The Assault: Harry Mulisch’s Criticism of Historical Revisionism

the assault harry mulischThis year we would be celebrating the 68th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany and its Axis allies during the Second World War. In this war the former Soviet Union, under the leadership of the Joseph Stalin, overcame great odds and delivered deathblows against the forces of fascism. While the Red Army pushed back the Blitzkrieg and caused a shift in the tides of war, patriotic forces in the occupied countries heroically took up armed resistance against the Nazi invaders. However, the role of the former Soviet Union and the communist-led Patriotic Front in defeating the Nazis have since been deliberately denigrated in a flurry of anti-communist black propaganda that came with the eruption of the Cold War.

One literary gem that deals with this “reversal” is Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch’s The Assault. Narrating the story of Anton during and after the Second World War, The Assault is a superbly written novel about the effects of war on an individual. Towards the end of the war, partisans of the anti-Nazi resistance ambush an abusive police inspector in front of Anton’s house. In revenge the Nazis would burn Anton’s house and kill his entire family, a traumatic event that would become the object of Anton’s obsession as he grows old.

In terms of form, the novel starts with a prologue depicting the assault and the ensuing massacre. It then proceeds to depict the event’s effect on Anton in four chapters set in different years: 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981. I particularly like the way Mulisch comes up with metaphors that stand in for the events depicted in the narrative:

The motorboats were different. Pitching, their prows would tear the water into a V shape that spread until it reached both sides of the canal. There the water would suddenly begin to lap up and down, even though the boat was already far away. Then the waves bounced back and formed an inverted V, which interfered with the original V, reached the opposite shore transformed, and bounced back again – until all across the water a complicated braiding of ripples developed which went on changing for several minutes, then finally smoothed out.

Obviously, the motorboat would stand-in for the traumatic assault that would haunt Anton for the rest of his life while the complicated patterns of ripples represent the questions that Anton must grapple with as well as the complications resulting from the massacre. Who is to blame for the death of his family? Which side was accountable for the brutal massacre? The Nazis are, of course, the direct culprits. But are the partisans, as the Nazis insinuate, also to blame for provoking retribution from the occupying forces? Or is it Anton’s neighbors, the Kortswegs, who moved the police inspector’s dead body from their lawn beside Anton’s house? From the start, one of the partisans sharing Anton’s prison cell warns him:

“They’ll try to make you believe all kinds of things, but you must never forget that it was the Krauts who burned down your house. Whoever did it, did it, not anyone else.”

“Of course I know that,” said Anton, a little offended. “I saw it with my own eyes, after all.”

“Yes, but they did it because that pig had been liquidated, and they’ll blame the Underground and say they were forced to do it. They’ll tell you that the Underground knew what would happen and therefore the Underground is responsible.”

Anton tries to live a quiet and normal life. But the ripples cannot be simply shrugged away.

In 1952, seven years after the assault, Anton visits his late family’s burnt down residence. He enters the house of their neighbors, the Beumer’s, and is at once oppressed by a terrible thought. On the night of the assault, his brother Peter attempted to move the inspector’s beside the Beumer’s house but was prevented by the arrival of the Nazis: “If everything happened according to Peter’s plan, everything in this house would have been reduced to ashes… In that case the troublesome weeds would have been growing on this spot, whereas his parents would still be living next door…”

In the midst of the anti-communist pogroms in Netherlands in 1956, Fake Ploeg, the dead inspector’s son and namesake, finds his way to Anton’s apartment room. He reiterates the sad refrain that the communists were responsible for the massacre of Anton’s family because they knew what the Nazi’s brutal response would be. But Anton knows the difference between the two sides on this count: “Your father was killed by the Communists with premeditation because they had decided that it was essential, but my family was senselessly slaughtered by Fascists, of whom your father was one.”

The next episode is set in the year 1966 when Anton meets Takes, one of the partisans who assassinated the police inspector. Takes justifies the killing as a political act, a punishment of the inspector for his crimes against the people: “He had a whip with barbed wire braided into it that ripped the skin off your bare ass, which he then shoved against the blazing stove. He put a garden hose up your ass and let it run till you vomited your own shit. He killed God knows how many people, and sent many more to their death in Germany and Poland. Very well. So he had to be gotten rid off.”

Anton is reminded by Takes “that everyone gets killed by whoever kills them, and by no one else. Ploeg by us, your family by the Germans.” The context of the action taken against the inspector is expounded further: “We knew that probably at least one of those houses would get it. The Fascist gentlemen were rather consistent as far as that goes. But we didn’t know which house. We had chosen that spot because it was the most secluded and the easiest to get away from.” Against the indiscriminate violence of the Nazis we see the great care taken by the resistance to avoid affecting civilians.

Finally in 1981 all the missing threads are explained when Anton meets his former neighbor Karin Korteweg who explains that the body was taken in front of Anton’s house in order to save the Beumers. The Korteweg’s knew that the Baumers hid Jews and wanted to save them from Nazi persecution: “Was everyone both guilty and not guilty? Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty? The three Jews… Six million of them had been killed… But by being in danger, those three people had unknowingly saved themselves and the lives of two others, and instead of them, his own father and mother and Peter had died.”

