Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media
Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media
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Killing Reinhard Heydrich

The harrowing new film ‘Anthropoid’ analyzes the cost-benefit equation of the only successful assassination of a Nazi leader in World War II

James Kirchick
August 24, 2016
Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media
Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

What do those who bravely resist oppression owe their fellow men living under totalitarian rule? That is the question posed by the new World War II film Anthropoid, which thrillingly depicts the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich— the Nazi leader assigned by Adolf Hitler personally to rule the occupied Czech lands—and its tragic aftermath. Long after the Third Reich’s collapse, there exists a natural tendency to venerate any and all acts of resistance against that evil regime, even the most hopeless. No one questions the doomed Jews who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which, even if it had succeeded in its limited goals of opening the city’s gates, would have been quashed by the Nazis all the same. But what if an individual deed incurs human costs—in the form of widescale, murderous retribution—that, at least judging by the number of victims, seemingly outweighs the benefits? While Anthropoid (the name of the mission to kill Heydrich) ultimately judges his assassination to have been both morally and strategically just, it does so in highly nuanced fashion, humanizing the more quiescent characters in a way that neither paints them as cowards nor detracts from the heroism of the film’s daring protagonists.

Anthropoid begins in the snowy forests outside Prague in late December 1941. Czech military officer Ján Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) and his Slovak accomplice, Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy), parachute into Czechoslovakia from an RAF plane. Two years earlier, after the German invasion of their homeland, the men had escaped to Britain, where they trained with the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine organization that supported resistance movements in occupied Europe. At the same time, Heydrich, deputy of the SS and chief of the Reich Main Security Office, was head of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (Slovakia having been rendered a collaborationist puppet regime under the rule of the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso) for only four months. Yet in that short period, the slim-featured, 37-year-old Nazi had already earned the monikers “Butcher of Prague” and “the Blond Beast.” A creator of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units that would go on to murder 2 million people in the fields of Eastern Europe, Heydrich would soon convene the Wannsee conference, where Hitler’s top lieutenants devised the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

After a harrowing encounter with a pair of woodland Czech Nazi informants, Kubiš and Gabcík eventually make their way to Prague, where they connect with what’s left of the demoralized underground. When they explain that their mission, ordered by the Czech government-in-exile, is to kill the most senior Nazi officer in occupied Czechoslovakia, they are met with incredulity. The group’s leaders send a coded message back to their comrades safely ensconced in London, imploring them to take into consideration the price that they, Czechs living under Nazi occupation, would inevitably have to pay as a result of their scheme. In an actual dispatch, the underground leaders asked if Operation Anthropoid’s target could be switched from Heydrich to a Czech quisling, thereby lessening the severity of Nazi reprisal. “I fear Czechoslovakia will be wiped from the map,” one of the underground leaders tells the young men.

In the hands of a less thoughtful filmmaker, one concerned primarily with shootouts and chase scenes and not the exploration of agonizingly difficult moral quandaries, these doubters would be portrayed as chickens at best, proto-collaborators at worst. Writer-director-producer Sean Ellis, however, depicts the local resistance leaders and their fears in a sympathetic light. Seen from Prague, the London exiles’ motives certainly appeared more than a little harebrained and opportunistic. A primary concern for President Edvard Beneš was where his nation stood in the Allies’ hierarchy of exiled Central and Eastern European governments. Unlike the Poles, who had put up a fierce fight against the Nazis and continued their struggle with regular acts of sabotage throughout the war, the Czechs had no such record of resistance. The London government also had to keep in mind the exiled Czechoslovak communist leadership in Moscow, which was competing for the affections of their brethren back home and would prove to be a cunning force in postwar Czechoslovakia. All this mattered not least because the Munich Agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany, was still in force. In the case of Allied victory, Beneš worried that unless the Czechs demonstrated active resistance, the postwar settlement would preserve a truncated Czechoslovakia.

After months of surveillance and planning, both picking up love interests along the way, Kubiš and Gabcík carry out their mission. Confronting Heydrich’s car along its morning route from his villa to Prague Castle, Gabcík’s Sten gun jams. As the Butcher of Prague’s driver chases Gabcík through a startled crowd, Kubiš throws a grenade at the vehicle, which explodes and leaves its target wounded. Reconnoitering at a safe house, the men initially believe they failed in their mission, only to hear on the radio a week later that Heydrich died from his injuries—the only Nazi leader assassinated during the war.

Whatever satisfaction Kubiš and Gabcík might have taken from this news, however, is abated by the Nazis’ ruthless response. Though it is not mentioned in the film, the first element of the inevitable German reprisal was the immediate deportation of 3,000 Czech Jews from the Theresiendstadt concentration camp to Poland, where they were promptly murdered. (SS leaders in occupied Poland would later bestow on their fallen comrade the dubious honor of naming the mission that eventually killed 1.7 million Polish Jews “Operation Reinhard.”) More momentous in the collective mind of the Czechs, and, indeed, the world, however, was what happened to the village of Lidice, which the Gestapo connected to the Heydrich plot on the flimsiest of evidence after an outraged Hitler demanded a very public and swift act of revenge. One-hundred-seventy-three men were shot (the honor given to policemen from Heydrich’s hometown), 196 women were sent to the all-female Ravensbrück concentration camp, and 88 children were gassed (a remaining handful were deposited with German families). Following this human depletion, the village was razed. (Lidice’s tragedy is the subject of an eponymous 2011 film.) In addition to the massacre at Lidice and another, randomly selected Czech village, the Nazis killed nearly 1,400 Czechs as a direct result of the Heydrich assassination.

