Discover more from Polemology Positions
Killing Hitler's Hangman: How Prague Remembers Operation Anthropoid Today
Snapshots of an assassination site
John Harris is an academic historian and a friend who recently visited Prague. He took some photos and videos of the site of Operation Anthropoid. Being an early American history specialist and not a military historian, he asked if I would like to use them for a FREE essay. Many thanks to Dr. Harris. You should definitely subscribe to his Substack, here:
In his 2015 study Killing the Enemy: Assassination Operations during World War II, historian Adam Leong explains that Reinhard Heydrich wanted the position of Prague commissar because he saw it as a step up in the heady environment of 1941. It was the perfect place to show Hitler his faith in the national socialist project.
“Heydrich was determined to exterminate the Slav population in Czechoslovakia, and Germanize the Czechs,” Leong writes. “Those he deemed as ‘un-Germanise-able’ would be deported to concentration camps and eliminated.” Rather than merely set up a puppet state, “Heydrich wanted to incorporate Czhechoslovakia as a part of Germany once victory was attained.”
Heydrich set to his bloody work with relish. “It was estimated that in the first 105 days of Heydrich’s reign, 486 people were executed and another 2,242 were sent to concentration camps. So successful were Heydrich’s efforts that all effective resistance movements and activities in Czechoslovakia almost ceased to exist.”
For the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London, this was a serious problem. How were their allies to take them seriously if they could not deliver any signs of resistance to the occupation? To make matters worse, the communists were biding their own time to let the liberals in London fail.
Of course, Heydrich chaired the infamous conference at the Interpol Villa on Grosser Wannsee in a suburb of Berlin on 20 January 1942 where attendees outlined the ‘Final Solution’ for European Jewry. But that was not the reason he had to die. Heydrich became a target because the Czechs in London needed more Czechs to die at home so their allies would take them seriously.
While the Special Operations Executive began before Neville Chamberlain’s fall, it was Winston Churchill who told Dr. Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare overseeing SOE, to “set Europe ablaze.” The SOE agreed to train the assassins and airdrop them into Czhechoslovakia, but Anthropoid was not a British operation. Like most ‘Free’ expatriate forces on land and sea in the European theater, the Czechs were all the more aggressive for being dependent on their British hosts.
President-in-exile Edvard Beneš and his intelligence chief, František Moravec, hatched the plan together before sharing it with the Czechoslovak Mixed Brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Bedřich Neumann-Miroslav. They knew Heydrich was a Hitler favorite. They understood that killing Heydrich would create reprisals against Czech civilians and hoped it would galvanize them to resist German occupation, or at least convince their allies that Czechs were resisting.
Heydrich’s information had allowed the SS to quickly arrest all of Hitler’s brownshirted enemies in the SA during the Night of the Long Knives. He had pacified Prague using the same skills at intelligence database-building, earning the nickname ‘Butcher of Prague’ by ruthlessly suppressing all resistance. By the time of the mission, Heydrich would ride to work in his open-topped car, without any escorts, as a display of dominance: the city was so safe under his iron hand that he had no fear at all from anyone in it.
Brig. Gen. Miroslav selected ten volunteers for SOE training. Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš were the two men selected for the mission. However, the airdrop on 28 December 1941 missed its target. Gabčík broke his ankle. Violating orders to avoid contacting the local resistance, they found a safe house where they were eventually joined by Josef Valčík, another SOE-trained Czech operative. While Gabčík’s ankle healed, they learned that Heydrich’s movement habits matched their mission orders to kill Heydrich on his way to work. They decided to stick with the original plan.
Even though local resistance leaders figured out what the men were doing and asked them to cancel the operation, local informants were essential to success. “A clock repair man known as Josef Novotny, who was also a local resistance informant, was sent to repair Heydrich’s office clock and saw a piece of paper with Heydrich’s travel plans for 27 May,” Leong writes. Crumpling the paper and flicking it into the trash, Novotny retrieved the paper from from the maid later on and passed it to the resistance. The handwritten schedule showed that Heydrich was leaving for Berlin later that day. They would have to move now, or never.
Overconfident in his security, Heydrich left Hradcany Castle for Prague Castle on a route that never changed. It took him around hairpin bend where the driver had to brake hard, providing a shooter with a perfect ambush point.
Valčík signalled the approaching car with a mirror. Gabčík stepped into the road so that the driver had to hit his brakes, and then revealed his Sten gun, which promptly jammed.
Heydrich had his driver stop and stood up to raise his pistol. Now Kubiš threw his anti-tank grenade, which exploded on the right hand door and step fender. Heydrich apparently got out of the car to fire at the fleeing men before collapsing, wounded.
Shrapnel had injured Heydrich’s spleen, diaphraghm, and left rib. A German doctor oversaw his care and Himmler sent his personal physician. “The extent of his internal injuries were not thought to be critical or life threatening,” Leong writes, although he needed surgery. On 4 June 1942, two days after Himmler visited Heydrich, he died of septicemia, possibly due to wound contamination by the horsehair of the car’s leather seats.
In the meantime, at Hitler’s outraged insistence the German occupation troops had begun one of history’s largest hanhunt. “During the period from 28 May to 1 September 1942, 3,188 Czechs were arrested and 1,357 of them exectued,” Leong writes. The male residents of two vilages were wiped out. “An estimated 5,000 Czechs died as a result of the reprisal operations, half the number Hitler had originally ordered.”
Jozef Gabčík, Jan Kubiš, and Josef Valčík were hiding out at Prague’s Orthodox Church of SS Cyril and Method in Ressel Street. Germans learned their location from a resistance informant. On 18 June 1942 they surrounced the church, filling it with smoke and teargas. All three SOE men took cyanide or shot themselves. Germans shot the priest, the churchwarden, and the bishop immediately afterwards.
Operation Anthropoid failed to spark a Czech uprising. In fact, the remaining Czech resistance had almost been destroyed by the German reprisals and roundups. However, the bloodletting had its intended effect on the Free Czech allies. First the United States repudiated its support of the Munich agreement on 11 June. Britain and the Free French government withdrew their own support for Munich thereafter. Chamberlain’s folly had been disowned by the diplomats.
Moravec did not disclose the truth about Heydrich’s assassination and Operation Anthropoid until 1964. By then, Czechoslovakia was under the iron hand of communism and he may have felt that a new spirit of resistance was required.
Today, Prague seems to have taken good care of its memory of the Heydrich assassination. Dr. Harris tooks some short videos of the scene where Operation Anthropoid unfolded. You can see that this is still a busy part of town.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. Please like, share, subscribe, and consider a paid subscription to support my work