Killing Hitler's hangman: the dramatic story of Reinhard Heydrich's assassination
In May 1942, two partisans assassinated the reviled Nazi grandee Reinhard Heydrich. For the beleaguered Allies, Heydrich's death was a major coup. But, says Robert Gerwarth, the consequences for countless civilians across occupied Europe were catastrophic...
Reinhard Heydrich is widely recognised as one of the great iconic villains of the 20th century, an appalling figure even within the context of the Nazi elite. Curiously enough, however, his international ‘fame’ rose considerably as a result of his 1942 assassination which quickly became the subject of countless movies and books, starting with Fritz Lang’s Hollywood production Hangmen Also Die! (1943) and Heinrich Mann’s novel Lidice (1942).
The continuing interest in Operation Anthropoid is understandable. Arguably the most spectacular secret service operation of the entire Second World War, the assassination on 27 May 1942 ended the life of Nazi Germany’s chief organiser of terror at home and in the occupied territories. It was the only successful attempt on the life of a senior Nazi during the war.
Secret plans to assassinate Heydrich had emerged in London more than half a year earlier, in late September 1941. The origins of the plan have remained highly controversial to this day and have given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories, largely because the parties involved – the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile under President Edvard Beneš – officially denied all responsibility after 1945. Neither of them wanted to be accused of condoning political assassination as a means of warfare, particularly since it had always been clear that the Germans would respond to the killing of a prominent Nazi leader with the most brutal reprisals against the civilian population.
The surviving documents on the assassination reveal that the plan to kill Heydrich was primarily born out of desperation: ever since the fall of France in the summer of 1940, and the inglorious British retreat from Dunkirk, London was hard-pressed to regain the military initiative.
Without any chance of being able to defeat the German army by themselves, Churchill, the War Office, and the Special Operations Executive hoped to incite popular unrest in the Nazi occupied territories, thereby deflecting vital German military resources to a number of trouble spots. They quickly found an ally in Beneš, for whom the ultimate objective was the postwar re-emergence of an independent Czechoslovak state. To gain support for this objective in London, he needed a spectacular act of resistance designed to demonstrate that the Czechs were doing their bit for an Allied victory. The purpose of Heydrich’s assassination was to achieve this objective.
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The men selected to assassinate Heydrich were well prepared for their mission. Jan Kubiš, a 27-year-old former NCO (Non-commissioned officer) from Moravia, had gained his first experiences in resistance activities in the spring of 1939. When the Gestapo tried to arrest him, he managed to escape to Poland where he met the second future Heydrich assassin, Josef Gabčík. A former locksmith from Slovakia, Gabčík had served as an NCO in the former Czech army before fleeing the country in despair over the Nazi occupation. A third man, Josef Valčík, was to act as lookout for the approaching car on 27 May 1942, the day of the ambush, at a hairpin bend in central Prague. At around 10.20 that morning, Valčík’s shaving mirror flashed in the sun, signalling that Heydrich’s open-top car was approaching.
As the assassins had anticipated, Heydrich was driving without a security escort. When the car slowly turned around the corner, Gabčík jumped out, aiming his machine-gun at Heydrich and pulling the trigger, but the gun, previously dismantled and concealed in his briefcase under a layer of grass, jammed.
Heydrich, assuming that there was only one assassin, hastily ordered his driver to stop the car and drew his pistol, determined to shoot Gabčík – a fatal error of judgment that would cost his life. As the car braked sharply, Kubiš stepped out of the shadows and tossed one of his hand-grenades towards the open Mercedes. He misjudged the distance and the bomb exploded against the car’s rear wheel, throwing shrapnel back into Kubiš’s face and shattering the windows of a passing tram. As the noise of the explosion died away, Heydrich and his driver leaped from the wrecked car with drawn pistols ready to kill the assassins.
While Kubiš managed to quickly grab his bicycle and cycle away, Gabčík found escape less easy. As Heydrich came towards him through the dust of the explosion, he took cover behind a telegraph pole, fully expecting Heydrich to shoot him. Suddenly, however, Heydrich collapsed in pain. Gabčík seized the opportunity and fled.
As soon as the assassins had vanished, Czech and German passers-by came to Heydrich’s aid and halted a baker’s van that transported the injured Heydrich to the nearby Bulovka hospital, where doctors quickly delivered a diagnosis: his diaphragm was ruptured, and fragments of shrapnel and horsehair from the car’s upholstery were lodged in his spleen.
