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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

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Heydrich in his office, 1934. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
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The Auschwitz survivor known as Ka-Tzetnik 135633 wrote lurid novels derided as pornography when they were published. Now he’s Israel’s Elie Wiesel.

The inspiration of HHhH is not ironic, then, but deeply earnest. And in this context, the novelist’s power to shape and invent feels less like a privilege than a curse. For every time Binet makes something up, it is a reminder that he doesn’t know all the facts. “My story has as many holes in it as a novel,” he writes, “but in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur.” Thus Binet goes back and forth several times over the question of whether the car Heydrich was riding in when he was assassinated was black or dark green: It’s impossible to tell from black-and-white photographs, yet somehow he has a recollection of seeing a green car in a museum.

More fundamentally, Binet is faced with the problem that the villain of his novel is much better documented than its heroes. “I have a colossal amount of information about Heydrich’s funeral,” he writes, “but that’s too bad, because I don’t really care.” Yet as he acknowledges, the danger in writing about a man as vividly evil as Heydrich is that he will engross any book he appears in—that evil will turn out to be more narratable than good: “Whenever I talk about the book I’m writing, I say, ‘My book on Heydrich.’ But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character.” The evolution of Binet’s title, however, from “Operation Anthropoid” to HHhH, suggests that he was unable to stop Heydrich from becoming his focus.

Still worse, Binet admits to making outright mistakes. Summarizing Heydrich’s early career as chief of the SD—the intelligence or spy service of the SS—Binet writes: “Having got wind that the head of the British intelligence service calls himself M (yes, like in James Bond), [Heydrich] decides in all seriousness to call himself H.” Five pages later, however, Binet reproaches himself: “I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination. In fact, the head of the British secret service at the time was called C—not M as in James Bond. Heydrich too called himself C, and not H. But it’s not certain that, in doing so, he wished to copy the British: the initial more probably referred to der Chef.

The obvious thing to do, in this case, would be for Binet to go back and revise the earlier section, removing his error about the initials. By refusing to do so, by incorporating both the error and its correction, Binet means to dramatize the difference between writing history and writing fiction. History is faithful to the historical truth, but fiction, or whatever genre HHhH belongs to, is faithful to the writer’s truth—which includes his moments of self-deception and error.

Following this logic, Binet suggests that the flaws of HHhH are evidence of the incurable frivolity of fiction. This is the aesthetic frivolity the poet Paul Valéry invoked when he explained that he could never write fiction, because he couldn’t bring himself to write a sentence like “The marquise went out at five o’clock.” Already a hundred years ago, in other words, the conventions of the novel—the observations of class and custom, the illusion of specificity—struck Valéry, and other Modernists, as stultifying and untrue to life. If this is a flaw in an ordinary novel, Binet argues, it is still more problematic in a historical novel, where the vapidity of convention hides crucial truths.

Thus Binet begins one section of HHhH by writing: “Himmler looks like someone’s just smacked him in the face. The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull.” The following section begins this way:

Natacha reads the chapter I’ve just written. When she reaches the second sentence, she exclaims: “What do you mean, ‘The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull’? You’re making it up!” I have been boring her for years with my theories about the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention, and she’s right, I suppose, not to let me get away with this skull thing. I thought I’d decided to avoid this kind of stuff, which has, a priori, no virtue other than giving a bit of color to the story, and which is rather ugly.

The object of Binet’s contempt, it seems, is nothing less than the imagination itself. That is because imagination is a form of mediation—it brings close something that is far from us, giving us the illusion of witness and participation. But when it comes to a historical event, the need for such mediation is a reminder of our distance from the original, of the inauthenticity of our relation to the past. This paradox is why Holocaust fiction has always been such a morally contested subject: To imagine the suffering of the victims is both to assert our solidarity with them and to demonstrate that we are not actually among them.

