Exhibitions mark 60th anniversary of assassination of Nazi governor Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich, foto: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0

The assassination by two Czechoslovak soldiers of the Nazi governor of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, on May 27, 1942 was one of the most daring missions of World War II. Heydrich had ruled the Czechs with unsurpassed brutality and was one of the masterminds of the genocide of European Jews. The impact of the killing of Heydrich on the Czech nation was immense, and the legacy of those events 60 years ago has remained controversial to this day. On Monday two exhibitions marking the assassination opened in Prague.

Reinhard Heydrich,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann,  Heinrich / CC-BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons 3.0
Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Prague, was ambushed as he drove to his office at Prague Castle by two Czechoslovak soldiers who had parachuted into the country the previous December. Heydrich died eight days later of injuries sustained during the attack. One of the exhibitions marking the event is located in the garden by Malostranska metro station, and features newspaper cuttings and other documents from that era. The opening of the exhibition was attended by nearly half the Czech cabinet and met with the approval of the prime minster, Milos Zeman.

It is full documentation, and not only of one event like the assassination, but the steps which started by the Munich treaty, and all the process of the prepared genocide of the Czech nation. I think it is an excellent documentation indeed."

The assassination of Heydrich was not without controversy. The plan originated with the exiled president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Benes in London, and went ahead despite the fears of some, who predicted bloody reprisals from the Germans. Those fears were well founded. An estimated 5,000 Czechs were killed in the weeks following the assassination. With an army band playing in the background, I asked the Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, how long he thought the issue of whether killing Heydrich was right would remain a hot topic.

I think this debate will continue for ever. The debate started already then, in fact, just before the assassination when some leaders of the home opposition thought maybe the target should be someone else or it should be done in such a way that the German response would be more restricted. Because they were afraid of what really then happened, ie the very large number of people who then died."

Czech cabinet at the exhibition,  photo: CTK
However, as Mr Kavan points out, there were valid reasons behind the plan to assassinate the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia.

The country then desperately needed to straighten its backbone, after the demoralisation caused by capitulation. And in 1942 our exiled government led by President Benes, I think, was right in arguing to our allies that Munich should be abrogated, an independent future Czechoslovakia should be fought for, and showed - and the assassination was a very good example - that the Czechs have not reconciled themselves with the occupation, that they do want to return back to democratic Czechoslovakia."

The Nazis reacted to the killing of Heydrich with extreme brutality, the most graphic examples of which were the massacres at the villages of Lidice and Lezaky. On the other hand the international outrage over the massacres - Lidice in particular - combined with the success of the mission, did a lot to strengthen the hand of the Czechoslovak government in exile. Britain finally officially recognised the government and abrogated the Munich agreement. But the cost in human lives was high. When I asked Prime Minister Milos Zeman whether the killing of Heydrich was the right thing to do - given the number murdered by the Nazis as a consequence - he was characteristically outspoken.

It is the question of a coward, because if you do not kill dictators, if you are an appeaser of some sort, you only provoke a chain reaction. And that's why I think the Munich treaty for instance was a deed of appeasers, and killing Heydrich was a deed of courageous men."

A second exhibition also opened on Monday, at the military museum in Zizkov; entitled "Atentat" or "Assassination", it features an absolute wealth of material. At the opening, I spoke to Doctor Alois Honek, now a very old man, who was part of the team which attended to the fatally wounded Heydrich at Prague's Bulovka Hospital exactly 60 years ago.

I anaesthetised him. I didn't see him until he was on the operating table. He sat up and he was still dressed. He stayed on the table and then they helped him to undress. He was in quite a good state but I didn't hear him speak."

Photo: CTK
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the open-topped Mercedes - registration number SS-3 - that was driving Heydrich to Hradcany. By the car is the woman's bicycle which one of the two assassins, Sergeant Jan Kubis - the one who threw the bomb - used to make his getaway. Kubis was Czech, while the other assassin, Sergeant Josef Gabcik, was from Slovakia; that wasn't accidental, the choice of one soldier from each country was intended to show national unity against the Nazis. Another of the exhibits is a letter from Kubis to a woman called Marie Zilanova, whom he met and fell in love with while he and Gabcik were in hiding before carrying out the assassination. Two words in the letter stuck out - "don't forget". Less than a month after their historic mission, the two soldiers were hunted down and died following a defiant last stand in a Prague church.