- Post Series on De Aanslag: History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- The Time Capsule: An Introduction to the Concept of History in The Assault
- A Summary of The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- Structure and Narration in The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- The Five Forms of Time in the Historical Novel The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- Time Stands Still: The Petrifaction of Anton’s World in The Assault
- The Changing Past: The Assault Is the History of an Incident
- Causality and Coincidence in History, Historical Fiction and in The Assault
- History Changes, Then Solidifies in Historical Fiction, As in The Assault
- Familiar Imagery from Dutch History, Culture and Politics in The Assault
- Time Eternal in The Assault: Events Put in a Larger, Timeless Perspective
The Assault by Harry Mulisch is divided into five episodes, covering a time span of thirty-six years, in which the protagonist Anton Steenwijk, suffers the violence and guilt of the German occupation of the Netherlands. The following is a brief summary.
(05-03-2014, updated 07-25-2018) In the first episode of The Assault by Harry Mulisch, “1945”, the Steenwijk family is sitting together in their living room in Haarlem one evening during the hunger winter, when they hear shots fired outside. Members of the resistance have assassinated the Haarlem chief of police, Fake Ploeg, and his body lies on the street, in front of the Kortewegs’ house, the Steenwijks’ neighbors.
The Kortewegs drag the body in front of the Steenwijks’ house, and while Anton’s older brother Peter tries to move the body again, the Germans arrive. In retaliation for the murder of Ploeg, The Steenwijks’ house is burned down and Anton’s parents and brother are executed, along with twenty-nine hostages.
Anton is taken to the police station in Heemstede, where he is placed in a pitch-dark cell with a young woman. Later Anton is taken to Amsterdam, by Sergeant Schulz and others. On the way to Amsterdam, an allied plane attacks the convoy and Schulz dies. In Amsterdam, Anton is picked up by his uncle.
In the second episode, “1952”, Anton, who now lives with his uncle and aunt in Amsterdam, goes back to Haarlem for the first time since the assault, for a birthday party. He leaves the party to see his old street and there Mrs. Beumer, the neighbor on the other side, spots him.
She invites Anton in and she tells him that the Kortewegs disappeared after the war, that a monument has been erected where the execution took place, and that a man has come to stand across the road a few times, apparently looking at the empty lot where the Steenwijks’ house once stood.
The third episode takes place in 1956. Anton still lives in Amsterdam, but now he has his own apartment in the center of the city. He runs into Fake Ploeg, Jr., who tells him what his life has been like since his father’s death.
In the summer of 1966, Anton is married to Saskia and they have a four-year-old daughter, Sandra.
At the funeral of one of the members of the resistance, he meets Cor Takes, who was involved in the murder of Ploeg. Takes tells him what happened, and Anton realizes that the young woman whose cell he shared at the police station in Heemstede was Takes’s colleague, Truus Coster. Takes tells him that she was executed a few weeks before the liberation of Holland. The next day he visits Takes at his apartment in Amsterdam where he sees a photo of Truus.
In the last episode, Anton is remarried, and he also has a son, Peter.
He is talked into joining the 1981 peace demonstration in Amsterdam, and there he meets Karin Korteweg, his former neighbor. She tells him that she and her father emigrated to New Zealand after the war, where her father committed suicide a few years later.
Karin provides Anton with the last pieces of the puzzle: the reason the Kortewegs dragged Ploeg away from their house, and why they dragged him in front of the Steenwijks’ house, and not to the Aarts that night during the Dutch hunger winter.
Header image: Giovanni Piranesi
This post is Part 2 in the series: History and Time in Harry Mulisch’s The Assault.
Click here for the next post in this series.
This post was first published on 05-03-2014, on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 2: Summary”.