Familiar Imagery from Dutch History, Culture and Politics in The Assault

Dutch history, imagery, Soldaat van Oranje, het meisje met het rode haar, the girl with the red hair, soldaat van orannje, soldier of orange, Fake Krist, chief of police Fake Krist, Haarlem police chief Fake Krist, the hunger winter, the occupation, The Assault, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, History and time in Harry Mulisch's The Assault, Hannie Scaft, Truus Coster, H.M. van Randwijk, November 1981 peace demonstration in Amsterdam, Provos, rookbomhuwekijk, smoke-bomb wedding, the resistance, kernwapens de wereld uit

Imagery of iconic people and events from Dutch history are interwoven in The Assault, as well as –then–current events. Two novels about resistance fighters, both based on true stories, had just been made into movies. Mulisch uses some of their most memorable images.

Dutch history, imagery, Soldaat van Oranje, het meisje met het rode haar, the girl with the red hair, soldaat van orannje, soldier of orange, Fake Krist, chief of police Fake Krist, Haarlem police chief Fake Krist, the hunger winter, the occupation, The Assault, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, History and time in Harry Mulisch's The Assault, Hannie Scaft, Truus Coster, H.M. van Randwijk, November 1981 peace demonstration in Amsterdam, Provos, rookbomhuwekijk, smoke-bomb wedding, the resistance, kernwapens de wereld uit(05-11-2014, updated 07-26-2018)  Although Harry Mulisch demonstrates, especially in the case of the names of the houses and the signs in the gravel, that even the symbols disappear, and even though he explicitly claims within The Assault that it is fiction, Dutch readers, especially in the 1980s, recognized many of the elements from Dutch history in the novel. In fact, historical imagery is so cleverly woven together with fiction that many readers thought the whole story was factual. The Belgian television even came to film at the location of the event, but they could not find it (1).

First of all, there is the November 1981 peace demonstration in Amsterdam. It is safe to say that every 1980s Dutch reader of The Assault either took part in the demonstration or watched it on television. Everyone had been amazed at the masses that had gathered and this makes Anton’s simple remark about the holocaust shockingly current: “Six million had been killed, twelve times as many as there were people marching here” (p. 194).

A more subliminal reference to a recognizable symbol is the description of the photo of the 1938 time capsule:

A photograph showed a group of well-fed Americans in their shirt sleeves looking up at a large, shiny capsule shaped like a torpedo that hung vertically above their heads (p. 11).

The nationally recognized symbol of the peace demonstration of 1981 was a stylized drawing by Opland, of a woman kicking a bomb away, and during the demonstration there was an enormous black balloon in the shape of a bomb hanging over part of the crowd (2). The sign that Anton points out to his son Peter, “Job: [here they are]” (p. 169) (3), could refer to the biblical Job, but also to Defense Minister Job de Ruiter (4).

Other recognizable imagery in the episodes deal with the less recent past.

The narrator describes the situation in the Steenwijks’ living room in January of 1945 sparingly yet effectively in the first chapters of The Assault. The reader will immediately recognize and put into context the few details mentioned; the Dutch were brought up with stories about the occupation and the hunger winter.

image: verzetsmuseum.org
image: verzetsmuseum.org

Several details of the assault seem familiar as well. Others have pointed out the similarities between Truus Coster and the real communist resistance fighter Hannie Schaft, who committed several assaults in Haarlem, among others on police officers (5).

The image on the cover of the English translation of The Assault is a photo of the Haarlem chief of police Fake Krist, after he had been liquidated by a different resistance group moments before Hannie Schaft and her friend Truus Oversteegen could. Eight houses were burned and several hostages shot in reprisal, and this is the reprisal Peter refers to: “[…] the Krauts are going to retaliate, of course. Just like before, at the Leidse Canal” (p. 19).

In June of 1944 Hannie Schaft and Jan Bonekamp shot the police captain of Zaandam, who in turn shot Bonekamp in the back as he was riding off. Bonekamp was captured and he gave up Hannie Schaft’s name and address to the Germans during interrogation. She went into hiding (at an address on the Buitenrustlaan–Buitenrust is the name of the Steenwijks’ house in The Assault), but her parents were taken hostage. This is echoed in the 1966 episode, when Takes tells Anton about a discussion he once had with Truus, in which he asked her:

“If a Nazi says that he’ll shoot either your mother or your father, that you have to choose which one or else he’ll shoot them both, what do you do?” (p. 141)

Hannie Schaft was arrested at a checkpoint in March of 1945 and held in a jail, where she would have been freed by other resistance people, were it not that Emil Rühl, Willy Lages’s subordinate, was there that night. He took her to Amsterdam, where he found out that she was responsible for several assaults. Lages ordered her execution on April 17, 1945, three weeks before the liberation. The dates on Truus Coster’s tombstone are the dates of Hannie Schaft’s birth and death.

