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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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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.

***

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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.

2000

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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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