Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

The story behind the death of one of Nazi Germany's rising stars is, believe it or not, one of tragedy. This is not because of what happened to Reinhard Heydrich himself (unless you happen to be his wife or Hitler) but because of the events that took place afterwards. The regime's reaction to the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia's assassination by British-backed Czech resistance fighters shows the Nazi way of thinking at its most twisted. The death of one man would, as it turned out, would result in the deaths of many many more.

The tale of events began on September 27th 1941 when German tanks and troops were smashing their way towards the gates of Moscow and Hitler's empire was at the peak of its powers. On that date the Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich was appointed to Prague as Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, replacing Baron Konstantin von Neurath whom Hitler believed was encouraging the Czechs to resist the occupation by being soft on them.

"We will Germanize the Czech vermin...... making this Czech garbage into Germans must gave way to methods based on racist thought."

(Reinhard Heydrich)

Heydrich considered the Czech lands to be essentially German and had no patience at all either with the Czech resistance or Czech culture in general. As soon as he arrived his men began terrorizing the population and going after the partisans and black-marketeers with gusto. By March 1942 virtually all local resistance to German rule had been either destroyed or paralysed as Heydrich's administration made the threat of disproportionately severe reprisals to any anti-German activity abundantly clear. Incentives such as extra food or money were given to ensure that the output of vital war industries within his jurisdiction remained high. Despite the period of peacefulness brought about by the suppression of violent resistance, basic problems such as inflation and food shortages remained and there remained a noticeable undertone of discontent. Heydrich had little concern for the Czechs, however, and remained firm in his belief that Bohemia and Moravia would one day be Germanized. He planned to deport two thirds of the Czech population to the east after the war for extermination, presumably keeping the rest to work as cheap labour of the Germans.

Heydrich's protectorate was essentially a military dictatorship and one which he had supreme confidence in at that. He was driven around Prague in an open-topped car to demonstrate that he was not afraid of the Czechs and that he had unquestioned faith in his occupation forces. It was a practice that left the Protector vulnerable and one which had certainly not gone unnoticed.

The Plot

The exiled Czechoslovakian government based in the United Kingdom were already coming up with plans, in conjunction with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), to get rid of Heydrich. The British were only too happy to get involved as the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi leader would show the world that the regime was not invulnerable. The government-in-exile were under pressure by the British to stoke up resistance back home and believed this would provide the inspiration that the Czech people needed. Heydrich's tyrannical methods of government ensured that he was chosen as the target for the operation, codenamed "Anthropoid". On the night of December 28th 1941 two Czech resistance operatives, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, were dropped into their homeland with orders to assassinate Heydrich.

Upon landing the two men made their way to Prague and made contact with the underground resistance. After considering several methods for carrying out their mission, they opted to lie low until a more favourable set of circumstances emerged. That opportunity finally came in May 1942 when they became aware of the route that Heydrich's staff car took through the city on his daily commute from his suburban residence to Prague Castle. This route involved a tight hairpin bend in the city's Liben district which the car would have to slow down in order to negotiate. Gabcik and Kubis arrived at the tram stop near the corner on the morning of May 27th and waited for their target to pass through.

At around 10:30am Reinhard Heydrich's open-topped staff car approached the tram stop. Gabcik stepped forward and drew his sten gun in full view of Heydrich and his driver but the weapon jammed, sending Gabcik scuttling for cover as the car came to a stop and Heydrich rose to his feet, drawing his own weapon. Kubis then threw a modified anti-tank grenade at the car which blew bits of upholstery and shrapnel everywhere, some of which lodged in Heydrich's body. The wounded Protector leaped from the damaged car and tried to chase Gabcik whilst his driver went after Kubis, who was able to escape despite having also been injured in the explosion. Heydrich collapsed to the floor with shock and ordered his returning driver to chase Gabcik who shot and wounded the driver with his revolver before fleeing the scene. Both assassins returned to their safehouse convinced that the attack had failed.

Heydrich was taken to hospital and treated by SS doctors for a broken rib, collapsed lung, torn diaphragm and ruptured spleen. The surgery went uneventfully and he seemed to be recovering. Then, after a visit from his superior Heinrich Himmler on June 2nd, Heydrich's condition suddenly deteriorated and he slipped into a coma. He died on June 4th, probably from blood poisoning as a result of upholstery fibres from the car entering his body. His body was taken on an immense procession through the streets of Prague before being taken to Berlin for his full Nazi-choreographed funeral ceremony and burial in the Invalidenfriedhof military cemetary.

Reprisal: The Massacre of Lidice

As I have already mentioned, it is the subsequent events that give the assassination of Heydrich a greater sense of tragedy that the assassination itself deserves. As you would expect, news of the assassination enraged Hitler and he was determined to make the Czechs pay. This would go much further than simply finding the perpetrators but this was little comfort to Gabcik and Kubis who, after being betrayed by the resistance, made their final stand alongside a few others against a mob of over 700 SS men in a Prague church. The besieged men never stood a chance but the deaths of the assassins would only be the beginning. The Nazis went after any community with even the remotest ties to either the resistance or any kind of anti-German feeling. One community in particular was singled out by the Germans for the ultimate retribution; the villagers of Lidice, just a few miles to the west of Prague, were about to made an example of. The events of June 10th 1942 gave the whole world an insight into the true ugliness of human nature. German SS and police units surrounded Lidice and dragged the residents from their homes. 173 men were taken to a local farmstead and shot on the spot in groups of five or ten. Nineteen more men who were away working down a mine at the time of the main slaughter were murdered later in Prague.

The victims of Lidice

The 184 women of Lidice were separated from their children and sent to the concentration camps where most died either from starvation, disease, exhaustion or murder. The 105 children largely shared the same fate although seven were chosen at random to be taken to German families Germanization. The remainder of the children who had not died of neglect were sent to the extermination camps on the orders of Adolf Eichmann. All but seventeen of them would die. 340 people died altogether as a result of the German reprisal (192 men, sixty women and eighty-eight children). The village itself was burned down and bulldozed, eliminating all traces of its former existence. Even the bodies in the village cemetery were dug up and destroyed. Nazi propaganda openly and proudly announced the destruction of Lidice, unlike most other reprisals around Europe which were kept quiet. As a result the Allied media picked up on it quickly, sending a shockwave of disbelief and anger around the world. It also provided an early hint that something rather more sinister than mere persecution was going on inside the borders of the Reich.

In all it is estimated that around 1300 people overall in the Czech lands were killed by the Germans as a direct result of Heydrich's assassination, including the people of Lidice, partisans, relatives of partisans or anyone else the Germans didn't like the look of. Lidice has since been rebuilt but the events that took place there remain in the memory for the few fortunate enough to survive. In light of what happened one has to ask if whether or not the assassination of Heydrich was worth it. The Germans were determined for it not to have been and wanted to show the British and exiled Czechs that they had only made things worse. In the context of the war, however, removing such a powerful figure probably was the right thing to do. A lot of people died as a result of the assassination yet, with his plans for the Czechs in mind, we can only wonder how many more would have died had he lived.

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