Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942) was a Nazi leader who impressed Adolf Hitler with his unbridled brutality. Historians consider Heydrich to be the central mastermind of the greatest state-sponsored crime in history—the Holocaust. As an evil genius, he planned the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews and 5 million other non-Jewish victims totaling a staggering 11 million people. Heydrich’s ruthless cruelty earned him such ominous titles as the “Butcher of Prague” and “The Man with the Iron Heart.”
SS General Heydrich was the highest-ranking Nazi officer to be assassinated during World War II. The movie Anthropoid is based on the true events surrounding the Allied top-secret mission to kill Heydrich (code name “Operation Anthropoid”). The term anthropoid refers to a being that merely resembles humans. No doubt those who lived under the brutal Nazi occupation led by Heydrich in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War might’ve thought he merely appeared to be human.
The film Anthropoid unveils the story of two exiled Czech patriots, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš (played by actors Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, respectively), who are commissioned by British Special Operations and assisted by leaders of the exiled Czechoslovakian government to assassinate Heydrich. The two men parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia, blended in with aid from the Czech underground, and ultimately planned their attack to take place in the capital city of Prague in May 1942. Since this is a historical event, it’s safe to assume it isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the assassination attempt was successful. Still, many details go wrong in the attack and, in certain respects, Heydrich’s death is rather fortuitous.
As a serious student of World War II, I went into the theater knowing a lot about Heydrich’s assassination, yet I still viewed the movie as a historical thriller. All in all, the actors were quite believable in carrying out this depiction of a critical event in the history of the Second World War. The filming captured the time period extremely well, because the historical landmarks in Old Town Prague (where the film was shot) are well preserved. Though the Nazi torture scenes may be difficult for some to watch, I solidly recommend the movie.
Reflections on Evil
Thinking about the film, I came away with some philosophical reflections. First, war is a challenging moral issue to come to grips with, especially from a Christian perspective. World War II was clearly the world’s bloodiest war, with 60–70 million people killed, and possibly half of that number being noncombatants. Christian thinkers through the centuries have taken different positions on war, but the consensus position is known as selectivism. This view insists that war is always tragic, and at times evil, but that it is sometimes absolutely necessary and the morally right thing to do. Selectivism argues it is sometimes right to take part in war and this perspective is often reflected in Just War Theory.
Second, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich led Hitler to carry out severe reprisals against Czech citizens. At the film’s end, the epilogue states that the Nazis executed 5,000 Czech men, women, and children in retaliation. So in war, political assassinations can carry devastating circumstances for the citizens living under occupation. The film does show the fierce differences that existed among Czech patriots of the time as to the prudential wisdom of choosing to assassinate Heydrich. The brutal realities of war seem to force people to weigh the lesser of evils in making critical decisions.
Third, Reinhard Heydrich came from an affluent, cultured, and educated German family. His father was an opera singer and his mother, a pianist. Heydrich became a talented violinist and a skilled swimmer and fencer. So how does a man with so many positive gifts in life become arguably the darkest figure in Hitler’s Third Reich? French scientist and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal said that human beings are an enigmatic mix of greatness and wretchedness. The greatness stems from the imago Dei (image of God), whereas the wretchedness stems from the fall of man into sin.1 Christian anthropology does seem to carry insightful explanatory power in understanding the inner workings of human beings.
To more fully appreciate the film Anthropoid as well as to understand Heydrich’s role in planning the Holocaust, I recommend watching the morally chilling movie Conspiracy (2001) starring Kenneth Branagh.
Reflections: Your Turn
What factors should be weighed by a nation before it considers waging war? What factors should Christians weigh in thinking through the ethical implications of war?
- For my discussion of Reinhard Heydrich in light of Pascal’s categories of greatness and wretchedness, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 186–87.