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
But while Binet describes these scenes and even includes a section on the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar, HHhH is not primarily a work of Holocaust fiction. What it shows, rather, is that for a novelist to describe a heroic moment in World War II is almost as problematic as describing a tragic one. The climax of Binet’s book comes, inevitably, with the assassination itself. He describes how Gabcik and Kubis lay in wait for Heydrich’s car along its usual route from his home to Prague Castle, where he had his office; how Gabcik leapt in front of the car and attempted to open fire with a submachine gun, only to have the gun jam; how Kubis threw a grenade but missed his target, causing an explosion that Heydrich initially seemed likely to survive. Then he narrates the dramatic days after the incident, as Heydrich first improved, then succumbed to septicemia—a dose of penicillin could have saved him—while frantic SS and Gestapo men combed Prague for the assassins. They were finally found hiding in the crypt of a church after one of their fellow resistance members betrayed them, seemingly in order to claim the enormous reward the Nazis offered. Finally, Binet describes the stand-off at the church, as the trapped fighters held off the SS as long as they could, before committing suicide.
For Binet, this episode is the climax of HHhH in a double sense: It is the most exciting part of the story, but also the part that puts his own abilities as a novelist most acutely in doubt. How can he, a pampered 21st-century civilian, hope to convey the state of mind of Gabcik and Kubis as they waited for Heydrich’s car to drive past? “I don’t know what incredible power over their nerves they must possess in order to remain in control,” Binet writes:
I make a quick inventory of all the times in my life when I’ve had to show sangfroid. What a joke! On each occasion, the stakes were tiny: a broken leg, a night at work, a rejection. There you go, that’s pretty much all I’ve ever risked in the course of my pathetic existence. How could I convey even the tiniest idea of what those men lived through?
The passage communicates the noble spirit that makes HHhH affecting. All Binet’s quibbles about the mendacity of fiction would seem old hat were it not for his urgent feeling that he must give Gabcik and Kubis their due. In his sense that this is impossible, that the present is too shrunken to contain the dimensions of the past, Binet captures something authentic about the way we now relate to history—especially the history of World War II. For all the dramatic changes in the world since 1945, it is true that, imaginatively, we are still living in the shadow of the war. Nothing has happened since that more powerfully defines our moral and political world. And if our works of the imagination are unable to measure up to that epic past, it is because we ourselves feel that we don’t measure up. We remain in the war’s thrall and under its tutelage, compelled to remember and re-teach the lessons humanity learned from 1939 to 1945—about our capacity for evil and destruction, and about the possibility of resistance to evil.
Certainly for Binet, if there is one unassailable axiom in HHhH, it is that Gabcik and Kubis are heroes. He is actually more convinced of this than they were. The assassins of Heydrich lived long enough to learn about the destruction of Lidice, and they were “wracked by guilt,” feeling that they were indirectly responsible for the deaths of so many innocents. “No one ever manages to persuade them that Heydrich’s death was good for anything,” Binet writes. “Perhaps I am writing this book to make them understand that they are wrong.”
But were they? For all the doubts Binet allows about his own capacity to understand and relate their story, he allows no doubt to stain Gabcik and Kubis themselves. That’s why it is so revealing to read the book alongside Hitler’s Hangman, which offers a much more nuanced political context for Operation Anthropoid. There is no gainsaying the personal courage of Gabcik and Kubis. But the reason they were sent to kill Heydrich, Robert Gerwarth writes, was a political calculation by Eduard Benes, the president of the Czechoslovak government in exile in London.
By 1942, the Czechs were proving the most quiescent of all the peoples of occupied Europe. Without some spectacular act of resistance, Benes feared that he would lose any influence on the Allies’ decision-making about the future of Czechoslovakia. (In particular, he wanted leverage in order to secure the Allies’ permission to expel the German population of the country after the war.) Benes knew that Operation Anthropoid, even if successful, would cost the lives not just of Gabcik and Kubis, but of practically the entire Czech resistance. He was willing to make that sacrifice to attain his diplomatic goals, and the gamble worked. It’s hard to say that Benes was wrong: Like every wartime leader, he had to weigh the value of individual lives against the need for victory over the Nazis. But the ironic result was that, as Gerwarth writes, “through his death, Heydrich had inadvertently fulfilled one of his … missions in Prague: the complete and lasting ‘pacification’ ” of the country.
At the level of history, it seems, even the limited clarity achieved in HHhH starts to disappear. Compared with Hitler’s Hangman, Binet’s novel seems even more emphatically a novel, primarily concerned with the writer’s own moral and artistic needs, and as such unable to respect the past on its own terms, for all its scruples. Indeed, if Binet took his own scruples with absolute seriousness, he would never have written HHhH in the first place. He would have had to be content with writing a work of history, or simply reading one.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The Russian immigrant Anna Shteynshleyger, a formerly observant Jew in the contemporary art world, creates lush, melancholy, Edenic works