1942: The village of Lidice, for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

19 comments June 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Germans visited upon the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice one of the most notorious butcheries of World War II: the physical destruction of the town, and the execution of most of the adult population, in revenge for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich had power of life and death in Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and did not scruple to use it.

“The Hangman of Prague” was no mere functionary, but a Nazi grand wizard from way back, who’d had a hand in the Third Reich’s most terrifying greatest hits — the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht. Just four months before this date, Heydrich had chaired the Wannsee Conference.* (Watch Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich ride herd over a gaggle of bureaucrats to get the Final Solution up and running in Conspiracy.) Hitler called him his “man with the iron heart.”

So he was a natural target for the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile and their British handlers, made more so by his lordly disdain for common-sense security safeguards.

Zipping along a predictable route in an open car, he was a sitting duck for a hit squad, who gave the Nazi bastard a mortal shrapnel wound from a grenade that had him lingering painfully at death’s door for several days before he finally died of blood poisoning.

The 1964 Czechoslovakian film Atentat (“Assassination”) chronicles the plot to kill Heydrich and its aftermath.

For this effrontery, Czechoslovakians would pay a dreadful price.

Naturally, the Nazis mercilessly hunted down and slaughtered those with any connection to the plot.

But the Reich also exacted collective reprisals to make plain that the entire “protectorate” could be considered hostage against such plots in the future.

Special transports of Jews marked “Attentat auf Heydrich” were shipped to the camps, and 152 were executed on the day Heydrich succumbed. But then, the Nazis were brutalizing Jews anyway. Something more headline-grabbing would be needed.

Enter Lidice.

After gaudy funerals for the slain Reichsprotektor, the Reich settled upon the small town of Lidice north of Prague — trumping up a few connections to resistance to “justify” collective punishment.

On this date, German troops stormed it, summarily executed all the men and boys** old enough to bear arms and a fair number of women, deported the others, and then physically destroyed and buried the town.

Lidice was intended as a demonstration — boldly published to the world as proof against a repeat,† it became the byword of Nazi cruelty towards subject nations. Though not by quantitative standards the greatest crime of the occupation, not even the greatest crime in reprisal for Heydrich, its three syllables distill all the evil of Hitler’s conquest for Czechoslovakia.

Lidice did live, and does yet, as an emblem par excellence those terrible years.

Less alive: Heydrich’s right-hand man Karl Hermann Frank, who was hanged in Prague after the war for engineering this monstrous crime. Those survivors of Lidice able to make the trip enjoyed priority seating.

* Heydrich’s aide at the Wannsee Conference, and taker of cleaned-up minutes, was Mr. Banality of Evil himself, Adolf Eichmann.

** Only three men of Lidice survived the destruction: two who were in England at that time, and one who was imprisoned in Prague for killing his son. The sentence for this crime, it turned out, was life.

† An effective proof — the calculated wholesale slaughter apparently did cool both the conquered populace and the enemies of Germany on enthusiasm for further assassinations.

On this day..

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1944: An unknown Allied airman

11 comments November 21st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1944, in the midst of a worldwide conflagration that would claim 70 million lives, one unknown crew member of an Allied bomber was shot by Nazi SS/SD troops in the woods around Enschede, Netherlands.

From late 1942, the Allies’ massive industrial capacity had sapped the vaunted Luftwaffe, bleeding down the German air force in desperate airborne combat in the Mediterranean and the Eastern front. Crippling losses in July and August 1943 lay Germany’s industrial heart open to devastating bombing and would within a year spell the end of the Luftwaffe as an effective fighting force.

The contest’s stakes were high. This hour-long compilation of contemporaneous U.S. propaganda footage celebrates the decisive effect of air supremacy in western Europe:

With hostile planes darkening Europe’s skies, the Germans called upon ruthlessness to stand in for materiel. Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler issued, according to Robin O’Neil, an August 1943 order to show no quarter to captured enemy pilots.

The young man shot this day suffered its effects:

The airman (estimated age 26 years), who was apparently unhurt, was taken by the SS to the cellar of the villa [serving as SS headquarters], where he was kept under guard while arrangements were made for his disposal. These arrangements consisted of the removal of his flying kit, and the substitution of a civilian light-coloured shirt, a pair of dark trousers, and a pair of socks.

In this dress he was put into a security vehicle, his hands handcuffed behind his back, and taken some distance in the grounds of the SS HQ to a spot within the compound where a grave had already been prepared. The airman was marched from the car by an escort of two SS men, one of whom dropped back and shot the airman in the back of the neck. He was buried and the grave was carefully camouflaged.

To this day, the airman’s identity has not been established. It was assumed that he was British or American, most probably American, as the trousers he was wearing were of a dark shade of khaki, and the fact that when he was informed in the car, in English, that he was to be executed, he made an indistinct reply in which the word “America” was uttered.

Countless such executions undoubtedly took place and were lost, forgotten or concealed in the charnel house of war. Thanks to the witness of Dutch prisoners who survived the war, this single act of routine brutality endured not only historically but juridically: little more than a year later, its author, Dr. Karl Eberhard Schongarth — an SS officer who participated in the Wannsee Conference and slaughtered thousands in occupied Poland and Holland — faced a war crimes prosecution for the execution of the anonymous airman.

His actions this date may have been small by the gauge of a bloodthirsty career, but since pre-war treaties explicitly regulated treatment of war prisoners, they also constituted a conveniently plain transgression of the far-from-bright line demarcating “war crimes.” For this one killing, Schongarth was himself hanged as a war criminal in Hamelin, Germany on May 16, 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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