medals and gold braid, and he sensed that the Führer did, too. They were careerists, men who had climbed the ladders of promotion in the inter-war years, drawing their state-guaranteed pay at the end of every month, playing war games in their barracks, and toasting the Kaiser, while true National Socialists like Heydrich had fought behind their Führer in the streets, prepared to die for the cause in which they all believed.
But there was another reason for Heydrich’s antipathy. Once upon a time, he too had been an officer with good prospects, an ensign on the battleship
until he had been summarily dismissed for conduct unbecoming an officer back in 1931. A woman he’d spurned when he’d met another he preferred had turned out to be a shipbuilder’s daughter who complained to her father, and Heydrich had paid the price. Admiral Raeder had taken away his honour with a stroke of a pen: the same Raeder who was now standing ten paces away from Heydrich, briefing Hitler on the naval preparations for the invasion. Every time he saw the admiral, Heydrich felt the injustice and humiliation flame up inside him again like a festering wound that would never heal. He fully intended to get even with Raeder, but not yet. The time wasn’t right. Heydrich was good at waiting. As the English said, vengeance was a dish best served cold.
Heydrich had no doubt that Raeder remembered. Not only that – he was sure that the admiral regretted his decision. It probably kept him up at night worrying. Everyone in this room knew Heydrich’s reputation. He’d observed the way they had all kept him at a distance when they first came in, throwing him uneasy sideways glances as they’d milled about the hall before the meeting began, drinking coffee from delicate eighteenth-century Dresden cups, until Hitler entered through a side door on the stroke of two o’clock and they all came to attention, raising their arms in salute.
Heydrich knew the names these men of power and influence called him behind his back – ‘blond beast’; ‘hangman’; ‘the man with the iron heart’. He knew how much they feared him, and with good reason. Back in Berlin, under lock and key at Gestapo headquarters, he had thick files on each and every one of them, recording every detail of their private lives in an ever-expanding archive of cross-referenced, colour-coded index cards that he had worked tirelessly to assemble over the previous nine years.
Some of them he’d even enticed into the high-class whorehouse he’d established on Giesebrechtstrasse with two-way mirrors and hidden microphones embedded in the walls. Within moments on any given day, he could summon to his desk photographs and sworn statements, letters, and even transcribed tape recordings of them spilling their sordid secrets to the girls he had had specially recruited for the task. Facts and falsehoods, truth and lies – it didn’t matter to Heydrich so long as the information could be of use in controlling people, forcing them by any means available to do his and the Führer’s will.
Heydrich smiled, thinking how one word from him in Hitler’s ear and the highest and mightiest of these strutting commanders in their glittering uniforms could find themselves down on their hands and knees, naked, manacled to a damp concrete wall in the cellar prison located in the basement underneath his office at 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. It amused him to have his victims cowering and screaming so close to where he worked, seated behind his magnificent nineteenth-century mahogany desk with an elaborately framed photograph of the Führer staring down at him from the oak-panelled wall opposite, ready to provide him with inspiration whenever he looked up from the stream of documents that required his constant attention every day.
From the outset, when he first joined the party back in 1931, Heydrich had felt a sense of kinship with Hitler that he had never experienced with anyone else he’d met before or since. And for several years now he had sensed that the Führer felt it too. Once, closeted together in the Führer’s apartment on the upper floor of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, where Heydrich had gone to brief Hitler in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom two years earlier, the Führer had held up his hand for silence and looked Heydrich in the eye. It was only for a moment or two, but it felt to Heydrich as if he were back in the church at Halle where he had grown up, with the Catholic priest examining his soul. As a child he had turned away ashamed, but as a man he had met Hitler’s gaze and felt as though the Führer were looking inside him, turning him inside out, searching for the truth of who he really was. And then, after a moment or two, Hitler had nodded as if pleased with what he’d seen.