The Holocaust inevitably forms part of the background in HHhH. One of the scenes Binet dramatizes is a meeting on July 31, 1941, in which Goering, Hitler’s number-two man, officially authorizes Heydrich “to solve the Jewish problem by means of migration or evacuation in the best possible way according to present conditions.” What this meant in practice was, first, mass shootings by the Einsatzgruppen, which killed some 1.5 million Jews in the first year after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

The more advanced machinery of the death camps was instituted after the infamous Wannsee conference, on Jan. 20, 1942, where Heydrich won the Nazi leadership’s assent to his plan for the annihilation of all 11 million of Europe’s Jews. “It was at Wannsee that the genocide was rubber-stamped,” Binet writes, noting that Heydrich’s list of Jews to be killed included the Jewish population of Britain, Switzerland, and Spain—that is, of countries that were officially neutral or which Germany had not yet defeated. After this meeting, “Heydrich poured himself a brandy, which he sipped while listening to classical music (Schubert, I believe). … According to Eichmann,” who was one of Heydrich’s deputies, “Heydrich was in an excellent mood.”

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emunadate says:

We need the holocaust documented as much as possible, so that we never forget and never let it happen again. http://emunadate.blogspot.com/2012/04/oprah-and-elie-weisel-at-auschwitz-part.html

herbcaen says:

If Heydrich were alive today, he would be Secretary-General of the UN.

fabnatan says:

Actually, there was a wonderfull film and quite sad as well, about 35 years ago where Gabcick and Kubis played the saboteurs and later killing Heydrich trowing in his car, a hand granade during a military parade in Prague. They later were round up by nazi soldiers inside a big church, drowning the lower level and shooting some other partisans in the same raid.

fabnatan says:

Actually, there was a wonderfull film and quite sad as well, about 35 years ago where Gabcick and Kubis played the saboteurs and later killing Heydrich trowing in his car, a hand granade during a military parade in Prague. They later were round up by nazi soldiers inside a big church, drowning the lower level and shooting some other partisans in the same raid.

A thoughtful and interesting review. Just to clarify Heydrich’s position in the SS: in 1932, before the Nazis came to power, he founded the SD (Security Service) of the SS. From 1934 to 1936 he was also head of the Gestapo (Secret State Police). In 1936 he became the head of the Sipo (Security Police), which was composed of the Gestapo and the Kripo (Criminal Police, ie, the criminal investigative police), while retaining leadership of the SD. Then in 1939, shortly after the war began, the SD and Sipo were brought together in the RSHA (Reich Security Main Office), which Heydrich headed until his death.

Forget About Hitler’s Hangman

4 BILLION JEWS SLAUGHTERED BY EMPEROR
HADRIAN

Over
four billion Jews were killed by the Romans in 135AD… 64 million children
wrapped up in Torah scrolls and burnt…. apparently

The Jews’ last
stand at Bethar, Judah

in the final
Roman Jewish war 135AD

“The voice of Jacob’: this is the cry caused
by the (Roman) Emperor Hadrian who killed in the city of Bethar four hundred
thousand myriads”

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 57B

Myraid = 10,000

.

400,000 x a
myraid = 4,000,000,000 (four billion)

“There
were four hundred synagogues in the city of Bethar, and in every one were four hundred
teachers of children, and each one had under him four hundred pupils, and when
the enemy entered there they pierced them with their staves, and when the enemy
prevailed and captured them, they wrapped them in their scrolls and burnt them
with fire.”

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 58a

Four hundred synagogues each with

Four hundred teachers each with

Four hundred students

400 x 400 x 400 = 64,000,000 (sixty four million)

There wasn’t
4,000,000,000 people on Earth, until 1970, and ancient demography indicates
that there were not 16 million Jews in the entire world at that time, much less
64 million Jewish children or four billion Jews.

