Initial Reactions to the Lidice Atrocity

Prague Radio broadcast on the evening of Wednesday the 10th of June 1942 that:

“…all men in the village of Lidice, a Czech coal-mining centre, have been shot on suspicion of harbouring the murderers of Heydrich, the women have been deported to a concentration camp and the children sent to “educational centres”.”

Initial reactions upon hearing the horrors which took place there were a mix of despair, anger, and bewilderment. Naturally, the instant suggestions for responses involved giving the Nazis a taste of their own medicine. Captain Alan Graham, MP for the Wirral, proposed that at the end of the war “the Germans should receive similar treatment to that which they are now meting out to Poles”. Graham submitted to the Prime Minister that in view of the fact that Polish professors from Lvov, arrested in July 1941 had completely disappeared, he should now inform the German Government that, “…after the war all Nazi professors will receive long terms of imprisonment, and compulsory labour service will be introduced for all Germans aged 18 to 60 years.”

The Manchester Evening News reported how on Thursday the 11th, MP for the Isle of Wight, Captain Peter McDonald immediately contacted the Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, a key member of the War Cabinet, close friend and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill requesting the British Government,

“…publicise the brutality of the Germans in obliterating the Czech village of Lidice and to commemorate for all time the martyrs of that place.”

Having brought it up in Parliament on the 16th June, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information, Mr Ernest Thurtle MP explained to him that the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile was already taking action along the lines of his suggestion, and that the Ministry of Information would give it all possible assistance.

On Wednesday the 17th of June, the Czechoslovak Government in London pledged in a resolution broadcast to Czecho-Slovakia through the BBC that those responsible for the crime of Lidice and the 382 Heydrich executions would be brought to justice wherever they fled. “The blood shed by them is redding the sunset of their power and the dawn of our victory,” added the resolution.

Dr Beneš announced that they would:

“…take the necessary steps which it may regard as desirable to secure retribution for these atrocities and will relax no efforts to bring to account all those who committed these crimes or who were in any way responsible for them.”

The state of indignation was echoed in the USA and Canada where debates sparked as to the best way of dealing with the Nazis. The Quebec Gazette wrote on the 12th of June how the day before Canadian Senators in Ottawa had backed American campaigner and journalist Dorothy Thompson’s ‘Eye for an Eye’ Proposal. In it she wrote:

“At present the Nazis feel self-pity is no path to repentance. It is escape from repentance. When every hostage killed brings swift reprisals upon themselves, upon their own villages, the German people, who share the neurosis but in lesser degree than their sicker overlords, will turn their aggression against the Nazis themselves. Until then, the sufferings of other peoples will make not the slightest impression on them.”

The proposition was that Allied air power be used to demolish a German village for each community in occupied Europe demolished by Nazi forces. Senator Adrian Knatchbull-Hugessen drew the Senate’s attention to the incoming news, pointing out what an “obscene crime” it was. He suggested that the plan recommended by Dorothy Thompson should be followed: that a widespread warning be given out on radio that a German village in an area to be named was to be destroyed; this village should then be wiped out by air action and the news of its obliteration given wide radio publicity – with the warning that similar Allied reprisals would continue should actions like those perpetrated on Lidice be meted out on other communities.

“These people are our Allies,” Senator Hugessen said of the Czechs. “We count on them now and we will count on them more when we invade Europe. They have a right to count on us.” Senator James Calder expressed “thorough sympathy” with the proposal. “This horror that is taking place is worse than gas,” he said. “We don’t like the idea of revenge but how is it going to be stopped unless these people are taught a lesson. It will go from bad to worse; it has already.”

Back in Britain, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill reacted with fury upon hearing the news. In all probability, he had read Dorothy Thompson’s words; perhaps he had received a message from Peter McDonald MP via Brendan Bracken. At some point, Thursday the 11th or Friday the 12th he had spoken with President Beneš to discuss the Czecho-Slovak situation, along with immediate options – including retaliatory attacks.

