The tragedy of Lidice: Anthony Head describes the ways in which an atrocity has been commemorated, sixty years on. (Today's History).
The events that led to the tragedy were set in motion in Munich on September 30th, 1938. Within a week, Hitler had occupied the Sudetenland, and six months later German tanks rolled into Prague. Hitler initially declared the Czech provinces autonomous within the German Reich, and at first the Czech puppet governments found room to collude with nascent resistance groups. But they could not rein in the powers of the Staatssekretar of the Protectorate, the sadistic Sudeten German leader Karl Hermann Frank. Within weeks, transportations to the camps began. When large gatherings and strikes took place across the country on October 27th, 1939, Frank crushed them. Three weeks later, he shut the universities and had nine youth leaders shot.
Over the next year torture, deportation and execution became commonplace, and some of those Czechs who reached Britain trained as commandos. Parachute missions began in September 1941, and Hitler's Reichsprotektor, Konstantin von Neurath, chose this moment to seek leave on medical grounds. On September 27th his replacement, the thirty-seven-year-old head of police SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, arrived in Prague. Heydrich was a creature out of Frank's worst nightmare. Ten years previously he had been cashiered out of the navy and had joined an SS group in Hamburg. Within five years he had risen from street thug to Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man. In Prague he wasted no time: declaring martial law on the day of his arrival, he had 142 Czechs executed and sent 584 to concentration camps. In October, twice that number were shot or hanged and nearly a thousand shipped off to Mauthausen.
Plans to assassinate Heydrich were soon under way in London, and a special commando unit was quickly in training. Three times the mission was aborted due to bad weather, but on December 28th, 1941, a Halifax aircraft took off from Tangmere to drop three commando units. To Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik fell the task of eliminating Heydrich. On the morning of May 27th, 1942, as Heydrich was being driven to his office in Prague, Gabcik leapt out as the car slowed at a hair-pin bend. His Sten gun jammed, and Heydrich's driver opened fire. Kubis tossed his grenade which fell beside the rear right door. In the ensuing mayhem the commandos made their getaway, knowing they had only wounded their target. But shrapnel and shreds of uniform had penetrated Heydrich's spleen, and blood poisoning set in. On June 4th, the `Blond Beast' breathed his last.
An enraged Hitler ordered Frank to take over and demanded the execution of 10,000 Czechs. Frank persuaded him first to search for the assassins. The SS and Gestapo descended in droves. Between May 28th and June 9th thousands were interrogated and 1,800 people, against whom little could be proved, were executed, their names posted in shop windows and newspapers. But none of this led to significant information about the commandos, and on June 9th Heydrich was given a grandiose funeral in Berlin. Hitler required a demonstration the world would notice. The quiet mining village of Lidice had come under suspicion the previous week, when it was learned that two of its families each had a son in the Royal Air Force. A search turned up little that was incriminating, and no evidence that any commando had stayed there. But on the day of Heydrich's burial, Frank met Hitler and then telephoned the Gestapo chief in Prague to order the obliteration of Lidice.
Later that evening the Germans sealed off the village. By noon the next day, in an orchard, as John Bradley put it, `seventeen rows of corpses in bloody clothes, with shattered skulls, brains and guts spilling out, lay on the ground in batches of ten'. These were the 173 men of the village gunned down by a German death squad tanked up on alcohol. Nearly 200 women were transported to Ravensbruck; four of them, heavily pregnant, were allowed to give birth to children they would never see, before being shipped off. Lidice's children were sent to families in Germany and elsewhere to be `Germanised'. Of 104, only sixteen were ever traced. In the days that followed, Lidice was erased from the face of the earth. Even its cemetery was desecrated, its 400 graves dug up. Jewish prisoners from the camp at Terezin were brought in to shift the rubble. New roads were built and sheep set down to graze. No trace of the village remained.
Lidice was far from being the first Nazi massacre. But its clinical barbarity and brazenness (press reports were released the next day) provoked unprecedented outrage. In Britain, Canada, the US and elsewhere, Lidice was frontpage news. There were widespread calls for `an eye for an eye'. `If future generations ask us what we are fighting for,' said US Navy Secretary Frank Knox, `we shall tell them the story of Lidice.' British MP WJ. Browne warned the Nazis: `Meditate on these words, Hitler! ... From now on this war for us is a war of retribution, a war to impose on you the just punishment for such crimes as this.'
