Killing the head of the Reich Main Security Service—the principal architect of Nazi terror, including the rapidly evolving persecution of the Jews—and a brutal ruler of an occupied homeland was by any measure an understandable goal for Czechoslovak military intelligence, but there were also more complex motivations on the part of the political echelon: Czechoslovakia, betrayed by its nominal British and French allies, had been forced to cede its western borderlands (including crucial fortifications) to Germany at the Munich Conference in September 1938 (Hungary and Poland also took their share, it is often forgotten). Thereafter, resistance became psychologically as well as practically almost impossible, and the Germans seized the remainder of the country in March 1939 without a fight, dividing it into the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” and a clerico-fascist Slovak puppet state. War broke out in September, of course, making a mockery of the “appeasement” policy that had sacrificed the only functioning democracy in Central Europe in the vain hope of avoiding the inevitable showdown with fascism.
The Czechoslovak government-in-exile hoped that the assassination would accomplish multiple goals: to demonstrate resistance and national will in the face of Heydrich’s increasingly and embarrassingly successful attempts to pacify the country; to damage the German war effort; to rally the people to further resistance (in that it failed), and to ensure that, despite the dismemberment at Munich, the republic would be fully restored after an Allied victory. The assassination of Heydrich was not only an act of resistance and revenge, but also a bid to restore national honor during the conflagration and a marker laid down for the postwar bargaining table.
At the end of December 1941, Czechoslovak military intelligence in London, working with British Special Operations Executive (SOE), dropped three teams of parachutists into Bohemia (Silver A and B, and Anthropoid) followed by two more (Out Distance and Zinc) in March. After no little hardship (beginning with missed drop zones), the teams reassembled and eventually carried out their operation. The members of Anthropoid carefully planned the assassination to take advantage of Heydrich’s casual approach to security: He recklessly traveled from his country villa in Panenské Břežany to the castle in Prague in an open car, by a regular route, and without accompanying guards in a separate vehicle. Where his route took a sharp right-hand turn toward the River Vltava, the paratroopers took up their positions on the morning of May 27.
Sergeant Josef Valčik stood, apparently loitering, on a street corner. When the car approached, he signaled with a pocket mirror to Warant Officers Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík, farther down the street. As the car slowed to round the corner, Gabčík stepped forward, drew a Sten gun from under his raincoat, and fired—or tried to: the gun jammed. As he stood there, paralyzed, and Heydrich drew a pistol, Kubiš threw a modified anti-tank grenade, which exploded against the rear left side of the car. Kubiš escaped quickly, while Gabčík had to endure first gunfire from Heydrich and then pursuit by his chauffeur. The paratroopers instantly became the subject of an unprecedented manhunt.
Although Heydrich’s wounds at first appeared non-critical (for the kidneys and spine were untouched), the bomb had in fact driven fragments of horsehair and springs from the car’s seat into the pleura, diaphragm, and region of the spleen. After suffering for days in agony, the Reichsprotektor (treated only by German doctors) succumbed to complications from his wounds—usually described as septicaemia—on 4 June.
The story of the assassination long remained shrouded in both ignorance and distortion. Two wartime movies—Fritz Lang’s classic “Hangmen Also Die,” and Douglas Sirk’s less well-known “Hitler’s Madman” (both 1943)—paid ample tribute to the heroism of the resisters and suffering of the innocent victims of reprisals but bore no resemblance to the actual historical events. In part because of the horrible reprisals, the government-in-exile may have been reluctant to claim explicit and detailed credit for the action. President Edvard Beneš—who had capitulated at Munich, went into exile in England, and then returned briefly to his country after the war, only to be manipulated out of power by the communists—never openly acknowledged his role in the plan. At the time, his public statements attributed the act to homegrown patriots; he omitted any mention of it in his later memoirs. Only in the 1960s did the former head of Czechoslovak military intelligence, František Moravec, publicly confirm that he had carried out the operation with the full awareness and approval of the President. Although Czechoslovak communist leader Klement Gottwald had immediately praised the act from his exile in Moscow, the postwar communist government (it is often said) had little desire to call attention to the fact that the greatest act of wartime resistance had been accomplished by the western exile Czechs with assistance from imperial Britain. In 2007, Czech citizens, impatient at the absence of any commemoration on the spot, announced plans to put up their own, unauthorized memorial. Only last spring, while I was in Prague, was a monument finally erected, 67 years after the event. (coverage from Radio Praha, with audio).
Soon after Heydrich’s death, the Nazis installed a shrine at the scene of the attack, where a round-the-clock SS honor guard stood vigilant beside a bust of the Reichsprotektor. Unsurprisingly, the Czechs destroyed the offending structure in 1945. In subsequent decades, the assassination site was largely forgotten.