At the time of publication of The Assault, Hannie Schaft had become a well-known resistance heroine. A few months earlier, in May 1982, a monument had been erected for her in Haarlem and her photo had been published in several books and articles, so Mulisch’s description of the photo of Truus Coster sounds very familiar.

image: nrclux.nl
image: nrclux.nl

In 1956, historical fiction writer Theun de Vries wrote about Hannie Schaft in Het meisje met het rode haar / The Girl with the Red Hair, and in 1981, a year before publication of The Assault, Ben Verbong made an eponymous movie, which showed a close-up of the police chief’s turning bicycle wheel. Mulisch refers to this powerful imagery:

In the middle of the deserted street, in front of Mr. Korteweg’s house, lay a bicycle with its upended front wheel still turning–a dramatic effect later used in close-ups in every movie about the Resistance (p. 16-17).

De Rover mentions the biography of Hannie Schaft by Ton Kors (6), which Mulisch had read and which ends with a picture of Hannie Schaft’s tombstone with a rose placed upon it. When Anton walks away from Takes’s apartment, he hears a songline on the radio: “Red roses for a blue lady . . . ” (p. 147). This is mirrored when Saskia buys a rose (“purple, almost blue. The red ones were sold out” p. 161), and places it on Truus Coster’s tombstone: blue roses for a red lady (7).

The birthday party in the second episode takes place in September of 1952, the same month in which Willy Lages’s death penalty was changed to life in prison. De Rover quotes Mulisch about the change of focus from fascism to communism as the threat to world peace:

The cold war was the consciously manipulated process in which fascism and the Second World War had to be superseded by communism and the third world war. Fascism, enemy of humanity # 1, had to lose that title at any cost to its fiercest antipode. It is within these machinations that the pardon of Lages (1952) was only natural (8).

The book Anton takes along as a gift, “a novel by a young Haarlem writer” (p. 58), is Mulisch’s own debut novel: Archibald Strohalm (9).

The Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the subsequent Soviet intervention led to attacks on the headquarters of the Dutch communist party in Amsterdam. If this seems ancient history to younger readers of The Assault, the meeting between Anton and Fake Ploeg Jr. does not.

Fake points out to Anton that he has been a victim at least as much as Anton has. Not only was his father murdered, too; he and his family have been treated like criminals simply because they are related to a collaborator. Taylor mentions several ‘testimony books’ that were published in the 1980s addressing the plight of the children of collaborators (10). In the same year The Assault was published, Rinnes Rijke wrote Niet de schuld, wel de straf: Herinneringen van een NSB-kind (Not Guilty, But Punished All the Same) (11), and in the following years other books on the subject were published, thus keeping the 1956 episode of The Assault connected to a hot topic.

As mentioned earlier, 1966 was the year of the unrest in Amsterdam, due to Provos and their confrontations with the police, and the smoke bombs thrown at the royal carriage during the wedding of Princess Beatrix and the German Prince Claus.

The translation, however, mentions stink bombs instead of smoke bombs (p. 108). This is especially unfortunate because the smoke bombs not only fit in with the blurring motif in The Assault; the throwing of the smoke bombs was also quite a moment in Dutch history, causing the royal wedding to be referred to forever as het rookbombhuwelijk‘–the smoke bomb wedding. Mulisch describes the effect of the smoke bombs for the television viewers of the royal wedding in Bericht aan de Rattenkoning:

Without warning the image became more and more blurred, until the whole screen was white. A technical disturbance–perfect timing. But suddenly the carriage and the young newlyweds emerged from the disturbance […] Others […] were throwing smoke bombs through the living rooms of all of Europe, the Soviet Union, the Unites States, and Japan (12).

This smoke bomb wedding is mentioned at the funeral of “one of [Saskia’s] father’s friends, an important journalist and poet […] whom she too had known in the war (p. 100).” Later, the poem by the deceased is quoted by De Graaff. This is a famous poem, and its author–the poet, journalist and resistance fighter who died in 1966–is H.M. van Randwijk (13). De Graaff tells the man “with a blond forelock and still blonder eyebrows” :

You ought to be grateful to us. If you’d had your way in 1945, you wouldn’t have been expelled from the party, as you are now; you’d have faced the firing squad (p. 105).

De Rover explains that this refers to Gerben Wagenaar, who was one of the leaders of the illegal Dutch communist party during the occupation, and who was expelled from the party in 1958 as a result of demands for more open discussion after Chroetsjov’s destalinization policy. “The large man on De Graaff’s other side, a well-known poet with a satanic expression in his slanted eyes” (p. 105) is Ed. Hoornik, and the “prominent publisher” (p. 108) is Bert Bakker. And finally, the cabinet minister, with his [mighty] Calvinistic [behind]” (p. 108) (14) was Minister Smallenbroek (15).

image: belbios.nl
image: belbios.nl

These people from Dutch history may not be identified by all readers; however, there is one small, but visually recognizable element in this episode. When Takes tells Anton what kind of man Ploeg had been, he mentions that Ploeg would “put a garden hose up your ass and let it run till you vomited your own shit” (p. 111). A few years before publication of The Assault, the movie Soldaat van Oranje / Soldier of Orange (16) had depicted this torture method quite graphically.

