Debate over daring WWII Prague assassination of top Nazi intensifies

Approaching 70th anniversary of greatest WWII act of Czech resistance spurs reexamination of its significance

Society
Guest Writer | 24.05.2012
The scene of the assassination

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.

Reinhardt Heydrich

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.

Josef Gabčík

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.

Today’s prespective

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.

Jan Kubiš

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.

Reprisal fears

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 

Show comments
Comments:7

Comments

Czech Position values democratic discussion. Please respect the Terms of Service, which are intended to encourage correct and meaningful communications.

By entering your comment, you agree to these rules. We reserve the right to remove improper comments.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Debate over....

Many thanks for your insights Akita Inu.  We all have our different opinions and arguments for and against and won't necessarily agree, we could go back and forth to no avail, plus I'm sure we both have other things to do, well, I do anyway.  Cheers.

Brulox,

Quantity is not a substitute for quality - you did not have to post twice.

 

My facts come from numerous professional sources, all based on German, Russian and British archives.

 

In combat, soldiers do recognize heroism of the opposing force and, no matter how much they might hate the enemy, they do respect individual acts of bravery.  In WWII, for example, most combatants admired the Waffen SS for the way they fought and yet hated them for their brutality.  You want to deny that.  Your choice.

 

I did not say the Czech army was larger - I said it was stronger.  Source of reference for that is Hitler's own admission (documented in Dr. Henry Picker's Hitlers Tischgesprache im Fuhrerhauptquartier 1941-1942, an authentic record of Hitler's conversations with his inner circle).  At the time, Hitler was very surprised by the superior Czechoslovak army not putting up any resistance and considered Germany to be very lucky.

 

At the time, most Slovaks were glad to get rid of Czech nationalism they suffered with for years and were rather content to support Germany.  You are wrong in your position.

 

I have studied the history of WWII for over twenty five years, primarily by focusing on the primary sources (archive records, correspondence, etc.).  I don't need to read biased writers of the establishment like Callum MacDonald - his book on the Korean war is a testimony to that. 

Heroes do not slaughter the innocent

I don't know where your facts come from Akita Ina but  your praising the "heroic" Heydrich is unusual, I guess you have a different interpretation of what is heroic than most people.   

As for the Czechoslovak army being larger than the German army - how do you come to this fact?  Its airforce was obsolete.  Czechoslovakia's defence was based on treaties signed with France and Britain, plus the numerous defences built on the borders to Germany and Hungary.  These were rendered ineffective when the Munich Agreement was signed - as you well know. 

Aslo, keep in mind it was not just Czech exiles in Britain that were trained (and entered service for the allies), do include Slovaks.  Most Slovaks were against their countries submission to the Nazi cause.

Newspapers are often here to create sensations and thus bring readers in.  News of the World for example - or any News Corp published / controlled entity.  Others provide a balanced and articulated view.  Please, again, don't think others simply rely upon newpapers for information. 

Akita Ina, perhaps read the Callum MacDonald's book on your heroic Heydrich.  It provides an interesting insight into the man and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile.

Cheers and all the best with your reading :-)

 

Heroes do not slaughter the innocent

I don't know where your facts come from Akita Ina but  your praising the "heroic" Heydrich is unusual, I guess you have a different interpretation of what is heroic than most people.   

As for the Czechoslovak army being larger than the German army - how do you come to this fact?  Its airforce was obsolete.  Czechoslovakia's defence was based on treaties signed with France and Britain, plus the numerous defences built on the borders to Germany and Hungary.  These were rendered ineffective when the Munich Agreement was signed - as you well know. 

Aslo, keep in mind it was not just Czech exiles in Britain that were trained (and entered service for the allies), do include Slovaks.  Most Slovaks were against their countries submission to the Nazi cause.

Newspapers are often here to create sensations and thus bring readers in.  News of the World for example - or any News Corp published / controlled entity.  Others provide a balanced and articulated view.  Please, again, don't think others simply rely upon newpapers for information. 

Akita Ina, perhaps read the Callum MacDonald's book on your heroic Heydrich.  It provides an interesting insight into the man and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile.

Cheers and all the best with your reading :-)

 

To Brulox

I suggest you get your facts from more serious sources than newspaper articles.

The Czech assassins were terrorists indeed, in the proper classical terms of how "terrorism" is defined.  The intent of London's exiles was not, as this article suggests, to break up the Munich treaty or to "to save the Czechoslovak state from the potential fate that it would be reabsorbed into a greater Germany".  This was 1942, years after Czechoslovakia was defeated and occupied.  The country was broken up into three entities: Nazi Germany's ally Slovakia (it gladly separated itself from the Czechs) and two German protectorates, Bohemia and Moravia.  The protectorates were not annexed by Germany, as Austria or the Sudeten area were.  Since that time, the Czech exiles in Britain did practically nothing (except for political intrigues between the British exiles and the underground groups in Bohemia/Moravia).  Then, to justify the British money spent and to assure further funding, the exiles needed to do something to prove their viability.  A plot to assassinate Heydrich was designed to provoke a violent response from the Nazis and to cause an uprising - naturally, led by the British exiles.  So, the assassination was indeed terrorist but not against the Nazis - it was, in its roots, against the Czechs.

Do keep in mind - there never was such a nation as Czechoslovak.  There was Czechoslovakia as a state, consisting of a number of nations.

The loss of Sudetenland was not a factor in Czechoslovakia's military defeat - at the time, the army of Czechoslovakia was stronger than Germany's and the fortification line was undefeatable (as admitted by Hitler when he visited the fortifications).

Finally, you need to recognize that what Heydrich did in Bohemia/Moravia was a lot more liberal than what similar Nazi officials did in other occupied territories (take Poland or the USSR, for example).  Irrespective of his deeds, while wounded, he found enough moral strength to attack his assailants - that is heroic.

A different interpretation - seriously?

In responce to Akita Inu's "A different interpretation". 

Amazing that someone would call the Czech exiles terrorists.  How narrow minded to think that when someone's country is being occupied by an oppressive and cruel regime, that they seek to remove someone who has cruelly and systematically destroyed lives within that country - this is not terrorism. 

Yes the assasination was ordered to try to save the Czechoslovak state from the potential fate that it would be reabsorbed into a greater Germany.  After all, why shouldn't they try to get money from the British government - The British and French gave away the Sudentenland to Germany and therefore negated the ability of the Czechoslovak nation to defend itself.

To speak of Heydrich as heroic is really amusing, no, disgusting and one I have never heard spoken before.  I think you need to seriously do some of your own research and then work out why he was called "the butcher of Prague".   

A different interpretation

If one wants to talk about 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", and be brutally honest, the article should have been written differently and factually. 

It was an act of terrorism perpetrated by Czech exiles in London to prove the organization's effectiveness so that it can continue receiving money from the British government.  Irrespective of consequences.

It was Heydrich who exhibited heroism - wounded, he pursued the assassins till they fled.  It was Gabčík and Kubiš who showed incompetence and cowardice - their weapons were not checked before the attack and, instead of continuing the attack on Heydrich and his driver, they fled to save their skins.

Hide comments

Popular content