Friday, May 29, 2009

27 May 1942: Assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich by Czech Paratroopers

On this day in 1942, paratroopers sent by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the ruler of the Nazi-occupied "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia." Heydrich was not only the "Reichsprotektor," but also the architect of the SS security apparatus and a driving force behind the extermination of European Jewry.

The attack mortally wounded Heydrich, who died on 4 June. The reprisals that followed are, if possible, even better known than the assassination itself. In particular, the massacre or deportation of the innocent villagers of Lidice became a synonym for the state terror and collective punishment under Nazi occupation. (That such terms are nowadays cavalierly applied in vastly different and incommensurate contexts is a sad irony worth noting, even though we cannot discuss it in detail here.)

The motivations and calculations behind the assassination were complex, and in part because of the ferocity of the Nazi response, details remained murky long afterward.

Reflecting on the difficult choices and consequences some three decades later, former Chief of Czechoslovak Intelligence František Moravec concluded:
Perhaps 5,000 Czechs paid with their lives for the death of a single Nazi maniac. The cost and the worth of the killing of Heydrich has been the subject of much controversy. It is certainly true that the price paid for Heydrich was much higher than the figures indicate, for the Nazis executed systematically the very best of the nation. On the other hand, it is quite clear that had Heydrich lived he would have done no less. The eradication of the Czechoslovak nation and its amalgamation into the Reich, including the systematic murder of its leaders, was the assignment with which he came to Prague.

In my opinion, the problem of cost can be reduced to a simple principle, so well understood by the parachutists Kubis and Gabcik: freedom and, above all, liberation from slavery have to be fought for, and this means losses in human lives.
The ethical and strategic dilemmas remain as relevant today as they were then. Among other things, it is bracing to be reminded of an age in which leaders calmly and resolutely--though not at all lightly--made such calculations involving both political principles and human lives. Our otherwise commendable modern desire to avoid loss of human life "at all costs" may blind us to the equal or greater costs of inaction.

Because I was for the first time present in the Czech Republic on the occasion of these anniversaries, I'll return to these topics in a more systematic way in the near future.

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