- 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 narrator in The Assault by Harry Mulisch mentions that this is the history of an incident”. Not history, consisting of a series of incidents will be described, but the history of an incident–an incident that changes over time.
(05-07-2014, updated 07-26-2018) Mulisch’s philosophy about time is inevitably connected to his views on history and writing about it. He has stated:
that one can visit the location of past events, but not the time. The past changes in the same way that locations change–skyscrapers where there were once rhubarb fields, and sometimes the other way around. In our memory, skyscrapers are constantly being built and demolished as well; every moment in our past is constantly being revised. Make no mistake: the past is just as uncertain as the future. In the future (almost) anything can happen–but in the past (almost) anything can have happened. (1)
In other words, history is dynamic. The narrator of The Assault mentions in the prologue that this is “the [history] of an incident” (p. 3) (2). Not history, consisting of a series of incidents will be described, but the history of an incident–an incident that changes over time.
De Rover points out that the omniscient narrator could reveal all at any given moment, leaving no mysteries. However, the novel is based on the idea that not the narrator, but ‘time’ will eventually reveal all (3). And it does, at least for the reader.
Anton learns a little more about the assault from each person he meets, while each meeting also leaves him with new mysteries; at the same time pieces of the puzzle disappear because Anton forgets or suppresses them. However, the reader has a better memory, and Anton’s forgetfulness provides a dramatically ironic demonstration of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts as historical sources.
World War Two certainly remains a dynamic issue in Dutch society, since it affected everything that followed. In 1961, Mulisch made a comment about history education that he has expanded most effectively in this novel:
The schools completely forget that the purpose of history education is not to learn something about the past, but to understand the present. (4)
The episodes following the assault demonstrate the changing attitudes toward the war in Dutch society.
In 1952, people do not want to talk much about the war; they want to put it behind them and get on with their lives. The pain that has been inflicted is not addressed. For instance, when Mrs. Beumer invites Anton in, she chats about the weeds in the empty lot where Anton’s house once stood, and she explains his family’s death away as being God’s will (5).
At the same time, the war is still in the background. The country is divided on the issue of communism. During the war, the resistance consisted mainly of protestants and communists, two groups who agreed on very little, other than that Holland had to be liberated from the fascist yoke. Their opposing viewpoints are touched upon in every episode.
In 1952, many Dutch people are anti-communist because they are afraid of totalitarian, expansionist regimes; after all, they have experienced firsthand what those can lead to. They also take a pro-American stand in the Cold War because America won the Second World War.
When Anton arrives at a party in 1952, Gerrit Jan, the birthday boy’s older brother, is addressing a group of students:
“If you had one ounce of guts, you’d not only join the army, but volunteer to go to Korea. None of you have any idea what’s going on over there. The barbarians are storming the gates of Christian civilization” (p. 60).
Others refuse to judge the Soviets, since the communists, both Russian and Dutch, played a crucial part in the liberation. In 1966, the Vietnam War leads to heated discussions. At the funeral, a man called Jaap criticizes the Americans in no uncertain terms. When Anton’s father-in-law, De Graaff, wants to interrupt him, Jaap says:
“Oh, I know, next you’ll say I must have forgotten that the Americans came to our rescue.”
“That’s not at all what I was going to say.”
“I’m not so sure. In any case, I haven’t forgotten a thing, but you did forget something.”
“And what is that, may I ask?”
“The Russians also came to our rescue, even though we didn’t see them here in our streets. They were the ones who defeated the German army, and it’s still the Russians who are on the right side in Vietnam” (p. 104).
Although they mean what they say, the resistance fighters speak semi-jokingly. Anton observes that “Obviously this conversation was a kind of game that they had played many times before” (p. 105).
The attitude toward war criminals and collaborators also changes over time. At the birthday party in the second episode, someone mentions the fact that former SS-ers can avoid prison by enlisting in the army. Gerrit Jan replies: “[So what? You’re way behind, man, with your SS. In Korea they can make amends]” (p. 60) (6). This fits in with the general attitude of wanting to forget about the war.
Several real war criminals who were sentenced to death were pardoned in 1952, among others Willy Lages, head of the Gestapo in the Netherlands. In 1966, Lages was released from prison. Throughout the years, war criminals have been released, and every time that happens, there are heated discussions in the Dutch media, which are represented in The Assault by Takes and Anton’s reactions when they hear of Lages’s release. Take comments:
“Your parents and your brother also came under the jurisdiction of that gentleman.”
“Not the wreck he is now.”
