Reinhard Heydrich and the Heydrich Terror: The Real Story Behind Operation Anthropoid

Busts of Operation Anthropoid Members at the National Monument to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror at the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius

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Originally published 25 May 2019 | Updated 15 February 2020

By the time we arrived in Prague, I’d been thumbing through HHhH by Laurent Binet for months and while I just wasn’t in the mood to be reading historical fiction at the time, I was still pushing myself through the book because the true story behind it was fascinating.

And that’s how, long before we wound up in Prague – or even planned to – I was unexpectedly thrust into the world of Reinhard Heydrich; a major player in one of the darkest periods of Prague’s history.

So it should come as no surprise that visiting the Heydrich Terror Memorial to learn more about Reinhard Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid was one of my top dark tourism things to do upon arriving in Prague.

Reinhard Heydrich’s Childhood

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich was born in 1904 in Halle an der Saale (Halle), Germany. His father, Richard Bruno Heydrich, was an opera singer and composer and a German nationalist.

Reinhard Heydrich also had two siblings; a younger brother, Heinz, and a sister, Maria. Like Reinhard, Heinz was a true believer in Hitler. He served as Obersturmführer (lieutenant) in the SS. Like Reinhard, Heinz left his own legacy when he died, but more on that further down.

Despite being a strong athlete, many accounts recall Reinhard as shy and insecure which led to him being bullied at school. There were also rumours he possessed Jewish ancestry, and was awarded the nickname “Moses Handel.” It would not be Heydrich’s first nickname…

Although his father was a nationalist, none of the family had any political affiliations until after WWI when civil unrest broke out at home.

In 1918, when Heydrich was 15, his hometown of Halle was caught up in a political battle conflict between communist and anti-communist groups. Eager to help, Heydrich signed up to Maercker’s Volunteer Rifles, a paramilitary group. He was responsible for protecting private property. The experience obviously had a profound effect on Heydrich as he almost immediately joined the Deutschvölkischer Schutz und Trutzbund (National German Protection and Shelter League), a notoriously anti-semitic organisation.

At 18, Heydrich joined the Reichsmarine (German Navy) and from there his career snowballed. He began climbing up the SS ranks and even served as president of the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), which later became Interpol.

Reinhard Heydrich: The Man with the Iron Heart

Portrait of Reinhard Heydrich
Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license *

Reinhard Heydrich is considered to be one of – if not the most – heinous members of the Nazi Elite. Even amongst the Nazis, Heydrich’s cruelty was renowned; Adolf Hitler referred to Heydrich as ‘The Man with the Iron Heart.’ And that should tell you everything you need to know about him.

Due to his ferocity, he moved quickly up the SS ranks, soon becoming the right-hand man of Heinrich Himmler, who was himself the right-hand man of Adolf Hitler.

The Man with the Iron Heart wasn’t Heydrich’s only treacherous nickname. In fact, he was called many things in his short life – The Blond Beast, The Butcher of Prague, The Hangman, Young Evil God of Death, among others – all of them references to his unyielding sadism.

However, one of the most enduring references to Heydrich was HHhH, which stood for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, which translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”

Don’t mistake me, Heinrich Himmler was evil. But appointing Heydrich really upped his game.

Ever heard of Kristallnacht? Well, Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass – so called because of the pervasive shards of glass left over from the shattered windows of Jewish shops, homes and synagogues – was organised and carried out by Reinhard Heydrich.

Need more proof of Heydrich’s depravity?

Heydrich is considered to be one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler even granted him full charge of the Final Solution in various regions throughout Europe. Heydrich was directly responsible for the creation of the Einsatzgruppen (death squads) which many consider a precursor to the Holocaust, and the intelligence organisation Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service; SD), which neutralised members of the Nazi resistance.

Heydrich is also credited with establishing Terezin as a concentration camp, having initially approved the site to be converted into a Jewish ghetto.

When he was transferred to Prague, where the Nazi resistance was quite strong, Heydrich made it his main mission to hunt down and murder every member of the resistance. This is why Prague’s time under Heydrich’s rule is often referred to as the Heydrich Terror.

It was this quest that led to his death. Although his winning personality didn’t help his cause.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A quick note on geographical terms

Bohemia and Moravia: These were once the collective names of a region in Europe, although they were two separate kingdoms. Bohemia, the larger of the two, was first established in 1198 and reign of the kingdom passed through various European monarchs, including the Habsburgs and the Austrian Empire. Prague has always been the capital.

Moravia was first mentioned in 822 and consolidated 10 years later. The capital of Moravia was predominantly Brno, but for a time sat in Olomouc.

