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Terrorism and Heroism: The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

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World Policy Journal
July, 2007
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Milan Hauner is a Czech historian, teaching and writing in Madison, Wisconsin, since 1980. He emigrated to England
following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and studied history at Cambridge and Oxford. He has centered
his research on the second Czechoslovak president, Edvard Beneš, whose wartime memoirs he has reconstructed in a critical
edition published this summer. During the Nazi reprisals for the assassination of Heydrich, Hauner’s uncle was executed.
An abbreviated Czech version, “Terrorists or Heroes?” has been published in the Czech daily Lidové Noviny.

Terrorism and Heroism
The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich
Milan Hauner
Sixty-five years ago, on May 27, 1942,
Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi viceroy of
the German Protectorate of Bohemia and
Moravia, was assassinated in broad daylight
in a Prague suburb by Josef Gabcík and
Jan Kubiš, two Czechoslovak paratroopers
dressed as civilians. Although the assassination had been carefully prepared months in
advance, many things went wrong.
Heydrich was not killed on the spot, because Gabcík’s gun jammed. His companion
then tossed a specially made bomb at the
open Mercedes cabriolet, which passed at a
very slow speed in front of him. But the
bomb landed against the right rear wheel
instead of exploding inside the car. The
explosion killed neither Heydrich nor his
driver who were able to jump out of the car
with drawn pistols, but neither fired a shot
due to jamming or mishandling.
The two terrorists, who also had pistols,
did not finish Heydrich off, but fired instead in the air to scare off Heydrich’s driver
and a group of passengers who came streaming from a nearby streetcar. Meanwhile,
Heydrich suddenly collapsed, stricken by
In the general confusion, the two killers
managed to escape. It took at least half an
hour to improvise the transport of the injured Heydrich to a nearby hospital where
an infection spread to his stomach cavity.
Sulphonamides were applied because penicillin was not available as a drug in Naz; i-

controlled Europe (not even in England,
where it was invented, until late 1943).
State Secretary Karl Hermann Frank,
the highest-ranking Sudeten German in the
Nazi administration of the Protectorate,
immediately telephoned Hitler. Infuriated,
the Führer ordered the arrest and execution
of 10,000 Czech hostages. While doctors
fought for Heydrich’s life, German police
collected all available evidence and concluded the attack must have been organized
and prepared in England. Frank telephoned
Hitler to confirm the British involvement
and asked him to revoke the execution
order, arguing that such unprecedented
reprisals would be catastrophic for Czech
morale and would benefit the exile government of Dr. Edvard Beneš in London. But
Hitler was in no mood for compromise.
Thus ended one of the most salient days in
the history of the Czechoslovak resistance,
which had begun with the attempt to kill
one Nazi and almost ended with the execution of 10,000 randomly selected Czechs.
Tyrannicide in Context
This asymmetry between individual and
state-led terrorism is not unique. Given
the international focus since September 11,
2001, on “international terrorism,” it may
be useful to place the attack on Heydrich
not only in the context of World War II but
also in the contemporary U.S.-led campaign
against terrorism. To be sure, there are

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instances in history in which individual terrorism has appeared to be the only available
method of political resistance. Tyrannicide,
the assassination of a tyrant, was famously
perpetrated in ancient Rome and in the
tragedies of William Shakespeare. But the
pros and cons of the killing of Reinhard
Heydrich, have long been hotly disputed.
It is difficult to isolate terrorism from
the streams of history of which it has been
part. Terror has remained a component of
emancipation movements. This may explain
why a conclusive definition of terrorism may
not be possible. How is one to judge statedirected terrorism at the national level?
Recall that the term “La Terreur” was used
during the bloodiest phase of the French
Revolution, when brutal mass executions
were declared “legal,” since they were justified by revolutionary legislation under the
pretext “Patrie en danger.” Defenders of Stalinism applied the same logic to the Great
Terror of the 1930s when millions perished.
Recent German history offers a classical
case of tyrannicide in successive vain attempts to murder Hitler. Most conspirators
were Wehrmacht officers who at first were
unable to resolve the dilemma between the
assassins’ obedience to the head of state
and commander-in-chief in a single person,
to whom they had sworn a pledge of allegiance, and the recognition that Hitler was
a monster who had to be put away. One
needs also to remember that the courageous
officers who decided upon tyrannicide
(hence Tyrranenmord, used for the first time
in the German political vocabulary), risked
their lives not because the Führer threatened
to exterminate Europe’s entire Jewish population, but because at that moment his conduct of war proved disastrous.
At roughly the same time, the Czech resistance found itself in a parallel but not
identical dilemma. Its members knew they
could not decisively influence the global
war, as could the German general staff, but
they could at least demonstrate to the world
that they hated their local tyrant and were

