Along with my fellow W.U. Hstry contributor Ellie, I recently travelled around several countries in Europe. One of our stops was in Prague in the Czech Republic. I had been browsing things to do in Prague when I came across the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. I recognised the name Heydrich from my History GCSE but I had no idea what the memorial was for and how it related to Heydrich. Upon some good old fashioned googling, I learnt about Operation Anthropoid, the only successful assassination of a top ranking Nazi organised by a government. Despite this apparent Allied success, the reprisals from the Nazis were truly horrific. The assassins along with their accomplices and those who sheltered them were killed or committed suicide. Somewhere between 13,000-15,000 Czechs were arrested and interrogated with some sent to the camps. Around 5000 of these were executed. Perhaps most horrifyingly of all, two villages Lidice and Ležáky, had their inhabitants either executed or sent to camps before the villages themselves were destroyed. With such a staggering human cost I was shocked that I had never heard anything about this, and I have since found that several others I would expect to know about it did not either. Interestingly since learning about Operation Anthropoid, the BBC posted an article about the search for the assassins bodies and I have also learnt about a film dramatizing the events called Anthropoid which is due to be released in September.
In 1942 as the Nazis approached Moscow, the Nazi Reich looked unstoppable and governments in exile such as the Czechs came under increasing pressure to show active resistance. Czech resistance had been subdued by the brutality of the Nazi regime, especially under the rule of Reinhard Heydrich, the sadistic Nazi official placed in charge of Bohemia and Moravia (which makes up the majority of the Czech Republic today; Czech Silesia had become separate as part of the 1938 Munich agreement but would re-join Czechoslovakia in 1945 and remain part of the Czech Republic until 1993). Heydrich was not just responsible for brutality within Czech borders, he was also responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi elite death squad responsible for the deaths of around two million people, principally civilians, between 1941-1945. He also chaired the Wannsee Conference where the decision to implement the Final Solution, the formal decision to follow a policy of total extermination of Jews. Therefore it was decided that Heydrich would be a valuable target for assassination.
After several delays the assassination took place on 27 May 1942. Jan Kubiš, a Czech, and Jozef Gabčí, a Slovak, were chosen for the assassination. The plan was to attack Heydrich in his car during his commute from home to Prague Castle at a bend in the road that would make it impossible for his driver to be able to escape and also meant the car had to slow down. Gabčík attempted to use his machine gun, but it jammed, leading to Kubiš to throw a modified anti-tank grenade, causing damage to the car’s right rear bumper. This damage led to fragments of shrapnel and the upholstery entering Heydrich’s body. It was these injuries that would later kill him. The pair attempted to shoot Heydrich, not realising how extensively injured he was at the time, but neither managed to shoot on target due to the after effects of the explosion. Both were forced to flee, injuring Heydrich’s driver who tried to catch them, thinking they had failed. Heydrich was quickly aided and took to Bulovka Hospitial where he was treated. A week after the assassination he seemed to be improving after surgery, but he went into shock and died the following morning.
Hitler ordered immediate retaliation, even before Heydrich’s death. While the first priority was the assassins and their collaborators, Hitler was adamant that the Czech people should also suffer. It was only due to concerns of Himmler about how it would affect Czech productivity for the war effort that resulted in a scale back of the reprisals. Hitler originally had wanted to have 10,000 Czechs who were considered to be politically unstable, even though they were not considered to have been part of the plot, executed. Despite Hitler’s original intentions not being carried out, the reprisals were still horrendously brutal. Around 13,000-15,000 Czechs were arrested and tortured. Martial law was proclaimed and the Nazis began a large manhunt. Around 5000 Czechs were killed in reprisals, the first of whom to be executed was Alois Eliáš, who had previously served as the Prime Minister during the initial occupation while secretly working for Czech underground. He had been arrested in September 1941 but was executed as the first of the reprisals.
The most infamous of the reprisals however was reserved for the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Both villages were incorrectly linked to the assassination. Lidice was home to several Czech officers who were in exile in England leading to the Gestapo to suspect that Kubiš and Gabčík were being sheltered there. On the 10th June 1942, the inhabitants of the village were rounded up. The men of the village were separated and shot to death. The women and children of the village were held for a further three days before being separated. A few children were spared for ‘re-education’ with German families as well as those under the age of one. The rest, however, were callously murdered at Chelmno extermination camp in gas vans. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Not satisfied with the murder of the village’s inhabitants the village was destroyed and razed to the ground, including the village church and cemetery.
