Mark Felton’s YouTube channel showed a surprising find this week.
In a small village in Denmark, a car from a military surplus sale had been sitting since 1959. When the owner put it up for sale in 1980, a vintage car enthusiast (and engineer retired from Mercedes-Benz) named Laurits Lauritsen showed up and bought it.
He quickly realized the car was a collector’s item, a rare specimen of the Mercedes B-320 cabriolet limousine. But the further he dug into the vehicle’s provenance and specific details, the more he realized he was looking at an unusual historical artifact.
The car was manufactured in 1938 — when only 34 of that model were produced. Moreover, it had been a custom build to order at their Mannheim plant — only one car fit the description. What’s more, the car had clearly sustained serious damage at the right rear, which had been repaired slapdash using wartime procedures and materials.
Guess what: that car had once had the license plate number “SS-3” [*] and been the vehicle Reinhard Heydrich [y”sh] was driving when he finally met his nemesis. The “Butcher of Prague” prided himself on his ruthlessness and efficiency, but also on his fearlessness and contempt for normal security precautions: he would commute openly to his office as Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in Hradcany Castle, accompanied only by his driver, in an unarmored open-topped car and on a fixed route.
On May 27, 1942, two SOE operatives — the Czech Jan Kubis and the Slovak Josef Gabcik — lay in wait for him at the hairpin bend where they knew his car would have to slow down. Their assassination plan had the apt code name “Operation Anthropoid”.
Gabcik stepped in front of the car, aimed his Sten gun, and pulled the trigger — but it jammed. Then Kubis threw a modified antitank grenade [**] toward the car. It exploded against the right rear, and caused the damage that Lauritsen would later see had been shoddily repaired. The explosion sent a volley of shrapnel into Heydrich’s back that ultimately caused his death from septicemia.
Heydrich was operated upon: his spleen was removed, a tear in his diaphragm repaired, and a number of other repairs effected. Then Himmler’s personal physician, Karl Gebhardt, arrived and oversaw further treatment. Heydrich at first seemed on the mend, but then started running a fever. Hitler’s physician Theodor Morell recommended administering sulfonamides (penicillin was not available in the Third Reich) but Gebhardt forbade this, claiming they were ineffective in battle wounds. Eventually Heydrich died of septicemia.
Kubis and Gabcik paid with their lives three weeks later at the siege of St. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where the Orthodox bishop Gorazd had given them shelter. (Gorazd was executed by the Nazis, and ultimately made an Orthodox saint.) In the reprisal butchery at Lidice and Lezaky, as well as in other measures, an estimated 5,000 Czechs were killed. An entire phase of the Shoah got the code name Aktion Reinhard. Yet not all Nazis were displeased he was gone: he was known to have extensive files of “dirt” on many rivals. At least one SS general (Sepp Dietrich) supposedly said: “Gott sei Dank ist das Schwein kaputt” (thank G-d the swine has bought it). There is even (dubious) speculation that Gebhardt deliberately allowed his patient to die at Himmler’s instigation, e.g., Weisz, G.; Albury, W. R. The Attempt on the Life of Reinhard Heydrich , Architect of the “ Final Solution ”: A Review of His Treatment and Autopsy. Isr. Med. Assoc. J. 2014, 16 (april), 212–216.
A lot of ink has flowed about the assassination and its aftermath. Several movies have been devoted to it, from the 1943 “Hangmen Also Die” by Fritz Lang, to the 2017 “Anthropoid”. Harry Turtledove’s “The Man With The Iron Heart” explores an alternate time line where Heydrich survived and became the leader of postwar anti-Allied insurgency (think “Werwolf on steroids”). A number of songs were written about the operation, including SS-3 by thrash metal band Slayer:
and “A Lovely Day Tomorrow” by folk-rock ensemble British Sea Power. The lyrics of the latter song refer to “the devil’s Mercedes-Benz”, hence the title of this post.
Let me just briefly touch on two enduring myths. According to one lasting canard, the bomb was laced with botulism toxin to ensure the target would not survive even if only wounded. Recently the original autopsy report was discovered: it is discussed in this medical journal article (paywalled) Tatu, L.; Jost, W.; Bogousslavsky, J. The Botulinum Toxin Legend of Reinhard Heydrich’s Death. Neurology 2017, 89 (1), 84–87. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000004066 These authors conclude from the autopsy report, and the documentation of Heydrich’s treatment, that there were no clinical signs of botulism poisoning whatsoever, and that besides Josef Gabcik, the man who threw the bomb, lived for another 3 weeks without any signs of disease before committing suicide when hopelessly trapped in the Cyril and Methodius Church siege.
Another myth that refuses to go away is that Heydrich — the practical mastermind of the Shoah — had some Jewish ancestry himself. This myth was put to bed by a recent biography of Heydrich, “Hitler’s Hangman” by Robert Gerwath. (I will review this book separately.) Briefly, the stepfather of Heydrich’s father Bruno (an erstwhile opera singer and minor composer who ran a music conservatory in Halle, near Leipzig), did have a stepfather with the Jewish-sounding surname Süss — but the man apparently was Lutheran, as were his ancestors. The story that Bruno Heydrich was Jewish had been planted in the 1916 edition of Hugo Riemann’s Musik-Lexikon (freely: “Who’s Who in Music?”) by a disgraced former pupil. [***]
With apologies to J. B. S. Haldane, history is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose…
[*] Some research on Axishistory dot com about low-numbered SS license plates revealed that SS-1 and SS-2 were the main and backup vehicles of Reichsführer-SS Himmler [y”sh] and SS-3 and SS-4 similarly for the his right-hand man, the head of the RSHA (Reich Security Head Office).
[**] The modification was to reduce its weight so it could more easily be thrown.
[***] Ironically, Bruno Heydrich appears to have had cordial relations with Halle’s Jews, many of whose children patronized Bruno’s conservatory — and young Reinhard even was friends with the son of the cantor of Halle’s synagogue, Abraham Lichtenstein. The future RSHA leader and practical mastermind of the Shoah apparently was a very late convert to the antisemitic cause (and to Nazism: as late as 1929 he was still telling jokes about “Bohemian Corporal” Hitler and “Cripple” Goebbels). Gerwath plausibly argues Heydrich was motivated above all by malignant ambition a l’outrance and would have fanatically embraced any cause that offered him a road to power and narcissistic supply.