When you’re in Prague and near the Malostranská metro station, you will find a Memorial to the Second resistance movement against Nazi aggression and occupation of Czechoslovakia during years 1938-1945. As was written in a previous article here, the Germans didn’t invade in 1938 as the memorial would suggest, but the events were set in motion that year as result of the Munich agreement.
Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
On March 14th, 1939, Hitler had summoned President Hácha and given him a choice between either surrendering the remainder of Czechoslovakia to the control of Germany, or face a brutal invasion. The country’s defenses were nonexistent after the annexation of the Sudetenland to Germany, so the country didn’t have much of a choice. Hácha suffered a heart attack when Germany threatened to bomb Prague. With his life barely holding on, he signed the country over to Germany. After President Emil Hácha was forced to hand the remainder of the country to Germany on March 16th, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was created.Hitler himself made the declaration at the Prague Castle.
President Hácha remained in office, but had to swear an Oath to Hitler, basically removing all his power, and Konstantin von Neurath as Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (a.k.a Reichsprotektor, who acted as a direct representative of Hitler and held all the power). Neurath had been a German diplomat, playing a key figure in Hitler’s foreign policy pursuits, and was appointed as Reichsprotektor largely to pacify international outcry of German Occupation of the country. Shortly after coming to the Prague castle, Neurath instituted harsh press censorship and banned political parties and trade unions.
International Student’s Day
Every November 17th is an official international holiday: International Student’s Day. Although today many universities choose a different day to observe it, and celebrate rather multiculturalism and their international students. That being said, it is still observed on November 17th as a day to celebrate student activism. It originated when Nazi military stormed the University of Prague to stop students from protesting, which resulted with nine of them being executed.
As a result of the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia, there were several anti-Nazi protests and riots. During one of them, a medical student at Charles University in Prague, Jan Opletal, was shot on October 28, 1939. On November 11th, he died. His funeral was held on November 15th, which was attended by thousands of students, and quickly turned into another anti-nazi protest. In consequence to the protesting, Reichsprotektor Neurath closed down all Czech universities and colleges. 1,200 students were sent to concentration camps, and nine were executed on November 17th.
Names of the Students and Professors Who Were Executed
Josef Matoušek, Jaroslav Klíma, Jan Weinert, Josef Adamec, Jan Černý, Marek Frauwirth, Bedřich Koula, Václav Šafránek, František Skorkovský
In 1941, Hitler found Neurath to be too soft, accusing that his weak policies allowed for anti-German sentiment to rise. He decided to appoint Reinhard Heydrich as Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hitler stripped Neurath of his real authority (although he still held the title), and gave Heydrich all the power. Heydrich was the third highest ranking Nazi, just under Heimlich Himmler and Hitler himself, and was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. Upon his appointment, Heydrich told his aides: “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.”
Before Hitler appointed Heydrich, President Hácha had used what little influence he had to oppose some German policies and the Germanization of the Protectorate. He even secretly worked with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. However, once Heydrich came in, Hácha lost any kind of influence that he had had and became a puppet. Heydrich turned turned the country into a totalitarian one.
Under Heydrich’s dictatorship, Hácha was forced to sign laws that discriminated against Jews. These laws were meant to prevent Jews and Czechs from breeding together in order to “keep Czech blood protected.” Jews weren’t allowed to fly Czech colors, and basically had to completely separate themselves from any group that was non-Jewish.
Jews weren’t the only ones targeted during the reign of Heydrich. Heydrich made it no secret that he hated Czechs and wanted to Germanize the country completely. Upon arriving to Prague, 92 persons were executed within three days of him arriving. Within five months of his arrival, between 4,000 and 5,000 people were arrested and either executed or sent to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Only 4% of Czech prisoners had survived that camp by the end of the war.
Czech culture was forbidden to be expressed in public. Regarding Czech, an interesting article can be read here about Josef Kazda, who almost single handedly saved Czech cinema from the destruction of the Nazis. Although the suppression of Czech culture, arts, music, and the press began at the beginning when Neurath had control, Heydrich is responsible for almost completely eliminating anything Czech.
