If it weren’t for a pair of Czech paratroopers, Reinhard Heydrich’s name might rank closer to the top of a long list of World War II villains. Tall, blond, blue-eyed, and as cold and unrelenting as Russian winter, Heydrich now seems almost a caricature of the perfect Nazi. One postwar biographer called him “Hitler’s most evil henchman,” a title for which there was stiff competition; Heinrich Himmler, the infamous head of the SS, eulogized him as “an ideal always to be emulated, but perhaps never again to be achieved.” Indeed, Heydrich was the go-to guy for the Nazi leadership’s most sensitive and difficult tasks. His fingerprints are all over some of the most significant moments of the Third Reich. In 1934, in preparation for the Night of the Long Knives, Heydrich—then head of the Gestapo—drew up lists of rivals to the SS in the Nazi party to be arrested and executed. He helped coordinate the nationwide night of anti-Semitic attacks in 1938 known as Kristallnacht. In 1939, he engineered the fake attack on a German radio station near the Polish border that the Nazis used as an excuse to invade Poland.
Two years later, at age 37, Heydrich was put in charge of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, one of the Third Reich’s most important industrial centers. Not long after, he returned to Berlin to take care of some unfinished business. On January 20, 1942, Heydrich sealed his reputation as Hitler’s ultimate acolyte in a pleasant villa in Wannsee, a wealthy suburb on the city’s outskirts. In a long morning of meetings, he presided over a group of high-level bureaucrats and hashed out the Final Solution to the Reich’s “Jewish question.” And then, on a sunny morning in May 1942, he was assassinated by undercover commandos in one of the war’s most daring missions.
The plot to kill Heydrich was hatched in London, painstakingly prepared in top-secret training camps in the English countryside, and executed by a select group of Czech commandos. Its success shocked Hitler and other top Nazis. “It was a portent of the fate awaiting the Nazis if they lost the war,” historian Callum MacDonald wrote in The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
But Heydrich’s death came at a terrible cost. His assassination spurred an orgy of revenge, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. Instead of inspiring a wider uprising or encouraging the Czech resistance movement, the reprisals cowed the occupied country. Historians still debate whether it was worth it: Did the assassination’s symbolic value outweigh that of the lives lost?
Born near Leipzig in 1904, Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich was the son of a second-rate German composer and opera singer who kept a nationalist, anti-Semitic household. As a young man, Heydrich was a talented violinist and athlete, competing in swimming and fencing competitions. He joined the German navy in 1922, rose to the rank of ensign, and was dismissed in a cloud of scandal over a woman. In 1931, Heinrich Himmler recruited Heydrich, then just 27, as head of counterintelligence for the fledgling SS. As the SS grew in importance, so did Heydrich’s role in the Nazi party. He was Himmler’s right-hand man, helping him and the party maneuver for power. In 1934, Heydrich was made head of the Gestapo, the feared secret police division of the SS.
The SS officer’s arrogance and competitive streak—a trait that often surfaced as an addiction to risk taking—would prove to be fatal flaws. Himmler, no softy, was known to angrily refer to his headstrong subordinate as “Genghis Khan.” Outwardly portraying himself as a devoted family man and father, Heydrich was also a devoted womanizer, frequently dragging subordinates with him on benders in Berlin’s red-light district.
For all his faults, Heydrich had what it took to go far in Nazi Germany. He was a personal favorite of Hitler’s and, like his patron, knew how to manipulate those around him to get ahead. “Heydrich had an incredibly acute perception of the moral, human, professional, and political weaknesses of others,” his close friend Walter Schellenberg wrote after his death. “It seemed, as if in a pack of ferocious wolves, he must always prove himself the strongest and assume the leadership.”
Restoring order to the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia—an area roughly corresponding to today’s Czech Republic—was an important steppingstone for Heydrich. Controlled by Germany since 1939, a year after the Munich Agreement had ceded Czechoslovakia’s western borders to Germany, the protectorate was a key source of coal for the war effort and one of Europe’s top arms manufacturing centers.
In 1939, Edvard Benes—the pre-protectorate president of Czechoslovakia—set up a government in exile in London. In a strange turn of international law, the Munich Agreement signed by Italy, Britain, France, and Germany remained in force: If Germany lost the war, things would go back to the post-Munich borders and it would keep nearly five million people and 16,000 square miles of Czechoslovakia.