A few days after the initially successful surgery, an infection in the stomach cavity set in. Had penicillin been available at that point, Heydrich would have survived. Without it, Heydrich’s fever got worse. The doctors were unable to combat his septicaemia, his temperature soared and he was in agonising pain. On 4 June, at 9am, Heydrich succumbed to blood poisoning. ‘Hitler’s Hangman’, as the exiled German Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann famously called Heydrich in his BBC commentary the following day, was dead.
On 9 June 1942, the body of Heydrich was laid to rest in one of the most elaborate state funerals ever held in the Third Reich. Over the previous two days, his coffin had been exhibited in the courtyard of Prague Castle, where tens of thousands of ethnic German and Czech civilians – some voluntarily, some ‘encouraged’ by the Nazi authorities – filed past to pay their final respects. The coffin was then transported to the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, where, to the tunes of the Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, the entire leadership of the Third Reich bid a final farewell to the slain Reich Protector. Himmler and Adolf Hitler offered the eulogies.
While Heydrich’s body was being laid to rest in Berlin, the Nazi leadership sought revenge for what Goebbels described in his diary as the “irreplaceable” loss of “the most radical and most successful persecutor of all enemies of the state”. The atmosphere in Berlin can only be described as murderous. “Nothing can prevent me from deporting millions of Czechs if they do not wish for peaceful co-existence,” an outraged Hitler screamed at Czech president Emil Hácha after the funeral. The assassins had to be found immediately or the Czech population would face unprecedented consequences. Hitler also ordered an immediate act of retaliation: the complete annihilation of the Bohemian village of Lidice.
Lidice, a small village with around 500 inhabitants located north-west of Prague, had first aroused the suspicion of the Gestapo in late autumn 1941, when a captured Czech parachutist testified that two families living in Lidice, the Horáks and Stříbrnýs, served as contact points for resistance fighters airdropped into the protectorate. The story was probably made up, but the Gestapo chose to believe it and declared the village a legitimate target for retaliation. On the day of Heydrich’s funeral, German police units surrounded the village. Male inhabitants were herded onto the farm of the Horák family where they were shot in groups of 10. All in all, 172 men between the ages of 14 and 84 were murdered in Lidice. The shootings were still under way when the first houses were set on fire. By 10 in the morning, every house in Lidice had been burnt down and their ruins blown up with explosives or bulldozed to the ground.
The women of Lidice were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp while their children underwent racial screening. Only nine of the children of Lidice were deemed ‘Germanisable’ and given new German names before being assigned to German foster parents. Most of the children were murdered.
While the destruction of Lidice fulfilled Hitler’s immediate appetite for revenge, the Gestapo initially failed to apprehend Heydrich’s assassins. Instead, the authorities announced that drastic measures against the Czech population would be taken if the assassins were not apprehended by 18 June. As the date approached, rumours spread that the Nazis would execute every 10th non-German in the protectorate, and many Czechs, either out of fear for their lives or in exchange for money, offered information to the Germans. None of it, however, delivered a real lead on the assassins.
Then, on 16 June, two days before the deadline, Karel Čurda, a parachutist airdropped into the protectorate in late March 1942, walked into the Gestapo headquarters in Prague’s Peček Palace – not a place many Czechs entered voluntarily. To save his life and protect his family, Čurda was willing to sacrifice those of others. He did not know Gabčík and Kubiš’s current location, but he did betray those who had provided safe houses, including that of the Moravec family in Prague, which had sheltered Heydrich’s assassins for a number of weeks.
A wave of arrests followed. In the early hours of 17 June, the Moravec apartment was raided. The mother of the family, Marie Moravec, killed herself with a cyanide capsule when the Gestapo agents arrived. Her husband, Alois Moravec, oblivious to his family’s involvement with the resistance, was taken to the cellars of Peček Palace alongside his teenage son, Vlastimil. After withstanding hours of torture, Vlastimil cracked when the interrogators showed him his mother’s severed head in a fish tank and threatened to place his father’s beside it. Vlastimil told the Gestapo that the assassins had taken shelter in the Orthodox Church of St Cyril and Methodius in central Prague.
