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‘Was Guilt Innocent?’ The Books of Harry Mulisch

By posted at 6:00 am on May 11, 2011 7

Harry Mulisch, the Dutch novelist, passed away late last year. Mulisch, born in 1927, was the child of a Jewish mother and a Nazi collaborator father whose pro-German efforts during the Second World War almost certainly saved his young son’s life.  Probably due to this fateful if unusual personal history, the patina of the Holocaust and the question of who was truly guilty in the war continually find their way to the center of his work.

Mulisch grew up in the town of Haarlem, about twenty kilometers west of Amsterdam but at the same time a world away. Pre-war Haarlem was a far cry from the economic and political hub of Amsterdam, and Mulisch, whose parents divorced in 1936, spent a relatively quiet childhood there.

While Haarlem may not have been a major city for the Dutch, during World War II it became an important locus for the Germans, due to a simple fact of location: the city, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the closest spots on the European continent to England.  The young Mulisch’s life would doubtless have quickly become unpleasant under Nazi rule, had his father, Karl Mulisch – who had been born in Austria and had served under the Germans in World War I before moving to the Netherlands – not taken a position with the Lippman-Rosenthal bank.  Despite (actually because of) the Jewish sounding name, this “bank” was in fact a Nazi enterprise: by Nazi decree, all Jewish valuables were to be deposited there. All of these valuables were then appropriated by the Germans. Most of the Jews whose moneys were taken were sent to concentration camps. Mulisch’s father became one of the Lippman-Rosenthal’s directors.

Because of his father’s intense collaboration with the Nazis during the war, Mulisch and his mother were spared. All of the rest of his family on his mother’s side was killed.

Knowing that he would most likely have died had his father not collaborated with the Nazis must have been tormenting for Mulisch. It certainly produced fine, conflicted writing in novels that convey something unique about the nature of guilt and survival.

coverThe Assault, probably Mulisch’s most well known work, is to my mind the best account ever written of being a non-Jew in an occupied Nazi territory. The Assault tells, in an episodic fashion, the story of Anton, a non-Jewish Dutchman who is a child living in Haarlem when the novel begins. In the first, heart-wrenchingly painful episode, a Dutch Nazi collaborator is shot and killed by unknown assailants in the middle of the night in front of the house next to Anton’s. As Anton’s horrified family looks on, their neighbors – an aging father and his adult daughter – run from their own house, drag the body in front of Anton’s dwelling, and quickly run back inside. Before Anton’s family can react, the Nazi police have arrived.

A little history is in order here. The events recounted in this first episode take place in January of 1945, when almost all of Europe had already “been liberated and was once more rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the War.” Due to a number of tactical errors by the Allied forces, though – culminating in the tragedy of Operation Market Garden in which many British, Canadian and American troops and a great many Dutch partisans were slaughtered – the Nazis were to control the bulk of the Netherlands until the very end of the European war.

While the Nazis by this time knew they would almost certainly lose the war, that did not make any of their retaliatory policies less harsh. This is what makes the event related in the opening pages of The Assault so awful. Because the dead Nazi was found in front of Anton’s house, the house is incinerated and the rest of his family is murdered. Anton survives mostly because he is forgotten. The event, told like the rest of the novel in a beautifully direct close third-person, is tear inducing:

Anton had the feeling that by doing something which was within his power but which he could not quite think of, he could undo everything and return to the way they had been before, sitting around the table playing a game. It was as if he had forgotten a name remembered a hundred times before and now on the tip of his tongue, but the harder he tried to recall it, the more elusive it became. Or it was like the time when he had suddenly realized that he was breathing in and out continuously and must make sure to keep doing it or else suffocate – and at that moment he almost did suffocate.

The agony of an only somewhat comprehending child watching everything he cares for literally go up in flames is told here in evocative and painfully precise prose. One wonders whether it mirrors the pain Mulisch must have felt when he realized how many Jews his father let die so he could live.

The rest of the novel details Anton’s growth into maturity and adulthood as well as his attempts to simultaneously understand and forget what happened that cold January night. On one level, the book is a riveting mystery, if mystery novels could be considered as frightening and evil as the reality of the final months of the Second World War. It is also, though, a strong and poignant look at the question of civilian guilt.

I will not do you the injustice of revealing the particulars of the fascinating and deftly told story of what actually happened in front of Anton’s house that night.  Suffice it to say that by the end of this great, great novel, it is very hard to say who is evil and who is good. Having met many of the protagonists who lived through that awful night – the killers of the Nazi collaborator, the collaborator’s son, the daughter who moved the dead man’s body – Anton, with the reader, ultimately realizes that nobody’s hands are truly clean. “Was everyone both guilty and not guilty?” an adult Anton asks, near the end of the novel. “Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?” In war, you are a victim, a persecutor, or both. There is no such thing as a civilian.