These regions were dissolved in 1918 when Czechoslovakia was created. However, from 1939-1945, Czechoslovakia was considered by the ruling Nazi party to not actually exist, and they instead referred to it as Bohemia and Moravia.

Today, the Moravian region is part of the Czech Republic, whereas Bohemia extends to parts of Germany and Poland. The regions themselves still exist, and are often even acknowledged as their own land – Moravia in particular, who have maintained a rivalry with Czechs from Bohemia.

Czechoslovakia: Formed in 1918 and consisted of several regions, including Bohemia and Moravia. It dissolved in 1992 and formed two independent states: Czech Republic and Slovakia.

When I refer to the Czechoslovakian people, I do mean people from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, although it is important to remember that due to Heydrich’s placement in Prague – the capital of the Czech Republic – he had a much larger effect on what are today Czech citizens, rather than modern day Slovak citizens. This does not mean Slovaks did not suffer during WWII, or at the hands of Heydrich.

The Butcher of Prague

On 29 September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich was appointed the acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (today the Czech Republic and parts of Germany and Poland). Thus the Heydrich Terror in Prague began.

As acting Protector, he transferred to Prague to strengthen policy. He was also keen to increase countermeasures against the resistance, an area that Heydrich, Himmler and Hitler all agreed Heydrich’s predecessor, German diplomat Konstantin von Neurath, wasn’t taking seriously.

Konstantin von Neurath
Konstantin von Neurath – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license *

Under Neurath, Heydrich believed the Czechoslovakian resistance movement had thrived, and he was here to fix it.

Not so coincidentally, two days before Heydrich was appointed, Alois Eliáš, the Prime Minister of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, was arrested and sentenced to death. Eliáš was arrested because of his connections to the Czechoslovakian anti-Nazi resistance movement.

He was assassinated on 19 June 1942 at the Prague Kobylisy Shooting Range, and became the only government leader executed under Nazi rule.

Alois Elias
Alois Eliáš

With Neurath and Eliáš out of the way, Heydrich unleashed a reign of terror on Prague and neighbouring areas. In the short eight months that Heydrich oversaw Nazi operations in Prague, over 4,500 Czechoslovakians were arrested and executed.

Overall, he was directly or indirectly responsible through organisations like the SD and Einsatzgruppen for nearly 2 million deaths. It is not known – though considered unlikely – if he ever killed anyone himself.

Operation Anthropoid

Almost immediately, the citizens of Prague had had it with Reinhard Heydrich. In general, the people of Czechoslovakia were known for their anti-Nazi resistance, and considered a threat – thus Heydrich’s transfer there in the first place.

By December of 1941, two members of the Czech resistance, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, started to hatch a plan to assassinate Heydrich. This became known as Operation Anthropoid.

Gabčík and Kubiš were soon joined by several members of the resistance, including First Lieutenant Adolf Opálka and Karel Čurda of the resistance movement Out Distance.

The Attack on Reinhard Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich’s daily commute took him from his home in Panenské Břežany, a village 14 km to the north of central Prague, to Prague castle. Because he was a man of precision and routine, it was easy for Operation Anthropoid to know his schedule.

And on 27 May 1942 at 10:30AM, Heydrich began his daily commute.

Gabčík and Kubiš waited on the corner of Kirchmayerova třída (now Zenklova), and V Holešovičkách. They chose this particular junction due to the tight curve, which would force Heydrich and his driver to slow down as they turned onto V Holešovičkách.

As the car slowed, Jozef Gabčík walked in front of the car and fired a Sten submachine gun. Fortunately for the resistance members, the occupants of the car were more vulnerable to assault than those in other military vehicles, as Heydrich was renowned for being driven with the top open to show any would-be attackers that he was unafraid of potential harm.

Unfortunately for the resistance members, at this moment the submachine gun jammed, and Heydrich stood to shoot Gabčík. However, while both Heydrich and his driver were distracted by Gabčík, Jan Kubiš threw a modified anti-tank grenade at the rear of the car.

Reinhard Heydrich's Mercedes Benz after it was attacked by Operation Anthropoid
Heydrich’s Mercedes Benz after it was attacked

It detonated immediately, sending shrapnel through the car and into Heydrich. Heydrich, likely fueled by pure adrenaline and hate, staggered out of the car. Gabčik and Kubiš shot at him with pistols, but due to shock of the blast, couldn’t get in a direct hit and so did not kill him. Kubiš, who was also hit by the blast shrapnel, jumped on a bike and pedaled away. Heydrich gave chase, but soon collapsed from shock.