This all being said, during Heydrich, things were relatively peaceful in the Czech Lands. This was largely due to him reorganizing labour in the country, giving many benefits to the workers. Productivity increased as a result, and even unemployment insurance was introduced. For a while people were satisfied, but after time passed inflation increased as well as there being more and more shortages, which started to make the people dissatisfied. Things started to get worse for Czech workers when the Nazis began to exploit them. Eventually, the Nazis would remove the Czech workers from their jobs because they were seen as “unsuitable” for them. They then would be moved anywhere within the Reich. In a short time, thousands upon thousands of Czech workers were taken from their homes and sent to work elsewhere.
Alois Eliáš became the Prime Minister of Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939 and until 1941, a week after Heydrich had come to Prague. President Hácha had handpicked Eliáš, who had previously been a general and fought with the Czechoslovak Legions in France during WWI, to become the Prime Minister after the government was reorganized.
Premier Eliáš was someone who had a strong devotion to his people. He took the position of Prime Minister because he saw it as an opportunity to help his people. He offered support to the underground resistance fighters who were opposing the Nazis, and (as well as the rest of the Czech government) was in contact with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. When Paris was taken over by the Nazis in 1940, it was discovered French files that provided proof that Eliáš had been using the airwaves to keep in contact with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. Although Heydrich was not in Prague at this point, he was already calling for Eliáš’s arrest, which only didn’t happen because of Neurath’s intervention. However, this did not stop from further investigation into the premier’s deeds. Eventually, after enough probing, the Nazis were able to come up with enough charges to arrest him. A week after Heydrich came to Prague this happened. His trial was speedy and afterwards he was sentenced to death.
One of the things Heydrich did while living in Prague was to drive an unarmoured car without any protection and an open roof, and the only person driving with him was his chauffeur. He took the same routes as well, which potentially made him an easy target for anyone wanting to get to him, but he did it anyway to show confidence in the occupation forces and the effectiveness of his government.
Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile began to work with the British government on a plan to assassinate a high ranking Nazi official in the Protectorate. Originally, sights were on Karl Hermann Frank, who was the Higher SS and Police Leader of the Protectorate, as well as Secretary of State, but they chose to assassinate Heydrich instead because of his ranking and how unprotected he was.
Preparation for the assassination began on 20 October 1941 with the British Special Operations Executive. They called the operation: Operation Anthropoid. Jozef Gabčík (Slovak) and Karel Svoboda (Czech) were two Czechoslovak soldiers chosen to carry out the operation on 28 October 1941, which day held some significance as it was also the Czechoslovak National Independence Day. Svoboda was later replaced with Jan Kubiš (Czech) after a head injury during training, causing delays in the mission as Kubiš had not completed training, nor had the necessary false documents been prepared for him.
The day of the attack arrived on May 27,1942 at 10:30 am as Heydrich was making his daily route from his house at Panenské Břežany to the Prague Castle. Kubiš and Gabčík waited at the tram stop near Bulovka Hospital, where the road would turn at a sharp angle. This was an ideal place to ambush Heydrich because the Mercedes he was riding in would have to slow down, making it an even easier target. Kubiš and Gabčík had a colleague named Josef Valčík who signaled them using a mirror that Heydrich was coming.
As Heydrich’s green convertible Mercedes was rounding the corner, Gabčík stepped in front of the moving vehicle holding a machine gun. Unfortunately, the automatic weapon jammed right at the critical moment. Heydrich then told his chauffeur to stop the car and pulled out his Luger pistol to shoot Gabčík. Gabčík quickly pulled out an anti-tank grenade that was inside a briefcase, and threw it at Heydrich’s vehicle. It detonated outside of the car, but its explosion caused for fibers and shrapnel from the car’s right rear bumper to penetrate into Heydrich’s body.
After the explosion, Kubiš, Gabčík, and Heydrich began a shoot out, which resulted with neither one of them hitting their opponent, neither did it last long as Heydrich soon collapsed due to his injuries from the shrapnel. Kubiš and Gabčík both made a run for it, as Kubiš got away on a bicycle, and Gabčík made it to a safe house by tram, after he had shot Heydrich’s chauffeur.
When both assassins left the scene, the believed that they had failed, as their target had survived. Heydrich was taken to a Czech hospital and taken care of by Czech doctors. Soon after though, he was under SS medical care. His condition seemed to be improving, however seven days after the attack, Heydrich collapsed while eating a meal at his bedside, and shortly afterwards passed away. To this day it is not certain how he died exactly, although several theories do exist.
