That little slit on the right probably doesn't mean anything to you. I came to Prague to find it. I went for a walk on my first night, not quite ready to seek its dark story, but happened to turn my head at just the right moment. There it was.
I think there's a collective American obsession with World War II. From a hazy distance, it's one of those rare conflicts that can be distilled into a battle of good versus evil. On the one hand, you have the gleaming Allied monolith. On the other, you have the reactionary, spiteful thundercloud of nationalism.
It's a lot more complex than that. First, you can't forget the brief marriage of convenience between fundamentally incompatible states--capitalist America feigning friendship with totalitarian Russia and its bastardized version of communism. Second, if you dig deep enough in World War II, you realize that you eventually have to stop talking about the Nazi regime or Stalinist Russia or fascist Italy and start talking about individual soldiers and civilians. Of course, defining that point is difficult.
I'm not going to trouble myself with finding the line in the sand where the state stops and the individual begins. No, no. We're going to dine with the devil himself tonight. You cannot separate this man from Nazism because he personified it. And no, I'm not talking about Hitler, but Hitler talked about him. In fact, Hitler called him the Man with the Iron Heart. Other people called him the Blonde Beast, the Hangman, and the Young Evil God of Death.
The Czech people--the people who assassinated him and paid a staggering price for it--called him the Butcher of Prague.
His name was Reinhard Heydrich and he was Genghis Khan in a three piece suit.
Among many things, he was a high-ranking member of the Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party known as the SS. He was a hardliner's hardliner. He ran the Einsatzgruppen, the precursor to the efficient slaughterhouses of the second half of the war. The Einsatzgruppen were paramilitary units charged with following behind the frontline troops, rounding up Jews, intellectuals, homosexuals, Roma, and countless others and--for the most part--taking them out into the woods and shooting them.
We think about the gas chambers and we hear about millions victims, but that number is so large that it's an abstraction. How about 33,711. That's the number of people that the Einsatzgruppen shot in a ravine outside Kiev in 1941. It's called Babi Yar and 33,711 people were murdered there in the span of two days. We have the paperwork.
29 survived, crawling out of the mass graves in the middle of the night after being shot and buried alive.
But the Einsatzgruppen were inefficient and they were bad for the morale of the other units. Not surprisingly, regular units were more interested in firing at the Red Army rather than unarmed civilians.
So in January of 1942, Heydrich called a number of Nazi officials and a few military commanders to a house in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin. They sat at a big table and worked out the nuts and bolts of The Final Solution. Even Hitler sought to distance himself from it, hoping to avoid any post-war political consequences--such as the domestic scandal he triggered when he ordered the extermination of disabled Germans a few years before. So he sent Heydrich.
This was an extremely secretive meeting. It lasted just 90 minutes. The transcript was heavily edited by Heydrich before limited circulation, but a single copy would survive the war and be discovered in 1947. The meeting minutes show how they settled on the methods--the bullshit pretext of leading people into "showers," the diesel trucks that would pump exhaust into the room, and other ghastly details.
HBO made an excellent film about the conference called "Conspiracy." It presents Heydrich as a mild mannered and (troublingly) likeable leader--one chiefly concerned with reaching a unanimous conclusion between the various men at the table.
It's hard to make an accurate film about Nazis, mostly because nobody wants to watch it. We want that Gestapo goon from Raiders of the Lost Ark--and we want to watch his face melt at the end. "Conspiracy" gives us truth. It gives us the earnestness with which many approached mass murder, and it gives us the reservations that troubled a few of them as they planned the foulest enterprise in history over a three course lunch.
As soon as the conference was over, Heydrich flew back to Prague. He'd been appointed as the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941, but he was effectively the military dictator of Czechoslovakia. The Germans had annexed Czech territory in 1938 and, when the war broke out the following year, Czech factories became even more important to the German war effort. Heydrich was sent to stamp out any Czech resistance and meet production quotas. Within three days of his arrival, the Germans executed 92 people.
A Note on Resistance
Resistance takes many forms, but it's rarely the grand sabotage that you first think of. Blowing up radio towers or killing German soldiers in the middle of the night tends to incur a heavy-handed response while doing little to change the course of the war. The most effective method of resistance is inefficiency. Taking more time to reach decisions, sending components to the wrong places, miscalculating measurements, and giving incorrect directions are just some of the ways to make life harder for occupying forces without necessarily incurring their wrath.
