Few Nazi atrocities captured more public attention or stirred more emotions in the United States than the brutal destruction of the Czech village of Lidice on June 10, 1942. In retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich—the German official in charge of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the leading architects of the mass murder of Europe's Jews—Hitler ordered all 173 male inhabitants of Lidice executed, the women deported to concentration camps, and the children deemed suitable for Germanization sent to SS families for upbringing. SS forces obliterated the village.
Though it was just one of many bloody reprisal actions and war crimes committed by Nazi Germany, the massacre in Lidice received worldwide media coverage, in part because the German leadership made no secret of the village's destruction. Within days, Americans, leaders and the general populace, responded to this Nazi atrocity.
On June 12, 1942, US Secretary of State Cordell Hull condemned the massacre as a the work of a "savage tribe" that had "shocked and outraged humanity."1 But it was not only politicians who reacted to the crime committed at Lidice. A Gallup poll conducted at the end of that month asked Americans what should be done with Hitler and the other Nazi leaders after the war.2 The majority of respondents called for the shooting, hanging, or imprisonment of these Nazi officials. A month later, on August 21, Roosevelt warned the Axis powers that the United Nations would hold them accountable for their "barbaric crimes," including the shooting of hostages and reprisals against civilian populations.3
Lidice quickly became a fixture in American culture: several Hollywood films were made about the massacre; Edna St. Vincent Millay composed a book-length poem, The Murder of Lidice, which was excerpted and broadcast on radio around the world; poet Carl Sandburg too paid tribute to the murdered village in a piece for The Washington Post.4 A small village on the outskirts of Joliet, Illinois, even renamed itself Lidice in tribute to the Czech town's memory.
An American Jewish artist named Ben Shahn took up his paintbrush to memorialize Lidice in this featured poster for the Office of War Information, America's official propaganda agency. For Shahn, the turbulent events of the 1930s and World War II dramatically shaped both his art and his politics. The war, and the incomprehensible violence it unleashed, forced him to consider the great potential for art, beyond "personal pleasure."5
To create this poster, Shahn drew on US newspaper reports and other media for source materials. Rather than graphically depict the massacre or the perpetrators, he focused on the heroism of the victim who bravely awaits execution. The original German communiqué on Lidice, added as the image's caption, conveys the naked ruthlessness of Nazi occupation policy.