With Heydrich having just lost Kubiš and now lying on the ground in defeat, his driver, Klein, chased Gabčik into a butchers. Once inside, Gabčik shot Klein twice in the leg before hopping a tram and escaping to a safe house.

Despite the grenade, both men believed the attempt was unsuccessful and that their plan had failed.

But Reinhard Heydrich succumbed to his injuries and died eight days later on 4 June 1942.

Retribution for Heydrich

What followed Heydrich’s death was a series of reprisals so gruesome that Heydrich would have been proud.

As the SS searched in vain for the perpetrators, they arrested and interrogated upwards of 13,000 people and executed an additional 5,000. Most of those arrested were initially sent to Terezin Concentraion Camp and Ghetto before being transferred to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria.

They also razed the towns of Lidice and Ležáky to the ground, wiping them off the map completely. The Nazi’s claimed to have destroyed the towns based on tips claiming that members of Operation Anthropoid were hiding out there. However, there has never been any proof these tips exist, and most believe they were acting purely out of malice and retribution, and merely using the mass executions as a scare tactic.

Although there was national outrage over what happened at Lidice, and even with all this blood spilled, no one came forward. So the Nazis issued a deadline of 18 June 1942. They threatened the Czechoslovakian people that if the men responsible were not captured by this date, far more blood would fill the streets. To sweeten the pot, they added a bounty of 1 million Reichsmarks (approximately $400,000 at the time or well over $6 million today).

Manhunt for Operation Anthropoid

The threat didn’t seem to be working until 17 June 1942, one day before the deadline, and three weeks after the assassination attempt, Karel Čurda, a member of the Out Distance resistance movement, surrendered to the Gestapo and gave up the names and location of his co-conspirators.

Seven members of Operation Anthropoid were hiding out at the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčik were joined by Adolf Opálka, Josef Bublík, Jan Hrubý, Jaroslav Švarc and Josef Valčik.

The next day, the SS barricaded the church and laid siege. Despite wanting to bring them in alive, all seven men died in the church. Opálka and Bublík were killed in a two hour shoot out in the church prayer loft. Kubiš survived this, but died shortly afterwards from his injuries. The other four committed suicide by Cyanide in the church crypt after withstanding countless attempts to drive them out with tear gas and flooding care of Prague’s fire brigade trucks.

Čurda confirmed the identities of his dead former friends afterwards.

The “Cherry on Top”

Čurda not only betrayed the location of Jan Kubiš, Jozef Gabčik and several others who were hiding at the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, but also disclosed the names and locations of several families involved in the resistance movement.

One of the most famous of these was the Moravecs – all of whom, except the father who had no idea, were involved in the resistance movement. The mother, Marie, managed to bite into a cyanide capsule as the Nazi’s searched their home. But the 17 year old son, Vlastimil “Ata” Moravec, was captured alive and tortured mercilessly.

Although Ata initially kept quiet, he was persuaded to confess after being plied with alcohol, shown his mother’s severed head in a fish tank, and warned his father would be next.

Ata, his father, his fiancée and several members of her family were executed on 24 October 1942 at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.

Additionally, most of the family members of those in Operation Anthropoid were executed, as were all the church clergy who helped them hide.

Čurda the Traitor

Karel Čurda, Čurda the Traitor who betrayed Operation Anthropoid
Karel Čurda

Čurda not only received his 1 million Reichsmarks reward (which I find shocking that it was even offered in the first place, let alone provided), but the Nazis also secured him a new identity as Karl Jerhot. He went on to marry a German woman and continued as a Nazi collaborator for the remainder of the war.

When the war ended, he was hunted down, arrested and tried for treason, for which he was found guilty.

He was hanged for treason on 29 April 1947.

In court, Čurda supposedly said that anyone would have done what he did for 1 million marks, but this is heavily disputed.

Most historians believe he betrayed his friends because, unlike the other conspirators, he was the only one to return home after the assassination, and the only one to witness the reprisals. Čurda likely believed (probably correctly) that his family and his Bohemian village were going to be destroyed like those of Ležáky and Lidice. So he gave himself and the other members of Operation Anthropoid up to prevent this.

Nevertheless, Čurda is one of the most infamous figures in Czech history, and remains ‘Čurda the Traitor’ to this day.

I will say that I appreciated how the Heydrich Terror memorial handles the information about Karel Čurda, considering the way most Czechs feel about him.

The Legacy of Heinz Heydrich

Reinhard & Heinz
Image Credit: Wikipedia (PD-US)*

Heinz Heydrich, Reinhard’s brother, left his own legacy; one very different from his brother.

