Prague, Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia September 27, 1941

On this date in 1941 SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Rein­hard Hey­drich arrived in Prague to take up his post as Acting Reich Pro­tec­tor of the Pro­tec­torate of Bohemia and Moravia. Five days later the new mili­tary governor of Czech lands Germany seized in March 1939 out­lined his hard­line agenda at Prague’s Černín Palace to a select gathering of Nazi offi­cials. Hey­drich was the perf­ect can­di­date for getting maxi­mum results out of the hap­less people in his new fief­dom. Infamous head of the sinis­ter Reichs­sicher­heits­haupt­amt (Reich Security Main Office, RSHA), whose depart­ments included the Gestapo (Geheime Staats­polizei, Secret State Police), the Crimi­nal Police (Kripo), and the Nazi Party’s domes­tic and foreign intel­li­gence agency (Sicher­heits­dienst, SD), the tall, Nordic-looking 37-year-old SS general was tapped by Adolf Hitler to replace his “weak” civil­ian appointee, the elderly Baron Kon­stan­tin von Neurath, who went on indefinite sick leave.

Now that Hitler’s elite paramilitary Schutz­staffel (Protec­tion Squad, SS) pulled the levers of power in the Czech capi­tal, Hey­drich double downed on the 7.5 million inhab­i­tants of the western half of former Czecho­slo­va­kia (today’s Czech Repub­lic). The Pro­tec­tor­ate supplied up to a third of Germany’s arma­ments; Hey­drich demanded more for the German war effort. He intro­duced a binary cam­paign of bribery and terror. To foster higher pro­duc­ti­vity and quality, loyal arma­ments workers and their fami­lies received extra food rations and bene­fited from state-funded wel­fare pro­grams. Other war-related indus­tries and the agri­cul­tural sector shifted into high gear for the Reich. But the German despot also unleashed a cold-blooded pro­gram that filled Czech pri­sons and grave­yards with thou­sands of civil­ians and nearly every mem­ber of the Czech under­ground Cen­tral Leader­ship of Home Resis­tance (ÚVOD). Anti-German senti­ment and resis­tance in the form of strikes, work slow­downs, boycotts, and sabotage were brutally suppressed.

Heydrich’s “whip and sugar” policy (his term) im­pressed Hitler but worried both Presi­dent Edvard Beneš, who headed the Czecho­slo­vak govern­ment-in-exile in London, and Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill, who had charged Britain’s Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Exec­u­tive (SOE) to “set Europe ablaze.” The two leaders settled on a secret mis­sion to reen­er­gize the par­a­lyzed ÚVOD in Prague by para­chuting in a team of assas­sins who would target the “blond beast.” Heading up the on­site SOE-planned Oper­a­tion Anthro­poid were Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, both senior NCOs in Beneš’s Czech Brigade in Britain.

Between their air drop on the night of Decem­ber 28, 1941, and their attack on Hey­drich’s unes­corted open-top Merce­des five months later, Kubiš and Gabčík built a detailed pic­ture of Hey­drich’s move­ments. The panicky local Czech resis­tance, having barely sur­vived the last SS drag­net, begged the two agents and their London masters to abort the attempt on the high-profile German’s life, fearing cor­rectly their nation would suffer repri­sals by the piti­less SS. London would not budge. On May 27, 1942, in the Prague suburb of Liben, Kubiš and Gabčík ambushed Hey­drich and his driver at a hair­pin curve. A single gre­nade fell short of the seated Hey­drich but exploded near enough to the right rear wheel to send splin­ters of metal and glass and uphol­stery horse­hair and leather into his body. Though Kubiš suffered shrap­nel wounds to his face, Hey­drich was mortally wounded. (The assas­si­na­tion attempt was dramatized in the 2016 British-French-Czech film, Anthro­poid: Resis­tance Has a Code Name, by British film director Sean Ellis.) Despite sur­gery, mor­phine, and blood trans­fusions, Hey­drich died in great pain from sep­ti­cemia (blood poisoning) in a Prague hospital on June 4, 1942.

Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942) is widely recog­nized as one of the great vil­lains of Nazi Germany, a nation that had a sur­plus of loath­some indi­vid­uals. Robert Ger­warth’s bio­graphy of Rein­hard Hey­drich, titled Hitler’s Hang­man: The Life of Hey­drich—“hang­man” being a moniker Hey­drich would have worn with pride—exa­mines Hey­drich’s years as a ruth­less, amoral, and cyn­i­cally effi­cient acolyte in Hein­rich Himm­ler’s SS, where he directed the Reich Security Main Office, which over­saw the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and the Sipo (Security Police); his role as a leading planner of the “Final Solu­tion” and the Holo­caust of Euro­pean Jewry; and his eight months as Acting Reich Pro­tec­tor of Bohe­mia and Mora­via, a semi-auto­no­mous but Nazi-admin­is­tered terri­tory in what is today’s Czech Republic (Czechia). Up till his fatal en­coun­ter with two Czecho­slo­vak nation­alists, Hey­drich was widely viewed as the most dan­ger­ous man in Nazi Germany. Ger­warth explains why in this author­i­ta­tive bio­graphy of evil incarnate.—Norm Haskett

Operation Anthropoid: The Perilous Plot to Kill Reinhard Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich assailant and Czech patriot Jan Kubiš, 1913–1942Reinhard Heydrich assailant and Czech patriot Jozef Gabčík, 1912–1942

Left: Staff Sergeant Jan Kubiš (1913–1942), one of nine Czecho­slovak British-trained para­troopers dropped into Czecho­slo­va­kia as part of Opera­tion Anthro­poid, the daring and suc­cess­ful assas­si­na­tion of SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer Rein­hard Hey­drich (1904–1942), Acting Reich Pro­tector of Bohe­mia and Moravia for a brief eight months. After Adolf Hitler and Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himm­ler, Hey­drich was the third most power­ful man in Nazi­dom. On June 18, 1942, two weeks after the tyrant’s death, Kubiš was wounded in a six-hour gun battle with German troops in his refuge, the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Metho­dius in Prague. Kubiš died shortly after being taken to a hospital.

Right: Warrant Officer Jozef Gabčík (1912–1942) was a Slovak sol­dier in Czecho­slo­va­kia’s army-in-exile in England. Brandishing anti­tank grenades and a machine gun, Kubiš and Gabčík way­laid Hey­drich, who was with­out a secu­rity escort, on May 27, 1942, as he com­muted in his Mer­cedes-Benz convert­ible between his home and his office in Prague Castle. Gabčík, seriously wounded by a grenade in the same June 18 church fire­fight, com­mitted sui­cide along­side other Czech and Slovak free­dom fighters to avoid cap­ture. On Septem­ber 1, 1942, the spir­i­tual leader of Prague’s Ortho­dox com­munity and three priests who had sheltered Hey­drich’s assas­sins were sen­tenced to death and mar­tyred three days later. Over the next few weeks, 236 more indi­vid­uals impli­cated in Oper­a­tion Anthro­poid were taken to Maut­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp in Upper Austria and mur­dered in October 1942. The total num­ber of dead Czechs was signi­fi­cantly less than the 10,000 hos­tages Hitler had ini­tially ordered slaugh­tered in the wake of the attempt on Hey­drich’s life, and way less than the 30,000 Himmler had wanted arrested and executed.

Reinhard Heydrich’s wrecked Mercedes convertibleChurch of Sts Cyril and Methodius in Prague

Left: The green Mercedes-Benz 320 Cabriolet B in which Reinhard Hey­drich and his driver were riding on the morning of May 27, 1942; it lies aban­doned at the sharp hair­pin curve where the assas­si­na­tion attempt took place. The car sus­tained exten­sive damage when an anti­tank grenade thrown by Kubiš exploded near the right rear wheel, in­juring Hey­drich with frag­ments of glass, metal, horse­hair, and other debris that later caused a fatal infection.

Right: In a May 11, 1942, radio mess­age to Beneš’s govern­ment-in-exile in London, the clan­des­tine ÚVOD pleaded that a less prom­i­nent German be con­sid­ered for assas­si­na­tion, not the Acting Reich Pro­tector. Following the vio­lent attempt on Hey­drich’s life, 12,000 German police, army, and Gestapo men raided 36,000 homes and apart­ments looking for clues and arrested 13,000 civil­ians in the largest police man­hunt in Third Reich history. Eight Czech parti­sans were tracked to the small Ortho­dox Church of Saints Cyril and Metho­dius in Prague after they were betrayed by one of their Anthro­poid team members. Sur­rounded by 800 SS men, the Czech patriots resisted but were even­tu­ally either killed (Kubiš died from gun­shot wounds) or, like Gabčík, com­mitted sui­cide rather than sur­render to the enemy. The assail­ants’ heads, im­paled on stakes, were put on display. Over the next weeks the blood­thirsty SS and Gestapo, following mul­tiple leads, wiped out all anti-Nazi resis­tance in the Protec­torate just as the ÚVOD had feared and warned London about. This fright­ful period (May 27 to July 3, 1942), in which over 5,000 death sen­tences were carried out on puta­tive “anti-Nazi ele­ments,” is remem­bered by Czechs as the Second Heydrichiáda.

Biography of Reinhard Heydrich, “Hitler’s Hangman”