Benes was determined to prevent this. But to overturn the agreement, he had to prove to the Allies that the Czech people were contributing to the fight against Nazi Germany. Besides spreading propaganda, Benes often pointed to the thousands of Czech soldiers who had fled the country after the annexation, fought in France during the invasion, then retreated with other Allied forces. Czech pilots fought in the Battle of Britain, shooting down dozens of German aircraft.
Working with Britain’s elite Special Operations Executive, Benes began training the best of the Czech army in exile as parachutists who could be dropped into the occupied Czech territory to help the local opposition or conduct sabotage operations. The drops, which commenced in October 1941, were often hasty affairs, and not well thought out. “There was no escape plan,” MacDonald wrote. “The agents would remain underground until they were either killed or captured or Czechoslovakia was liberated by an Allied victory.”
The president in exile had no shortage of volunteers for the secret missions. Two men stood out: Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcík, both veterans in their late 20s who had fought in France and made their way to England at the beginning of the war. Kubis was a sergeant who felt humiliated by his country’s surrender to the Nazis, and earned the Czech War Cross for his part in fighting Germans in France. Gabcík’s last post before the German invasion was in a military chemical warehouse; before leaving, he poured acid over the stocks of mustard gas to keep the dangerous chemical out of German hands.
At secret training bases in Britain, Kubis and Gabcík practiced using explosives and parachutes. Neither man was a natural-born killer—their British trainers gave them mediocre marks on their evaluations—but they were trustworthy, and unlikely to question their orders once on the ground.
As the situation in the Czech protectorate deteriorated by fall 1941, Himmler and Hitler decided to send the 37-year-old Heydrich in to clean things up. His mission was clear. “We will Germanize the Czech vermin,” he told his subordinates after his arrival in Prague. Privately, the SS of?cer saw the post as a way to escape Himmler’s shadow and further his own career.
Heydrich’s experience running the Nazi secret police force served him well when it came to cracking down on the already weak Czech opposition. He turned the protectorate into an SS fiefdom, appointing fellow SS officers to important positions in the government. On his watch, the Gestapo seized radio equipment brought in by parachute commandos, followed leads provided by collaborators to members of the resistance, and executed thousands of intellectuals and suspected members of the underground. Czech Jews were rounded up and put in ghettos, the first step to the gas chambers. Fear was omnipresent. “The terror…is powerful, and for everyone politically active there is a permanent Gestapo agent,” one parachutist messaged London not long after dropping into the country. “Work is exceptionally difficult in spite of our contacts.”
Though Benes’s government in exile labeled Heydrich “the Butcher of Prague,” his tactics were subtle and effective. Unlike the Poles, Czechs had been far more divided about Germany before the war began, and many were Nazi sympathizers. Even as he brutally cracked down on the resistance, Jews, and intellectuals, Heydrich increased rations and wages for workers, reduced their hours, and worked to suppress the black market, a wartime institution most ordinary Czechs resented. “I must have peace of mind that every Czech worker works at his maximum for the German war effort,” he told subordinates not long after he arrived in Prague. “This includes feeding the Czech worker—to put it frankly—so that he can do his work.”
Heydrich’s tactics soon turned the situation in Prague around completely, putting Czech manufacturing back on track, and making Heydrich a hero back in Berlin. “He plays cat-and-mouse with the Czechs, and they swallow everything he places before them,” Hitler’s propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, noted in his diary in February 1942. “As a result the Protectorate is now in the best of spirits, quite in contrast to other occupied or annexed areas.”
Heydrich’s successes in Prague persuaded Benes it was time to take drastic action. In October 1941, plans were drawn up to assassinate Heydrich under the code name Anthropoid. The exiled Czech leader felt tremendous pressure; the currents of war were shifting. That December, with the overextended German army bogging down in the Soviet Union and the Americans on board after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he began to fear not just a continuation of the Munich Agreement, but the possibility of a compromise peace agreement between Nazi Germany and the Allies that would sacri?ce the Czechs.
While Benes hoped the assassination would spark a Czech uprising that would reassure the other Allied leaders, it’s possible he had another motive: reprisals, which were sure to come, might outrage the Czechs enough to push them into action. “In this situation,” he told the resistance via coded radio messages from his safe perch in London, “a proof of strength in our own country—rebellion, open action, acts of sabotage and demonstrations—may become desirable…even if it has to be paid for with a great many sacrifices.”
Kubis and Gabcík were airdropped into this tense situation on December 29. The Halifax bomber that delivered them was off course thanks to the snow blanketing the Czech countryside, and they landed nearly 50 miles from their planned drop zone. Still, they made contact with local resistance groups, and were smuggled into the capital, given false papers, and set up in a series of safe houses.