‘We will go far together, you and I,’ the Führer had said – Heydrich remembered his exact words – ‘because you are a true believer, and because, like me, you have the will. The will is everything, Reinhard. You know that, don’t you?’
Afterwards they had carried on talking about round-ups and press releases and other administrative measures against the vermin Jews, but the moment had stayed with Heydrich, vividly engraved on his memory as a life-changing moment. He admitted it to no one, but secretly he thought of himself as Hitler’s heir and the Third Reich, vast in size and purified in blood, as his own personal inheritance.
Nowadays he looked forward to meetings with Hitler almost like a lover awaiting his next tryst, and when he was in the Führer’s presence he watched him intently, as if he were storing up every impression of his master in the filing cabinet of his mind, packing each one carefully away for later scrutiny when he was alone, back in Berlin. There was a power, a certainty, in Hitler that drew Heydrich like a magnet. It always had, even in the early days when the National Socialist faithful had been so few, meeting in the back of smoke-filled beer cellars and conspiring together in the watches of the night, dreaming the impossible – Heydrich had known from the outset that Hitler was the one who could make the impossible come true.
But today the Führer seemed unlike himself for some reason. He was uncharacteristically silent, allowing the debate between the Wehrmacht commanders to carry on unchecked. Backwards and forwards, reproach and counter-reproach, the argument growing more heated by the minute. It was as if he were unsure of what to do, uncertain of his next move. To Heydrich it felt as if they were on a ship in a storm, keeling from side to side while the rudder stood unattended, crashing around with the buffeting of the waves.
‘The weather conditions in the English Channel are extremely variable,’ said Raeder mournfully. He sounded just like some miserable provincial schoolmaster reading from an instruction manual, thought Heydrich, and a Cassandra too – everything he said seemed negative, designed to undermine the invasion plan. ‘And we lack specialized landing craft,’ Raeder continued. ‘Instead we are relying on converted river barges and ferryboats. Many of these are unpowered and can only be used in calm seas. They will make easy targets for the enemy. And there are also problems with transporting the heavy armour. We are working on making our tanks submersible, but we need more time. It is not the same as when we attacked Norway. We sustained heavy losses in that campaign, and this time the British know we are coming. They will use their navy against the beachheads even if we are able to establish them. And that is a big if—’
‘I have said it before. The invasion front is too narrow,’ interrupted Halder, chief of the army general staff, who had been shifting from one foot to another with growing impatience as Raeder talked. An old-school Prussian officer, he spoke in a clipped, angry voice, jabbing his finger down on the part of the map that showed the south-east coast of England. ‘One hundred miles is not enough even with paratroops landing in support. We might just as well put Army Group A through a sausage machine.’
‘Yes, yes, I have heard this before,’ said Hitler, showing undisguised irritation as he stepped back from the table. ‘More men; more armour; more boats. But it is air supremacy that we need – and before the autumn gales make a Channel crossing impossible. You promised me this,’ he said, wheeling round to face Goering, who was standing on his right. ‘And yet the enemy is shooting down our planes every day, hunting down our bombers like dogs. Tell me the truth, Herr Reichsmarschall. No gloss; no varnish. Can you control the skies or not?’
Everyone turned to look at Goering. He was a natural focus of attention, as he was far and away the most distinctive figure in the room. His flamboyant uniform marked him out from everyone else, which was in fact just what he intended. Rumour had it that Goering changed his uniform five times a day, and his choice for this meeting was garish even by his usual standards. It was one of several bright white outfits that he’d designed for himself, replete with multicoloured crosses and decorations. Some of the larger medals he’d awarded to himself, and Heydrich knew from his army of spies that Goering’s appearance in this costume on cinema newsreels was an object of popular ridicule throughout the country, as no one could understand how he kept his uniforms so white when most of the population couldn’t get enough soap to keep their clothes even passably clean. Goering’s vanity was as boundless as his appetite, dwarfed only by his gargantuan self-belief.