But the response was most remarkable in civic and artistic quarters. On July 12th, the Illinois town of Stern Park Gardens renamed itself Lidice in a ceremony attended by 55,000 people, a move followed in August by the Mexican village of San Geronimo-Aculdo. The name began appearing in other nations, especially in Latin America. In Havana and Quito, Lima and Caracas, Montevideo and Medellin, squares, districts and parks took on this new Czech name. Parents baptised their newborns `Lidice'. In Britain miners founded the `Lidice Shall Live' committee in September 1942 in Stoke-on-Trent. This spawned numerous such committees in other countries to raise funds for the rebuilding of the village. A `Lidice Lives' committee was set up in Washington and included Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Eugene O'Neill and Andre Maurois.
The American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay turned out a long poem, The Murder of Lidice, which was read in a live broadcast transmitted to Britain and South America. Two novels appeared--Otto Furth's Men in Black (1942), under the pseudonym Owen Elford, and Gerald Kersh's The Dead Look On (1943)--and Czech dramatist Emil Synek's play Lidice (1943) was published in London. Among those contributing to the anthology Lidice: A Tribute (1944) were Cecil Day Lewis, Richard Church, Eleanor Farjeon, Halldor Laxness and Thomas Mann. Mann's brother, Heinrich, in exile in California, published his German novel Lidice in 1943, a year in which two Hollywood films based on Heydrich's assassination were made by German exiles: Douglas Sirk's Hitler's Madman and Hangmen Also Die by Fritz Lang, for which Bertolt Brecht initially wrote the screenplay.
A remarkable film was made that year in the South Wales village of Cwmgiedd, Humphrey Jennings's The Silent Village. Jennings was taken by an idea of a young Czech working in London, Viktor Fischl, of bringing the Lidice story closer to home, and re-enacted the tragedy as if it had happened to the inhabitants of Cwmgiedd, with the villagers playing themselves, the Germans represented only by soundtrack and symbols. For all its originality, The Silent Village was make-believe. For the Czech people, the assassination of Heydrich had marked a watershed. Before 1942, their losses stemming from resistance to the Germans were relatively low; by the end of the war they totalled over 250,000. Lidice symbolised the beginning of a new terror. Kubis and Gabcik could not have known such a price would be paid, but for another commando, Karel Curda, it was enough to turn himself in and betray his comrades.
Appalled at the Nazi backlash, Kubis, Gabcik and five other commandos hid in the Prague church of St Cyril & St Methodius. Here the Germans laid siege on the morning of June 18th. For hours the seven Czechs kept 400 German troops at bay. Inevitably, weaponry and numbers told: two commandos were killed in a grenade attack and one, wounded, shot himself. The Germans then flooded the crypt, where the remaining four commandos had saved their last bullets for themselves.
Since the war, Lidice has received commemoration in music. Already in 1943, Bohuslav Martinu, in exile in America, had composed his brooding symphonic meditation Memorial to Lidice. Alan Bush wrote a piece for unaccompanied chorus, Lidice, in 1947, and Alan Rawsthorne's A Rose for Lidice was premiered in 1956. In 1973 Milan Bachorek wrote a bleakly melodramatic Lidice for voices, percussion and orchestra. The village has also been commemorated on postage stamps, by East Germany in 1962 and by the US Marshall Islands in 1992. In spite of all this, Lidice has been overshadowed. Kragujevac, Distomo, Oradour, Marzabotto: the list of places that have suffered similar fates is long. A world once shocked by such evil has become inured to its banality. It takes a new twist in form, like the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to instil in us new horror.
For this reason only, it is valuable to remember Lidice. Once it stirred the world. If its fate is to become a topic for anniversaries, that at least will keep faith with the pledge, stated by so many in the aftermath, that Lidice should never be allowed to die.
Anthony Head is an editor and writer based in Tokyo.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2002|
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