This week in history: The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 26 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

On May 27, 1942, British-trained Czech partisans assassinated SS-ObergruppenfÜhrer (general) Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in a daring action that resulted in brutal Nazi reprisals against the Czech people.

A disgraced former naval officer, Heydrich was one of Hitler's most ruthless and efficient enforcers. Joining the SS and Nazi Party in 1931 under the tutelage of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich was soon promoted to head the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), or Nazi Party intelligence service. Ambitious and unscrupulous, Heydrich rose quickly in the Nazi hierarchy by consistently impressing Hitler and Himmler, and unceasingly persecuting Christians, communists, Freemasons and Jews.

In the fall of 1941, Heydrich was promoted to “Reichsprotektor for Bohemia and Moravia,” essentially the Nazi governor of what is today the Czech Republic. His mandate from Hitler was to make the Czechs work efficiently to supply war material for the German Reich in its war against Britain and the Soviet Union.

In January 1942, Heydrich had chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference in Berlin, in which he and 15 government, party and SS ministers worked to coordinate the machinery of the Holocaust.

Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, praised Heydrich's work in the protectorate. In a diary entry for Feb. 15, 1942, Goebbels wrote: “Heydrich's measures are producing good results. ... He plays cat and mouse with the Czechs and they swallow everything he places before them. ... Slavs, he emphasized, cannot be educated as one educates a Germanic people. One must either break them or humble them constantly. At present he does the latter.”

Heydrich's ability to quash Czech resistance and entice workers to the German cause with shorter hours and greater rations alarmed the Czech government-in-exile in London, which wanted the Nazis out of their country as soon as possible. The president of the exile government, Edvard Beneš, felt his country must do something to stamp out the stench of collaboration.

Along with other Czech leaders, Beneš authorized a bold plan: the assassination of Heydrich. They sold the plan to the British on the promise that it would spark a Czech uprising against the Nazis. Such an event would significantly disrupt the German war economy and perhaps require the Germans to garrison the region with more troops — drawing them away from the fighting in Russia.

This seemed a long shot, and perhaps Beneš and the other leaders had another goal in mind when they authorized the mission, soon dubbed Operation Anthropoid. If Heydrich was killed by Czechs, the Nazis would no doubt launch massive reprisals against the Czech people. The ensuing bloodbath would no doubt drive a permanent wedge between the Czechs and their German overlords.

Two men were selected for the mission, Jan Kubiš and Joseph GabčÍk. After parachuting into the Czech countryside, the two soon formulated their plan — they would attack Heydrich as he rode to work in his open-topped Mercedes. On the morning of May 27, as Heydrich's car slowed down to take a tight curve, GabčÍk jumped into car's path and revealed his Sten gun, which jammed at the worst possible moment.

As Heydrich biographer Robert Gerwarth wrote: “Kubiš stepped out of the shadows and tossed one of his bombs toward the open Mercedes. He misjudged the distance and the bomb exploded against the car's rear wheel...” Shrapnel and upholstery fibers found their way into Heydrich's back, however, mortally wounding him. He died a few days later, in apparent agony.

In the wake of Heydrich's death, the Gestapo soon located and executed Kubiš and GabčÍk. But that was not enough for Nazi vengeance. The parachutists' trail led to the small country village of Lidice.

German-Jewish diarist Victor Klemperer wrote of what he heard of the German reprisals against the village: “What we hear is that the village in which the people stayed no longer exists. The menfolk shot, their families in concentration camps, the houses destroyed — nothing but farmland, plowed land now.”

Historian Callum MacDonald wrote of the massacre: “The Gestapo reported that 199 men were murdered in the operation and 195 women. Of 95 children, 8 were ultimately considered worthy of Germanization. The rest simply vanished and only 16 could be traced after the war.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. EMAIL: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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