Today, it’s an ordinary neighborhood – a pedestrian walkway covered in graffiti, a main road on which the traffic groans passed incessantly, apartment blocks and untidy shrubs. You’ve probably whizzed past the spot without looking twice. Only the rusted column mounted with the three statues suggests it is a place of significance.
On May 27th 1942 at a little after 10:30 am warrant officers Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš launched an assassination attempt on the acting Reichprotektor, Reinhardt Heydrich, known as Operation Anthropoid.
As Heydrich’s open-top unarmored Mercedes rounded the tight bend in Prague’s Libeň district, Gabčík pulled out a sten sub-machine gun from under his coat to take out the “Butcher of Prague.” But the gun jammed.
Heydrich ordered his driver, Klein, to stop so he could fire on his would-be attacker. Kubiš seized the chance to throw a bomb into Heydrich's car.
The bomb landed near the rear wheel of Heydrich’s car. The explosion sent metal fragments into Heydrich’s body. It also shattered the windows of an oncoming tram. The injured Heydrich staggered from the wreckage to pursue Gabčík. Klein went after Kubiš.
Grabbing the bike, which he’d ridden to the scene, Kubiš managed to get to a safe house in Žižkov. Gabčík was forced to flee on foot. Having dropped the sten, he exchanged pistol shots with his pursuer. Heydrich’s injuries were too serious and he ordered Klein to go after Gabčík in his stead.
Gabčík was tracked down to a butcher's shop. Unfortunately, the shop belonged to a Nazi sympathiser, who pointed Heydrich's driver to his quarry. The shop had no rear exit and Gabčík ran straight into Klein on his way back out, making his escape after shooting the driver in the leg.
Heydrich was taken to the adjacent Bulovka hospital. An x-ray showed the wounds were more serious than first thought. On June 4 he died from the infections and what has been argued was inadequate treatment. But the events of Operation Anthropoid were far from over.
As distasteful as assassination is, it is hard to deny the symbolism of this particular deed. Even the choice of the two agents, Gabčík, a Slovak, and Kubiš, a Czech, reinforced the idea of a united Czechoslovakian opposition to Nazi occupation.
To mark the occasion a travelling exhibition has been making its way around the country. It recounts the story of the assassination and the events surrounding it with text and photos. From June 4 to Sept. 30 the exhibition will be at Libeňský Chateau, Zenklova 35, Prague 8. A parallel event takes place from May 28 until June 22 at Prague 2 town hall. Apart from Gabčík and Kubiš, the public can get a better understanding of the many people who played a part in this story of daring and despair.
The event is being partly organized by ANLET, an organization that describes its members as “bearers of the legionnaire tradition” and which, through events such as these and its magazine Historický kaleidoskop, seeks to foster pride in Czech history.
Editor-in-chief Jindra Svitáková, told Czech Position why Operation Anthropoid remains so significant today. “We are a small nation. We were occupied relatively early, earlier than France and the others. Our representatives of foreign and domestic resistance dared to go and attack the symbol of the Third Reich [Heydrich], the most powerful symbol of the Third Reich here,” she said.
Apart from commemorating this stand against Nazism, the exhibition also intends to correct some preconceived ideas about Czech behavior during the Second World War.
“These horrible stories are told that Czechs didn't fight for their country. That is not true by a long shot because Czechs fought for their country even at the time when they didn’t have one,” Svitáková added.
Czech history during WWII may not have produced such stunning acts of defiance as the Battle of Britain or the defense of Moscow, but Czech combatants played a part through the war both abroad or on the domestic front. Operation Anthropoid was only the most spectacular example.
Interestingly, neither the domestic resistance organization, ÚVOD, nor the other troops sent back to the protectorate were told of Gabčík and Kubiš’s plans. However, Ladislav Vaněk, a member of Sokol, worked it out and along with another resistance leader, Alfred Bartoš, tried to talk the two agents out of the plan because of the feared reprisals. They even tried to convince the Czech government in exile to call off the assassination, but to no avail.
Despite these reservations the assassination went ahead. However, who issued the final order is a matter of debate. Callum McDonald, author of The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, cites Vaněk as claiming the two agents received a coded message a week before the assassination. McDonald's backs this up with other contemporary accounts.
Dr Jan Gerbhart from the Institute of History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, said that this question has led to a long discussion among historians. No written record of exiled leader Edvard Beneš issuing the order exists. “In any case it is abundantly clear that [the assassination's] preparation and eventually its execution couldn't have been managed without the awareness of the highest representatives of the Czechoslovak government in exile as well as Beneš,” Dr Gerbhart said in an email.
Following the assassination, Beneš sent a letter praising the men’s actions. Furthermore, the operation gave the Czechs considerable leverage in getting the British and Free French to revoke the Munich Agreement and agree to return Czechoslovakia to its pre-Munich borders.
Counting the Cost
The story of the assassination continues to resonate not only for the daring of the men involved, but perhaps more for the terrible price paid. Immediately after the attack, the SS unleashed a reign of terror in an effort to find the perpetrators. The village of Lidice was destroyed on June 9, the men killed and the women sent to camps in the East. Just over two weeks later, the village Ležáky met an even worse fate. Not a single adult was spared.
The SS eventually tracked Gabčík and Kubiš’ and other parachutists down to Karel Boromejský Church, (today’s Cyril and Methodius Church), on June 18 with the help of their former comrade Karel Čurda. Kubiš died from wounds after a two hour gunfight. Gabčík took his own life soon afterwards rather than be captured.
In a sense, the anniversary of Operation Anthropoid is also a moment to reflect on all the dimensions of the attack and how war brings out both the best and worst aspects of human nature, how bravery and resolve as well as cowardice and savagery can come to the fore.
— Ryan Scott is a Prague-based freelance journalist