prepared to kill regardless of consequences.
Regardless? Not quite, as we shall see.
Until then, tyrannicide was entirely outside the context of the modern Czech political tradition. In the nineteenth century, the
Czechs chose to settle their disputes with
their Habsburg rulers through various forms
of non-violent opposition. It was the institutionalized mass killing of both world
wars, which to some seemed state-organized
terrorism, that radically altered the situation. Still, the Czech exiles who since 1939
had followed the leadership of ex-President
Edvard Beneš in Paris and London preferred
to resist the German occupation of their
country with traditional passive resistance
and by gathering information useful to the
Allies—not through terrorist attacks.
Enters Reinhard Heydrich
This allergy to violence changed with the
ever-increasing brutality of the war, especially after the German attack on the Soviet
Union in June 1941. The Czech underground intensified its sabotage activities. A
decisive catalyst was the arrival in Prague,
in September 1941, of Reinhard Heydrich,
the new viceroy of Bohemia and Moravia (as
the western fragment of former Czechoslovakia under German occupation was called).
Considered by many to be Hitler’s possible
successor, Heydrich, a deputy of Heinrich
Himmler and a senior SS officer, was also
chief architect of the elimination of all Jews
from German-controlled territories.
To turn his Protectorate into a model
SS province, Heydrich decided to ethnically
cleanse Bohemia and Moravia. Even before
the infamous Wannsee Conference of
January 1942, where it was decided at
Heydrich’s initiative to murder 11 million
Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe, the Protectorate’s Jews has already been sent to the
concentration camp of Theresienstadt, and
thence to Auschwitz. Shortly after his arrival, Heydrich informed senior German administrators in Prague that Bohemia must
be ruthlessly Germanized and that the maWORLD POLICY JOURNAL

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• SUMMER 2007

jority of Czech inhabitants unfit for Germanization were to be expelled to Siberia after Germany’s final victory. But meantime,
so long as the Third Reich needed weapons
produced by Czech workers, Heydrich gave
them preferential treatment, insisting that
they received the same food rations and holiday benefits as their German counterparts.
Against the Czech intelligentsia, there
was no such differentiation. Without hesitation he started from the top. The Protectorate’s prime minister, General Alois Eliáš,
was arrested, proven guilty of maintaining
contacts with the enemy and sentenced to
death. Hundreds among the Czech intelligentsia were executed or sent to concentration camps, which nearly silenced the underground network and its radio contacts
with England.
Beneš and his exile government in
London had their own demoralizing dilemmas. A British summary of anti-German
activities in occupied Europe prior to June
1941 placed the Czech Protectorate at the
bottom. How could Beneš press for revocation of the Munich agreement and restore
Czechoslovakia’s pre-1938 borders, when
the inhabitants of the protectorate seemed
to be collaborating with the Germans?
Moreover, Beneš faced a challenge from
Moscow, where an alternative, Communistsponsored Czech leadership was likely to
emerge. When Beneš learned that the
Soviets were planning to send their own
paratroopers into the Protectorate without
informing him, he knew the challenge was
deadly. He had to act decisively if he wanted
to keep the leadership of the exile movement. To legitimate his position in the eyes
of the Czech resistance, he decided upon a
bold act of individual terrorism.
It has been generally assumed that the
exiled president ordered Heydrich’s assassination in consultation with his chief of intelligence operations, Colonel F. Moravec,
who in turn contacted the Special Operations Executive (SOE)—a secret British organization that trained specialists for sub-

versive or sabotage activities in German occupied territories. SOE trained the killers
and arranged to parachute them into the
Protectorate, where underground agents
were to receive and shelter them. However,
no written evidence survives of the assassination project. Both men wrote memoirs,
but Moravec, who outlived Beneš by 18
years, wrote nothing out of loyalty to the
president. As for Beneš, he never mentioned
in his unfinished memoirs the heroic
Czechoslovak paratroopers, thus solidifying
the myth that the assassination of Heydrich
was a spontaneous action, decided and carried out exclusively by the underground.
However, Eduard Táborský, the president’s
personal secretary during the war, admitted
in a private conversation shortly before he
died in 1996 that Beneš had received and
bid farewell to the two SOE-trained agents,
later identified as Gabcík and Kubiš, shortly
before their departure.
As for Heydrich, his infections proved
fatal. On June 2, after a final conversation
with Heinrich Himmler, who flew to
Prague to speak with his deputy and protégé, Heydrich passed into a coma. Two
days later he died. Meanwhile, the Nazi terror machine unleashed an unprecedented
manhunt. Through a combination of mass
arrests, intimidation, torture, and bribes,
the parachutists and their helpers were apprehended by the Gestapo. Two weeks after
Heydrich’s funeral, the main commando
group (including those who planned and executed the assassination), hidden in a church
crypt at the center of Prague, were surrounded by several hundred troops. They
shot themselves with their last bullets.
The assassination occupies an unusual
place in Czech historiography. Perhaps because it is a clear-cut case of a terrorist attack (i.e., of an unprecedented tyrannicide),
it has never been objectively analyzed. But,
above all, because it exacted such a brutal
price in Nazi reprisals, the controversy over
Heydrich’s assassination has remained a major unresolved dispute to this day.