Not long after their arrival, the two Operation Anthropoid commandos began preparing for the assassination. The young veterans weren’t interested in a suicide mission—in their months in Prague they both found girlfriends they hoped to marry after the war. One of the women was even pregnant.
Czechs working in Prague Castle, a massive edifice overlooking the city that was the headquarters of the Nazi regime, fed the two men intelligence on Heydrich’s security and schedule. They quickly eliminated the heavily guarded castle as an assassination site. Heydrich’s suburban estate, a sprawling villa seized from a Jewish sugar magnate, was also too secure. But Heydrich had to travel from home to office—and the overconfident Nazi chief did so with no escort, taking the same winding road down from the hills outside Prague to the city center each day. Kubis and Gabcík spent weeks watching him come and go, and ?nally picked a hairpin curve on a steep hill a few miles from the commandant’s residence.
For weeks, rumors had been flying within the tight-knit underground about the mysterious mission Gabcík and Kubis were on. The two men were clearly planning something big, but they refused to answer to local commanders. Finally, an astonishingly frank transmission was directed to Benes in London. “From the preparations that Ota and Zdenek [Kubis and Gabcík’s code names] are working on and the place where it is happening, we guess, despite their silence, that they’re preparing to assassinate H,” the resistance leadership messaged. “This assassination would not help the Allies and would bring immense consequences upon our nation.”
Benes disregarded the warning, and the message was intercepted by the Gestapo on May 12. Heydrich was urged to take more security measures, like traveling with an escort and installing armor in his official car. He paid no heed to these remonstrations, frustrating his subordinates. “Heydrich approved the general measures but categorically refused a personal escort, on the grounds that it would damage German prestige,” the Gestapo commander who investigated the assassination later wrote. “A certain arrogant pride and his sporting outlook probably prompted his attitude. He really believed that no Czech would harm him.”
On the morning of Tuesday, May 26, 1942, Reich Protector Heydrich was in a ?ne mood. He was flying to meet with Hitler later that day, hoping to persuade the führer to promote him, perhaps to head of security for all of the occupied territories. The night before, he had staged a recital of some of his father’s chamber music, even writing the program notes himself. He spent the morning eating a leisurely breakfast and playing in the palace gardens with his three children and pregnant wife, filled his briefcase with papers he needed for his meeting with Hitler, and climbed into his dark green open-topped Mercedes staff car.
A few miles away, the assassins were waiting. They had ridden borrowed bicycles to a hillside tram stop, their weapons hidden in briefcases strapped to the handlebars. To conceal his Sten gun once it was assembled, Gabcík wore a raincoat, despite the warm weather and cloudless sky. A third conspirator, one of the dozen or so parachutists on missions in Prague, was recruited as a lookout to flash a signal when Heydrich approached.
At 10:32, the signal came and Heydrich’s car topped the hill just as a tram full of passengers approached from below. Kubis and Gabcík readied their weapons. As the car slowed to take the sharp corner, Gabcík stepped into the road and leveled his gun at Heydrich. But when he pulled the trigger, the Sten jammed. Heydrich, enraged, made a fatal mistake. Instead of ordering his driver to step on the gas and accelerate out of the ambush, the SS commander stopped the car, stood up, and pulled his sidearm to deal with what he thought was a lone gunman.
At that moment, Kubis ran up from his hiding spot on the other side of the road and hurled one of his specially-designed bombs at the car. Bad luck struck again: instead of landing inside the convertible, the bomb hit the side of the Mercedes, just in front of one of the car’s rear wheels. The blast damaged the car and sent shrapnel flying into Kubis’s face. Heydrich and his driver, stunned, lurched out of the car and split up, chasing after the fleeing commandos.
Ears still ringing from the misdirected explosion, Kubis plunged into the crowd at the tram stop, firing his .38 Colt automatic in the air to scatter the bystanders. Heydrich’s driver, a hulking SS officer named Johannes Klein, gave chase—but now his gun jammed. Half blinded by the blood covering his face, Kubis managed to mount his bicycle and ride off down the hill, leaving Klein behind.
Gabcík wasn’t so lucky. As the dust cleared, he faced the feared Obergruppenführer of the Czech protectorate, who lurched toward him, pointing a 7.65mm automatic. Gabcík dropped his useless submachine gun, pulled his own pistol and ducked behind a pole. Heydrich began shooting from behind the stopped tram, then suddenly doubled over in pain.
