Causality and Coincidence in History, Historical Fiction and in The Assault

causality and coincidence, mens erger je niet, De aanslag, Harry Mulisch, The Assault, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, De aanslag door Harry Mulisch
This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

It has been argued that The Assault by Harry Mulisch is not real historical fiction, since many of the events are determined by accident; however, this view denies that history is, in fact, a combination of causality and coincidence.

causality and coincidence, mens erger je niet, De aanslag, Harry Mulisch, The Assault, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, De aanslag door Harry Mulisch

(05-08-2014, updated 07-26-2018) As we have seen, Mulisch believes that the purpose of history education is to explain the present, and therefore it should be taught in the reverse. He claims that:

since history does not ‘start’ with the Assyrians, but with the previous second, history education should not start with cracked clay tablets, but with yesterday’s paper. Does geography education begin with the topography of the Philippines? (1)

The peace demonstration of November 21, 1981 is as close as it gets to yesterday’s paper. After all, The Assault was published within a year of this event. U.S. president Ronald Reagan was increasing the cold war tension. The demonstration, organized by the Interkerkelijk Vredesberaad–an organization of churches–was aimed at preventing the placement of additional nuclear missiles on Dutch soil. It sent a message to the Dutch government and to both America and the Soviet Union that the Dutch people no longer wished to be either targets or players in a war that was–as far as they were concerned–based on outdated sentiments.

In 1981 the Netherlands had a population of fourteen million people. Approximately half a million people of all ages, religions and political backgrounds came together. (Translated to present-day American proportions: imagine over eleven million people at a single demonstration.) The television companies showed footage all day of traffic jams tens of kilometers long and of the thousands of extra buses and all the extra trains that were deployed to get people to Amsterdam.

It was a national event that united people like nothing had since the liberation. This unity is represented in The Assault by Gerrit Jan, the avid anti-communist in 1952, who talks Anton into joining the demonstration against American missiles in 1981. During this event, the Dutch put the past aside, with all its debts and enemies, to look instead to the future.

It has been pointed out that The Assault (De aanslag) is very similar to The Stone Bridal Bed (Het stenen bruidsbed, 1959), but that the ending is more optimistic (2), and this reflects Mulisch’s worldview as he stated it not too long after writing The Assault:

One forms one’s permanent worldview between the ages of twelve and seventeen […] in my case, this period coincided exactly with the war […] someone who grew up in an occupied country was not so much shaped by a world of destruction, but rather by a world that–amid destruction–was hoping for liberation, and that saw it coming and then experienced it. And so my world is an ‘occupied country’, in which destruction has broken out in full force, but with in the sky the airplanes announcing the ‘liberation’, and with the  ‘English radio’ on quietly, emitting messages of hope (3).

This also indicates Mulisch’s personal relationship to World War Two, a relationship he has expressed in his own time table:

1927: I was born in Haarlem, July 29, birthday of Mussolini. Stalin bans Trotsky […] 1928: I learn to walk. Goebbels becomes Hitler’s press secretary […] 1934: I get a puppet theater. Eichmann enrolls in the SD. Fermi discovers artificial radioactivity. (4)

Mulisch uses this technique to enhance the relation between man and history in his historical fiction:

In order to make the events in a human life less fleeting, Mulisch is always in search of analogies and symmetries that turn any given moment into a magical-mythical moment, due to a surprising connection. (5)

Not only is Anton’s story connected to real events in the five episodes, there are some smaller, less obvious connections. For instance, Anton is twelve in 1945, which means he was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power (6).

The most notable examples of such connections can be found on the monument for the people who were executed after the assault. The names of are engraved on the stone, in four rows. Anton reads the last row (p. 73).

Literally translated, Sorgdrager means ‘the responsible one’; he is born in 1919, the year of the Treaty of Versailles. Another hostage is named Veerman. A ‘veerman‘ is a ferryman, as was Korteweg. And of course the ferryman also refers to Charon, who ferries the dead across the river Styx to Hades. The hostage named Van der Zon–‘of the sun’–is born on May 5, the day the Netherlands was liberated in 1945, a day of light after the darkness of the occupation (7). Anton’s father is born in 1896, the year Zionism was founded; Anton’s mother is born in 1904, the year Chekhov wrote his Cherry Orchard (8) (this was also the year of Chekhov’s death), and the date of her birth, May 10, was the day in 1940 that the Germans invaded the Netherlands. Takes’s brother is born on November 21, the date of the peace demonstration in 1981, and in 1923, the year of his birth, Hitler’s coup d’etat in Munich failed. The year of Veerman’s birth is the year the Allies determined German reparation payments for World War One. Van der Zon is born in 1920, when The Hague (the political capital of the Netherlands) was chosen as the seat of the International Court of Justice (9).

