This May marks the 75th anniversary of a major event of World War II. This event was not a battle, or the liberation of any particular area, but it had massive repercussions for the Nazis and for Czechoslovakia.
In 1941, Czechoslovakia was in the iron grip of the Third Reich. The Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (as per the Munich Agreement of 1938) was a man by the name of Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich had been involved with the Nazi party since the late 1920s. He was really the head of the Protectorate; the official head, Konstantin von Neurath, had taken an approach to the Czechs that Hitler and other top Nazis regarded as too “soft”. Heydrich, on the other hand, promised his fellow Nazis that they would make sure the “Czech vermin” toed the line. Heydrich was bound and determined to “Germanize” the Czechs, forbidding them to use their own language or indulge in their own customs.
Rather than taking a solely hard-line approach with the Czechs, Heydrich lulled them into a false sense of security by implementing many common-sense social programs when he took office in 1942. Pensions for senior citizens were increased, free shoes were handed out, and unemployment insurance was offered. Meanwhile, however, Heydrich was ruthlessly hunting down, torturing, and executing members of the Czech Resistance, as well as black marketeers.
The ultimate plan for Bohemia and Moravia, after the war, was complete Germanization. The area would be annexed by the Third Reich, and the majority of the population would simply… disappear. If lucky, they would be sent to Russia. If not, they would be executed.
The Škoda auto works in Bohemia were extremely important to the Third Reich. Germany needed the constant production of motorized vehicles, as well as armaments, and Heydrich was in charge of seeing to it that production continued unabated – and unsabotaged. He wanted to be sure that the Czechs understood exactly who was boss, and he chose a particularly grim method of teaching them this lesson. He had 92 people executed in his first three days in country.
Heydrich had long experience in creating chaos. In 1938, the year of the Munich Agreement, he helped to organize “Kristallnacht”, a series of coordinated attacks against Jews in Germany in Austria. After the attacks, thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Along with Himmler and Heinrich Muller, he helped to create a pretext for Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939. In January 1942, Heydrich chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference, at which the plans were finalized for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”. Heydrich played a major role in the Final Solution, rounding up and deporting Jews and anyone else deemed a threat by and to the Reich. Heydrich was one of Hitler’s top men, even Hitler described him as “the man with the iron heart.”
Although initially, working conditions improved under Heydrich, they soon took a turn for the worse. By the end of 1941, Czechs could be forced to work anywhere in the Reich (including Germany). In February of 1942, the working day increased. Rather than working eight-hour days, the Czechs were now working 12-hour days.
As if all this weren’t enough, Heydrich was ensuring a steady stream of deportations from Bohemia and Moravia to the death camps, by way of Terezín. Clearly, something had to be done.
To be continued…