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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

Adam Kirsch
May 02, 2012
Heydrich in his office, 1934.(Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Heydrich in his office, 1934.(Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

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 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.”

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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