Operation Anthropoid was the only successful assassination attempt of a high-ranking Nazi official.
Lidice and Ležáky
On the day of Heydrich’s assassination attempt, Hitler exacted revenge by sending Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who Hitler believed to be even more brutal than the wounded leader of the Protectorate, to investigate and look over the reprisals. Hitler’s orders were to “wade through blood” in order to find those responsible. 13,000 people were arrested and sent to different concentration camps, where many of them were murdered.
A Gestapo report falsely identified the small village of Lidice as the assailants’ suspected hiding place, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear to this day. One theory is that the Gestapo identified Lidice since several Czech army officers exiled in England at the time were known to have come from there. Another theory, which was the basis of the 2011 Czech film called Lidice, involves a love letter that gets picked up by the Gestapo between a local woman from Lidice, and a Czech resistance fighter in the UK. Unbeknownst to the woman, her lover with whom she had been writing was not a resistance fighter at all. The Gestapo later discovered that the woman’s lover was a factory worker from the town Kladno who was married. He was writing his lover from Lidice off by lying to her saying that he was a resistance fighter who was forced into lying. This unfortunate lie was discovered too shortly as The Nazis retaliated with burning the village to the ground
A resistance radio transmitter was found in another village, Ležáky, as well. This resulted with the Nazis destroying it as well. All of the adults from Ležáky were killed. From Lidice, 199 men were executed, and 195 of the women and 95 children were sent to concentration camps. Of the 95 children taken prisoner, 81 were executed by gas vans.
When news got around to Winston Churchill, he was furious. He suggested that for every Czech village destroyed, the British would take out three German ones.
Capture of Gabčík and Kubiš
Even after the villages were destroyed, the Nazis still had no leads as to where Kubiš or Gabčík were. They threatened to kill even more people if they weren’t found. Eventually the Czech resistance group called “Out Distance” were captured. Amongst them was a fighter named Karel Čurda. For One Million Reichsmarks, Čurda gave up seven safehouses. This lead the Gestapo to the Moravcovi (the Moravec Family).
The father of the household, Alois Moravec, was unaware of his family’s involvement with the resistance. His wife, Marie, went to the bathroom while the Gestapo searched their house, and bit into a cyanide capsule, ultimately killing herself. Their 17-year-old son, “Ata,” was taken in and interrogated through methods of torture. This went on for an entire day, and it wasn’t until they showed him his mother’s severed head on a platter, threatening that his father would be next, that he finally gave in and told the Gestapo what they wanted to hear. The Nazis then executed Ata and his father, as well as several other loved ones on the same day.
Ata’s intel led the SS soldiers to the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in New Town Prague, where both Gabčík and Kubiš were hiding, as well as a few other resistance fighters. Although the Nazis wanted to take in the two assailants alive, they ended up in a two hour shoot out. Kubiš, along with two other Czech resistance soldiers, Adolf Opálka, and Jaroslav Svarc, were killed in the prayer loft. Gabčík, Josef Valcik, Josef Bublik, and Jan Hruby committed suicide in the crypt. It is reported that 14 SS soldiers were killed, and 21 injured. This is quite miraculous, as the Czech soldiers only had pistols, while their attackers had machine guns and other powerful weapons.
Liberation – Prague Uprising
By 1945, the war was inevitably close to ending. Tensions in the Protectorate had steadily increased between Czech citizens and the German occupants because of oppression towards them. As the realization that the war was soon ending began to sink in for the German occupants, German troops began to return to Germany. However, throughout the spring of 1945, groups of Czechs attacked highway and railway transportation, causing many problems for the Germans trying to exit the country. The Czechs would also attack trains with German troops in them.
Rumors of liberation of German-occupied cities by help of the Allies began to spread quickly. Excitement aroused from these rumors lead General of Police, Karl Hermann Frank, to announce on the radio in Prague from April 30th to May 1st, that any attempts at an uprising would result in a ‘sea of blood.’
On May 5th, a morning radio broadcast was made combining German and Czech language. “Es ist šest uhr” (It’s six o’clock) was what was broadcasted on the air, which acted as a secret message for Czech resistance fighters to start an uprising. A group of Czech police tried to takeover the Vinohradská radio station where the message had been broadcasted. A battle ensued, lasting eight hours. The radio station continued to broadcast while the fighting continued, playing the banned national anthem, which inspired the locals to join the fight. The SS soldiers eventually surrendered after the Czechs forced them into the basement and flooded them out with a hose.