The village of Ležáky met a similar fate on the 24th June. A radio transmitter was found in the village which had been hidden after paratroopers from Operation Silver A, a resistance operation, had arrived in the region. Five hundred SS troops and police surrounded Ležáky, removing the town’s inhabitants before setting the village on fire. The adult inhabitants were shot to death that night or within the following several nights along with those associated with the assassins. The children of Ležáky, with the exception of two who were placed with German families, were murdered in the same way as the children of Lidice.
Kubiš and Gabčík lived to hear of the destruction of Lidice, but not that of Ležáky. The pair felt responsible but they were stopped from making a very public show of responsibility. Since the assassination they had been hidden by families in Prague before being given sanctuary in the orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodus, along with four other paratroopers. After a few days of hiding the church was stormed in the early hours of June 18th. The group were betrayed when a member of a Czech resistance group, Karel Čurda, for the price of a million Reichsmarks had gave the Gestapo the names and addresses of the group’s local contacts. Eventually a teenage boy after suffering horrendous torture, including being shown his mother’s severed head, gave up the information the Nazis desperately wanted. The boy along with his family was executed at Mauthausen concentration camp in October that year. The church was sieged by 750 SS soldiers, with the group holding out in the prayer loft for two hours armed with only small calibre pistols compared to the soldiers’ machine guns and hand grenades. Kubiš along with two of the others assassination died after this battle. Gabčík, and the remaining three paratroopers fought on despite continuous heavy gunfire, tear gas attacks and an attempt to flood out the crypt where they hid. The foursome decided to commit suicide rather than be captured, a final act of defiance.
Even with Kubiš and Gabčík’s deaths, the reprisals did not falter. The families of those in the church were rounded up and executed. Bishop Gorzad tried to take the blame for the incident to spare as many as possible. He was tortured and later executed alongside the church’s priests and lay leaders for sheltering the assassins. Those with any connection to the assassins or the resistance were arrested, with many being sent to concentration camps or executed.
Despite the success of the assassination little changed for the Czechs. The Nazi regime managed to continue to control and force the population in manufacturing for the war effort. The Czech resistance continued their activities but widespread resistance among the population did not gain momentum until the latter end of the war with the Nazis losing their grip over the territory, allowing the Czechs an actual opportunity of success. The assassination had led to the dissolution of the Munich agreement that had led to the partition of Czechoslovakia, with Britain and France agreeing that the region would return to Czechoslovakia. Of course, in the view of many Czechs it had been a betrayal that the Munich Agreement had ever been signed with Britain and France, breaking their military obligations in an effort to stave off the Nazis.
Between 1945 and 1948, Kubiš and Gabčík were celebrated as heroes. However after the Soviets took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948 such celebration and memorials to the murdered were not tolerated, due to the involvement of the Czech government in exile and their location in Britain during the war. Finally after independence, the St. Cyril and Methodius church was opened to the public with a memorial to Operation Anthropoid named: National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, the memorial that I first learnt about on this bloody event in Czechoslovakian history. The village of Lidice was rebuilt in 1949, with some of the women from Lidice who had survived the camps returning. More permanent memorials for Lidice did not appear until the end of Soviet occupation. The decision was taken not to rebuild Ležáky, and only memorials to the victims remain on the site.
The events of Operation Anthropoid are known by every Czech, for the sheer bravery and resistance of the Czech people and the terror that befell the population. However, here in the UK, there seems to be very little known about it. Over the last five or so years I have come to realise how much of the events during World War Two are ignored outside of their respective countries (in the UK and US at least).
I find this is concerning in three regards. Firstly, we cannot accurately understand history if we ignore vast swathes of it. Secondly, at a time when Europe and other western countries are gripped with rising fascism and terrorist attacks, we must learn our lessons from similar times past. Lastly, we cannot consider ourselves citizens of the world if we continue to limit our knowledge and understanding of history to that only pertaining within our own borders. While Operation Anthropoid is only one event, I hope that as knowledge of it begins to appear in the British media, that more of us begin to look beyond our restricted knowledge of history.