Lessons About Evil: Reflections on the Movie Anthropoid

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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 Movie

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.

Resources
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?

 Endnotes

  1. 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.

  One thought on “Lessons About Evil: Reflections on the Movie Anthropoid

  1. Bob Sherfy
    September 13, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    There are circumstances where war is morally justified. The same was true in Old Testament wars and battles involving Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus never condemned the position of a Roman soldier. War is justified when it is needed to stop overt evil.

    • September 14, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Thanks, Bob. Helpful comments.

      All the best.

      Ken Samples

  2. September 14, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Wow I didn’t know this movie existed. Sounds like it’s worth a watch. I’ll check it out sometime.

    • September 14, 2016 at 10:20 am

      Hello, JW.

      You might also want to watch the HBO movie Conspiracy which depicts Heydrich and his Nazi cohorts planning the holocaust at the 1942 Vannsee conference. Chilling film.

      All the best.

      Ken Samples

  3. Jon Wenzel
    September 25, 2016 at 9:06 am

    You can justify war by saying that it is necessary to stop evil. But can you justify the death of countless noncombatants, the innocent? Some would say that they are collateral damage. War is a necessary evil. But an evil that mankind can not afford with the mass destruction weapons of today.

    We all have to forget our petty differences, and they are all petty, before we destroy ourselves.

    There is a lot of evil in the world. The world is beautiful. Some people are evil.

    I find it hard to understand why people would allow the holocaust and other genocides to happen.

    I hope and pray that we learn to work together for the betterment of mankind and not the destruction of mankind.

    Let us not forget the holocaust and other genocides so we do not commit them again.

    Thank you, God Bless you, live long and prosper, and have a good day.

    Jon Wenzel

    • September 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm

      Jon:

      Greetings.

      War is always tragic and too often evil but pacifism didn’t stop the Holocaust. The Holocaust ended when the Allies crushed the German army.

      War is never easy or even good but sometimes it is right and necessary.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • Jon Wenzel
        September 26, 2016 at 6:08 am

        I hope and pray someday we all will forget our petty differences and start to work together. It will not happen in our life times but we can pave the way. God knows that peace and understanding are in my heart. I would pray that others would have the same in their heart.

        I completely understand why war is never easy or even good but sometimes it is right and necessary. Why can not the leaders of the world negotiate instead of killing people. The United Nations works if we work it.

        I am not asking you. I am asking the world. When will unconditional love start and the killing stop?

        Thank you, God Bless you, live long and prosper, and have a good day.

        Jon Wenzel

  4. November 18, 2016 at 11:24 am

    Finally got around to watching this movie. I thought it was quite well done. It also brought up a number of questions, many of which you address here. Particularly poignant in the film was the question of the wisdom of carrying out an assassination like that if it meant significant backlash from the Nazis.

    I was also curious about the man who betrayed them all, and I did a little more digging. Apparently, Karel Curda (can’t figure out how to make my CPU do the letters correctly) did it for the money. When asked at his trial in 1947 why he betrayed his comrades, his response was, “I think you would have done the same for 1 million franks.” Apparently others have theorized that his closeness with his family lead to his betrayal, hoping to save them. It’s a sad story and one that shows evil is powerful when we enable it to be.

    • November 18, 2016 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks for your comments, JW. Glad you saw the film.

      Very interesting film that depicts a grave time in world history. War often involves much evil. Unfortunately so many people today know so little about World War II and the Holocaust. So many critical lessons to be learned from that unbelievable period.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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