Contrary to what the Czech government-in-exile had hoped for, Operation Anthropoid did not result in any sort of mass uprising. On the contrary, the population is only further cowed. After turning the screws on Prague and carrying out some (agonizingly depicted) acts of torture on a few Czechs whom they suspected of aiding Anthropoid, the SS eventually tracks down the assassins and five of their underground comrades to the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where a kindly priest had agreed to hide them in the crypt. Heavily outnumbered, these seven men—equipped only with a few handguns and grenades—hold their ground against some 750 SS soldiers, who eventually resort to flooding the basement. By film’s end, the audience understands what Ellis means when he cogitates, in a short essay, “could we have been so brave as to face our last hours with such a roar of defiance?”


A sense of hopelessness pervades Anthropoid, and it is a crucial element of the film’s central moral dilemma: Is it worth carrying out a mission that you know, at best, will put barely a dent in the enemy war effort but will undoubtedly result in the deaths of an untold number of innocent people? The suicidal nature of the mission is foreshadowed early in the film, when Gabcík hands Kubiš a cyanide pill to keep on his body at all times. (Several characters will ingest these by film’s end, in scenes of harrowing despair.) And though we root earnestly for the young men throughout the film’s gripping denouement, we know from the very beginning that their pitched battle in the cathedral will end just like the Alamo.

In her book Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, historian Mary Heimann attempts to revise “the simplistic Western view of Czechoslovakia as a plucky little country unfortunate in its neighbors which was sacrificed to Hitler and then to Stalin.” Her interpretation of Operation Anthropoid is suitably unsentimental. “Lidice, which the London team worked hard to make one of the best-known symbols of Nazi barbarity throughout the whole of the Allied world, finally won for the Protectorate the badge of suffering that it so badly need: a martyrdom to enable it to be classed with other victim countries, such as Belgium or Poland, rather than alongside murky, semi-collaborationist states such as Austria.” According to this cynical interpretation, the mission was designed to serve the (potentially irrelevant, in the case of an Axis victory) geopolitical interests of Czech nationalists, consequences (in the form of Czech civilians) be damned.

To be sure, the predicament Czechs faced on the question of resistance was far more difficult than that confronted by Jews, whose fate under the Nazis was everywhere the same: death. The Jews, to put it crudely, had nothing to lose; the notion of anti-Jewish “reprisals” for killing Nazis was beyond redundant. The Nazis’ ultimate plan for the Czechs, however, did not involve extermination, and so the question of how to resist a far more powerful adversary, if at all, was hardly so stark. That is why we empathize with the leaders of the Prague underground who counseled against Anthropoid.

Yet blaming the exiled Czech government or operatives Kubiš and Gabcík for the massacre at Lidice and other atrocities absolves the Nazis of their own barbarism. It also betrays a seductively reductionist logic in which questioning the wisdom of certain acts of resistance leads easily to utter passivity in the face of tyranny and then downward to active collaboration with the enemy. Consider the hugely significant (and symbolic) role that the occupied Czech lands played in the Nazi war machine and the Nazi narrative, as well as Heydrich’s crucial part in sustaining both of them. Soon after taking command in Prague, Heydrich raised the wages and benefits of Czech workers (many of whom labored in some of the most important armaments factories in Europe) to equal those of their German counterparts, a policy that within 6 months resulted in a 73 percent decrease in acts of sabotage on assembly lines. Combined with his cruelty toward suspected dissenters, this constituted the latter element of Heydrich’s “whip and sugar” policy. (“He plays cat-and-mouse with the Czechs, and they swallow everything he places before them,” Josef Goebbels wrote of his colleague.) Indeed, so successful was Heydrich’s pacification program that he felt comfortable riding around Prague in an open-air vehicle with barely any security to protect him. Heydrich also established Theresienstadt, which served as a “model” concentration camp for outside observers.

In light of the ways in which Heydrich had all-but-eliminated Czech resistance to the German war machine, to kill him and send the message that not even high-ranking Nazis were safe in places they thought they controlled served an important strategic goal beyond getting Czechoslovakia into Winston Churchill’s good graces. Prior to his assassination, Heydrich had ordered the execution of thousands of Czech intellectuals and political opponents. What is to say that, absent his premature death, he would not have ordered the execution of thousands more on a similar whim? “In a society that lives by normal rules, assassination cannot be morally justified, but when a nation is enslaved by murderers and fanatics, assassination may be the only means of destroying evil,” General František Moravec, head of Czechoslovak military intelligence during the war, later explained. “In these terms, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich was justified.”

All told, there exists no simple arithmetic that one can employ to justify or condemn an undertaking like the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich; there is no easy way of concluding that, were a few dozen Lidice women sent to Auschwitz instead of Ravensbrück, the mission would have been immoral, but were a few dozen of the village’s men sentenced to hard labor instead of execution, it would have been vindicated. Besides, such questions miss the forest for the trees. For if there is an overarching lesson to be gleaned from Operation Anthropoid and similar situations, it is the enduring responsibility of those who have power to protect those who don’t. Arguing over whether or not it was right to assassinate a chief architect of the Holocaust occludes how the Czechs, victims of “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” to use the words of one of the 20th century’s most rightfully denigrated statesmen, ought never have been in the position in which they found themselves in December 1941, when two exiled parachutists represented the country’s best hope against a genocidal aggressor. With the return of violent territorial annexation to Europe and a barbarous regime starving the citizens of Aleppo to death, this is a lesson we again need to learn.


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.

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