Anton visits Takes’s home the day after the funeral, and there he learns that Willy Lages has been released. Willy Lages was released on June 9, 1966, and in reality Van Randwijk’s funeral took place on May 17, 1966, but Mulisch has moved the two events together, letting them take place “at the beginning of June,” not only to keep the unity of time that is required in the classic episode structure, but also to illustrate expressly how the traces of the war are disappearing: a resistance fighter is buried and a war criminal is released.

The mayor of Amsterdam was not really present at Van Randwijk’s funeral (17). Here, again, Mulish is taking liberties with reality to make a point, since the mayor of Amsterdam and Minister Smallenbroek were the key authorities dealing with the unrest in the nation’s capital. Mulisch also compacts actual events from the life of Hannie Schaft to create one assault, with subsequent reprisals and capture all taking place in one night. The result is, of course, a fictional event, but every singly detail is based on reality.


  1. See J. van Tijn, qtd. in Frans de Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985)  p. 143.
  2. As described in The Assault, p. 168.
  3. White translates “Job: hier zijn we” as “Job: we are with you.”
  4. De Rover, p. 134.
  5. De Rover p. 84-89 and Jaak de Maere, “De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch”. Dietsche Warande en Belfort 128.3 (1985) 210-214, p. 211.
  6. Hannie Schaft: Het levensverhaal van een vrouw in verzet tegen de Nazis (Amsterdam, 1976).
  7. See also De Rover, p. 60.
  8. Harry Mulisch, De toekomst van gisteren (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1972) p. 45.
  9. See also De Rover, p. 75.
  10. Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor, A Family Occupation: Children of the War and the Memory of World War II in Dutch Literature of the 1980s (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 1997) p. 121.
  11. Translation of the title by Taylor.
  12. De Rover, p. 81.
  13. De Rover, p. 81.
  14. White translates ‘machtig‘ as ‘powerful,’ which does not indicate the size the way ‘machtig‘ does, and he translates ‘achterwerk‘ as ‘rump’, which could mean ‘trunk’ as well as ‘behind’. A correct choice of words is important here, as always, since this description of the minister’s behind is a wordplay on his name. Literally translated, Smallenbroek means ‘narrow pants’.
  15. De Rover, p. 81.
  16. The 1977 movie is based on the autobiography of resistance fighter Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Soldaat van Oranje (Amsterdam: Forum, 1971).
  17. De Rover, P. 82-83.


This post is Part 9 in the series: History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch. Click here for the next post in this series.

This post was first published on 05-11-2014, on the blog Resident Alien.

Series Navigation<< History Changes, Then Solidifies in Historical Fiction, As in The AssaultTime Eternal in The Assault: Events Put in a Larger, Timeless Perspective >>

4 thoughts on “Familiar Imagery from Dutch History, Culture and Politics in The Assault

  1. I’m reviewing these wonderful posts as I prepare to teach the novel (again) to this year’s Honors World Literature classes. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I was looking here for a reference to the “Prologue.” Some of the most memorable images are there: the man poling his boat along the canal, and the overlapping herringbone patterns of the wake. I can’t be sure, from the translation, but it seems to me that both are symbols of history: the complexity of the patterns, where the strands are interwoven; and the man moving forward in time and space, but looking backward into the past–if, indeed, Dutch canal boats are propelled in this way?

    1. Yes, they used to be. So the man is facing backwards, starts poling at the front of the boat and walks toward the back with the pole, until he pulls it out of the water, walks back to the front to do it all again. I mention somewhere that Mulisch said in an interview that history lessons should start with yesterday’s newspaper instead of with the Mesopotamians. Starting at the present and going back, in order to understand history’s relevance, in order to move forward as a society.
      I mention the prolog in the third post about The Assault. Yes, the V’s are affected by the next V’s moving in the opposite direction. Everything affects everything else, until it all becomes choppy before it smoothes out. First Anton describes the poled barges, then the occasional sailboat, and then the motorboats, described as almost violent in the way they don’t use nature to move forward, the way they disturb the water for so long afterward. So the motorboats are like the Nazis. Also, he describes the V’s as turning upside down, like a labda (though not in the translation–grrr). A labda has many meanings, but here’s a link to an interesting one. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmological_constant
      I’m sure Mulisch knew of this meaning, as he talks often about astronomy and universal time.
      The prolog also mentions Beumer sometimes reading from The Three Musketeers to Anton. The Three Musketiers refers to the popular type of historical novel that Mulisch didn’t write: history as merely a backdrop for an adventure story, a stand-alone thing that has no relevance for our modern times. Just entertainment.
      I also mention the prolog briefly at the end of the last post, comparing the water in the canal (which could be compared to the Walter Scott’s river that is never exactly the same) to the demonstration cutting through Amsterdam in 1981.
      I hope this helps. I’m also curious what made you teach The Assault. I always felt that the book was kind of lost to literature in the English-speaking world because of the translation, but these posts are read every single day somewhere. I’m amazed and so glad. I just wish Mulish was alive to know it.

    2. I’m about to be studying the novel in my own Lit class and found the motifs you’ve presented to be quite interesting. Do you have any resources that could point me in the right direction in the off chance I decide to study this area in more detail.


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