Prague, May 27, 1942, 1030. SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich started his daily commute from his home in Panenské Břežany, 14 Km (9 Mile) north of central Prague, to his headquarters at the Castel of Prague. His driver was SS-Oberscharführer Johannes Klein. Gabčík and Kubiš waited at the tram stop at the junction between the road then known as Kirchmayerova Třída (Zenklova), and V Holešovičkách. The tight curve here would force the car to slow down as it turned westwards into V Holešovičkách. Josef Valčík, Silver Group A, was positioned about 100 M (109 yards) north of Gabčík and Kubiš to look out for the approaching car.
Heydrich’s green, open-topped Mercedes 320 Cabriolet B reached the curve two minutes later. As it slowed down and rounded the corner, Gabčík, who concealed his Sten submachine gun under a raincoat, dropped the raincoat and raised the gun, and, at close range, tried to shoot Heydrich, but the gun jammed. As the car passed, Heydrich made an ultimately fatal error; instead of ordering his driver to accelerate, he stood up and drew his Luger pistol, yelling at the driver to halt.
As Heydrich’s car braked in front of him, Kubiš, who wasn’t spotted by Heydrich or Klein, threw a modified AT hand grenade in the car; he misjudged his throw. Instead of landing inside the Mercedes, it landed against the rear wheel. Nonetheless, the bomb severely wounded Heydrich when it detonated, its fragments ripping through the right rear fender and embedding fragmentation and fibers from the upholstery of the car into Heydrich, causing serious injuries to his left side, with major damage to his diaphragm, spleen and lung, as well as a fractured rib.
Kubiš received a minor wound to his face from the shrapnel. The explosion shattered the windows of the tram which had stopped on the opposite side of the road, shrapnel striking terrified passengers. Two SS jackets that had been folded on the back seat of the car were whirled upwards by the blast and draped themselves over the trolley wire.
Heydrich and Klein leaped out of the shattered Mercedes with drawn pistols; Klein ran towards Kubiš, who had staggered against the railings, while Heydrich went to Gabčík who stood paralyzed, holding the Sten. As Klein came towards him, Kubiš recovered, jumped on his bicycle and pedaled away, scattering passengers spilling from the tram by firing in the air with his Colt M-1903 pistol. Klein tried to shoot at him but dazed by the explosion, pressed the magazine release catch and the gun jammed. A staggering Heydrich came towards Gabčík, who dropped his Sten and tried to reach his bicycle. He was forced to abandon this attempt however and took cover behind a telegraph pole, firing at Heydrich with his pistol. Heydrich returned fire and ducked behind the stalled tram. Suddenly, Heydrich doubled over and staggered to the side of the road in pain. He then collapsed against the railings, holding himself up with one hand. As Gabčík took the opportunity to run, Klein returned from his fruitless chase of Kubiš to help his wounded superior. Heydrich, his face pale and contorted in pain, pointed toward the fleeing Slovak, saying Get that bastard! As Klein gave pursuit, Heydrich stumbled along the pavement before collapsing against the bonnet of his wrecked car. Gabčík fled into a butcher shop, where the owner, a man named Brauer, who was a Nazi sympathizer and had a brother who worked for the Gestapo, ignored Gabčík’s request for help. He ran out to the street and attracted Klein’s attention by shouting and pointing inside the shop. Klein, whose gun was still jammed, ran into the shop and collided with Gabčík in the doorway. In the confusion, Gabčík shot him twice, severely wounding him in the leg. Gabčík then escaped in a tram, reaching a local safe house. At this point Gabčík and Kubiš did not know that Heydrich was wounded and thought the attack had failed.