At the next secret meeting of the War Cabinet on the 15th of June, Churchill was insistent that the Royal Air Force should wipe out three German villages in retaliation for the destruction of Lidice. According to Bomber Command, to do this the attacks would require bright moonlit skies, around 100 bombers, low level flying and the use of incendiary bombs to inflict maximum damage.

Looking through the minutes of the meeting, kept by Deputy Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook, which show that it took place underground in the War Rooms during late afternoon from 5.30pm, we form an extremely vivid account of what went on. Clearly several members were genuinely taken aback at the Prime Minister’s suggestion, in what must have been an extremely intense, smoky, and claustrophobic atmosphere. Although Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden MP at first agreed, there were serious objections raised. Secretary of State for the Air Force, Archibald Sinclair disliked the idea and asked the Prime Minister to consider the diversion of effort from the military objective as well as the risk to aircraft and crews. Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee MP doubted if it was useful to enter into a competition in “frightfulness” with Germans. Herbert Morrison MP at the Home Office asked Churchill to consider the possibility of “tit for tat” reprisals on British villages. Australian High Commissioner Stanley Bruce warned against the possibility of even greater atrocities against the Czecho-Slovak people, should it go ahead.

Winston Churchill‘s Coalition War Cabinet in May 1940: Clockwise: Sir Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin, Lord Beaverbrook, Herbert Morrison, Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill, Sir John Anderson.

While there was broad support for the sentiment, with Ernest Bevin from the Ministry of Labour stating that the “Nazis respond to brute force and nothing else”; Sir John Anderson, Lord President of the Council, made the point that “the danger is that it costs us something and them nothing.” Lord Privy Seal, Stafford Cripps, rounded off by summing up that the operational argument against the plan was very strong. For once, Churchill acquiesced: he backed down with the line “I submit (unwillingly) to the view of the cabinet.”

It may be that the plan of retaliation rejected by the Cabinet was a joint scheme designed by Churchill and Beneš and that the British Government’s failure to act had left him feeling frustrated. President Beneš had acknowledged the likelihood of reprisals when discussing the pros and cons of Anthropoid with Colonel Moravec the previous autumn; and must have expected some backlash following the death of Heydrich. Nevertheless, even he seemed genuinely shocked at the savagery of the Nazi response. When he made a public statement about Lidice to the nation on the 29th of June through the Movietone newsreel Beneš’s sense of hurt and moral outrage were unmistakable as he expressed a natural reaction which struck a chord with many:

“I have seen the eyes of Czecho-Slovak soldiers and airmen blaze with anger because of the massacre of Lidice. Some of those airmen took part in the fierce raids over Cologne and Essen. They will take part in many other raids before the war is ended. The whole Czecho-Slovak nation is determined to exact stern retribution for Lidice. That Justice, believe me, will come. The Nazis may have destroyed every single building in the village of Lidice and even obliterated the name of Lidice from their records. But in our own records and in the records of humanity, the name of Lidice will loom large and live forever.”

As the days passed it seemed to more people that the only effective answer was to focus energies on the fundamental task of destroying Nazi power. It was important that the Allies set the agenda instead of falling into the trap set for them – that of mimicking Nazi acts of depravity. A creative response, in order to exact not vengeance but justice was what was needed; a constructive approach that could lead to a real, positive outcome.

The Nottingham Journal was on the right track on the 13th of June when it commented –

 “It is impossible to bring to life again the French hostages and Polish prisoners and Russian and Czech civilians whom the Germans have slaughtered by killing any number of Germans. But we can compel Germany to rebuild Lidice and Rotterdam, to restore or make good the booty stolen from France, to re-establish and re-endow the wrecked Polish universities. We can do this and we ought to do it.”

The Path to Lidice is available as a traditional paperback and hardcover book, as well as in Kindle ebook format, from all Amazon platforms

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