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When representatives of Britain and France allowed Nazi Germany to partition Czechoslovakia with the Munich Agreement of 1938, they could not have imagined that their action would plunge Czechoslovakia into chaos under the dominion of a shadowy criminal mastermind – Reinhard Heydrich, known as the “Butcher of Prague.”

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who signed the Munich Agreement, hailed it as a guarantee of “peace for our time.” By sealing this pact with Adolf Hitler on Sept. 30, 1938, to partition the Czech nation, Western European powers hoped to prevent a global war.

Yet, even then, Nazi leaders plotted violence. The diary entries of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels show that the Third Reich was deliberately distorting reports of Czech aggression and exaggerating German political responses to blackmail the international community into conceding to Berlin’s demands.

In June 1938, Goebbels described the Nazi campaign to seize Czechoslovakia: “We must bite hard—then the situation will get very dangerous.”

He credited his disinformation campaign with forcing Western powers to Hitler’s negotiating table. “Above all, our propaganda is exceptionally effective. It places the whole world under pressure. Through it we have already won half the war,” he wrote of the Munich negotiations on Sept. 23, 1938.

True to Goebbels’ predictions, France and Britain panicked and rushed into an agreement with Hitler’s government that allowed the Germans to march into Czech territory without even facing a fight. “Prague still lives in a complete illusion. People there believe they will get help from France, Russia and even England. Poor idiots!” Goebbels gloated over the looming fate of the Czechs.

Although many rejoiced at the illusion of peace, Winston Churchill was not fooled about the terrible fate that awaited the new captives of Nazi rule. “All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness,” he admonished the House of Commons on Oct. 5, 1938.

Yet not even Churchill could have predicted the terror that awaited Czech citizens under the iron-fisted rule of Reinhard Heydrich, installed as the “Reich Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia in 1941.

Heydrich (center) and his entourage in Italy, c. 1940. Polish State Archives.
Heydrich (center) and his entourage in Italy, c. 1940. (Polish State Archives)

Heydrich, a self-styled Nazi prince who liked to show off his sportsmanship and dapper uniforms in photo ops, rose to prominence in the regime due to his skill at organizing criminal activities on a large scale. A former communications and signal specialist in Germany’s Navy, Heydrich excelled at organizing mass murder, theft and human trafficking. He developed the devious technique of luring targets into urban areas en masse to capture and kill them with greater ease. He developed tactics for confiscating and disposing of victims’ property.

Working together with the Reich Ministry of Transportation, local police stations and railroad offices, Heydrich sited concentration camps and arrest centers along railway lines and major roadways to transport human victims like freight across national borders. In addition to developing the Nazi concentration camp system, Heydrich organized victims into categories and created labels to identify their potential “uses” to the regime. He helped plan the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, formed the Einsatzgruppen death squads in 1939 and developed the Nazis’ “Final Solution”—a plan for the total genocide of the Jewish people.

After seizing power in Czechoslovakia, Heydrich arranged the swift execution of Alois Elias, the nominal head of the Czech government. This effectively destroyed Czech national sovereignty and allowed Heydrich to rule as dictator. Heydrich did away with standard court proceedings. Instead, he created a police state and encouraged civilians to denounce each other. Trials were conducted by civilians and police. Heydrich established the Theresienstadt concentration camp and enforced executions at lightning speed.

In October and November 1941, Heydrich’s kangaroo court system executed 342 people and turned an additional estimated 1,289 people over to the Gestapo, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Additionally, Heydrich arranged for the deportation of 14,000 German and Austrian Jews and more than 20,000 Czech Jews to concentration camps in other locations.

