At the start of his biography of Reinhard Heydrich, Robert Gerwarth, professor of modern history at University College Dublin, muses on the challenge of writing about an individual who is ‘repellent’ and ‘strangely distant’. He opts for the strategy of ‘cold empathy’, engaging his subject with ‘critical distance’ while attempting to assess his behaviour in context rather than in the light of what we know it led to. This approach, in contrast to the sensational popular biographies, produces some genuine surprises.
Heydrich was born in Halle in 1904, the son of an opera singer and composer who enjoyed considerable success running a music conservatory. He grew up in a comfortable, cultured environment and became a proficient musician himself. Unfortunately, the Great War ruined everything. Fewer pupils enrolled in the