Tracking down the last car the “Butcher of Prague” ever drove in is no easy task
Reinhard Heydrich got what was coming to him. On May 27, 1942, his car was stopped at a hairpin turn in the Prague neighborhood of Libeň by a man wielding a Sten machine gun. The gun jammed, and as Heydrich got up to shoot the would-be assassin, another man lobbed a hand grenade in his direction, exploding next to the wheel behind him with fatal results.
Heydrich, also known as the “Butcher of Prague,” was the de facto Reichsprotektor — Hitler’s point man for Bohemia and Moravia at the beginning of World War II. He ruled the country (Slovakia, led by the fascist Jozef Tiso, had declared independence from the former Czecho-Slovakia before the war even started) with an iron fist, and his assassination couldn’t come quickly enough for most Czechs. But what happened to his car, a Mercedes Benz 320 Cabriolet B, has been a mystery for a long time.
What ought to be one of the main attractions for history buffs, or just those interested in seeing an authentic relic of World War II that symbolizes a turning point in relations between Nazi Germany and the country it was occupying, is not promoted anywhere, although Czechs and longtime expats living in Prague are often under the impression the car is exhibited at the Army Museum, at the foot of Vítkov Hill.
A book from 2009 by French author Laurent Binet, titled HHhH, gives a riveting account of the events that led up to Heydrich’s assassination and the shootout between government forces and the two assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, three weeks later at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. In the book, Binet recounts his own visit to the Army Museum a few years prior to the publication of his book, where he says he saw Heydrich’s car on display as part of an extensive exhibition titled “Assassination.”
“The exhibition surpassed all my expectations,” Binet writes. “Here, there really was everything: as well as photos, letters, posters and various documents, I saw the parachutists’ guns and personal effects, their dossiers filled out by the British commanders, with notes, appraisals and reports. I saw Heydrich’s Mercedes, with its blown tire and the hole in the right rear door …”
Visitors to the Army Museum today will still find the exhibition with countless artifacts relating to Heydrich’s murder, but the centerpiece — the Mercedes with the blown tire and the hole in the right rear door — is missing from the display. At the entrance of the museum, an employee said the car hasn’t been there for about six years and, as far as she knows, it is at the National Technical Museum.
The National Technical Museum (NTM) on Prague’s Letná Hill, which re-opened in 2011 after extensive renovations, has an enormous central atrium with examples of cars from the late 1800s through to the present day. The Mercedes Benz 540K driven by SS Obergruppenführer Karl Hermann Frank, a Sudeten German hailing from Karlovy Vary who was adamant about the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich, is on display, but the Reichprotektor’s Mercedes Benz is nowhere to be found. So, where is Heydrich’s car?
In response to a query about the whereabouts of the cabriolet used on the fateful Wednesday morning in the spring of 1942, Petr Kožíšek, curator of the museum’s automobile collection, said there is currently no persuasive evidence that any particular Mercedes Benz 320 Cabriolet B among those that are still in existence was the one at the center of the assassination.
“The problem is that no period document has been found that would identify Heydrich’s car. After the assassination, police investigators marked every detail in their reports, but they did not record the production number of the automobile,” Kožíšek said.
“It has proved impossible to find the production number of Heydrich’s car, even in other archive material. Therefore, with greater or lesser probability, any of the surviving cars of this type could be the one in question.”
Jiří Šona, an employee at the NTM, added that while it is well known that Heydrich’s car on that day bore the license plate “SS-3,” this does not offer much assistance to researchers, as the Nazis often switched plates among different vehicles.
Kožíšek also told The Prague Post the NTM has in its possession a Mercedes Benz 320 Cabriolet B that it received from Prague’s Barrandov Film Studios in 1992 and that had long been believed to be the one damaged by the grenade the morning of May 27, 1942. It had been used as a prop in films at the studios, repainted and repaired. In the subsequent two decades, researchers have had no luck establishing the car’s origins beyond a reasonable doubt.
This was the car that was loaned to the Army Museum for its “Assassination” exhibition, but because of lingering uncertainty, it has never been put on display at the NTM. For the time being, the car is being stored at the museum’s warehouse as it awaits verification in the future.