When I made my pilgrimage to a location only rarely mentioned in guidebooks, I decided to see as much as possible on foot. After emerging from the Kobylisy metro station, I walked down Zenklova, though diverging along the way to explore the side streets now named after the parachutists.
As in so many cases, the site of a great historical event is today a stark and unprepossessing place, transformed almost beyond recognition by modern development. Although one can still ride the line of the tram that nearly disrupted the ambush, what was once a quasi-rural intersection has become a modern roadway interchange reconfigured for high-speed, high-volume traffic. The site therefore poses multiple aesthetic and practical challenges for preservationist and artist alike.
When I rounded the corner of V Holešovičkách, I was at first, if not exactly disappointed, at least more puzzled and less moved than I had expected. I spent quite some time there—listening to Bohuslav Martinů's "Památník Lidicím" and "Polní Mše" on the iPod or just sitting in silence—contemplating both the historical event and the decisions made in commemorating it.
The monument (Pomník Operaci Anthropoid), a triangular 11-meter column surmounted by a trio of bronze human figures, sits on a narrow, irregularly shaped plaza of concrete pavers and sand, wedged in between a clumsy concrete pedestrian underpass and unruly vegetation on one side, and the sharp edge of the roadway, on the other.
One could moreover almost imagine two very different monuments—the abstract and the representational—uneasily coexisting, as if a strange head had been grafted onto an altogether different body. To put it another way: It’s almost as if someone had tried to combine in one work, on a vertical plane rather than the horizontal, Maya Lin’s celebrated abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1, 2) and Frederick Hart’s ultrarealistic "Three Servicemen" (also known as: "Three Soldiers") which stands nearby.
Upon reflection, though, I found the solution to the challenge of both message and topography more satisfying. Given the constraints of the site, the monument at times seems to compete for air space with the host of utilitarian highway light poles, while, at ground level, the viewscape is cluttered with traffic signs and a bus stop with advertising displays.
Both the volume and the color of the column allow it to assert itself, particularly when the warm afternoon light brings it into rich contrast with a deep blue sky.
And above all (no pun intended), the height is the crucial factor. In a crowded urban environment characterized mainly by high-speed automobile circulation and public transportation rather than calm pedestrian traffic, a lower monument would have been lost, and there’s no room for a piece with a large footprint anyway. The well-proportioned column holds its own: it’s easily visible from some distance, even to someone traveling in a vehicle, but does not dominate the scene. And directing the eye upwards allows it to communicate its message, as well.
That brings us (literally and figuratively), to the three sculptures. The realistic figures at first seem not just incongruous in the context of the column, but an odd choice in and of themselves: two men in the less than flattering British military uniforms of the day, and another in civilian dress (complete with even more incongruous fedora), stand poised at the points of the triangle, leaning forward, arms outstretched. The pose subtly suggests paratroopers about to jump. Yet it also suggested to me a heroic literal and figurative leap of faith.
General Moravec was brutally frank with the men that he handpicked for the mission, and recalled:
They knew that in all probability they would die with Heydrich and if there was any glory for them afterward they would not live to enjoy it. They accepted this knowledge with heroic calm and determination. They made me think of that Roman fortitude about which I had read in the Latin classics.The figures are realistic in an unrealistic setting. (Do men ever stand at the top of a triangular shaft? No. But at least since the days of the stylites, we don't perch atop pillars, either. And yet the sensibility and pose are different, for example, from the—in another sense equally "unrealistic"—Vendôme or Nelson columns.) These figures are realistic in a just slightly stylized manner, and heroic in an understated, quotidian one. Unlike Hart’s (skillfully rendered but utterly banal) Vietnam soldiers, they bear no weapons, and neither their clothes nor their bodies show any of the physical or psychological scars of combat. Perhaps this also has to do with the difference between wars and causes: Vietnam was the bad war in which good men fought and struggled with themselves and their compatriots at home as well as the enemy. World War II remains “the good war.” Nonetheless, we are here far removed from the grandiose heroism of traditional, monumental representationalism in the spirit of, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” whether the Marine Corps or Warsaw Ghetto memorials.
[ Master of Spies: The Memoirs of General Frantisek Moravec (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1975), 202 ]
The figures portrayed here, in uniform or otherwise, are in a sense all profoundly civilian, ordinary men: They are human and humane, a sort of everyman, very much like the Slovak locksmith Gabčík and the Czech brickyard worker Kubiš. We see them at the moment of anticipation and commitment, before the horrors of combat. The outstretched arms are as much an embrace of both nation and universal humanity as they are limbs flexed for the jump from the plane. In other words, we see idealists, humble patriots. And contemplating this idealism and innocence only more powerfully brings home the magnitude of their achievement and the tragic end that they met.