My Husband the War Criminal

Historians in the News
tags: Nazism, World War 2, Reinhard Heydrich

Reviewed: The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich by Nancy Dougherty, edited and with a foreword by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (Knopf, 623 pp., $40.00)

Pension Schmidt, better known as “Salon Kitty,” was one of the most glamorous bordellos in Nazi Germany. Among its illustrious clientele were foreign diplomats, government ministers, generals, and regime functionaries. The interior of the grand bourgeois building—located at 11 Giesebrechtstraße in Berlin, close to Kurfürstendamm—was elegant, with expensive rugs, crystal chandeliers, plush armchairs, and thick velvet drapes. The madam of the establishment was Kitty Schmidt, who had run brothels across the German capital since the early interwar years. “She didn’t take stupid women,” one of her employees later told an interviewer. “She liked women who were married and who wanted to earn a bit on the side.” Salon Kitty remained in business even after the fall of the Third Reich.

After the war, reports emerged that the prostitutes who worked there had been informers for Reinhard Heydrich’s SS Security Service (SD). Walter Schellenberg, Heydrich’s chief of foreign intelligence, recounted in his memoirs that he had been ordered to turn the brothel into a nest of espionage. He even claimed that the rooms were wired with hidden microphones that allowed SS men to listen in. “‘Salon Kitty’ certainly brought results,” he wrote. “One of the biggest catches was the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano.” The Nazi-era diplomat (and chief Italian interpreter) Eugen Dollmann noted in his autobiography that Ciano had once expressed his suspicions about the establishment.

Werner Raykowski, another German wartime diplomat, later recalled that the spying activities at Salon Kitty were widely known in Foreign Office circles at the time. Kitty Schmidt spoke after the war with the German journalist Klaus Harpprecht about the SS takeover of her bordello, though without providing much detail. When she passed away in 1954, an obituary in Der Spiegel remembered her as the “renowned owner of an establishment run along Paris customs and favored arranger of gallant entertainment for foreign guests of the Reich government” during the war.

Over the years, the brothel has been the subject of sensationalist books, articles, and films. The most famous is Tinto Brass’s notorious sexploitation movie Salon Kitty (1976), a crass collage of perversities, based on Peter Norden’s semifictional best seller of the same name, published six years earlier. Little, however, is actually known about the brothel’s history, and the involvement of the SD remains obscure.

In any case, Heydrich, as Hitler’s intelligence and secret police chief, was one of the best-informed functionaries of the Third Reich. Through his vast espionage network, he knew more secrets of Nazi Germany than anyone else in the regime—he even kept files on Hitler and Himmler. Dubbed the “Blond Beast,” he was feared by his rivals. At the height of the war, his SS Reich Security Main Office was responsible for organizing the Final Solution. Yet he was never part of Hitler’s inner circle. And in postwar memory, he tends to stand in the shadow of men like Himmler, Goebbels, and Göring.

Nancy Dougherty’s The Hangman and His Wife offers some intriguing insights into Heydrich’s world. The book, which Dougherty began working on in the 1970s, is heavily based on several conversations she had with his unrepentant wife, Lina, whom she visited three times at her home on the small Baltic island of Fehmarn. Dougherty died in 2013, leaving behind the manuscript, which was edited with much care by the late Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Dougherty offers a portrait of a man who “lived his life with a reckless, almost demonic intensity” and was constantly driven by an urge to prove himself. He was cultured, energetic, and highly intelligent, with a photographic memory. He had great musical talent, playing the violin well enough to consider a professional concert career, and considerable athletic skill, excelling at skiing, sailing, tennis, hunting, and fencing. In his spare time he trained as a pilot, and during the war he flew reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. He was also a mass murderer notorious for his ice-cold analysis, lack of empathy, and ruthlessness.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books