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Exactly 80 years ago, Heydrich arrived in Prague

They had no one sharper, says historian

Reinhard Heydrich, who arrived in the Protectorate on 27 September 80 years ago, was a beast, but above all a cold-blooded technologist of Nazi power, according to historian Jindřich Marek of the Military History Institute.

This is the 80th anniversary of the day Reinhard Heydrich arrived as acting Reich Protector. Why did he replace Konstantin von Neurath?

For a simple reason. In September 1941, Nazi Germany was thriving on the eastern battlefields, they took Kiev, they began the siege of Leningrad. They were occupying almost all of Europe. And to do that, they needed a supply of weapons and other material. The Czech armaments industry was a major supplier of German troops and the Germans, who like order, wanted absolute peace in the Czech lands and no resistance or sabotage.

He was preparing the cold-blooded murder of the Jews and the liquidation of the Czech nation.

Although the Gestapo succeeded in almost paralysing the Czech military resistance, Berlin was not satisfied with Neurath, who was an aristocrat and dealt with everything slowly. He was also not satisfied with the Protectorate government, because the Prime Minister, General Alois Elias, was obstructing Germanization measures and was in contact with the domestic resistance and with Benes in England.

And the Germans already knew this at the time?

The Gestapo knew, and that's why the Nazis decided to send a sharp man to Prague. And they had no one sharper than Heydrich. This was not good news for the insiders, because he was one of the highest ranking Nazis, and he was razor-sharp, and he immediately took action.

Welcoming Reinhard Heydrich (centre) on September 28, 1941 in Hradčany Square.
Photo: Photo ČTK/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Scherl

What instructions did he have from Hitler?

To ensure peace in the Protectorate. How to do that was left to him. The same day he arrived at Kbely airport, he had Prime Minister Elias arrested and later executed. That same day, he prepares to declare martial law. And the next day, in Ruzyně, firing squads were already shooting generals and officers from the resistance organisation Defence of the Nation, General Josef Bílý, General Hugo Vojta, the Mayor of Prague Otokar Klapka, the Mayor of Sokol [=Falcon, the Czech national gym movement] Augustin Pechlát. Within two days, Heydrich imposed extreme terror.

German People's Courts handed out death sentences in minutes. In 1939 and 1940 they also gave out heavy sentences, but it wasn't until Heydrich put it "in order" and said that he "would not Germanise the Czech bastards [Gensiden, xindly] with the old methods".

Was that his concept of the final solution to the Czech question?

Yes, there was a plan for longer-term Germanisation and integration, but Heydrich decided not to delay. But in doing so, he made a number of enemies, although the Gestapo disrupted the military resistance a lot.

Of the famous Three Kings, Josef Balabán had already been executed, the badly wounded Josef Mašín was in the hands of the Gestapo, and Staff Captain Václav Morávek was hunted down on the run. General Bedřich Homola, the commander of the Defence of the Nation, was in hiding, no longer having the strength for any action, and in December he was captured and later executed.

But Czechoslovak soldiers abroad, especially in England, were very indignant at Heydrich's rampage, that he was executing their buddies and former commanders. And five days after Heydrich's arrival, on 3 October, they selected two paratroopers, Jozef Gabcik and Karel Svoboda, but the latter was injured and replaced by Jan Kubiš.

They were asked at the time if they were willing to return to their homeland and kill Heydrich or as a replacement target K. H. Frank. The paratroopers agreed and were to leave as soon as possible. The original - very optimistic - plan was that they would liquidate him on the national holiday of 28 October.

And what did Heydrich's rampage provoke in the Protectorate?

There, Heydrich also created a powerful enemy: the Sokols, whose mayor Pechlat was killed, banned and dragged 1,500 Sokols to concentration camps, most of whom did not survive.

But the falcons who remained were willing to help the paratroopers, and without them the assassination would have been impossible. They provided them with shelter, supplies and, above all, information about Heydrich's movements. Alone, the two would have stood no chance in the Protectorate, but the network of Sokols, their wives and children contributed greatly to the success of the assassination.

Why did Heydrich go after the falcons like that?

The label of beast is appropriate, but above all he was a cold-blooded technocrat of power. He was highly intelligent and talented. He could play the violin, was a pilot, a fencer, had three children he loved, a fourth was on the way. But he was the prototype of the Nazi architect of power. He was the architect of the Holocaust. Without emotion, he was preparing the cold-blooded murder of the Jews and the liquidation of the Czech nation through the gradual Germanization and liquidation of its elites.
Without the sacrifices of the Falcons, the success of the assassination would not have been possible.
Sudeten German K. H. Frank had diverse emotions towards the Czechs, but Heydrich was completely icy, he did everything systematically and quickly. He knew who to pacify quickly: teachers, officers, falcons and scouts. That is, the mainstays of civil society, behind which were huge organizations and associations like the Sokol, the Junak, amateur theaters, firefighters...

Back then, they didn't wait for subsidies - even a poor worker in the Sokol had to buy a Sokol costume with his own money - and they were organised and dedicated. There was also an organised resistance in the Sokol, the so-called OSVO (Sokol Resistance Village) or Jindra [a Czech colloquial equivalent of Henry]. There were die-hard resistance fighters like František Pecháček, Jan Zelenka-Hajský or the Novák family. The paratroopers came across them and received substantial help from them.

