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The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich: The SS 'Butcher of Prague' Paperback – August 22, 1998
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Reinhard Heydrich was one of Hitler's most ruthless Nazis. In addition to heading the occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was a leading architect of the Holocaust. There was even talk of his one day succeeding Hitler. For these reasons and others, he became a target--and ultimately the victim--of Allied special operations. This compelling book by English author Callum MacDonald is a skillful, journalistic retelling of a story that would make a solid espionage novel. It begins with a brief sketch of Heydrich--a handsome, violin-playing villain. His fierce anti-Semitism apparently was an emblem of self-hatred; all his life he was bewitched by the knowledge that some of his ancestors may have been Jewish. The bulk of the book turns to the assassination itself, from its planning stages in Britain, to the nighttime airdrop of the conspirators, to their arrangements in Prague, to the nearly botched event itself. Following Heydrich's death, which Hitler compared to losing a battle, the assassins eluded a massive manhunt. Sympathetic priests had hidden them in a Greek Orthodox Church. Despite the success of their mission, their story does not have a happy ending--the Nazis eventually learned of their whereabouts, and the book climaxes with their bloody last stand in the church crypt. This is an outstanding tale of evil, intrigue, and heroism. --John J. Miller
From Library Journal
Here's one who didn't get away. Quite the contrary, Heydrich, the perfect NaziAif there could be such a thingAwas assassinated in 1942 by Czech patriots who planted a bomb in his car. MacDonald's 1989 volume, which reads like a good thriller, follows this plot to kill the head of the Nazi security police.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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MacDonald then maps in detail the even more complicated political terrain navigated by Czech president in absentia Eduard Benes. Ever since the May 1942 killing of Heydrich and the predictable gory aftermath of reprisals -- including the systematic and total destruction of the Czech village of Lidice -- the wisdom a plot to kill such a high ranking Nazi and bring on excessive retaliation, has been doubted. The author depicts the rationale in terms of tragic choices Benes faced in trying to shore up the very limited and shaky international support for his government-in-exile. In a nutshell, the very existence of Czechoslovakia seemed, at that time, to be in question, as German military success against Russia led the latter to call for uprisings behind Nazi lines. From Benes' point of view, had his exiled government accomplished nothing dramatic in the war effort, Russia would have turned to the Czech communist party and thereby ensured their eventual rule in post-war Czechoslovakia. Thus sprang Operation Anthropoid, and the parachuting of assassins into occupied Eastern Europe.
MacDonald has been painstaking in his research into and use of primary once top-secret files. He has then brilliantly boiled it down to just the right amount of detail to both educate and tell a good story. At the end he devotes what seems to be a bit of an afterthought to the question of whether, in sum, the assassination was worth it. I hungered for MacDonald's last word and opinion on something he spent such obvious care researching. But in the end his balanced answers and the way he weighs the complexities may have real bearing on the difficult questions the free world now faces today confronting the new century's brutes and monsters.
Callum MacDonald first wrote this book in 1989 under the title "The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich" (New York: Free Press, 1989), and it is this edition that was consulted by the reviewer. His work is the first in several years to address the full story of Heydrich's assassination, significant in itself because it was the only successful assassination of a high-ranking Nazi during the Second World War. Using the existing literature on the topic (MacDonald has cited works in English, German and Czech) as well as several primary archival sources, he vividly re-creates a full account of the whole phenomenon of Heydrich. His life is discussed in some detail, as are the details of his assassination, from its implementation, planning, involved personnel and a valuation of it, in the context of its aftermath. It is a very well written book; readers are lucky that the book has now been reissued.
Stunning are MacDonald's revelations and assessment of the exiled Czech president, Eduard Benes, who remained in England during the war and sponsored the assassination. His motives certainly bear question, as he wanted the assassination of Heydrich to prove that Czechs would not blindly accept their fate at the hands of the Germans and had "contributed" to the war, even though he had inklings and knowledge of how the Nazis would wreak their revenge on Czechs and Jews in Heydrich's name. It was these two groups that suffered most after the assassination: the towns of Lidice and Lezaky were razed to the ground and its inhabitants were massacred (except for a few children deemed worthy of "Aryanization"). Several convoys of Jewish deportees were sent to extermination camps under the words "Aktion Reinhard." From that point, occupied Bohemia-Moravia was ruled even more so by checkpoints, security police and the Gestapo than when Heydrich was still living. Benes never sighed a word of the assassination (code-named OPERATION ANTHROPOID) after the war in light of the consequences.
The three assassins, Jan Kubis, Josef Gabcik and Josef Valcik are described and given a face: heroes they were indeed, as they made the ultimate sacrifice in assassinating Heydrich. It was Kubis' grenade that blew up Heydrich's Mercedes and sent bits into his insides, while Gabcik would have mowed him down with a Sten gun, but it jammed at the crucial moment. Valcik was their lookout man, poised at the top of a hill where Heydrich would come down; he signaled with a pocket mirror to his accomplices down below that their target was on the way. MacDonald describes what happened to these three heroes: they fled the scene and hid in the cellar of an Orthodox cathedral in Prague, only to be betrayed by a comrade named Karel Curda, allegedly fearing the arrest of his mother and sister (he was rewarded with one million marks, but was hanged after the war for treason). Fighting the SS for six hours, they all used their last bullets to shoot themselves rather than be taken alive.
Callum MacDonald has written a superb and original book. It is a tale of military intelligence and espionage, heroism and grand sacrifice, banality of evil and the man that reflected Nazism more so than any other in his age, except for Hitler himself.