Following Reinhard’s death, Heinz was given his brother’s file by the Gestapo. He locked himself in his room and stayed up all night reading and burning the files. According to his wife, Heinz’s entire demeanor had changed, and he became distant and evasive.

No one knows for certain what happened to Heinz that night, but it is believed that reading about his brother’s atrocities made him realise how truly evil the Nazis were. Shortly afterwards, he began forging documents and helping Jews to escape. It is unclear exactly how many he helped.

Although he was an Obersturmführer, Heinz’s main job was as a journalist and publisher of the SS newspaper, Die Panzerfaust. He used this position – and his connection to Reinhard – to acquire extra paper (which was typically in shortage during the war) and carry on without any suspicion.

Sadly, in 1944 officials came in to investigate the missing paper supplies and Heinz panicked, believing he was discovered. He shot himself to protect his family. The SS had absolutely no idea what he was up to.

Visiting the National Monument to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror at the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius

The entrance to the National Monument to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror at the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius

Say that ten times fast…

Also, this is why I mostly refer to it simply as “the memorial”, or some other shortened form.

What to Expect When Visiting the Crypt

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Heydrich Terror Memorial. By all accounts it is a lesser-known and infrequently visited destination in the city. But it didn’t feel that way when we went. It is a small space, granted, but it still felt like half the tourists in Prague were crammed into that small space. There were at least three tour groups there, all trying to talk over each other. The guides pretty much summed everything up, then gave their wards 10-15 minutes to explore.

And this made it pretty damn crowded. Yet, I have no idea where those crowds came from because I’ve never seen the Monument to the Heydrich Terror listed on any list of things to do in Prague (I’m sure it’s on a few lists, I’m just saying I don’t tend to see it listed – I had to dig). So we may have had a fluke experience, but I still felt like I couldn’t include it on our alternative Prague itinerary because it was so damn heaving when we visited.

I think the problem is just that you take a city as popular as Prague and it’s hard to find much that isn’t busy. And due to the size of the memorial, any amount of people makes it feel claustrophobic.

Nevertheless, visiting the Crypt was one of the highlights of Prague. So it pains me not to put it on all the lists forever.

If you want to visit the Heydrich Terror Memorial

The Heydrich Terror Memorial is held in the crypt of the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where four of the seven members of Operation Anthropoid died. If you’re short on time, or looking to combine your visit with more horrific WWII history and expert insights, you might consider going on a Prague WWII tour.

However, we’re all for self-exploration. So if that’s your bag too, then it’s simple enough. When we visited (December 2018) it was free admission. There is a lot more info than what we’ve written, but also, of course, there is the crypt itself (which is a separate room from most of the information). It is a bit musty inside, and if you’re incredibly claustrophobic I would not recommend it as you are semi-sealed in. Ironically, I would say we had the most ‘free’ space in the crypt, though. So that’s only my recommendation if you really can’t handle small spaces.

The Heydrich Terror Memorial Crypt

Even if you plan on reading everything and spending some time in the crypt, you won’t need more than an hour. If you just want to see the crypt, probably not more than 20 to 30 minutes (it’s small, but warrants reflection). If you’re skipping the crypt altogether, but want to read, I would give it 20-40 minutes depending on your reading speed/skimming rate.

The memorial is located at Resslova 9a, 120 00 Nové Město, Czechia, up the road from the Dancing House, another famous Prague landmark.

The Dancing House in Prague
The Dancing House

The nearest metro station is Karlovo náměstí (exit Palackého náměstí) (via metro line B). The nearest tram stops are Karlovo náměstí (lines 2, 3, 6, 14, 18, and 22) and Jiráskovo náměstí (lines 5 and 17).

It is open year round, Tuesday – Sunday 9.00 – 17.00.

After your visit, we recommend walking about 5 minutes up Na Zderaze to the Globe Bookstore And Café for a drink in a relaxing atmosphere. You can even read a book or three about our favourite Prague legend, The Golem.

* All historic photos used in this article are public domain if not listed otherwise. All other photos are our own.

Books & Films About Reinhard Heydrich

HHhH by Laurent Binet
Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth
The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich by Callum MacDonald
The Assassination of Heydrich: Hitler’s Hangman and the Czech Resistance by Jan Wiener

Hangmen Also Die!
Atentát (The Assassination)
The Man With the Iron Heart (called Killing Heydrich in North America, based off of HHhH)

If you are interested in exploring more of Prague’s dark history, please check out our macabre guide to Prague.

Have you been to the Heydrich Terror Memorial? Was your experience similar to ours? Let us know in the comments below!


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