And how did Heydrich's terror affect Czech society?

Logically, it frightened and intimidated them. Heydrich had some success with some of the workers. He said at the time: "We have to feed the Czech worker and he will make us weapons."

By 1941, everything was on food stamps, food was scarce and the black market was flourishing. Also, in addition to the pure resistance fighters, several dozen black marketeers were executed in the first wave. Heydrich needed heavy industry workers to make tanks, so he increased their rations in the poverty of the Protectorate: rum, lard, canned fish.

Historian Jindřich [Henry] Marek.
Photo: archive

When I once interviewed some of the gendarmes who didn't collaborate as much as they are said to have done, one of them told me that when he was in Brno at night on his rounds and walked past the armaments factory, he heard the workers joking that they were better off than before the war.

Heydrich bought those who don't think about the day after tomorrow. His terror was also a success. If you have three children at home and can be executed for anything, you'll think twice about doing external resistance.

But the resistance hasn't been completely destroyed?

No. As he cornered the falcons, soldiers and other resisters, they were ready to fight back.

Was there something behind Heydrich coming to the country on the eve of St. Wenceslas [patron saint of the Czechs] Day?

I don't think so, although the Germans did take advantage of St. Wenceslas Day. For example, the highest decoration of the Protectorate was the St. Wenceslas Eagle. The cult of St. Wenceslas was cultivated in a simplistic interpretation that it was good to cooperate and adapt to the Reich.

But there was nothing in it, on September 24 Hitler was dealing with problems in the Reich and the Protectorate came up and he decided to send in the most capable of the capable in his view. But it is true that it is very dramatic that the mass executions began on the feast of a national saint.

It is said that when Heydrich received the keys to the crown jewels, he put on the crown of St. Wenceslas and thereby invoked a curse that says that anyone unauthorized to do so will die within a year. Is that just a legend?

It's a legend that's burned itself into the minds of those of us who have seen the rather good film Assassination by director Jiri Sequens. But no one has come across any serious proof. But the fact that he was there and tampered with the jewels has created myths. Like the legend of Lomikar [Freiherr Wolf Maximilian Laminger of Albenreuth] and Kozina [the leader of Czech rebels in the Southwest Domažlice Region], it was created without evidence of what Kozina said before his execution. But because Lomikar died within a year of Kozina's execution, the Khodas then said at home, you see Lomikar, within a year and a day. And that became a popular meme.

You said that Heydrich was able to buy workers, but still in the factories they sabotaged or at least did WS campaigns, that is, work slowly [Czech: PP].

Yes, there was also spontaneous resistance, which bordered on sabre rattling, like the aforementioned work slowly, or if you mess something up, just do it right. Heydrich was greatly aided in buying workers by the Protectorate's collaborationist trade unions, especially the NOÚZ - the National Workers' Trade Union Headquarters. For example, they organized a spa stay for several thousand workers in Luhacovice.

The unions also produced various anti-Jewish posters in an attempt to distract attention from the Protectorate's poverty and blame the lack of food on the Jews. Probably the most famous poster shows a worker building and Jews behind a fence chain and black marketing. They also tried to put all the blame on people in England, America or the Communists.

Why is this story of the tyrant and his liquidation still so appealing?

It is one of the greatest achievements of the liquidation of a tyrant in Europe, the third highest Nazi in the Reich, one of the greatest beasts. Even during the war, the story resonated in Hollywood, where they made two films.

With the tragedy, to see these films today is rather hilarious, because Gabcik and Kubiš look like Serbian peasants, bearded, hairy, with battering rams, because Yugoslav gendarmes were popular in America at the time. They were films made out of admiration for the action, but without any information.

The response abroad to the assassination and the drama that followed was enormous. Lidice, Ležáky [the two villages that were totally burned out as an act of revenge], the resistance, the death of the paratroopers in the church. It was an ancient drama. In Latin America, for example, they renamed villages Lidice, often naming little girls Lidice. And it was never the same before the assassination. The people the Nazis murdered after the assassination in the non-communist resistance were missing in 1948 to resist the rise of communist totalitarianism.

Is there a comparable assassination of a Nazi strongman?

I greatly admire the Polish resistance organisation Armia Krajowa. It systematically condemned to death and then liquidated important occupation leaders. But in the hierarchy of Nazi power, these dignitaries were a long way from Heydrich.

Of course, the Poles also paid heavily for it. In our country, the Nazis systematically executed entire families, but in Poland they did it through a system of street executions. A car arrived, soldiers jumped out, caught a hundred people in the street and shot them all.

And it also had a huge foreign policy impact on the future of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France withdrew their signatures from the Munich Agreement and the powers had no problem with the post-war removal of Germans.

It was such a pyramid. The struggle of our airmen in England, the formation of the government-in-exile gradually shaped the bottom layers of the pyramid of the effort to return Czechoslovakia to its pre-Munich borders. But when the assassination and Lidice came, the process was completed.

Translated by (free version)

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