“The wreck!” […] “just hand him to me and I’ll slit his throat. With a pocket knife if necessary. The wreck […] As if it were a question of physique!” (p. 134)
This unforgiving attitude is also demonstrated by Fake Ploeg Jr.’s situation. His mother is in a prison camp after the war (“They probably suspected her of being married to my father” (p. 88)) and later she is forced to clean houses for a living. As a result, Fake cannot afford to continue his high school education, and he becomes a repairman instead of going to university. As we will see, it was not until the early 1980s that Dutch children of collaborators dared to publicly discuss their traumas.
Another aspect of Dutch society that is affected by the Second World War, and that is addressed in The Assault, is the way authority is viewed.
In the first episode, members of the resistance kill Fake Ploeg, the chief of police, a pre-eminent authority figure. One might think that this atmosphere of rebellion against authority would continue after the war, and that decision-making in many areas of society would be drastically democratized. However, this was not the case; on the surface, at least, life went on after the war much as it had before. Fake Ploeg Jr. touches on this when he imagines what would have happened if his father had not been liquidated:
“Possibly my father would have spent a couple of years in prison, and by now he would be back simply working for the police” (p. 92).
The ‘regent mentality’ was also still prevalent (7).
But by 1966, anti-establishment sentiments were back in full force. Provos, a group of postwar youth in Amsterdam, derived their name from their activities: provoking the establishment into actions that would reveal its true nature. During 1965 and 1966, Provos and their confrontations with the police created an atmosphere of unrest in Amsterdam (8), and this period was the second watershed, in which democratization of politics really gained momentum. (9)
Also typical of the anti-establishment atmosphere, and directly related to the War, was the throwing of smoke bombs at the royal carriage when Princess Beatrix married the German Prince Claus. These events in Amsterdam are touched upon in the funeral scene if the fourth episode.
In The Assault, the regent mentality is only indirectly mentioned–Anton shops in Regent Street in London right before he meets Saskia–but it is exemplified by the father of Anton’s friend who has a birthday party in the second episode and by Saskia’s parents. The notion that a regent knows what is good for people is represented by Saskia’s father ordering for everyone at a restaurant in the fourth episode (p. 123) (10).
Van der Horst describes a regent as follows:
The word itself summons up not only good breeding and respectability, but the affectedness that can accompany it. It is very close to what in Dutch is called ‘uit de hoogte‘, roughly the equivalent of the English word ‘snooty’. It is possible to identify people with a ‘snooty’ accent. It usually goes together with certain formal gestures, a controlled manner of speaking and expensive-looking, but never flamboyant, clothes which are in no way the height of fashion–more probably they are hopelessly outdated. (10)
When Anton briefly talks to his friend’s father in the second episode, he is described as:
a short man with gray hair brushed to one side, wearing an ill-fitting suit with pants too short for him, as was the fashion with a certain element of the Dutch upper classes (p. 61).
By 1981, society has changed drastically, and although the regent mentality has not completely disappeared among the establishment, the automatic prewar acceptance of their authority by the rest of the population had become unthinkable. The anti-nuclear demonstration is a case in point, but other examples are mentioned in The Assault.
Sandra and her boyfriend Bastiaan are squatters, living illegally in someone else’s private property. The building is barricaded, indicating that they will be forced out by the riot police in the near future, but not before the squatters have put up a fight.
Sandra, who is nineteen, is pregnant. A girl of her background and age would not have been pregnant before the war, let alone pregnant and unmarried.
Bastiaan, who, as a squatter is fighting his own war against the police, mirrors Takes’s war against the likes of Ploeg, although Anton, to whom postwar politics are what paper airplanes are to the survivor of a plane crash (p. 82), probably considers Bastiaan’s war quite immature.
- Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen: Zelfportret (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1961) p. 168-169.
- White’s translation mentions “the story of an incident”.
- Frans De Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985) p. 60.
- Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen, p. 69.
- See also Herbert van Uffelen, “De Aanslag, ein Anschlag auf die Zukunft von Gestern?” Tijdschrift voor Nederlands and Afrikaans 1 (1983) 148-161, p. 150.
- White’s translation of this reply is so incorrect as to be incomprehensible, hence my own translation.
- Han van der Horst explains that in the seventeenth century, regents were local and provincial administrators, but that nowadays “a regent is someone who thinks that the people do not know what is good for them. The regent knows better.” The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch (Schiedam: Scriptum, 1996) p. 37-38.
- Mulisch wrote about his impressions of this period in Bericht aan de Rattenkoning (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1966).
- Van der Horst explains provos, depillarization and democratization of Dutch society on pp. 51-81.
- White translates ‘de man een vis’ as ‘fish for the man’; it should be ‘fish for everyone’.
This post was first published on 05-07-2014, on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 6: The Changing Past”.
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