By the next morning, about a thousand barricades had been put up around the city. Czech resistance fighters managed to take over half the city by cutting off the electricity and water supplies to the Germans. Nazi soldiers took their anger out on Czech citizens who were not participating in the fighting (although Czechs also attacked non-combatant Germans). Word had gotten out that the Americans were in Plzeň, a larger Czech town just west of Prague. The Czechs in Prague thought that the Americans would soon come to help them out, but they weren’t aware that the Americans and the Soviets had already made an agreement, where they drew a demarcation line that divided up what could be liberated by the Soviets, and what could be liberated by the US. It just so happened that the demarcation line went in between Plzeňand Prague. The resistance fighters tried to contact the American army, but the US never answered back.
On May, 7th, the Germans brought in the heavy artillery, destroying several historical landmarks, including the Old Town Hall. German tanks started rolling in and the situation looked bleak for the Czechs. At this point of the battle, the Germans had far superior weapons to what the Czech fighters were using. However, luckily for them, the Russian Liberation Army, a Russian Army that had been fighting with the Germans during WWII because of their disdain for the communist regime, came to assist the Czechs. This helped the Czechs immensely, as the Russian Liberation Army had weapons sufficient enough to fight against the Nazis. The reason for their switch was because they thought it would help them evade capture when they went west to surrender to the US army.
On May 8th, negotiations were made, and the Germans had to leave Prague under conditions of ceasefire. The negotiations made it possible so that the German military and civilians could escape to the west without having to officially “surrender” when the Soviets came. The Russian Liberation Army surrendered itself to the Americans, but the Americans just sent them back to be dealt with by the Soviet Union. As a result, they were all sent to the gulags, and most were hanged for treason.
Expulsion of Germans
On May 9th, the Red Army came rolling in and helped liberate Prague of German troops completely. Based on an agreement signed by President Beneš and Soviet leaders in 1944, all land in Czechoslovakia that was liberated by the Red Army would be placed under Czechoslovak civilian control. Naturally, due to the oppression that Czechs had to endure during the German occupation, caused for many Czechs demanding that all Germans be expelled from the country.
Even though many Germans and their soldiers had already started heading west as part of the agreement made at the end of the Prague Uprising, Soviet soldiers and Czech civilians made it very difficult for that to happen, which resulted in many of the German groups escaping to be captured. After the war, the situation was very confusing as Czechoslovakia had no central government. The expulsion of Sudeten Germans was done locally, rather than some national policy that enforced it.
From July to October 1945, what is known as the Beneš decrees were implemented. The government-in-exile had drafted these decrees in order to help rebuild Czechoslovakia after the war. The Beneš decrees was also mainly concerned with the status of ethnic Germans left in the country. The decrees gave the expulsion of Germans a legal crutch to lean on. Ethnic Germans were subject to many court trials that revoked their property and Czechoslovak citizenship. Some were even sent to death for their involvement during WWII. The Expulsion ended in 1948 with over 3 million Sudeten Germans having been expelled. Around 160,000 to 250,000 German were not subject to expulsion from Czechoslovakia on the grounds that they were either anti-fascists, married to ethnic Czechs, or were important for industrial work.
Václav Havel, who was the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic, condemned the expulsion of Germans after WWII. Not only were millions of Germans taken from their homes and forced to become refugees, but many were also victims of massacres brought upon the Czechs in local communities. One example is in the summer of 1945, when 265 Carpathian Germans who were traveling through the Přerov railway station were taken out of the train by Czech soldiers and forced to dig their own graves before they were shot.
The Beneš decrees also dealt with Hungarians and other ethnic groups considered traitors during WWII. They are still in place to this day and have been the subject of much controversy and political debate. A frontrunning candidate in the Czech 2013 presidential election, Karel Schwarzenberg, who had also been a close advisor to Václav Havel after the fall of communism, said of the Beneš decrees: “What we committed in 1945 would today be considered a grave violation of human rights, and the Czechoslovak government, along with President Beneš, would have found themselves in The Hague.”