By Louis Charbonneau
BERLIN (Reuters) – More than 60 years ago, a group of Czech
and Slovak exiles parachuted into their Nazi-occupied homeland
and assassinated SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, the
man known as the “Butcher of Prague.”
For the first time since the end of the World War Two, a
German museum is offering a close look at “Operation
Anthropoid,” the codename for the only successful assassination
of a member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle.
Michal Burian of the Military Institute of Prague, which
presented the exhibition in the Czech capital before it moved
to Berlin, says the assassination ranks among the most
important moments of the last century and is far more than a
“The assassination is an ancient tragedy. You can find
everything in this story — bravery, love, betrayal, death. In
my opinion, it is one of the most interesting stories of the
20th century,” he said.
The Heydrich assassination took place on May 27, 1942, on a
quiet street in the Prague suburb of Kobylisy. Two young men —
a Czech and a Slovak — ambushed Heydrich’s black Mercedes-Benz
convertible as he was on his way to Prague’s Hradcany Castle.
Slovak Josef Gabcik wanted to shoot Heydrich, but his Sten
submachinegun jammed at the crucial moment. Heydrich was about
to shoot Gabcik with his pistol when 29-year-old Czech Jan
Kubis lobbed a modified anti-tank grenade at the vehicle.
The bomb exploded. Heydrich died of his wounds a week
later. This sealed the fate of both men and thousands of Czechs
who were imprisoned, tortured or murdered after Hitler ordered
the SS and Gestapo to “wade in blood” to find Heydrich’s
But it was not Nazi sleuthing that discovered the
assassins’ hideout in the basement of a Prague church. It was
the betrayal of one of the paratroopers who wanted to save
Kubis, Gabcik and five others died in fierce fighting at
the church or took their own lives to avoid capture by the
The centerpiece of the exhibition, which opened at Berlin’s
German Technical Museum last month, is the Mercedes-Benz
convertible with the license plate “SS-3” that Heydrich was
riding in at the time of the assassination.
Ulrich Kubisch, curator at the museum, went to Prague to
see the original exhibition because of the car and vowed to
bring it to Berlin, the seat of Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich”
that lasted only 12 years — from 1933 to 1945.
The car is a stark symbol of Nazi hubris. The top is down
because Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia,
believed he had successfully pacified the whole Czech nation
and could safely ride in an open, unarmored vehicle.
The exhibition also features a replica of the spectacular
jeweled crown of Bohemia’s King Wenceslas. Legend has it that
Heydrich was doomed the moment he placed it on his head after
arriving in Prague to rule over the “Protectorate.”
Heydrich was more than the “butcher of Prague.” A few
months before his death, he chaired the Wannsee Conference,
where top Nazis began planning the “Final Solution” — the
extermination of Europe’s Jews.
“For us Czechs it was very important that Heydrich be
killed, because he was one of the worst people for us. After he
came to Prague in 1941, he began immediately with his bloody
reign of terror,” Burian said.
ATTEMPT TO KILL HITLER FAILED
Two years after Heydrich was killed, an attempt to kill
Hitler with a briefcase bomb failed. “Operation Anthropoid”
remained the only successful assassination of a top-ranking
But cruel reprisals by the Nazis, who razed two Czech
villages to avenge Heydrich’s death, prompted some historians
to question whether it was worth the carnage that followed.
After Heydrich died, Nazi police surrounded the village of
Lidice, which was believed to be harboring resistance fighters.
The population was rounded up. Most were shot and the remaining
women and most of the children were sent to concentration
Around 340 people died in Lidice. Two weeks later, the
village of Lezaky received similar treatment.
The decision of Czechoslovakia’s President-in-exile, Edvard
Benes, to assassinate Heydrich while aware the people back home
could face brutal reprisals remains a topic of debate.
“Benes wanted something big. He was aware of the concerns
that there was not much resistance in the Protectorate,
concerns voiced by Stalin, but also heard from the British,”
said Brad Abrams, a history professor at Columbia University.
Accounts of the horrible Nazi reprisals at Lidice were
published on front pages of the New York Times and other key
allied newspapers, raising the profile of the Czech resistance
and the Benes government-in-exile in London.
According to recently released government documents,
Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill even suggested
leveling three German villages for every Czech village the
Abrams said to make a final judgment whether or not the
assassination was worth it “requires a certain moral calculus
that places historians in serious peril.”
But he added: “Other things could have been done.”
Despite the reprisals, Jachym Topol, a prominent Czech
novelist, agreed that Heydrich’s death had a positive impact.
He said it showed Czechs were not all beer-swilling
buffoons like Josef Svejk, the absurdly obedient hero of
Jaroslav Hasek’s classic novel, “The Fateful Adventures of the
Good Soldier Svejk During the (First) World War.”
“Heydrich was evil. He had to be killed and his death sent
a message that the Czechs, too, were ready to fight. It showed
that you didn’t have to just keep your head down and try to
survive. You could be a hero,” Topol said.