Terrorism and Heroism

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The dilemma Beneš faced was highlighted by the following key episode. Two
weeks before Heydrich was to be shot, several senior members of the Czech underground sent a radio message to London urging President Beneš to cancel the assassination, citing three major reasons: that thousands of hostages in German hands would
be executed, that the Nazis would commence unprecedented massacres, and that
the last remnants of the underground resistance would be wiped out. It is generally assumed that the dispatch was tampered with
by Colonel Moravec since the paratroopers
were already closing in on their prey and
did not wish to compromise his and President Beneš’s reputation as strategists.
Too High a Price?
Nazi reprisals happened exactly as the May
12 underground dispatch had forseen. Hundreds of hostages were summarily executed,
including Prime Minister Eliáš. To all intents, the Czech clandestine network was
destroyed by the Gestapo for the rest of the
war. Ladislav Vanek, alias “Jindra,” one of
the senior underground leaders whose organization sheltered the paratroopers, offered to cooperate with the Gestapo after his
arrest. The devastating result was that the
Gestapo not only eliminated the entire
network but restored the radio link with
London to feed the exiles false information.
Hitler, as we know, at first requested the execution of 10,000 Czechs, but then allowed
the figure to be lowered to avoid damaging
the morale of the Protectorate’s munitions
and armaments workers. Still, the German
command extracted a heavy toll.
On the day of Heydrich’s funeral in
Berlin, 1,000 Czech Jews were trucked from
Prague to SS extermination factories; two
more convoys followed. Out of these 3,000
Czech Jews, only one survived the war. But
something more spectacular had to be
thrown on the funeral pyre. On the day of
Heydrich’s state funeral in Berlin, the village of Lidice, near Prague, was set on fire

and entirely leveled by the SS for allegedly
sheltering the parachute agents. Two hundred male inhabitants were shot on the spot,
its female population sent to concentration
camps, and the children given to German
families for adoption. Lidice was to become
one of the most notorious Nazi atrocities. In
an act of spontaneous solidarity, several localities in the United States adopted its
name. When the citizens of a township near
Joliet, Illinois, decided to rename their village after Lidice, President Roosevelt sent a
personal message reminding everyone that
Nazi terror could never destroy love of freedom. “If future generations ask us what we
were fighting for in this war,” proclaimed
the secretary of the navy, Frank Knox, “we
shall tell them the story of Lidice.”
Nazi reprisals and atrocities caused by
the assassination of Heydrich gave Beneš
and his government-in-exile the sympathy
and support he needed. The assassination
was generally attributed to the underground
resistance; the parachutists from England
were never mentioned—exactly as Beneš
wanted. Jan Masaryk, Beneš’s right hand
man and the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia, was jubilant about the effect Lidice
had for the Czechoslovak cause in America.
He felt frustrated by his own lack of
progress in propaganda work, “then came
Lidice, and I had a new lease on life.”
The British Foreign Office, however,
carefully avoided any direct endorsement of
the tyrannicide, which it considered an internal Czech affair. That also suited Beneš’s
purpose, as he prepared to collect the rewards obtained at so high a cost. First,
Soviet Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov,
who happened to pass through London in
the aftermath of the assassination, promised
Beneš that Russia would support the expulsion of up to 1.5 million Sudeten Germans
after the war. One month later, the British
followed suit, saying that they would not
oppose in principle the transfer of Czechoslovakia’s minority population in an endeavor to make the country ethnically

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homogeneous. While the British Government still had reservations about the juridical continuity of Czechoslovakia and would
not commit itself to Downing Street repudiated the Munich settlement of September
30, 1938, in which France, Britain, Germany, and Italy had agreed to cede the frontier districts of the Czechoslovak Republic
to the German Reich.
Finally, as for the main controversy concerning the pros and cons of Heydrich’s assassination, those who argue that sparing
Heydrich could have saved thousands of

lives, must also face the fact that every day
of his service to the Third Reich meant the
further perfection of the Nazi killing machine and the a more ruthlessly efficient
genocide. By killing one of Hitler’s ablest
lieutenants, the brutal regime and its collaborators were shaken, and the occupied
peoples of Europe given hope. In my view,
the killers, that is the British-trained commandos who carried out the tyrannicide,
were heroes and should be remembered as
such—even if, technically speaking, some
might call them terrorists.

Terrorism and Heroism


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