Lidice – the tragic fate of a village that became a powerful symbol

Destruction of Lidice

Today it is exactly 77 years since units of the German Security Police liquidated the Central Bohemian village of Lidice in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. While far from the only example of such cruelty during the war, Lidice became famous around the world. In part due to its symbolic value as a place of tragedy, but also hope.

Destruction of Lidice | Photo: ČT24
After an ultimately successful assassination attempt was carried out on Reinhard Heydrich on May 27th 1942 by two Czechoslovak soldiers parachuted into Bohemia, the Nazi leadership was thirsty for vengeance.

Adolf Hitler apparently wanted to execute 10,000 Czechs from the ranks of the intelligentsia, but future protectorate leader Karl Herman Frank dissuaded him. Instead, Frank suggested a one-off example that would cripple future dissent by fear. His suggestion was Lidice.

Although two men from the village were serving in the RAF at the time, its inhabitants seem to have had nothing to do with the assassination itself. Rather, Lidice’s fate was the result of a particularly tragic consequence, Martina Lehmannová the director of the National Lidice Memorial told Czech Radio.

“The main reason was a rather unlucky letter from a man who wanted to end a relationship with his lover, because he was married. The letter ended up in a battery producing company [where she worked] called Pálava. Its director, Jaroslav Jan Pála, was terribly scared after all that happened following the assassination and found the letter strange, so he made sure it was handed over to the Gestapo.”

The men were shot at the Horáks’ barn,  photo: Czech Television
The author of the letter had simply wanted to wiggle himself out of the relationship by implying he was on the run as a romantic hero, but once the Nazis found out about the two RAF pilots, the fate of the village was sealed.

A week later, the village was encircled by SS and police troops. The women and children were interned at a school, while all of the 173 men were shot.

The women were then sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where sixty of them died. Many of the children were sent to Chełmno in today’s Poland, where they would be killed by exhaust fumes. The youngest were sent to Germany for re-education. Nazi planners were so meticulous, that even those who were not in Lidice at the time did not escape, says Ms. Lehmannová.

“A few men were on night duty at a nearby factory. When they found out about what had happened, a few of them tried to run away. They found them and executed them in Prague’s Kobylisy.”

All buildings, including the cemetery, were blown up.

Lidice’s fate was not completely unique. Nazi occupiers, especially in the Soviet Union, conducted many similar reprisals.

Yet unlike so many others, Lidice received international attention. Many settlements across the world took on its name and thousands of parents named their children Lidice.

Lidice memorial,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
This was in part because Lidice acquired a symbolic value of both tragedy and hope already during the war, says Ms. Lehmannová, giving the case of the “Lidice Shall Live” movement, which was started immediately after news of the event reached Great Britain. Started by Barnett Stross, it collected funds with the aim to rebuild the village after the war

“For the United Kingdom, which was not in a good financial situation at the time, it was a very strong symbol which gave people hope that the Third Reich would be defeated, that Hitler would end and the people of Europe would be free again. Lidice therefore has a very special role. On the one hand it is a place of a tragedy, but on the other one of hope too.”

An annual commemoration of the anniversary, attended by state dignitaries, will take place in the village on Saturday.