Assassins’ last stand
The following morning, 800 SS men surrounded the Orthodox church. Their orders were to take the prisoners alive, allowing for further interrogations regarding their aides in the protectorate. The unsuspecting Kubiš and two fellow parachutists had the night watch as the Germans burst into the church. From the choirstalls the parachutists opened fire and managed to keep the attackers at bay for nearly two hours. By 7am, the first Czech was dead; the other two, including Kubiš, were seriously wounded and captured. Kubiš was carried out of the church alive and brought to the SS military hospital, but died there without ever regaining consciousness.
The Gestapo searched the building more thoroughly and found a trapdoor to the catacombs. Under pressure, the resident priest admitted that four more parachutists – including Heydrich’s second assassin, Gabčík – were hiding there. He and Čurda tried to persuade the men to surrender, but they refused. Over the following four hours, the SS pumped tear gas and water into the catacombs to force the parachutists out. When the SS finally used explosives to enlarge the narrow entrance, the four parachutists shot themselves in the heads.
The death of Heydrich’s assassins was greeted with joy in Berlin, but the reprisals continued. Over the next few weeks, 236 other supporters and providers of safe houses for the parachutists were taken to Mauthausen concentration camp and murdered. The terrifying memory of the Heydrichiáda, as the wave of terror that followed the assassination was soon to be known, served as a powerful deterrent to any further resistance activities. Through his death, Heydrich had inadvertently fulfilled one of his ambitions: the complete and lasting ‘pacification’ of the protectorate.
If Heydrich’s assassination triggered an unprecedented wave of retaliation against the Czech population, it also prompted the Nazi leadership in Berlin to a further radicalisation of their policies towards the Jews. As Himmler emphasised in a secret speech to senior SS officers in Berlin immediately after Heydrich’s funeral: “It is our sacred obligation to avenge his death, to take over his mission, and to destroy without mercy and weakness, now more than ever, the enemies of our people.” Himmler also made it very clear that the programme of mass extermination was to be completed as soon as possible: “The migration of the Jewish people will be completed within a year. Then no more of them will be migrating.”
Himmler kept his word, and 1942 was to become the most murderous year of the Holocaust as the Nazis killed the majority of Jews herded into the ‘General Government’ district of German-occupied Poland. In ‘honour’ of Heydrich, the extermination programme in the General Government was given the operational name ‘Aktion Reinhard’. When it tailed off in the autumn of 1943, some 2 million people – the vast majority of them Jews – had been murdered.
Robert Gerwarth is director of the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin. His books include Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich (Yale, 2012).
Heydrich: The life of Hitler’s killer-in-chief
Born in 1904 in the city of Halle, Reinhard Heydrich came from a middle-class background of professional musicians. His father was a successful composer, while his maternal grandfather was the director of the world-famous Royal Dresden Conservatory. Although young Heydrich displayed great talent in music, he decided to join Germany’s small navy as an officer cadet after the First World War, mainly because running a conservatory became unsustainable in the economically troubled Weimar Republic.
In 1931, Heydrich was discharged from the navy after a scandal revolving around him being simultaneously engaged to two women. Up until that point, he had shown little interest in politics. It was his future wife, Lina von Osten, who introduced him to the ideology of Nazism and encouraged him to apply for a vacancy as an intelligence officer in the SS.
Himmler took an immediate shine to Heydrich and together they rose rapidly after Hitler had come to power in 1933. By the time of his death in June 1942, Heydrich had accumulated three key positions.
As head of the Nazis’ vast political and criminal police apparatus, Heydrich commanded a sizeable shadow army of Gestapo and SD officers directly responsible for Nazi terror at home and in the occupied territories. As such, he was also the main organiser of the SS mobile killing squads, the 'Einsatzgruppen'.
Then, in September 1941, Hitler appointed Heydrich acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, a position that made him the undisputed ruler of the former Czech lands. The eight months of his rule in Prague and the aftermath of his assassination are still remembered as the darkest time in modern Czech history.
In 1941, Heydrich was instructed by Hitler via Hermann Göring to find and implement a ‘Total Solution of the Jewish Question’ in Europe. In that capacity, he chaired the Wannsee conference of January 1942. By the time of his death, the Nazis had moved to the indiscriminate and systematic murder of the Jews of Europe.
This article was first published in the September 2016 edition of BBC History Magazine