Assassinate an SS German Leader? Sure. But There Were Consequences.

Historians/History
tags: Nazi, General Reinhard Heydrich



James Stejskal, a former CIA senior intelligence operations officer, is author of the book The Horns of the Beast: The Swakop River Campaign and World War I in South-West Africa, 1914-1915. This article is derived from an article published by Military History Monthly (MHM 29, Feb 2013) .


I am eagerly anticipating watching Anthropoid, the new movie documenting the May 1942 assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the German “Reichsprotektor” of Czechoslovakia.

The incident is important for raising a question of lasting concern: When is it moral to intentionally kill a military leader knowing that retribution could mean the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians?

The answer is not simple. The calculations used by the Czech Government in exile during World War II to decide on the operation were both realistic and coldly political. 

Heydrich was named Acting Reichs Protector to Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941 to quell civilian population disturbances and strikes against the German occupation forces. Hitler needed the Protectorate’s industrial capacity to feed his war machine.  Heydrich’s job was to bring order to the troubled region.

Heydrich had the experience and temperament for the job. After climbing his way through the Byzantine architecture of the Nazi Party, he founded and led the SS Security Service – the Sicherheitsdienst (SD); assumed responsibility for the Security Police (SIPO), which included the Secret State Police - the dreaded Gestapo. Then he was chosen to head the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA). In this position he was responsible for the suppression of any opposition to Hitler's regime in Germany and the occupied territories. His actions as Reichsprotektor fully justified his nickname "The Blond Beast." 

At the same time, the Czechoslovakian Government in exile, especially President-in-Exile Edvard Beneš, sought support from France and Britain in anticipation of his eventual return to power in his homeland. But he had a problem. Britain and France had not repudiated the 1938 Munich Conference that permitted Germany to annex Bohemia and Moravia. Nor had the Czech "government" remaining in the occupied territory resisted the Germans with the same fervor as governments in other occupied countries like Poland.

Beneš felt that only the killing of a senior German would swing the Allies to repudiate the Munich Agreement and provide more support for the resistance movement. In his mind, Heydrich was the logical target of choice. And Beneš and his Chief of Intelligence, Colonel František Moravec, thought that only a spectacular action like an assassination would demonstrate his people’s resistance to German occupation and cement his role as leader of the Czech people. 

Two Czech paratroopers, Warrant Officers Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, were chosen for the mission and after a long spell of training, they were parachuted into German-occupied Czechoslovakia for the mission. They prepared for the operation from January 1942 until they were able to ambush and gun down SS Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant General) Heydrich on the streets of Prague as he was driven to work.  Although Heydrich was not immediately killed, he succumbed to his wounds days later. With that, the fate of thousands of Czech citizens was sealed.

Hitler, upon hearing of the assassination, instructed SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler that the SS should “wade in blood” to avenge Heydrich. The Germans subsequently killed an estimated 5,000 Czechs, at least 3,000 of them Jews, to revenge the loss of their comrade. Shortly after the assassination, the SS surrounded the village of Lidice; the men were executed and the women and children sent to concentration camps. A second village was razed and more civilians killed before a confession from a fellow saboteur gave the Germans the information they needed to find and kill the remaining Czech resistance fighters.

Five thousand Czechs for one dead German. Was the assassination of Heydrich worth this price? 

There is little doubt that President-in-Exile Bene and Colonel Moravec knew that there would be a massive reprisal. Winston Churchill knew of the operation and probably approved of its intent and understood the potential consequences. Beneš and Moravec undoubtedly decided that the likelihood of reprisal was outweighed by the need for Britain and France to repudiate the Munich Agreement.  The killing of Heydrich can be nominally justified, if not as self-defense or in line with the Just War Theory, then as an act against an unjust aggressor. Had Heydrich not been killed, he would no doubt have continued to perpetrate crimes against humanity. 

The cold, simple fact is that the assassination of Heydrich served a purpose. On August 5, 1942, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden sent a letter to his Czechoslovak colleague stating that in light of German depredations in the occupied territories, Britain revoked the Munich Agreement.  Two months later, France followed suit.  

As Colonel Moravec concluded: "the problem can be reduced to a simple principle: freedom and, above all, liberation from slavery have to be fought for, and this means losses in human lives.” 

ANTHROPOID's goal was nothing less than to secure the repudiation of the Munich Agreement.  In this, but at a terrible cost, Warrant Officers Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis accomplished their mission.  



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