1942 would be the high water mark of the Third Reich. The Wermacht had pushed the Red Army all the way to the gates of Moscow by December of 1941, and it seemed as if the Germans might win in 1942. If they knocked out the Russians or at least brought them to the negotiating table, they could turn some of their forces towards Britain. The Eastern Front, after all, consumed a staggering amount of men and material in comparison to the Western Front. Czech factories were absolutely vital to keep the German juggernaut moving.
Meanwhile, the American impact on the war was still quite small. The US military and especially the economy would need time to ramp up for the biggest conflict in history after the inactivity of the Great Depression. Britain, unsure if it could hold off the Germans for long enough to get America into the fight, became increasingly worried that the Russians might broker a separate peace. They began looking for ways to take pressure off the Russians, but Britain was a naval power. It couldn't just land some troops on the continent because its army was tiny. So the Brits, ever the spymasters, played the game of asymmetrical warfare.
They sent small commando units to raid German installations on the occupied French coast. They supplied resistance movements in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere with radios, weapons, explosives, and training. They sought to disrupt the German war effort by creating instability a thousand kilometers from the front line. This shadow war was run from London, where several governments-in-exile had set up shop. One of these represented the Czech people.
The only thing was, the British weren't terribly impressed by the Czech resistance. In comparison with Poland or France--where resistance towards occupation forces was quite strong--the Czechs seemed to be doing the bidding of the Germans without much of a fuss. To be fair, the Czechs had lived under German occupation for longer than most, beginning in 1938 when Hitler cut that infamous deal in Munich and everyone tasted the bitter tonic of appeasement.
But even still, the Czech government-in-exile decided to do something: they'd kill Heydrich.
They selected a handful of men from the free Czech forces that had escaped to Britain and they trained them extensively. Based on the available intelligence, the original plan was to assassinate him on a train.
The two agents, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, infiltrated the Czech countryside by plane in the middle of the night. There were other teams, tasked with other missions, inserted that same night. Kubis and Gabcik then made their way to Prague where they established contact with the local resistance. They moved in with a family and waited for the chance to act.
As an American, it's difficult to imagine a setting in which the freedom of movement, speech, and assembly are restricted, but these were core methods of control the Nazi regime (and countless other tyrants). You couldn't just go where you wanted to go. You needed authorization to be there. So these agents spent a good portion of their time in hiding. During that time, they undoubtedly thought about the potential consequences for the people around them if their mission succeeded.
Gabcik and Kubis soon realized that killing Heydrich on the train would be impossible, so they decided to assassinate him on his commute to work. He rode through Prague in an open topped Mercedes and, apart from his driver, he was undefended--preferring to display his confidence in German dominance. Two Czech agents would stop the car, open fire, and throw a modified grenade at the car.
With the help of the local resistance fighters, the agents mapped out Heydrich's route to work, what time he left, and what time he arrived.
It was decided to stop Heydrich in the woods, on the way from his residence to his office. They would string a cable across the road to stop the car. They laid in wait in the forest until their commander inexplicably called off the attack.
Then they realize that they’d have to kill him right in the middle of Prague.
On May 27, Gabcik and Kubis position themselves on the slowest corner of Heydrich’s route. As the Mercedes rolls towards them, Gabcik steps into the street with a Sten submachine gun. He pulls the trigger.
Click. Nothing. It's jammed.
All this planning, all this danger, and one little piece inside the handheld death machine is out of alignment by a millimeter. The Young Evil God of Death is going to see another sunrise.
Heydrich, slowly realizing the near-death experience that his commute has become, orders his driver to stop. The Mercedes skids to a halt. Heydrich reaches for his pistol. Gabcik stands in the middle of the street, yanking on the bolt of the Sten in some sort of 100m dash against death.
It's all but over. Gabcik's death is an uncompleted formality--a box waiting to be checked.
But Kubis--we musn't forget Kubis.
From the edge of the frame, he hurls an anti-tank grenade towards the car. It detonates with concentrated, man-made violence--the sort that doesn't exist in nature, that shatters windows and bones and illusions.
