November 5, 2018
Prague, Czech Republic—Week 8 Fr. James Donohue, C.R.
Our Czech History class has been fascinating as we learn about early Bohemian history, the Czechs reluctant participation as part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the formation of Czechoslovakia after World War I on October 28, 1918, and the events surrounding World War II. Regarding the latter, we learned the story of two heroes—one a Czech and the other a Slovak—who played a crucial role in convincing the Allies that Czechoslovakia was under forced occupation of the Nazis and were not freely choosing to cooperate with them.
The story starts with the Munich Agreement, in which Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy met and decided to appease Hitler by giving him borderland territory (called the Sudetenland) that was inhabited mainly by German-speaking Czechs. The Czechs still speak of this conference as the “great betrayal” and the conference “about us, without us.” With the Sudetenland gone to Germany (October 1, 1938), Czecho-Slovakia (as it was renamed) lost its defensible border with Germany, as well as all the fortifications that were built after WWI to defend it. Czechoslovakia lost 70% of its iron-steel industry, 70% of its electrical power, and 3.5 million citizens to Germany as a result of this settlement, leaving it vulnerable to the Nazi’s full occupation on March 15, 1939.
Without Western support, Czechoslovakia capitulated to the Nazis, who quickly used its natural resources and skilled workers to support its war machine. To the Allies, it was hard to know if Czecho-Slovakia was a friend or foe. So, the exiled Czechoslovakian government under President Edvard Beneš, organized Operation Anthropoid. The plan was for two paratroopers to be dropped into Prague where they would attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s appointee to govern the Czech lands. Heydrich was greatly feared as he mercilessly put down any Czechoslovakian resistance and ramped up production of war materials. Due to his brutal efficiency, he was nicknamed “The Butcher of Prague.” Every day he traveled by open car to the Prague Castle as a sign of his confidence in the occupation forces. The plan was for the paratroopers to map his route and wait for their chance to kill him.
Joseph Gabcek (Slovak)
Jan Kubis (Czech)
On May 27, 1942, Heydrich’s car slowed to round a curve, and Gabček stepped out to fire his machine gun…but it jammed. Kubiš then threw an anti-tank grenade into the car. Heydrich died from his wounds on June 4, 1942. But then the reprisals started. Hitler demanded that 10,000 inhabitants of Prague be killed, but authorities were able to negotiate that to 5,000. Intelligence falsely linked the assassins to the village of Lidice. On June 9, 1942, the Nazis carried out the “Lidice Massacre”: 199 men were killed, 195 women were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, and 95 children were taken prisoner (81 of those children were later gassed and others were adopted into German families). The Czech village of Ležáky was also destroyed because a radio transmitter belonging to one of the paratrooper’s team was found there. Both villages were burned and leveled.
This window was the only access
The window from inside the crypt.
Because of increased reprisals, a member of the Czech resistance betrayed the paratroopers, who by now were hiding in the crypt of the Orthodox Church, Saints Cyril and Methodius. Despite the best efforts of the 750 SS Troops who tried to take them alive, all those in the church died. Three (including Gabček) were killed in the prayer loft after a two hour gun battle and four (including Kubiš) committed suicide. After the battle the one who betrayed them identified the bodies of the resistance fighters, which led to further reprisals against their families and anyone who helped them.
Bishop Gozard took the blame for the actions of harboring the resistance fighters in the church in an attempt to minimize the reprisals for his flock. He was arrested on June 27, 1942 and tortured. On September 4, 1942, the bishop, the church’s priests, and the senior lay leaders were taken to the Kobylisy Shooting Range in the northern suburb of Prague and shot by the Nazi firing squads. For his actions, Bishop Gozard was later glorified and canonized as a martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The interior of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Church is quite beautiful. It has some gorgeous icons and it radiates a peace that belies the violence that took place below in the crypt in 1942.
Saints Cyril and Methodius who brought Christianity to the Slavic people.
Good King Wenceslaus
Visitors in the church crypt.
Saints Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church
This action by the paratroopers, assisted by the Czechoslovakian resistance fighters, convinced the Allies that the Czech and Slovak people were indeed allies and were doing what they could under a terrorizing occupation power. At the end of the war, the state of Czechoslovakia was united to its original borders. But, of course, their independence lasted only a short time before they fell under the control of the Russian totalitarian regime.
One of the greatest parts of study abroad is that you can learn about events such as these in the classroom, and then our Czech History teacher, Petr Rubel, says, “Okay, let’s walk over to the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius to see where the paratroopers went into hiding.” Seeing the bullet holes in the wall, the memorials to those who died, and the church itself really makes history come alive.