Some time ago, taking the routine walk home, I noticed a striking picture on the side of a tram: a German officer with a target and “Death-head” written over his face. This is the Czech title for a recent Hollywood movie, HHhH, about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler´s right-hand man and the main architect of the Holocaust. The banner next to a local supermarket had been changed to the same poster, bearing an additional slogan in Czech “The greater the evil, the greater the heroes” along with the hashtag #CzechsAreNotSissies. So once I saw an announcement for the forthcoming open-air installation Operation Anthropoid, the code name for Heydrich´s assassination, I felt like I had to see this. I was wondering how a (hi)story full of conspiracy, fear and suffering, interrupted by isolated acts of heroism and betrayal, would be presented.
This year Prague was full of Operation Anthropoid. An escape game is currently being offered in Czech and English; for 50 Euros you can quickly become a resistance fighter. Its ratings on TripAdvisor are great. The plot goes as follows: You find yourself in an old-fashioned flat where the Czech underground is operating. Its owner was just arrest by the Gestapo, and your team has the unique chance to wipe out traces of his resistance activities (issuing false IDs for Jews) with Nazi perpetrators on your doorsteps. But if you are seeking for more complexity, you can go on a Prague tour focusing on Operation Anthropoid with an all-inclusive 200-page guide book released by one of the most prominent Czech publishing houses in 2016. And if you wish to experience this on the silver screen, you still have a chance to see two feature-length films (Anthropoid 2016, HHhH 2017). Many claim that the latter cannot be compared with the skillful writing of Laurent Binet, the French author of this award-winning story reprinted in Czech for the 75th anniversary. Binet, who used to live in Prague for several years, claims that Heydrich´s assassination represents “the most blasphemous anti-Nazi action in the history of World War II,” keeping his sympathies for the young hero-assassins. These were two British parachuters of Czech and Slovak nationality. Binet also admits he would never be able to do such a thing.
Much of the writing published in the Czech Republic in the past two years has centered not so much on Heydrich as on the local parachuters and their aid givers. Unlike Binet, and contrary to what I learned at school and to what we can read in English Wikipedia, the Czech version of it newly identifies both of them as Czechs. Jaroslav Čvančara, author of Anthropoid – The Czechoslovak Patriots´ Story, recently spoke fiercely to media outlets about the Czechs’ “national revenge” against the Nazi Reich. Even to the point of asserting that “no other Hitler-driven nation in Europe has ever dared to carry out such an act.” Wow! Did two Czech (or maybe Czechoslovak) refugees actually and singlehandedly prepare and conduct this plan? And wait, what about the Warsaw uprising in Poland, the destruction of the Gorgopotamos bridge in Greece, the Battle of Sutjeska and Yugoslav, Greek, Polish, Soviet and French partisans in general? Čvančara goes on to accuse current Europe of a declining patriotism. Unfortunately, another attitude may have been observed in Czech public discourse on the “refugee crisis”: either steep xenophobia or, after two years, indifference.
Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to see people standing around next to a farmers’ market and reading the exhibition banners on Operation Anthropoid on a hot summer day outside the city center in Prague. Young and old, male and female, singles, couples and families, locals and tourists. Many stopped by to have a look, and I started to ask them about their objectives. The installation (in both Czech and English) focused mainly on the “Czech events”: assassination, resistance, reprisals, including personal histories and many photographs. Czech patriotism and Czechs were often mentioned, but surprisingly never the Jews, never the Holocaust. As for the locals, they hardly ever go to a museum exhibition as they said, but if they are exposed to history in the streets, they eagerly read about it—or at least have a glimpse. And this looked familiar, something they knew from school.
A young couple from France, driven to Prague by Binet´s novel, were sorry to find only a few accessible sites. A Czech visitor, having seen the film, also read the piece and recalled reading some articles and hearing a broadcast about Operation Anthropoid on the radio. A young woman from Russia, a camera slung over her shoulder, was able to understand that this was about the Czechs and World War II. An elderly lady who knew about the installation from the local newspaper wanted to see it for herself. Once there, she seemed overwhelmed by feelings, “sadness” as she expressed it, for the so many young people who had lost their life. She asked herself if today, in our world, we would still be able to find such heroes. As for the foreign tourist, they were left wondering what message the curators wanted to mediate. To be honest, I was too. Is it the readiness to fight, the heroism, the victimhood – perhaps even all of them? What is the purpose of such an act, and who are the enemies? Are they about to come and occupy us, the Czechs, again? In any case, the thought of the urgency to be prepared to strike against possibly another intruder makes me feel uneasy. Yet, perhaps in retrospect, some of us started to think: Who is framing the message to us and why?
Reference: Králová, Kateřina. Operation Anthropoid:The Proof of Czech National Heroism?. PRIMUS BOHEMS Web, 11.9.2017. Link: http://www.bohems.fsv.cuni.cz/post/49.