So these ‘arbitrary’ dates are given meaning by their connection to historical events.

Another example is the date on the text behind Anton’s mirror, which becomes visible after Fake Ploeg Jr. throws a stone through it. 1854 is the year Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Inception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be an article of the faith (10). In other words, Mulisch links Fake’s irrational belief in his father to the Catholic belief in the immaculate conception.

There is constant tension between this element of coincidence such as expressed in the names and dates on the monument and the mirror on the one hand, and causality on the other.

We have already seen how people and society were changed by the war. The war was the cause and the following events were the result. On a historical level, the opinions in the Netherlands about the Cold War were the direct result of experiences during World War Two.

The personal lives of the fictional characters are also strongly influenced by the War. Takes is an unemployed alcoholic due to the war; Korteweg commits suicide because he cannot deal with his feelings of guilt, and Anton (consciously or not) has chosen anesthesiology as a career because the sight of Schulz’s pain and his own guilt were unbearable.

However, Anton meets all the people who can tell him more about the assault by coincidence, and the fact that Ploeg is killed where he is, is also mere chance. This element of chance is symbolized by the dice and the board game the Steenwijks are playing (the game Sorry (11)) at the time of the event. Anton realizes he still has the dice in his pocket when his uncle picks him up in Amsterdam.

It has been argued that The Assault is not real historical fiction, since many of the events are determined by coincidence (12); however, this view denies that history is, in fact, a combination of causality and accident.


  1. Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen: Zelfportret (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1961), p. 170.
  2. See Philippe Noble, “”La Guerre de Troie a Toujours Lieu”: Permanence des thèmes et des formes dans Het Stenen Bruidsbed et De Aanslag de Harry Mulisch” Études Germaniques 39.4 (Octobre-Décembre 1984) p. 347-361.
  3. Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen, p. 32.
  4. Qtd in Hans Dütting (ed.), Over Harry Mulisch: Kritisch Nabeeld: Beschouwingen over het Werk en de Persoon van Harry Mulisch (Baarn: Ambo, 1982) p. 10.
  5. Frans de Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985) p. 100
  6. John Michielsen points this out in “Coming to Terms with the Past and Searching for an Identity: The treatment of the Occupied Netherlands in the Fiction of Hermans, Mulisch and Vestdijk. Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies. Revue Canadienne d’études Néerlandaises 7.1-2 (1986) 62-68, p. 62.
  7. See also De Rover, p. 134.
  8. The Cherry Orchard foresees the Russian Revolution and the way the communists manage the country after they have ousted the nobility.
  9. See also Bernard Grun, The Timetables of History, new 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991).
  10. Grun, Timetables.
  11. It is especially unfortunate that the translation does not mention the name of the board game, also known as Chance or Parcheesi. Incidentally, ‘die’ is ‘dobbelsteen’ in Dutch. “Steen” is Dutch for ‘stone’, so the dice are also part of the stone imagery.
  12. P.F.M. Fontaine takes this stand, arguing that the real historical events only provide an opportunity for Anton’s accidental meetings with the other characters. “De Bloedbruiloft: Een Beschouwing over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch. Hollands Maandblad 26.3 (March 1984) 15-20.

Header image: mine

Want to see how history disappears? Click here for the next post in this series.

This post was first published on 05-08-2014) on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 7: Causality and Coincidence”.


Series Navigation<< The Changing Past: The Assault Is the History of an IncidentHistory Changes, Then Solidifies in Historical Fiction, As in The Assault >>

5 thoughts on “Causality and Coincidence in History, Historical Fiction and in The Assault

  1. On the war monument there are four rows (p. 73). Anton reads “the last row,” with six names. How do you get from 24 names (4×6) to 31 names?

    1. Hi Patricia,
      Well, I’m so sorry for my late reply to your question. I keep forgetting about it and then remembering when I’m driving or doing something else away from the book and my computer. I just checked and in the book there is no mention of 31 names, just that there are four columns. I must have taken that from Harry Mulisch: De Mythische Formule and in that book it must have been a mistake. I borrowed the book at the time of writing this paper, so I can’t look up how the 31 names were mentioned. But either way, they were not mentioned in De Aanslag or in the translation. So my bad. I’ll take it out of the text.

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