Haunted by Hitler’s Hangman
The French quasi-novel HHhH, by Laurent Binet, tells the tale of assassinated Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich while wondering whether it need be retold
The liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II gave the world a new atlas of atrocity. Ever since, place names like Auschwitz or Belsen have been synonyms for evil. But during the war itself, if you had asked Americans to name a single place that summarized the reason they were fighting against Nazism, the most popular response would have been Lidice. On the night of June 9, 1942, Gestapo units surrounded this Czech village of some 500 souls and literally wiped it off the map. All the men over the age of 14 were shot on the spot; the women were deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp and killed there. The children were subjected to a racial screening test: Nine of them were found to be potentially “Germanizable” and were sent off to live with German foster parents, while the rest were murdered. The Gestapo went on to burn down every house in Lidice and then bulldoze the ruins.
Many of the Nazis’ worst crimes were carried out in secret, under the cover of battle or of bureaucratic euphemism. But the destruction of Lidice was not one of these hidden atrocities. On the contrary, the Nazis bragged about it, making sure that news of what happened to Lidice spread throughout occupied Europe. That was the reason Hitler had personally ordered its destruction in the first place—to show what lay in store for any European country that dared to resist Nazi rule. Two weeks earlier, on May 27, 1942, Prague had been the scene of one of the most daring acts of anti-Nazi rebellion in the whole war: the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi ruler of occupied Czechoslovakia.
Heydrich, who was also the chief of the Gestapo and the primary architect of the Holocaust, was the highest-ranking Nazi ever to be assassinated. Certainly no one except Hitler deserved it more. There was something about Heydrich, some quality of soullessness and calculating cruelty, that even his fellow Nazis found frightening. Robert Gerwarth, who last year published the first ever scholarly biography of Heydrich, Hitler’s Hangman, quotes the opinions of some of Heydrich’s SS colleagues: “the most demonic personality in the Nazi leadership”; “devilish”; “a predatory animal.”
Others called him, admiringly, “the blond beast,” suggesting that Heydrich incarnated the Aryan physical and moral ideal. Indeed, compared to such poor specimens as Hitler, Himmler, and Goering, Heydrich—tall, blond, and handsome, a fencing champion and fighter pilot who also played the violin—was a poster boy for Nazi manhood. His assassination was thus a major blow to the Nazi leadership and their myth of invulnerability. The death toll of Lidice, plus the thousands of others killed across the Czech lands after the assassination, suggests what a high price Hitler and Himmler put on the life of their henchman.
From the moment it happened, the killing of Heydrich became one of the most dramatized and mythologized episodes of World War II. Within the year, it was the subject of a novel by Heinrich Mann and a film, Hangmen Also Die!, directed by Fritz Lang and written by Bertolt Brecht. A series of novelizations, popular biographies, and TV and film versions followed over the decades—there was even a memoir by Heydrich’s wife Lina, titled My Life With a War Criminal. In the wake of all these, and of Gerwarth’s definitive biography, one might well ask whether there’s any point in retelling the story yet again.
No one has asked himself that question more often than Laurent Binet, who sets out to tell it again in the newly translated novel HHhH. Novel, though, is not really the right word for this book, even if it did win France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2009. What Binet has really written is a book about the obstacles to writing a novel about Heydrich—a record of all the reasons why this story does not need to be told, cannot be told, and shouldn’t be told. In a series of short, numbered sections, Binet alternately narrates the life of Heydrich and the plot to assassinate him, and speaks in his own voice, describing his research methods, giving glimpses of his personal life, and pointing out all the flaws in his own narration. The only way to overcome his doubts about the whole enterprise, Binet suggests, is to place them front and center.
The result is a book that, in its relentless authorial self-consciousness, seems to court the description “postmodern.” Take, for instance, the moment when Binet declares his intention of naming the book “Operation Anthropoid,” after the code name used by the British Special Operations Executive for the plan to kill Heydrich. “If that’s not the title you see on the cover,” he writes, “you will know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn’t like it: too SF, too Robert Ludlum, apparently.” Of course, it’s not the title on the cover, though the one Binet settled on is even more cryptic: “HHhH” is an acronym for a German phrase meaning “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” which was used to explain Heydrich’s crucial role in the SS. Binet could perfectly well have omitted this passage after he changed the title. By leaving it in, he creates the illusion of total access to the author’s thought process: What really matters, Binet suggests, is not the story he tells but the decisions he has to make while telling it.
If HHhH nonetheless doesn’t feel like a postmodern novel, it is because Binet does not revel in the freedom and indeterminacy of fiction. On the contrary, because he is writing about real historical events, whose gravity he himself feels very deeply, Binet is always trying to close the gap between invention and truth. This is clear from the very first sentence of the book: “Gabcik—that’s his name—really did exist.” Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, we learn soon enough, were the secret agents parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the British to carry out the assassination of Heydrich. The whole motive for writing HHhH, Binet explains, is to honor these men, their courage and sacrifice: “So, Gabcik existed. … His story is as true as it is extraordinary. He and his comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War. For a long time I have wanted to pay tribute to him.”
The Russian immigrant Anna Shteynshleyger, a formerly observant Jew in the contemporary art world, creates lush, melancholy, Edenic works