The Assassination of Heydrich
Someone Hitler did like was Reinhard Heydrich, the falsetto-voiced, feminine-hipped leader of the RHSA. If ever there was a living embodiment of Nazism in all its grisly horror, Heydrich was it. Next year is the 70th anniversary of his demise, so Euan and I decided to visit the locations most closely associated with his short but infamous reign as Bohemia and Moravia’s ‘Protector’.
We began with his house in Panenske Brezany. It’s still there, as are the gates out of which his Mercedes swung on that fateful day in 1942. One of his sons, killed in a road accident outside the house, is buried in the garden. The house is large but not grand – by no means the most impressive residence in Panenske Brezany. An odd choice for such a conceited man.
We followed his route, as best we could, towards Prague and Hradcany, where he intended to finish up a few administrative matters before flying to Berlin the next morning. We identified the wood where the parachutists watched his daily movements and where they initially intended to set up an ambush; this idea was abandoned because there were too many SS in the immediate area.
It is possible to locate the exact spot where the assassination took place. Although the road layout has changed somewhat (to ease the sharp curve where the parachutists made their move), there are buildings nearby which are still identical to their appearance in contemporary photographs, and the information board next to the memorial explains exactly where it all happened. We re-traced the steps of Gabcik as he ran, pursued by Heydrich’s driver, and tried to flee through the rear exit of a butcher’s shop. But there was no rear exit: Gabcik burst out of the front door again, shot the driver in the leg and then raced down the hill towards the city centre.
Next, the Karel Boromejsky Church, where the parachutists met their end after putting up an incredibly brave fight – surrounded, trapped, they fought until their ammunition ran out. The last bullets they kept for themselves. There was no real hope of escape, and there never had been.
Meanwhile the Germans began slaughtering thousands of Czechs in retribution. It didn’t really matter if these people had any connection with the assassination or not, but for those who did their captors reserved the most imaginative methods of torture. Executions took place in Mauthausen, Plotzensee, Pardubice... Lidice and its population were obliterated, Lezaky was left standing but its inhabitants were murdered (all except two children).
Our last stop on this tour, no longer triumphal but heartbreaking, was the Kobylisy shooting-ground, where over 500 Czechs were killed by firing-squads in the months following the assassination.
The execution site is a series of rectangular plots surrounded by embankments. It is easy to see exactly what happened: the men and women, some as young as 15, and many complete families, were brought in trucks to the entrance, marched into the designated rectangle, lined up and shot: no doubt methodically and in an orderly manner. Their bodies were then loaded up and taken away for incineration. We felt certain that these people would have met their fates nobly; they were dying for their country, literally. There are German accounts of the dignity they displayed. The names of the victims are recorded on a memorial giving the dates and the times of their deaths.
The planners of the assassination knew exactly what would happen afterwards. Disproportionate retaliation was a key principle in the Nazis’ domination of Europe, and Heydrich was both an author and an arch-exponent of the technique. No-one outside his close circle knew at the time that he intended to liquidate or re-settle (ie liquidate) the majority of Czechs after the war. It would be hard to think of any moral, ethical or political argument against the extinction of this ghastly man.
People argue today about whether or not the price paid was worth it. History records that the assassination of Heydrich gave the Nazi hierarchy its first real fright. It also endowed the Czech nation with heroic status among the Allies: the government in exile was recognised soon afterwards. But was it worth it? Only the thousands who lost their lives in the aftermath have a right to answer that question.