Evening settled over the Bohemian community of Lidice on June 9, 1942, probably as it had for centuries, that is, without incident. So insignificant was the village, at least from our point of view, that one could hardly distinguish it from hundreds of others in its general vicinity, if the large-scale map from the late nineteenth century above serves as any indication.
Lidice was a mining community, and its inhabitants likely tramped back from the mines or their customary shifts at the local factories, while others finished work in the fields for the summer harvest or closed their shops. It lay only ten miles northwest of the Czechoslovak capital of Prague. By the second week of June its inhabitants likely had been alerted to the death of Reinhard Heydrich, S. S. Commander of the Reich Main Security Office and acting governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, who had been fatally wounded by Czech partisans, and the investigations that followed in and around Prague. But, as residents of one of thousands of villages in Czechoslovakia, they probably never considered that the avenging hammer of the Third Reich was about to descend upon them just as they were sitting down to dinner.The brutality and utter destruction perpetrated upon many communities in Eastern Europe by the Nazis has staggered the imagination of anyone who has sought to translate it into books, dramatizations, documentaries, memorials, and the fine arts, all in an effort to perpetuate its memory.
The lithograph at right illustrates the massacred at Lidice, but could serve for any town or village destroyed by the Third Reich. Yet, it was Lidice that had been selected for reprisal, for among the papers found on one of the Czech partisans was a letter referring to the community by name.
Early on the morning of June 10, members of the Nazi SS herded 173 men in shifts into a yard and summarily shot them. One-hundred-and-eighty-four women were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp, while most of the 88 children were sent to Chelmno for extermination in mobile gas vans, although a handful were placed with German families for “Germanization.” Other residents not there at the time were later arrested and executed, bringing the total number murdered to around 340. The few women and children who returned after the war found only an empty field, for the Nazis, acting on Hitler’s orders, had razed every building in the community, covered it with soil, and planted crops in an effort to extirpate it from the earth. Even the local cemetery was upturned and the livestock slaughtered, so that no trace of Lidice remained.
As the images in this blog attest, the Nazis were proud of their work and photographed the event, and even filmed it as a sort of documentary for posterity.
And, if that weren’t enough, Lidice was erased literally from the map.Among those practicing history of cartography is a subset who specialize in the politics of maps. For them, maps and power are intertwined, as maps serve specific interests in the way they set agendas, construct messages, create their own realities, and embody cultural tropes promoting select perspectives. Maps can perform their tasks either overtly (think propaganda) or covertly (think projections). In other words, no map is a value-free object that serves all needs by all people.
One way of politicizing maps is by applying or not applying certain toponyms, i.e. place names. According to the cartographic historian, Mark Monmonier, applied toponymy is a form of power and compromise wrestled over by cartographers, who name and rename places in an effort to avoid confusion and serve diverse political aims, thereby avoiding the inflammatory and insulting commonly seen on old maps.*
Not only names themselves, but their deliberate removal is viewed as a source of politicizing the space and empowering one nation over another. Recorded since antiquity, name erasures have occurred when one nation or group has displaced another, enabling the aggressor to claim the land as its own. But as Monmonier has also pointed out, a toponymic erasure has its consequences, for when it survives on a map, it reminds the rest of the world of the victor’s predations.
Possibly the all-time masters of predation have been Germany’s National Socialists, whose members virtually perfected the art of political and military obliteration. For better and for worse, the Germans also possessed a strong tradition of being among the best map makers, and used cartography to their advantage whenever possible.
Following the massacre of June 10, Nazi cartographers were ordered to participate in the disappearance of Lidice. We can witness their efforts on a standard series of 1:75,000 scale topographic maps initiated by Austria-Hungary’s Military Geographical Institute in the mid 1870s. The series, titled Spezialkarte der osterreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie, eventually covered the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire, which Germany ultimately acquired either by absorption or conquest. Its level of cultural and topographic detail has made it into something of a minor masterpiece in turn-of-the-century surveying, drawing, and engraving, as well as a gold mine for genealogists.
Consisting of about 700 maps, most in multiple editions, the series was continued after 1918 by Germany’s Kartographisches Institut, which eventually forfeited publishing duties to the Main Survey Department of the Third Reich. That entity issued reprinted and updated editions of sheets, with some in color, into the late 1930s.
We see Lidice at right as it appeared in 1881, as part of Austria-Hungary, from a crop of the map at top. Identified as Liditz, it comprises nothing more than a cluster of houses and shops, a church, a cemetery, and some adjacent fields at the intersection of a road and a path within the district of Kladno. Liditz stands unprepossessing and indistinguishable from the innumerable other communities among the rolling hills of the area, represented by hachures.
Liditz appears again in a 1913 re-issue of the same map, indicating that little has changed, except maybe for the addition of a church or monastery. The nearest post office was at Buštěhrad, a little over a kilometer away along an unpaved road.
On the cusp of the First World War, a walk to Buštěhrad to pick up the occasional letter or package was a major event, as most villagers in Central Europe likely never ventured more than twenty miles from their place of birth.
A 1938 edition of the map above shows us Lidice, whose name has reverted to its Slavic origin. Likely with an eye to the occupation of Czechoslovakia later that year, helpful German map makers have provided us with an extensive legend of features in both Czech and German, along with some dual language abbreviations and quite a bit of compilation data, all in German.
At the outset of German aggression in the region, Lidice was fortunate only briefly, as it lay outside of the Sudetenland. But because of its location within Bohemia, it succumbed to the full German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. From then until the end of the war it remained part of the Nazi-instated Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
Finally, we come to the edition of the same map that was revised in 1942 and printed in 1943 following several years of Nazi rule. This sheet displays many Germanized place names overprinted in purple, and a standard dual-language legend along the bottom.
We zoom into the region where we expect to find Lidice, but nowhere do we see it. In a feat of applied toponymical prestidigitation, the village has been removed from the map as though it had never existed. It has completely vanished, along with its inhabitants and buildings.
Most of us would find it almost impossible to believe that acts of such abject vindictiveness can be carried over to something so commonplace and banal as a map, even a map unlikely to be consulted by the average European tourist. But the exaggerated response to Heydrich’s assassination can be seen within the broader context of the “Final Solution,” for it was in early June 1942 that Hitler likely accelerated plans and set a deadline for the extermination of European Jewry. The event itself may have been a minor catalyst for mass killing, but its lasting imprint lingered in the most unassuming places, like radiation from the Big Bang.
Today a few memorials and a park mark the site of the former village. A new community, also named Lidice, arose nearby after the war. And, for anyone viewing maps of historical Czechoslovakia, Lidice’s absence from the map will only reaffirm its existence and remind the world that senseless, overt acts of revenge will never be forgotten.
*Mark Monmonier, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How maps name, claim, and inflame. (Univ. of Chicago Press, c2006), preface and pp. 106-7.