Gittin 57b

R. Hiya b. Abin said in the name of R. Joshua b. Korhah: An old
man from the inhabitants of Jerusalem told me that in this valley Nebuzaradan
the captain of the guard killed two hundred and eleven myriads,1 and
in Jerusalem he killed ninety-four myriads on one stone, until their blood went
and joined that of Zechariah,2 to
fulfil the words, Blood toucheth blood.3 He
noticed the blood of Zechariah bubbling up warm, and asked what it was. They
said: It is the blood of the sacrifices which has been poured there. He had
some blood brought, but it was different from the other. He then said to them:
If you tell me [the truth], well and good, but if not, I will tear your flesh
with combs of iron. They said: What can we say to you? There was a prophet
among us who used to reprove us for our irreligion, and we rose up against him
and killed him, and for many years his blood has not rested. He said to them: I
will appease him. He brought the great Sanhedrin4 and
the small Sanhedrin5 and
killed them over him, but the blood did not cease. He then slaughtered young
men and women, but the blood did not cease. He brought school-children and
slaughtered them over it, but the blood did not cease. So he said; Zechariah,
Zechariah. I have slain the best of them; do you want me to destroy them all?
When he said this to him, it stopped. Straightway Nebuzaradan felt remorse. He
said to himself: If such is the penalty for slaying one soul, what will happen
to me who have slain such multitudes? So he fled away, and sent a deed to his
house disposing of his effects and became a convert. A Tanna taught: Naaman was
a resident alien;6
Nebuzaradan was a righteous proselyte;7
descendants of Haman learnt the Torah in Benai Berak; descendants of Sisera
taught children in Jerusalem;
descendants of Sennacherib gave public expositions of the Torah. Who were
these? Shemaya and Abtalion.8
[Nebuzaradan fulfilled] what is written, I have set her blood upon the bare
rock that it should not be covered.9

The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of
Esau:10
‘the voice’ here refers to [the cry caused by] the Emperor Hadrian11 who
killed in Alexandria of Egypt sixty myriads on sixty myriads, twice as many as
went forth from Egypt. ‘The voice of Jacob’: this is the cry caused by the
Emperor Vespasian12 who
killed in the city of Bethar four hundred thousand myriads, or as some say,
four thousand myriads. ‘The hands are the hands of Esau:’ this is the
Government of Rome which has destroyed our House and burnt our Temple and driven us out
of our land. Another explanation is [as follows]: ‘The voice is the voice of
Jacob:’ no prayer is effective unless the seed of Jacob has a part in it. ‘The
hands are the hands of Esau:’ no war is successful unless the seed of Esau has
a share in it. This is what R. Eleazar said:13
Thou shalt be hid from the scourge of the tongue;14
this means, thou shalt be protected from the heated contests15 of
the tongue.

Rab Judah said
in the name of Rab: What is meant by the verse, By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered
Zion?16
This indicates that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed David the destruction
both of the first Temple and of the second Temple. Of the first
Temple, as it is written, ‘By the rivers of Babylon there we sat, yea we wept’;
of the second Temple, as it is written, Remember, O Lord, against the children
of Edom17 the
day of Jerusalem, who said, rase it, rase it, even unto the foundation thereof.18

Rab Judah
said in the name of Samuel, or it may be R. Ammi, or as some say it was taught
in a Baraitha; On one occasion four hundred boys and girls were carried off for
immoral purposes. They divined what they were wanted for and said to
themselves, If we drown in the sea we shall attain the life of the future
world. The eldest among them expounded the verse, The Lord said, I will bring
again from Bashan, I will bring again from the
depths of the sea.19 ‘I
will bring again from Bashan,’ from between
the lions’ teeth.20 ‘I
will bring again from the depths of the sea,’ those who drown in the sea. When
the girls heard this they all leaped into the sea. The boys then drew the moral
for themselves, saying, If these for whom this is natural act so, shall not we,
for whom it is unnatural? They also leaped into the sea. Of them the text says,
Yea, for thy sake we are killed all the day long, we are counted as sheep for
the slaughter.21 Rab
Judah, however, said that this refers to the woman and her seven sons.22 They
brought the first before the Emperor and said to him, Serve the idol. He said
to them: It is written in the Law, I am the Lord thy God.23 So
they led him away and killed him. They then brought the second before the
Emperor and said to him, Serve the idol. He replied: It is written in the
Torah, Thou shalt have no other gods before me.24 So
they led him away and killed him. They then brought the next and said to him,
Serve the idol. He replied: It is written in the Torah, He that sacrifices unto
the gods, save unto the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed.25 So
they led him away and killed him. They then brought the next before the Emperor
saying, Serve the idol. He replied: It is written in the Torah, Thou shalt not
bow down to any other god.26 So
they led him away and killed him. They then brought another and said to him,
Serve the idol. He replied: It is written in the Torah, Hear, O Israel, the
Lord our God, the Lord is one.27 So
they led him away and killed him. They then brought the next and said to him,
Serve the idol. He replied; It is written in the Torah, Know therefore this day
and lay it to thine heart that the Lord He is God in heaven above and on the
earth beneath; there is none else.28 So
they led him away and killed him. They brought the next and said to him, Serve
the idol. He replied: It is written in the Torah, Thou hast avouched the Lord
this day … and the Lord hath avouched thee this day;29 we
have long ago sworn to the Holy One, blessed be He, that we will not exchange
Him for any other god, and He also has sworn to us that He will not change us
for any other people. The Emperor said: I will throw down my seal before you
and you can stoop down and pick it up,30 so
that they will say of you that you have conformed to the desire31 of
the king. He replied; Fie on thee, Caesar, fie on thee, Caesar; if thine own
honour is so important, how much more the honour of the Holy One, blessed be
He! They were leading him away to kill him when his mother said: Give him to me
that I may kiss him a little. She said to him: My son, go and say to your
father Abraham, Thou didst bind one [son to the] altar, but I have bound seven
altars. Then she also went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was
killed. A voice thereupon came forth from heaven saying, A joyful mother of
children.32