Kubis’s bomb, it turned out, had not been a total failure. A fragment of metal from the explosion had torn through the back seat of the unarmored staff car and hit Heydrich in the back. Overcome with pain, the SS officer stumbled back to the Mercedes and collapsed, giving Gabcik a chance to escape.
Klein, running back up the street to check on his injured commander, found him sprawled across the hood of the car, blood spreading across his dress uniform. “Get that bastard,” Heydrich told him. Klein—his gun still jammed—managed to corner Gabcík in a butcher shop, where the increasingly desperate Czech commando shot Klein in the legs and disappeared down a side street.
Meanwhile, bystanders at the tram stop flagged down a passing van full of floor polish and loaded the SS commander in the back. Jolting over the cobbled street, the van drove to the nearest hospital, where an x-ray revealed the extent of Heydrich’s injuries. The metal from the explosion had shattered Heydrich’s 11th rib, punctured his stomach, and driven bits of wire and horsehair from the car’s cushion into his spleen.
The news reached Hitler less than two hours later. His first reaction was to order dramatic reprisals. Ten thousand Czechs were to be arrested, and any political prisoners in custody—including prominent politicians, like the prime minister—were to be shot. To smoke out the perpetrators, a reward of one million reichsmarks was posted, along with a promise to execute anyone caught helping the assassins, including their families.
The führer’s dramatic reaction was part outrage, part nerves. The hit on Heydrich was the first assassination attempt on a top-ranking Nazi. As the masters of occupied Europe, Germans were high-profile targets, vastly outnumbered and isolated in posts far from home. As Goebbels remarked a few days later after a conversation with Hitler, “The führer…foresees the possibility of a rise in assassination attempts if we do not proceed with energetic and ruthless measures.”
Remarkably, the Nazis stationed in Prague, wary of inspiring a popular uprising, urged restraint. Evidence gathered at the scene of the crime—including Gabcík’s British-made Sten gun, and British explosives, fuses, and bullet casings—made it clear the perpetrators were commandos parachuted in from abroad, rather than the product of a homegrown resistance movement. Flying to Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, Heydrich’s deputy, Karl Hermann Frank, argued for a more measured response of directing propaganda against the government in exile, and conducting random searches.
In the meantime, Heydrich lay in the hospital, surrounded by guards and attended by Himmler’s personal physician. An operation hours after the attack had removed the metal from his abdomen, and the surgeons reluctantly removed his spleen as well. Within days, it was clear Heydrich’s wound was badly infected. On June 2, he lost consciousness. Two days later, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich, 38, was dead.
Privately, Hitler was furious at Heydrich. “Such heroic gestures as driving in an open, unarmored vehicle or walking about the streets unguarded are just damned stupidity, which serves the country not one whit,” he fumed. Publicly, Heydrich’s death was treated as a national tragedy. His body was displayed with an honor guard in Prague Castle for two days before it was sent to Berlin for a state funeral. Himmler delivered the eulogy; Hitler presented the German Order decoration.
As the Gestapo began to hunt for the perpetrators in Prague, retaliation began in earnest. As usual, Jews were the first targets. On June 9, 3,000 Jews from the Terezín ghetto were shipped to death camps in Poland on special trains marked “Assassination of Heydrich.” Hitler decided to go a step further. Lidice, a small village in Bohemia, was selected for annihilation. On the day of Heydrich’s funeral, the village was surrounded and all the men over 15 were rounded up and shot in groups of 10, a task that took all night and most of the next day. (The executioners were police brought in from Heydrich’s hometown in Germany.) The women of Lidice were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where 53 died by the end of the war. A few of Lidice’s 104 children were given to SS families for “proper upbringing”; 82 of them were gassed. The SS then torched the town, dynamited its houses, school, and small church, excavated the town’s cemetery, and even re-routed the small stream that ran through it. By early July, there was literally nothing left.
Meanwhile, Heydrich’s killers had gone to ground in the center of Prague, hidden by a local priest in the basement of a Czech Orthodox church just a few hundred yards from the river. In addition to the three men on the scene, four other parachutists who had helped plan the attack took refuge in the catacomb; one, Karel Curda, managed to slip out of the city and hid in his mother’s barn in the countryside.
As days turned into weeks, the commandos sank into depression verging on panic. Heydrich was dead, but the men felt personally responsible for the increasingly brutal reprisals against civilians. Isolated and alone, they even considered committing suicide in a public park after hanging signs around their necks claiming responsibility.