Instructions from Heydrich to Security Police and Security Service officers on the assignment of prisoners to concentration camps, January 2, 1941. (Harvard Law School Nuremberg Trials Project)

As a country, Czechoslovakia was quickly rendered destitute by the Germans as Nazi conquerors brutalized its people and plundered its resources. Under German rule, Czechs were not allowed to be educated. Children and university students were expelled from schools and educational institutions were shut down. Furthermore, students and educated people were forbidden from working in “intellectual” professions and were forced to become farm laborers. Young Czechs were ordered to become manual laborers or be sent to labor camps in Germany. Children between the ages of 3 and 6 were “Germanized” by being placed under the care of German teachers. Libraries, museums, churches and other sites with intellectual or cultural relevance to the Czech people were dismantled.

The Germans removed all scientific instruments, books, and laboratories they found, and destroyed monuments. They also seized control of all Czech banks, factories and companies, shut down publishing houses, prevented Czechs from reading literature from foreign countries, and even charged Czechs extra taxes to support the continuing expansion of Germany’s military forces. Nazi prejudices against Czechs were clear. As early as Feb. 6, 1930, Goebbels had described Prague as “a German city” and referred to Czechs as “parasites.”

“Czechoslovakia is not a nation,” Goebbels wrote on Aug. 3, 1937. The goal of the Nazi Party was to transform Czechoslovakia into an Eastern satellite state and drain it of all useful resources.

As the population languished and died under Nazi rule, Heydrich enjoyed a lavish life in a local castle at Panenske Brezany with his radical Nazi wife and their numerous children. His nephew reported that the entire family was given celebrity status and received special privileges. Evidently desiring royal treatment, Heydrich also demanded that the crown jewels of ancient Czech kings be handed over to him, according to evidence given during the Nuremberg Trials.

Although the “Butcher of Prague” seemed invincible for a time, Heydrich’s rule over Czechoslovakia came to an abrupt end when Czech resistance fighters, trained in Britain, managed to successfully wound him in a car bomb attack in 1942. Heydrich later died of sepsis during his recovery.

Although the Nazis took brutal reprisals in retaliation for the assassination, Heydrich’s evil mastermind was lost to them forever—something that even the bombastic Goebbels admitted could never be regained. “The loss of Heydrich is irrecoverable. He was the most radical and the most efficient fighter of public enemies,” he wrote on June 5, 1942. “It will be difficult to find a suitable permanent successor for him.”

Left: The Czech village of Lidice is burned and razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1942 as revenge for Heydrich's death. Right: German soldiers pose for a photo while burning down Lidice. Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945.
Left: The Czech village of Lidice is burned and razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1942 as revenge for Heydrich’s death. Right: German soldiers pose for a photo while burning down Lidice. (Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945.) (The Czech village of Lidice is burned and razed to the ground in 1942 by the Nazis as revenge for Heydrich’s death. Right: German soldiers pose for a photo while burning Lidice. Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945, public domain.)

Of an estimated 118,000 Jews living in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich Agreement in 1938, only 6,000 remained there alive in 1946, according to evidence given at the Nuremberg Trials.

Chamberlain’s “peace” spared Britain from immediate suffering, but in reality it was neither a peace nor an ultimate solution to Nazi aggression. In addition, Churchill in his great foresight predicted in 1938 that sacrificing Czechoslovakia would turn out to be a military disaster for the Western powers. “If the Nazi dictator should choose to look westward, as he may, bitterly will France and England regret the loss of that fine army of ancient Bohemia which was estimated last week to require not fewer than 30 German divisions for its destruction,” he said.

Notices in Czech and German regarding the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich appear in occupied Czechoslovakia. Newspaper in photo dated 1942. The Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945.
Notices in Czech and German regarding the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich appear in occupied Czechoslovakia. Newspaper in photo dated 1942. (The Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945)

Had Czechoslovakia and the Western powers responded to Hitler’s expansionist incursions with organized military force in 1938, could they have managed to tip the balance of power in Europe, or at least put a dent in Germany’s war machine? The answer to that question will remain a matter of debate. What is clear is that without the Munich Agreement, the torture of Czechoslovakia under the rule of Reinhard Heydrich would likely never have happened.