R. Joshua b. Levi said: [The verse, 'Yea, for thy sake we are
killed all the day long'] can be applied to circumcision, which has been
appointed for the eighth [day]. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: It can be applied to
the students of the Torah who demonstrate the rules of shechitah on themselves;
for Raba said: A man can practise anything on himself except shechitah,33 and
something else. R. Nahman b. Isaac said that it can be applied to the students
who kill themselves for the words of the Torah, in accordance with the saying
of R. Simeon b. Lakish; for R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The words of the Torah
abide only with one who kills himself for them, as it says, This is the Torah,
when a man shall die in the tent etc.34

Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: Forty se’ahs

.

1.
V.
II Kings XXV, 8ff.

2.
The
son of Jehoiada the high priest. V. II Chron. XXIV, 22.

3.
Hos.
IV, 2.

4.
The
high court of 71 members.

5.
The
lesser court of 23 members.

6.
One
who merely abstains from idolatry but does not keep the commandments.

7.
Who
accepts all the laws of Judaism with no ulterior motive.

8.
The
predecessors of Hillel and Shammai. V. Aboth, I.

9.
Ezek.
XXIV, 8.

10.
Gen.
XXVII, 22.

11.
[Graetz,
Geschichte, IV, p. 426, on the basis of parallel passages emends; 'Trajan', the
reference being to the massacre of Alexandrian Jews by Trajan as a result of an
insurrection. V. Suk. 51b.]

12.
This
seems a mistake here for Hadrian. [V. J. Ta'an. IV.]

13.
The
remark made above that through malicious speech the Temple was destroyed etc. (Rashi). [Maharsha
refers it to the efficacy of the 'voice of Jacob.']

14.
Job
V, 21.

15.
Apparently
this means ‘slander’. [According to Maharsba render: 'Thou shalt be protected
(find refuge) in the heated contests of the tongue', i.e., prayer'.]

16.
Ps.
CXXXVII, 1.

17.
Stands
for Rome.

18.
lbid.
7.

19.
Ps.
LXVIII, 23.

20.
[H]
of which [H] is taken as a contraction.

21.
Ibid,
XLIV, 23.

22.
The
same story is related of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second book of the
Maccabees.

23.
Ex.
XX, 2.

24.
Ibid,
3.

25.
Ibid,
XXII, 19.

26.
Ibid,
XX, 5.

27.
Deut.
VI, 4.

28.
Ibid,
IV, 39.

29.
Deut.
XXVI, 17, 18.

30.
The
seal had engraved on it the image of the king and by stooping down to pick it
up he will make it appear as if he is worshipping the image (Rashi).

31.
Lit.,
‘accept the authority’.

32.
Ps.
CXIII, 9.

33.
For
fear that he might accidentally cut his throat.

34.
Num.
XIX, 14. The meaning in the context is of course quite different.

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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