In the days following Lidice, no leads were found for those responsible for Heydrich’s death. A deadline was issued to the military and the people of Czechoslovakia for the assassins to be apprehended by Jun 18, 1942. If they were not caught by then, the Germans threatened to spill far more blood, believing that this threat would be enough to force a potential informant to sell out the culprits. Many civilians were indeed wary and fearful of further reprisals, making it increasingly difficult to hide information much longer. The assailants initially hid with two Prague families and later took refuge in the Karel Boromejsky Church, an Eastern Orthodox church dedicated to Sts Cyril and Methodius in Prague. The Germans were unable to locate the attackers until Karel Čurda of the Out Distance sabotage group turned himself in to the Gestapo and gave them the names of the team’s local contacts for the bounty of one million Reichsmarks. Čurda betrayed several safe houses provided by the Jindra group, including that of the Moravec family in Žižkov. At 0500, on Jun 17, the Moravec flat was raided. The family was made to stand in the hallway while the Gestapo searched their flat. Marie Moravec was allowed to go to the toilet, where she bit into a cyanide capsule and killed herself. Alois Moravec was unaware of his family’s involvement with the resistance; he was taken to the Petschek Palace together with his 17-year-old son Vlastimil Ata, who was tortured throughout the day but refused to talk. The youth was stupefied with brandy, shown his mother’s severed head in a fish tank, and warned that, if he did not talk, his father would be next and Ata gave in. Ata Moravec was executed by the Nazis in Mauthausen on Oct 24, 1942, the same day as his father, his fiancée, her mother and her brother.
Waffen-SS troops then laid siege to the church the following day but they were unable to take the paratroopers alive, despite the best efforts of 750 SS soldiers under the command of SS-Gruppenführer Karl Fischer von Treuenfeld. Adolf Opálka and Josef Bublík were killed in the prayer loft after a two-hour gun battle, and Kubiš was reportedly found unconscious after the battle and died shortly after from his injuries.
Gabčík, Josef Valcik, Jaroslav Svarc and Jan Hruby killed themselves in the crypt after repeated SS attacks, attempts to force them out with tear gas and Prague fire brigade trucks brought in to try to flood the crypt. The SS report about the fight mentioned five wounded SS soldiers. The men in the church had only pistols, while the attackers had machine guns, submachine guns and hand grenades. After the battle, Čurda confirmed the identity of the dead Czech resistance fighters, including Kubiš and Gabčík.
Bishop Gorazd took the blame for the actions in the church, to minimize the reprisals among his flock, and even wrote letters to the Nazi authorities, who arrested him on Jun 27, 1942, and tortured him. On Sept 4, 1942, the bishop, the church’s priests and senior lay leaders were taken to the Kobylisy Shooting Range in a northern suburb of Prague and shot. For his actions, Bishop Gorazd was later glorified as a martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In London, the jubilation of the Czech leaders gave way to doubt as the murderings continued, and then to recrimination. At first President Benes would have none of it. He listened to Radio Prague as day after day, and several times a day, the numbers and names of the executed were methodically announced. Why don’t they fight? he asked his staff. Why don’t they die as partisans and men, in the forests and the mountains, taking as many Germans with them as they can? Look at the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the French. They don’t line up at the scaffold, waiting patiently like sheep! He was unmoved by arguments about the terrain, the proximity of France to England, the density of the population in Bohemia and Moravia. Why don’t they fight? he asked again. It’s their duty. Whatever the answer, it was plain by now that one of the hoped-for results, the stiffening of the Czech will to resist, had not been achieved. In Czech political circles the intensity of criticism mounted, in direct ratio to the mounting toll of German reprisals at home. Although President Benes remained privately convinced that the execution of Heydrich had been both justified and necessary, he began to feel a need for modifying his views, publicly. He reacted to the pressure, finally, by announcing that Gen Moravec had planned and supervised the assassination; and the accusations of irresponsibility from the political group were turned on the intelligence chief. Those who had lost relatives and friends at home were especially bitter.
As the war went on, Gen Moravec found that his mind would not stop mulling over the profound questions of right and wrong that attend all action but become sharpest, most nagging, when the action has terrible consequences for others. There was no doubt that the killing of Heydrich had served its intended prestige purpose. In this sense it had been a major success. For a time, at least, Czechoslovakia had jumped from last place to first in the esteem of all the anti-fascist world. Even the suffering of the people, even Lidice and Lezaky, served this cause. But the aim of awakening resistance had been a mirage. The people were not fighting, were not earning the acclaim. They would be remembered as martyrs, not heroes, even though there were heroes – Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and Adolf Opalka – among them.