This simple question asked by Mulisch in The Assault takes on more significance today with the relentless attempts to whitewash the role of the Reds during the Second World War and to paint them to be just as equally comprehensible as the Nazis. Right after the War, the new rivalry with the newly formed socialist bloc consisting of the former Soviet Union, the new socialist states of Eastern Europe, the People’s Republic of China, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was used as justification by US imperialism and its allies for the rehabilitation of the Nazis and their collaborators.

In more recent years, the brazen lie equating communists with the Nazis is being promoted by the ruling classes in order to bolster their claims that there is no alternative to the world capitalist system. Humanity has reached the “End of History.” All attempts at deviating from the dominant order is bound to end up with revolutions that devour its own children.

One particular instance of such enforced historical amnesia is the sad trend of some among the younger generations swallowing the empty propaganda that the Martial Law era brought about economic development and a strong republic. Never mind that the wealth of the country was monopolized by Marcos cronies, foreign banks, and multinational corporations while whoever opposed such a regime was either salvaged, imprisoned, tortured, or disappeared.*

The ruling classes consciously foster forgetfulness in order to stifle dissent and deprive the toiling masses of the ultimate lessons of history: the reality of oppression and exploitation and how it breed collective resistance.


* Names are reflective of their socio-historical milieu. Names of many children born in the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, carried initials like AS (armed struggle) or were variations of Karl Marx, Lenin, and Mao. An interesting tidbit from The Assault shows that things are not much different in other parts of the world:

During the war, Fascists often called their sons Anton or Adolf, sometimes even Anton Adolf, and proudly sent birth announcements decorated with Germanic runes, or with the emblem of the Dutch Nazi Party, a wolf trap. Later, whenever he met someone with either of those names, or with the nicknames Ton or Dolf, he’d try and find out if they had been born during the War. If so, it was a sure sign that their parents had been collaborators…



  1. You have gotten some things wrong about Mulisch’s Assault, but I’m not going to go into them, in part because I don’t want to discuss the spoiler at the end. They’re not that important.

    But I think you misunderstand Mulisch’s attitude toward communism, or at least his attitude around the time of writing The Assault toward communism. To a degree he does feel that the ruling classes were consciously replacing fascism with communism as world enemy #1, but his bigger point about changing attitudes is that time changes history.

    Like he illustrates right in the beginning of the book with the time capsule, historical events cannot be placed in a bubble, where they are forever left the same. Time itself changes history and the way we interpret past events. The same with attitudes toward communism.

    In the Netherlands, many people sympathized with the communists during the German occupation, not in small part because of their role in the resistance. Some of those same people changed their opinion after the Soviet Union barged into Korea, exactly because they had experienced firsthand what it was like to be occupied by a totalitarian bully state. The 1952 chapter mentions that.

    The student who makes this point in 1952 may very well have viewed the communist resistance fighters positively during the occupation. Things heat up even more in 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary (though there was never anything near a pogrom in the Netherlands) and in 1981 the student from 1952 changes his attitude again, when Reagan was using us as pawns in his Cold War gamble.

    Mulisch’s most important point is that history is fluid. Everything affects everything else, like the ripples of the motorboat in the prolog.

    1. Thanks for this insightful comment. I agree with you here. Mulisch’s work may have been more a depiction of shifting attitudes towards historical events rather than a commentary of historical revisionism. In this sense, the title of this post is misleading and for that I must apologize.

      Nevertheless this does not prevent one from using Mulisch’s depiction of these shifting attitudes to criticize historical revisionism, in this case with regards the role of communists in the anti-Nazi resistance.

      It would also be useful to know that the commentary about “attitudes towards communism” in this post, particularly in the last paragraphs, are mine rather than Mulisch’s.

      1. Yes, I agree with the historical revision of the role of the communists in fighting fascism. But I suppose there will always be that kind of revisionism, based on later events. Just like the way the Dutch viewed America by 1981 was almost a complete 180 compared to in 1945, since in 1981 it was America that was threatening our very existence. And that of all of Europe, for that matter.

        Thanks for the discussion!

      2. You are welcome. Indeed, a big factor are the twists and turns of the class struggle which exercises a big influence in these shifts in historical consciousness. It just so happens that in today’s balance of power the monopoly capitalists still have the upper hand.

  2. This book is a disgrace to my nation, it is completely false. Anton was probably Jewish, so there is nothing wrong with the things that happened to him. He was simply mentally ill which is what the book is based on – mentally ill people. NOT historical revisionism. I stopped reading at the first sentence, because of the use of “celebrating” the defeat of Nazi Germany. Why doesn’t anyone feel sorry for Germany and the Nazis? You American pigs and your propaganda can all die.

    1. Look here micky, you take your propaganda elsewhere, you nazi scum. I can not believe how your disregard for American and Jewish culture. You are clearly an ignorant woman who does not know anything on the subject of historical revisionism or even read The Assault. Do not even attempt to get into politics. This is a man’s game. If you do some simple ‘historical revisionism’ you might realize that.

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