In the end, their fate was sealed by betrayal. On June 13, with no leads in the case, Nazi officials announced an amnesty for anyone who stepped forward with information on the assassins’ identities, plus a million-mark bounty. A few days later, Curda—separated from his comrades and under heavy pressure from his family—took a train to Prague and turned himself in. Within hours, he had given up the identity of his fellow parachutists and the addresses of several safe houses in Prague.
The Gestapo swung into action. At one of the safe houses, the Moravec family was arrested at 5 in the morning on June 17. Maria Moravcova managed to swallow a cyanide pill; her son, Vlastimil, and husband were arrested and tortured. Vlastimil held out most of the day. Finally, his interrogators got him drunk and then brought in his mother’s head, floating in a ?sh tank. Vlastimil cracked and blurted out the name of the church where he had been told to hide if there was ever trouble.
It was the break the Nazis needed. Within hours, 700 elite Waffen SS soldiers had surrounded the downtown church. Just after 4:10 in the morning, a janitor let them into the nave, where they were greeted by a grenade tossed by one of the three commandos hiding in the choir loft. Determined to take the assassins alive, the SS spent two hours exchanging ?re with the defenders. Down to their last bullets, three men—including Kubis—finally swallowed cyanide and then shot themselves.
Gabcík and three other parachutists were hiding in the church catacomb. Still hoping to take prisoners—proving the plot was an English import rather than homegrown would be a propaganda coup for Himmler—the Gestapo commanders on the ground brought Curda in to encourage his former conspirators to surrender. Yelling into a low grate that opened into the catacomb, he was greeted with gunfire.
Next, the fire department was called in to flood the catacomb. Their hoses were pushed out and cut by the trapped men, who also threw German tear gas grenades back out of the crypt. Even an assault squad of Waffen SS soldiers sent down into the crypt to overpower the parachutists was ambushed in the dark, flooded chamber and had to pull back.
Finally, after more than six hours of fighting, the SS overruled the Gestapo and blew open the main entrance to the catacomb with explosives. Before they could storm in, four shots rang out. Like Kubis, Gabcík and his comrades had chosen suicide over capture or surrender.
The battle was over, but retaliations continued. Hundreds of underground activists and their family members—including the families of some the men in the crypt—were rounded up and executed, along with the priests who sheltered the men.
When the war ended, many of the Czechs who collaborated with the Nazis—including Curda, the traitorous paratrooper—were convicted of treason by the postwar Czech government and executed. (Asked during his trial why he betrayed his comrades, Curda shrugged. “I think you would have done the same for a million marks,” he told the judge.) Because the mission was sponsored by and coordinated from Britain, Soviet-dominated, communist-era Czechoslovakia played down its importance. But since the end of communism in 1989, Gabcík and Kubis have been transformed into national heroes. The crypt of the church in downtown Prague where they made their last stand is now a museum and memorial; a 30-foot-tall monument marks the spot where they gunned down the Butcher of Prague.
Historians, though, are still debating whether Operation Anthropoid should be celebrated or condemned. Despite the hopes of Benes and the other members of Czechoslovakia’s government in exile, the assassination failed to inspire a mass uprising. “Far from rallying the Czech people around the home resistance, as Bene?s expected, it shattered the remnants of an organization already weakened by the terror of October 1941,” Callum MacDonald wrote.
Nonetheless, the brutality of the Nazi retaliation did persuade the Allies to tear up the Munich Agreement and officially recognize Benes as president. Though it may have suppressed the Czech resistance, it turned the suffering of the Czechs into a cause célèbre internationally, more infamous at the time than the far larger massacres at Babi Yar or Rumbula. “Lidice became the rallying cry of the resistance mainly because the Nazis spoke out about this reprisal,” Mario Dederichs wrote in his biography Heydrich: The Face of Evil.
But perhaps the assassination’s most important impact was psychological. Nazi leaders would never feel safe again. And at a low point in the war, the sacri?ce of Kubis and Gabcík—along with thousands of others—showed the Allies that the Nazi hold on Europe was far from unbreakable.
Andrew Curry, a foreign correspondent based in Berlin, travels often throughout Central and Eastern Europe. A former Fulbright journalism fellow, he covers science, history, politics, and culture for such magazines as Discover, Smithsonian, and Wired, and is an Archaeology contributing editor. Visit andrewcurry.com.