The Germans? Gen Moravec himself? The civilians at home, inviting slaughter with their meekness? As the toll of war dead mounted into the millions, the 5000 shrank to perspective and seemed almost insignificant; the war killed thousands every day, women and children as well as soldiers. Yet right and wrong are not a matter of quantity. The same questions would have come whispering in his ear at night, like old ghosts, if only the brave assassins had died because of Reinhard Heydrich’s death.
Modern war, total war, kills everyone indiscriminately; women and children drop as fast as soldiers. Millions were dying to destroy the German instruments of war. And clearly Heydrich had been one of the most effective of those instruments. When Hitler escaped the twentieth-of-July bomb in 1944, the general wondered whether the German anti-fascists would have been able to strike even this unsuccessful blow if Heydrich had been alive to trap them before they could act. Was it wrong to have assassinated Heydrich and right to try to kill Hitler? No one who believed that fascism had to be destroyed felt anything but admiration for the Yugoslav partisans, the French Maquis, the brave Norwegians and the Poles – for all the people who fought and killed Germans. The Czechs at home were not fighting, so the Czechs abroad had to do the job for them.
It might have been wrong if the target had been the one he first considered, Emanuel Moravec. This would have had the taint of personal motives. But there was no such taint in the assassination of Heydrich, and it had the official and unqualified approval of President Benes. Of course, the general thought wryly, I cannot proclaim this fact today. It is the duty of subordinates to step back when their plans succeed and come forward into the limelight if their plans fail. Finally, before the war ended, the self-questioning, the drilling inside, apparently hit bed rock. Gen Moravec found a firm position, he later explained, in the truth that no one ever gets something for nothing.
If Czechoslovakia had rejected the Chamberlain capitulation at Munich, a real underground would have been born of its thus-affirmed integrity. Men must die that countries live. If enough of them die at once, the country may be lucky enough to coast for a few generations. But coasting builds no muscles. The cost of the free ride is strength, and the cost of sapped strength is freedom. So in the last analysis you have to kill a Heydrich not because he needs killing but because coasting along with his kind will kill you and everybody else. By the time the war was over, Gen Moravec felt sure that the assassination of Heydrich was not a sombre page of history. It was a page that he could turn back to with satisfaction, he and his countrymen and all the rest of us. Turn back to, read again, and know that it was right.
At last the war ended, and Gen Moravec went home to Prague. Everywhere in the city was a kind of gladness; it was over now, and all were thinking of the future. Everywhere, it seemed, except at Gen Moravec’s home, where the callers apparently could not forget the past. They asked, why their fathers and mothers had been executed. They wanted to know if the former general still thought he’d done the right thing. His doubts returned. These people saw him not as the executioner of Heydrich but as the killer of their kin. This post-war period in Prague, he said later, was the most miserable of his life. The men who, now that the war was over, called themselves the leaders of the underground also came to ask questions and pronounce judgment. They said that the Heydrich operation was conceptually faulty. They said they should have been consulted in advance, they never would have permitted so blatant an error. The general, asked them to give a detailed account of their underground activities and a signed estimate of their contribution to the war against fascism, and they went away.
One day a different caller came. He said that the traitor who delivered Gabcik and Kubis to the Gestapo had been discovered and interrogated. He had confessed to a revolutionary tribunal, but he stubbornly refused to give details. His name was Karel Čurda. Curda! So the general’s careful choice of men had produced two heroes, and one villain to seal their fate. He put on his coat; he would visit the man in prison and talk to him. He recognized Curda as soon as he saw him; the four full years had not changed him. Tall, swarthy, taciturn, he squinted up at Moravec and said, Greetings, brother. Brother? I killed two Czechs. You killed five thousand. Which of us hangs?
So it went throughout the questioning. Curda kept most of his secret to himself, not to save his neck but because he knew he couldn’t. Besides, the revolutionary tribunal was not predisposed to patient inquiry. It consisted of one professional lawyer and four lay judges on the bench, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney appointed ex officio. All of them had been chosen by the Citizens’ Committee, which in turn was dominated by the Communists. Each actor in the play had memorized his part, knowing that the function of the court was not to serve justice but to kill Curda. The hand-picked audience was fanatical, a lynch mob. Neither actors nor spectators cared about the fate of Gabcik and Kubis; they were all preoccupied with the million marks Curda had collected for his act of betrayal. While their closest relatives and friends were dying and they themselves were suffering, Curda had been living like a king. There was the unforgivable crime – not murder or treachery, but his comfort in the midst of their pain.
