The story of the Lidice massacre begins in 1941, with a top-secret operation code-named “Operation Anthropoid,” planned by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The goal of the operation was to assassinate a high-level Nazi official to demonstrate the long arm of British special operations and to inspire resistance in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Europe.
The SOE chose Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). As Acting Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (the part of Czechoslovakia formally annexed to Germany, and roughly comprising the modern borders of the Czech Republic), Heydrich was an appropriate target to rouse Czech resistance. He was also a leading architect of the “Final Solution,” the mass murder of European Jews. The SOE described him in a secret memo as “probably the second most dangerous man in German-occupied Europe.”
The Attempt to Assassinate Heydrich
The SOE trained a group of Czech resistance members in the tactics and skills necessary to carry out the assassination and helped them parachute into Czechoslovakia on December 28, 1941. Commandos Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabcik were tasked with killing Heydrich. It took them five months to plan and set up the assassination attempt. On May 27, 1942, as Heydrich's car rounded a tight hairpin curve in the center of Prague, Gabcik stepped out of hiding to shoot at Heydrich, but his gun jammed. This failing, Kubiš rolled a bomb under the passing automobile which exploded near the rear wheel.
Though Heydrich was not mortally wounded by the blast itself, the embedded grenade splinters in his leg and lower back led to septicemia, a blood infection that killed Heydrich on June 4, 1942.
Heydrich's assassination infuriated the Nazi leadership, particularly Adolf Hitler. The Führer demanded the murder of 10,000 Czechs in retaliation for the killing. He was dissuaded by Heydrich's deputy, Karl Hermann Frank, the Higher SS and Police Leader in the Protectorate, Frank argued that such action might interfere with long-term plans for the region. Instead, reprisals focused on the town of Lidice and another small Czech village, Ležáky. Early intelligence suspected the villagers of both towns of sheltering resistance members. However, in the end there was no evidence that the townspeople had aided Heydrich's assassins.
The Fate of Lidice
On June 9, the day of Heydrich's state funeral in Berlin, Hitler ordered retaliatory measures against the Czech population. That very evening, German police and SS officials surrounded Lidice. Near midnight, its 500 residents learned that they must pack warm clothing, valuables, and enough food for three days and appear in the village square. Once assembled, members of the SS separated males over the age of fifteen from the townswomen and children. In all, 192 men and boys were shot by firing squad on a farmstead on the outskirts of Lidice. With few exceptions, the women of Lidice were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where most spent the balance of the war years. Sixty of the 203 women died in the Nazi camp system before the end of World War II.
Before the forcible separation of the townswomen from their children, the youngsters of Lidice endured a racial screening carried out by SS personnel. On the orders of Heinrich Himmler, Nazi officials ultimately chose nine children who possessed sufficient “Germanic” background or “appropriate racial features” to make them candidates for “Germanization,” and placed them with adoptive German parents. Historians strongly suspect that the eighty-two remaining youngsters from Lidice were murdered in mobile gas chambers at Chelmno, the first killing center of the “Final Solution.” German work details destroyed all dwellings and razed the town to the ground.
The Fate of Ležáky
A similar fate awaited the obscure village of Ležáky: there most of its citizens, both men and women were murdered, and the little town razed to its foundations. Such reprisal actions broke many existing rules of war, including those to which Germany was a signatory.
Nine days after the reprisal effort at Lidice, the commandos Kubiš and Gabcik were discovered with several other resistance fighters by SS and police in the Church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in Prague. Kubiš died of wounds incurred in the firefight with police officials, while Gabcík and his comrades committed suicide in order to evade capture. Other reprisals in the Protectorate resulted in the arrests of 3,188 Czechs arrested and 1,327 executed. Thousands of Jews from Prague were deported to Majdanek and other camps in the area.
Publicizing the Mass Killing
Nazi propagandists filmed the operation, intending to document the results of resistance to German rule. Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels believed that the Lidice massacre “will not fail in its cooling effect on the remnants of the underground movement in the Protectorate.” He was wrong. The mass killing had a tremendous effect on Allied countries, not least because of the way it was publicized. The British War Office proclaimed that “each time it is remembered, mankind becomes a little more determined that the thing which tried to kill Lidice shall itself be killed, shall be driven from the earth so that no Lidice will ever die again.”
After the War
After the war, a new town of Lidice was built near the remains of the old which became a memorial site to those murdered in the reprisal. The village of Ležáky has never been rebuilt and still lies in ruins.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What are some of the different reasons for publicizing atrocities?
- How is the destruction of Lidice commemorated? Why is it important to commemorate horrific events?