With The Assault, Mulisch did not simply question the nature of civilians in war.  He also confronted the very real question of Dutch complicity in the Holocaust. The idea that the Dutch – widely considered to be victims of the Germans – could also have been facilitators of Nazi crimes, was anathema for many in the immediate post-war years.  It was arguably Mulisch who forced his countrymen to face the consequences of their inaction, to realize that their victimization tells only a portion of the story of what happened during the war.

Anne Frank is a case in point.  While Anne Frank was hidden by a sympathetic Dutchman, it was another Dutchman that informed the Nazis of her hiding place, which led to her murder.  While there were many Dutch who were sympathetic to the Jews, many more turned a blind eye toward the deportations and murders, and a large minority of the Dutch actively participated in the Nazi regime.

Over seventy percent of Dutch Jewry died during World War II, a far higher percentage than in all Western European countries other than Germany. The question of why so many Dutch Jews died, and whether more of them could have been saved is one that the Dutch continue to grapple with today.

covercoverIn 1961, already a rising star as a novelist, Mulisch became fascinated by the upcoming trial of Adolf Eichmann. He arranged to cover the trial for an Amsterdam newspaper, and the resulting articles became a necessary book, Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Mulisch’s account of the Eichmann trial and its relationship to the nascent state of Israel, world Jewry, and civilian guilt, bears a necessary comparison with Hannah Arendt’s famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem. Given similar tasks and with similarly articulated goals, Mulisch’s book comes out as both more thoughtful and far less defensive than Arendt’s. In many ways, it was the work that woke up the Dutch to Nazi atrocities and called out to the world the world’s indifference. “The opinion could be heard” he writes, a mere four days into Eichmann’s trial, “that the Jews had better stop talking about their misery; we knew already.”

But the point is that the world did not know, and it was Mulisch who was telling them. Unfortunately this book, published in Dutch in 1963, was only translated into English (with a wonderful forward by Deborah Dwork) in 2005. One wonders how prominent Mulisch’s account of Eichmann’s trial would have become in relation to Arendt’s had it received contemporary American attention.

One of the great minor tragedies of the Netherlands, a small country – about twice the size of Israel – with a language spoken by fewer than thirty million people, is that the rest of the world often overlooks great Dutch writing. So it is that Harry Mulisch, who in the Netherlands was considered something of a national treasure and a fitting candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.

Mulisch’s relative obscurity outside of the Dutch-speaking world for a long time was unavoidable.  Now in large part accessible to the English speaking public, his corpus should be embraced by it.

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7 Responses to “‘Was Guilt Innocent?’ The Books of Harry Mulisch”

  1. Jonathan Dunn
    at 9:22 am on May 11, 2011

    Thanks for bringing some attention to Mulisch’s work, particularly The Assault. I had to read it during college, and ultimately was so glad I did. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read about being a civilian in war (especially during the unique horrors of WWII), guilt and innocence, and the ways we make sense of our past, particularly the tragedies in our past. But more so than that, it’s just one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. And outside of school I don’t see how I would have come across it, so it’s nice to see it get some notice here.

  2. Shana
    at 11:14 am on May 11, 2011

    Very glad to have the reminder of this book. I read it at least 25 years ago and also saw the Dutch movie around the same time. My library doesn’t have it and altho I could get it on ILL, I just ordered a second hand copy online. This way I will have it for the exact right moment to re-read it. Excellent essay, thank you.

  3. paula
    at 3:27 pm on May 11, 2011

    I’d never heard of this writer. Very intrigued.

  4. Freek
    at 5:09 pm on May 11, 2011

    Harry M is/was a God in the Netherlands and the (Flemish speaking/Dutch reading) north of Belgium. His “The Discovery of Heaven” is a Great European Novel – the movie, by fellow compatriot Jeroen Krabbé, does not compare at all – which I, and many of my friends, have read several times. And they are not very big readers.

  5. Harry Mulisch, The Assault (De Aanslag, 1982) « Smithereens
    at 2:12 am on May 14, 2011

    […] was to question the Dutch society’s collective behavior during the war, as stated in this essay: With The Assault, Mulisch did not simply question the nature of civilians in war. He also […]

  6. Magnum Opus « Little Dutch Book
    at 8:33 pm on October 28, 2012

    […] Mulisch was the child of a Jewish mother and a Nazi collaborator father whose pro-German efforts during the Second World War almost certainly saved his young son’s life.  Probably due to this fateful if unusual personal history, the patina of the Holocaust and the question of who was truly guilty in the war continually find their way to the center of his work. […]

  7. Mulisch’s Magnum Opus « Little Dutch Book
    at 10:51 pm on October 28, 2012

    […] Mulisch was the child of a Jewish mother and a Nazi collaborator father whose pro-German efforts during the Second World War almost certainly saved his young son’s life.  Probably due to this fateful if unusual personal history, the patina of the Holocaust and the question of who was truly guilty in the war continually find their way to the center of his work. […]

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