I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1919, Heydrich joined the German Free Corps (Freikorps) in his teens. This group was schooled in street fighting and was unofficially used to silence left-wing protesters.
A naval career followed, during which he met one Lina von Osten. It was 1930, and Lina was already a member of the Nazi Party with connections to high places. By 1931, she was married to Heydrich and she arranged for her husband to meet Heinrich Himmler, who was busy setting up the SS. Himmler was impressed and hired him.
A Central Intelligence Agency briefing notes his rise in status and the start of the cruelty for which he became famous: “He then worked so devotedly for the Nazi Party that when Hitler came to power he put Heydrich in charge of the Dachau concentration camp. In 1934 he headed the Berlin Gestapo. On June 30 of that year, at the execution of Gregor Strasser, the bullet missed the vital nerve and Strasser lay bleeding from the neck. Heydrich’s voice was heard from the corridor: ‘Not dead yet? Let the swine bleed to death.’ ”
A brief detour is necessary because it might explain Heydrich’s extreme hatred of Jews and his brutality towards them.
He was the embodiment of the blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan so worshipped by the Nazi hierarchy, but there were persistent rumours that he might have a Jewish background. These stories came to the ears of Hitler and Himmler. Heydrich’s grandmother had married a second time after the birth of Heydrich’s father. The second husband had a Jewish-sounding name. This was enough of a germ of contamination of Aryan purity to cause the hate-filled Nazis to ask questions.
The Fuehrer decided he needed to clear this up so he called Heydrich in for a personal chat. The Nazi leader is said to have told Himmler that Heydrich was “a highly gifted but also very dangerous man, whose gifts the movement had to retain ... his non-Aryan origins were extremely useful for he would eternally be grateful to us that we had kept him and not expelled him and would obey blindly.”
The History Place comments that “… Heydrich was haunted by the persistent rumours and as a result developed tremendous hostility toward Jews.”
Subduing the Czechs
Writing in Der Spiegel Georg Bönisch notes that “Heydrich became a shooting star within the (Nazi) movement, the man who would do the dirty work … At 35, he was the head the Reich Main Security Office, the state authority whose reign of terror and oppression ensured the Nazis’ absolute control - and which also planned the Holocaust.”
To the top command, Heydrich was the right man to send to Czechoslovakia to stamp out opposition to German occupation.
He arrived in Czechoslovakia in September 1941 and announced that “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.”
As the CIA puts it “The hero moved into the Hradcany Palace in Prague and the executions started, 300 in the first five weeks.” By February 1942, almost 5,000 people had been arrested. Those that weren’t shot were sent to a concentration camp, which they were very unlikely to survive.
Heydrich’s penetration of the resistance movement was so successful that it was all but destroyed. The Czech people became demoralized and the country’s government-in-exile in London was in despair. President Eduard Beneš decided a dramatic gesture was needed.
The Czech government approached the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the group that oversaw the work of resistance movements throughout occupied Europe. Would the SOE help with a plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich? The answer was an unqualified, yes.
The ranks of the Czech army’s 2,500 soldiers in Britain were combed to find two men to carry out the job. Eventually, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabčik were selected and trained for what was likely a suicide mission.
At the end of December 1941 they were parachuted into Czechoslovakia at night and made contact with the remnants of the resistance.
The underground had studied Heydrich’s movements and knew he always took the same route between his country home and the airport. A sharp corner was picked as the perfect spot for an ambush.
At mid-morning on May 27, 1942, Heydrich’s car approached the corner. He was riding in a Mercedes convertible with the rag-top down. At the corner, Josef Gabčik stepped into the road and Heydrich’s driver slammed on the brakes. Gabčik pulled a sten-gun from under his coat, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Nothing. The gun jammed.
Jan Kubis stepped forward and lobbed a grenade into the car. The shrapnel that buried itself into Heydrich’s side eventually led to his death from blood poisoning 12 days later.
Dramatization of the ambush
When the Special Operations Executive was planning the attack, they knew the Nazi reaction would be brutal; they did not foresee how brutal.
Gabčik and Kubis hid out in a church along with their support team. Their location was betrayed Karel Čurda, who had also been an SOE operative turned Nazi collaborator. The church was stormed and everybody inside either killed or committed suicide.
In his 1962 book, The Gestapo, Jacques Delarue wrote that “Heydrich’s death was the signal for the most bloody reprisals. More than three thousand arrests were carried out, and courts-martial at Prague and Brno pronounced 1,350 death sentences ... A gigantic operation was unleashed against the Resistance and the Czech populace. An area of 15,000 square kilometres and 5,000 communes was searched and 657 persons shot on the spot ...” But a special treatment was reserved for the village of Lidice.
An erroneous connection had been made between the village and the assassins; the German High Command decided it would have to pay a price for that. On the morning of June 9, 1942 10 trucks loaded with security police rolled into Lidice.
All males over the age of 16 were rounded up and murdered. Some women were also executed and the rest were shipped off to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Only a handful survived. Eighty-eight children were taken to Lodz, where seven were chosen at random to be “Germanized.” The rest were gassed in a truck.
The Holocaust Research Project adds that “While the extermination squad dealt with the men, other gangs went round with cans of petrol firing the buildings.” Then, engineers blew up the remaining standing walls. Next came bulldozers to flatten the rubble. These were followed by ploughs that obliterated any building outline.
Finally, a barbed wire fence was erected around the site with the notice “Anyone approaching this fence who does not halt when challenged will be shot.”
At the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1946 the following statement was made: “Lidice was erased from the face of the earth. Even its cemetery was desecrated, its 400 graves dug up. Jewish prisoners from the camp at Terezin were brought in to shift the rubble. New roads were built and sheep set down to graze. No trace of the village remained.”
Two weeks later a similar fate befell the smaller village of Ležáky. Hitler's revenge was complete.
Reinhart Heydrich was such an accomplished cellist that his playing could bring tears to the eyes of an audience.
Karel Čurda, the man who betrayed the plotters, was tried for treason and hanged in 1947.
Over the course of his career, Heydrich acquired several nicknames: The Blond Beast, The Butcher of Prague, The Young Evil God of Death, Himmler’s Evil Genius, and The Hangman.
- “SS Leader Reinhard Heydrich.” The History Place, 1997.
- “The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.” R.C. Jaggers, CIA, September 22, 1993.
- “The First In-depth Look at a Nazi ‘God of Death.’ ” Georg Bönisch, Der Spiegel, September 19, 2011.
- “Reinhard Heydrich.” Spartacus Educational, undated.
- “The Massacre at Lidice.” Holocaust Research Project, undated.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Tim C. on March 25, 2019:
Thank you for timely confirmation of the heroism of The Greatest Generation of courageous warriors.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on December 01, 2016:
Great hub, Rupert. Glad to see these guys get recognized.
Just saw the movie Anthropoid. It was surprisingly well done. So many war movies turn into cliché fests, but this one avoided needless dialogue and kitsch (in my humble opinion).