296: Reinhard Heydrich’s End

Archival Spaces 296

Operation Anthropoid

Uploaded 27 May 2022

Gen. Josef Kohoutek, my great uncle.

Exactly 80 years ago, on 27 May 1942, the so-called Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, was wounded in an assassination attempt by members of the Czechoslovak Army in exile in an operation code-named Anthropoid. Flown in by the Royal Air Force and coordinated on the ground with Obrana Národa (Defense of the Nation), the Czech resistance group made of former officers of military intelligence, the operation succeeded when the architect of the Holocaust, died on 4 June of his wounds. The assassination leads to massive reprisals against the Czechoslovak people, including the utter eradication of the village of Lidice outside Prague and its inhabitants, the arrest of 13,000 Czech citizens, and the killing of as many as 5,000. My great uncle, Gen. Josef Kohoutek, a member Obrana Národa, was executed on 19 August 1942 at Plötzensee (Berlin), in a direct reprisal for Heydrich’s death.

SS Obersturmbannfuehrer Reinhard Heyrich
The dead at Lidice, June 1942.

A member of the Czechoslovak Army General Staff, my uncle had married my grandmother’s sister, Milada Koulova in February 1923, the couple remaining childless. Teta Mila’s father, and my great-grandfather, was Ing. Václav Koula, General Director of ČKD (Českomoravská Kolben Danĕk), the country’s largest manufacturer of cars, motorcycles, and trams; it was converted by the Nazis to producing armaments for the Wehrmacht. The main factory in Prague-Vysocany was located just below the two villas belonging to my family. Although V. Koula had retired by the Nazi invasion in March 1939, my grandfather, Ing. Jan Horák, worked as an executive for the same company. After his incarceration in a Concentration Camp in November 1939 at Sachsenhausen-Orianienburg, my father joined the underground. Unwilling collaborators and resistance fighters in the same family; a Czech fate.

V. Koula (Center, Back), J. Horak, Bozena Horakova, Gen. J. Kohoutek, the children are my father, Jerome Horak, and my Aunt, Libuse.
Mila and Josef Kohoutek

General Josef Kohoutek was born in Hodějice, a village just East of Brno, Moravia, on 3 March 1896 and graduated from high school in Brno in 1915. After completing reserve officer training in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian IV Regiment of the Austrian Army, he was sent to the Italian front. He was captured on 18 Sept. 1917 at Carzano, better said deserted to the Italian side, where he joined the Czech Legions, eventually earning an Italian and Czechoslovak War cross for shrapnel wounds to his neck. Meanwhile, my grandfather Jan Horak deserted on the Eastern front and joined the Czech Legions in Russia. Horak returned to private life, while Kohoutek continued his military career after the Armistice, studying at Prague’s War College (1923-25), then joining the Army’s 10th Division, before moving to Army Intelligence, becoming its head in 1933. According to one report, “Josef Kohoutek contributed significantly to the development of plans for the defense of the republic, especially mobilization, at a time of deterioration of the international situation.” After the Nazi occupation in March 1939, he became a government bureaucrat in the Price Control Office but also joined the clandestine Obrana Národa.

Col. Josef Kohoutek, 1920
Gen. Kohoutek (front row, 4th from right) and General Staff Czechoslovak Army, 1937

According to the indictment of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of the People’s Court in Berlin on 15 October 1941, Gen. Kohoutek was arrested on 6 February 1940 at his home in Prague Vysočany (next door to my grandparents’ house) and had been detained in Berlin-Moabit Prison since 3 September 1940.  Kohoutek’s indictment for treason, along with seven other members of Obrana Národa read: “The accused have put themselves in the service of the illegal Czech military organization Obrana Národa and as members of the Bohemian Military command have supported a secret conspiracy after the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia Moravia. The goal of the organization was the violent separation of Bohemia Moravia, the Sudeten Gau, and other areas from the Reich and the creation of an independent Czechoslovak Republic.” Later in the indictment, the prosecutor characterizes the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in October 1918 as “less the attempt at the independence of a national group and more an artificial creation by Western democracies wishing to brutally destroy the German Reich.”  

Obrana Národa was founded by Gen. Josef Bíllý in April 1939 within weeks of the Nazi occupation with the goal of organizing an uprising, but soon became more focused on intelligence gathering and minor acts of sabotage, while maintaining contact with the government-in-exile in London under Edvard Beneš. While the organization was able to infiltrate the Gestapo and place members in armaments factories who reported back to London on Nazi military production, the Gestapo also penetrated Obrana Národa, decimating the organizational leadership in February 1940, May 1942, and June 1944, although each time it was reorganized.

Berlin Moabit Prison
Execution chamber at Berlin Ploetzensee

On 28 December 1941, the RAF flew Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, along with seven other Czech soldiers to Bohemia, where they were hidden by members of Obrana Národa, including my aunt Mila Kohoutová who had joined the organization. After the successful attack, the Gestapo could find no leads on who was responsible for the assassination, while the assailants hid with two Prague families, then moved to the basement of the Karel Boromejsky Church in Prague-Vinohrady. Unfortunately, one of the group, Karel Čurda, turned himself into the Gestapo and revealed the names of their local contacts for a 1 million Reichsmarks reward.  SS troops laid siege to the church but were unable to take the assailants alive, despite a force of 750 Storm Troopers.

Jan, Michael, Chris Horak, Libuse Horakova, Bozena Horakova, Jerome V. and Peter Horak, Mila Kohoutova, 1967

In October  1945, my aunt Milady Kohoutekova received a Czechoslovak War Cross for her and her husband’s resistance, and Gen. Kohoutek was promoted posthumously by President Edvard Beneš to Brigadier General. The Communist Putsch in March 1948, suppressed the history of Obrana Národa in favor of the myth of an all-Communist resistance to the Nazis. And, in the aftermath of my father’s indictment and sentencing to imprisonment in absentia for treason in 1952, Mila Kohoutová was thrown into prison for five years by the Communist government. When I met her in 1965, she still lived in the same house at Pod Krocinkou, next door to my grandparents, all now united in the family crypt.

Koula-Horak Family Crypt,PragueProsek

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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