In France, Curda had fought well. In England he could not have been serving as a German stool-pigeon, because two operations he knew enough about to wreck had been successful. There was even evidence that he had not betrayed Lt Opalka to the Gestapo, or any of his underground contacts. Why had he turned traitor at the end? Gen Moravec went to see him several times. The best he could get was a fuller record of events. Curda said that Gabcik threw the bomb, Kubis covering with the Sten gun. Then the two rode their bicycles straight to the church, where they were given sanctuary. The presence of Lt Opalka and Valcik was accidental.
The four hoped that the storm would subside, and when the intense searching was called off they could escape to Slovakia. Curda hinted that he found out about the fugitives from a prostitute; he was vague at this juncture. But why did you tell the Nazis? asked the general. Maybe for the million marks, said Curda. Or maybe I thought it was better that two men die than two thousand. What does it matter? At the church, the Gestapo had shouted to come out, to surrender. The men answered with the machine gun, and later with their pistols. The cellar of the two-hundred-year-old church was a fortress not to be breached or taken by storm. Finally the Germans flooded it. It was then that all four men, out of ammunition and near drowning, swallowed their cyanide. The Gestapo officers reported the great victory; Curda was paid only half a million marks and lived in luxury for three years.
The next morning Gen Moravec got up early. He wanted to have a last talk with Curda and get the rest of the story, how Curda found out and why he informed. But before he could leave the house a member of the Citizens’ Committee, a leading Communist, came to see him. Let’s have a little chat, the visitor said, removing his coat. I was just leaving. It’s no use, said the Communist, sitting down and lighting a cigarette. We’ve given orders that you’re not to be admitted at the jail any more. Why? Why do you want to talk to Curda? You have no status in this matter. I want to find out the truth. We know what you want. You want to keep your glamorous story of the Heydrich case alive.
Don’t try to pretend that you care about Gabcik and Kubis, or whatever their names were, or Curda either. You just want people to believe that your so-called government in London was a band of heroes and patriots. You’re not getting away with it. Keep away from the jail, or we will let you in. There’s still room. The general did not say anything. And stop sniffing around trying to get records and names of other people to talk to. The visitor got up. In fact, former Gen Moravec, it would be a very fine idea for you to get out of here. I think we understand each other? I understand you, the general said. Good day. He knew it was no use to go to the jail, but he did anyway. He was turned away so rudely that he was surprised to be admitted to the trial. It lasted about five minutes. Gabcik and Kubis were scarcely mentioned; Curda was tried and condemned for collaboration with the Gestapo. It was a Marionette show. But just at the end an impromptu line brought it momentarily to incongruous life. Why did you do it? the chief justice recited. For their rotten German marks? One half million of them, Curda retorted. How much are the Russians paying you?
They killed him, of course; Gen Moravec watched the execution. He could not help thinking that Curda was dying for the wrong reason – not for his crime, but for Communist ends. Maybe that’s really what keeps bothering me about Heydrich’s death, he reflected. Did we kill him and trigger 5000 other deaths in a just cause, or out of political ambition? Is any human motive ever untainted? At least the two who did the killing, Gabcik and Kubis, came close to purity of motive. They had been healthy young men, not born martyrs in search of death. They had not killed for pride, greed, envy, anger, or ambition. They had killed like dedicated surgeons removing a cancerous mass.
They must have felt deeply that the play had to unfold and that their business was not to choose the actors or criticize the choice of theater but only to play their ordained parts as best they could. Of all forms of courage, theirs was the highest because it is the most humble. As he walked away, Gen Moravec met the Communist functionary who had forbidden him to visit Curda. Will you please tell me where Gabcik and Kubis are buried? he asked politely. Nowhere, came the sardonic answer. There are no graves. You foot-kissers of the British are not going to have that excuse to build a statue and hang wreaths. Czech heroes are Communists. Gen Moravec felt tired. There were more Heydrichs than a man could destroy. Fascist Heydrichs died and Communist Heydrichs took their places and there was no end to it, as long as people coast.
Some day, perhaps, the wheel would turn and Czechs would grow strong again, and be free to remember the strength of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis.