Truth, Patriotism and the Heroic Narrative: The Case of Operation Anthropoid

AuthorPeter Charleton - Conor Daly
PositionBA (Dubl), BL, Judge of the Supreme Court - BA (Dubl), MA, PhD (UC Berkeley)
[2020] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 4(1)
Abstract: This paper explores the concept of heroism and that quality of courage generally perceived as
central to heroic behaviour. We base our analysis on the assassination in Prague in 1942 of senior Nazi
leader Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots and the reprisal killings which followed it. We
highlight how faithfulness to the historical record must be central to any authentic national narrative.
Where courageous deeds are engineered by others and controlled from afar, we assess the implications of
such control for the heroic narrative and the value judgements associated with it.
Authors: Peter Charleton, BA (Dubl), BL, Judge of the Supreme Court, Conor Daly, BA (Dubl),
MA, PhD (UC Berkeley)
Public anniversaries are occasions on which we commemorate or celebrate totemic
events. The historical narrative underpinning a particular set of events, however, is often
a locus of contention: who carried the banner of liberty here and who was the
oppressor? Indeed to the extent that violence or bloodshed was involved should
such events be celebrated at all? Does celebration imply that a given society fears a return
to strife or terror? Or that this society is itself founded on violence? Is an objective and
neutral commemoration ever possible? Moreover, is it justifiable that the ‘heroes’ of such
events be identified and labelled as such without close analysis of the rights and wrongs
of their actions? To take one specific instance, 21 November 2020 will mark the
centenary of that series of violent events which unfolded in the city of Dublin during the
War of Independence a day now remembered as Bloody Sunday namely the killing in
the morning by IRA operatives of fifteen British intelligence agents, followed in the
afternoon by a reprisal attack by Crown forces which led to the deaths of fourteen
spectators at a GAA match in Croke Park. Were the perpetrators of that mornings
attacks heroes or murderers? The label we choose will depend, of course, on the
perspective we bring to these events. Given the centrality of those dawn assassinations to
our self-concept as an independent nation, perhaps many Irish people will see the
assassins as heroes. Ambiguity around motive, then, seems to be a feature common to
national commemorations of this type.
In this article we explore the nature of heroism as a narrative for commemoration from
the perspective of what is perhaps an archetypal case from recent European history: the
assassination in Prague on 27 May 1942 of Reinhard Heydrich, the acting ‘Reich
Protector’ of Bohemia and Moravia, by two agents one Czech, the other Slovak who
had been parachuted in from England specifically for that mission, dubbed ‘Operation
Anthropoid’. The killing of Heydrich and the savage reprisals which followed it are
viewed by Czech historians as defining events in the affirmation of Czech national
consciousness during the period of Nazi occupation they evinced manifestations of
exceptional bravery, self-sacrifice and human dignity which form a core part of the self-
concept of Czech and Slovak peoples to the present day. In the words of Czech writer,
dissident and later president Václav Havel: ‘We know what that attack cost us. But
freedom is something worth paying for. For various reasons we had not offered
[2020] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 4(1)
organised armed resistance to the initial invasion. So we had to pay in another way’.
this article we consider the meaning of the heroic act for a society and for the individual.
We ask what ingredients beyond bravery are characteristic of the heroic act and the
heroic personality as these find themselves reflected in subsequent historical narrative to
this defining event.
As we explore the concept of heroism, its core meaning, a central preoccupation
becomes the issue of veracity in historical account. We cannot attempt to judge whether
or not an act is heroic unless we can be sure that we have the correct facts including
context at our disposal. In the words of American historian and literary critic Hayden
White, historical writing is a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse
that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of
explaining what they were by representing them.
Any worthwhile analysis of an event
must call to account the principal actors, their motivation and the backdrop against
which the historical narrative unfolds. For any attempt at explaining the past to have
merit, it must be hold true to a precise factual account of what happened. Distortions of
fact in a work which claims to be historical indicate an underlying problem. Falsification
of history, the creation of ideological myths, is a symptom of sickness: of the author, or
even or society itself. When we discover such falsification, it is akin to the discovery by a
physician of fatal symptoms in a human patient who had otherwise displayed no overt
signs of illness. When the truth of what happened in the past is destroyed in the present,
this stands as a serious warning to the present.
We all stand on our national as well as on
our personal narratives. A person lying about his or her qualifications in order to work in
a hospital treating patients is rightly regarded as a charlatan and menace. Similarly, when a
government engages in systematic distortion of the past in order to draw its population
into supporting a destructive project, we are dealing with a situation which menaces
social order. War and deceit, as ever, are linked. Were the truth known, at least in a liberal
democracy (or open’ society, in the terminology of Karl Popper), the ‘doctor’ would not
be allowed near the sick person and the political agenda would suddenly change against
the falsifiers. In a ‘closed’ society, on the other hand, there is no guarantee that the
political agenda will change, even when such distortion is revealed.
Once the true narrative is known, other questions emerge. Being interested in why we
stand where we do implies that, once we accurately know our position, we ask if it is
right or wrong. It is thus our moral sense that impels us to explore the past: any
conclusion we reach as to why the past has brought us to the present juncture must
derive from our moral perspective; our concept of what was done right and what was
done wrong. When informed by truth and by right thinking, the myth of the past informs
the present. When the myth is life affirming, it generates useful work. The closer the
national myth is to truth, the safer one is both within that society and as a neighbour to
Quoted in Ivana Chmel Denčevová, ‘Za svobodu se platí aneb Měl atentát na Heydricha smysl?’ [Does freedom have
to be paid for, or Was there any point in killing Heydrich?] (Český rozhlas 2019). This essay accompanies a radio
documentary on the same subject broadcast on Czech Radio’s ‘Plus’ channel 23 December 2019. See ‘Za svobodu se
platí aneb Měl atentát na Heydricha smysl?’ (Plus, 23 December 2019) se-plati-
aneb-mel-atentat-na-heydricha-smysl-8123254> accessed 25 February 2020.
Our motivation is partly personal; several visits to Prague, including to the Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and
Methodius, and also to Lidice in 1988 where it was a privilege to meet a lady who had escaped death in Nazi reprisal
killings because of external racial characteristics which classified her, according to false Nazi doctrine, as Aryan she
was transported to Germany as a child, where she lost her native Czech language, only later to relearn it.
Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (JHU Press 1975) 84
Peter Charleton, Lies in a Mirror: An Essay on Evil and Deceit (Blackhall Publishing 2006) 72-79
This distinction between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ societies underpins the defence of liberal democracy first made by
philosopher Karl Popper in his celebrated work The Open Society and Its Enemies (Routledge 1945).

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