But it explodes outside the car, ripping up some body work and a tire, but leaving the rest intact. Kubis and Gabcik stagger to their feet, but Heydrich is already on his. They open fire with their pistols. He and his driver fire back with theirs. Disoriented by the explosion, neither side's bullets find their mark. Realizing the attack has failed, Kubis takes off on a bike while Gabcik sprints in a different direction. Heydrich and his driver pursue Gabcik.
The men sent to kill the Butcher of Prague are now running from him, too.
But then, after a few steps on the uneven stone streets of Prague, the Hangman collapses. The left side of his body has been mauled by the explosion. His driver stops to offer aid. Heydrich screams at him to chase the attackers. A couple of bystanders come to Heydrich's aid and the driver sprints after Gabcik.
He follows him into a butcher's shop, and the firefight resumes again. This isn't some postmodern, high velocity gunfight where they exchange fully automatic fire from 100m away. They're armed with small caliber handguns that hold fewer rounds than you have fingers. They're firing a handful of shots at close range. People scream and it all happens with the frenzy that pervades unnatural death.
Heydrich's driver is hit once, then twice. Gabcik escapes.
Gabcik and Kubis reunite at a safe house. Unaware that Heydrich has been wounded, they're convinced they've failed. In the streets, terror under the polished jackboots of the Germans.
Hitler orders another henchman to Prague to investigate the attack. He says he wants 10,000 Czech heads as compensation. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, implores Hitler to settle for 5,000--they have to keep the factories running.
The Man with the Iron Heart, meanwhile, is in dire condition. He has a collapsed lung, broken rib, torn diaphragm, cut spleen, and more. Word reaches Gabcik and Kubis. The emotions must've been confusing. Heydrich's life was perched on a knife edge and if it slipped, that would mean success--and that the Czech people would get stuck with the bill.
About a week after the attack, Heydrich is recovering. He sits up in bed to eat lunch when, out of nowhere, he collapses, falls into a coma, and dies the following morning.
All hell breaks loose.
The Germans, based on faulty intelligence, think that the attackers are hiding in the village of Lidice. They showed up on June 9, execute 192 men (anyone over the age of 15), deport 184 women and 88 children to concentration camps, and select a grand total of 7 "racially acceptable" kids to be adopted by German families.
But even then, the Germans know they hadn't gotten the attackers, so they announce a deadline: June 18, 1942. If no one comes forward by then, the massacre at Lidice will become a pleasant memory.
Gabcik, Kubis, and the other Czech agents decide to move to a church in Prague. By hiding in the crypt, they will hopefully spare their host families from German vengeance and eventually cobble together a plan to escape.
That is, until one member of the Czech resistance, a man named Karel Curda, comes forward to the Germans. In exchange for a hefty reward, he betrays the locations of several safe houses. It's tempting to write him off as a weak man, but I do wonder if he genuinely wanted to avoid the painful retaliation that the Germans threatened.
From here, the story becomes a tragedy. The Nazis begin kicking down doors in Prague. They round up families. They torture. They ignore any lingering sese of compassion.
I don't really want to tell you this, but I think it's important: upon barging into the flat of the Moravec family, they allow the mother, Maria Moravec, to go to the bathroom. Inside, she bites on a cyanide capsule and commits suicide. The rest of the family is soon tortured for information. Ata, Maria's 17 year old son and someone who knows where the agents are hiding, refuses to talk. It is only after hours of torture, the forced consumption of alcohol, and the presentation of his mother's severed head in a bucket (along with the threat that his father will be next) that Ata's will breaks.
He tells them about the church.
There are eight Czech agents inside, armed with nothing more than pistols. 750 German soldiers with rifles, machine guns, and grenades, will spend two hours trying to kill them. They will try to smoke them out of the loft, drown them in the crypt, and simply bludgeon them with the statistic of 93.75 bad guys for every good guy.
None of the agents will emerge alive. They will either die fighting or lash themselves to cyanide escape pods.
When the firing stops, the Bishop will take the blame for their presence. He will write letters to Nazi officials and try to protect his flock. He will be tortured and executed, along with Ata Moravec, Ata's father, Ata's fiancee, Ata's fiancee's mother, Ata's fiancee's brother, and 5,000 other Czechs.
Karel Curda, the man who gave up the safe houses, will be convicted of treason in 1947 and executed.
But the Nazis will lose. They will lose and the world will win. It won't be the simple, grand victory that we lust for, but it'll be something.
And the Czech people will leave the bullet holes by the window to remind us what it cost.