its successive campaigns, with apparent conclusive logic, held out to
Germans the prospect of a vast world empire in which, thanks to the
they belonged to the chosen people, they would all be able to embark on
most glittering careers…while we, the oppressed, lived below sea
to watch as the SS pervaded the economy of the entire country, and one
after another was handed over to the German trustees…
halfway up the walls of the entrance hall…there were stones escutcheons
symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on,
heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first
nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a
but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation.
On some positions, Cowardice asks the question,
it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity
and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the
question “Is it
right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is
safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience
it is right.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”
(March 31, 1968)
The young, sign up to fight. The rest of you, go shopping!In
his review of Laurent Binet’s novel, HHhH,
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translator Sam Taylor,2009, American
New Yorker critic James Wood recounts
his visit last year to the American Ambassador’s residence in Prague
Otto Petschek, whose family was “among the wealthiest families in Czechoslovakia,”
built the villa (which includes the ambassador’s residence) in the late
nineteen-twenties. The Petschek’s, German-speaking Jews, writes Wood,
“the horrors that awaited them, and fled Prague
in 1938, a year before the German occupation of the city.
than guest of the current ambassador, Wood is a friend, and as friend,
ambassador had something “telling” to share with Wood.
got me to lie on my back and peer at the underside of some piece of
ambassadorial furniture. There, on the naked wood, was a faded Nazi
swastika and eagle; and next to it, quietly triumphant in its very
was a bar code strip, proclaiming the American government’s present
was something he would never forget, writes Wood.
is it! The American ambassador points out the swastika and eagle of
owners and the bar code strip of the present owners. Maybe, I think,
ambassador, the latter symbol is that of triumph over fascism. At any
am not going to look up the name of the current American Ambassador
in this building once used by the Nazi regime. I do not think it
Wood pursues a line of thought. If this shift in symbols had been
a novelist, would the information be considered “worthless” while the
narrative, authenticated by a historian would have more value? “An
is not identical with an actual reality,” Wood explains. “I take
pleasure in recording its actuality, but I can imagine relishing it in
author of this debut-novel, writes Wood, thinks otherwise. Binet, Wood
suggests, opposes the idea of “invented facts” and “invented
invention would have “no place in historical fiction,” as it would
work “both aesthetically and morally.”
HHhH, Wood continues, “Binet has
written a historical novel of sorts, a book that, if not quite full of
details, certainly uses invention…while apologizing for doing so.”
adds, has his cake and eats it too while crying over “the split crumbs.”
Binet, a professor of history and a writer of fiction, (Wood: “the
writer and academic,” telling too!), and a relatively young man, (born:
knows history, unlike the young and older citizens in the U.S., many of
would have difficulty locating Prague on a map, let alone knowing the
of the U.S. - the history not colored by invented narration. I think
knows all about the purposeful art of
Binet knows the history of fascism and of resistance. I think it is
safe to say
that the resistance movement against fascism is standard fare in
his country. Here in the U.S.,
a history of the peoples’ resistance is not taught at all, unless
a few pages in the history textbooks. Here, there is more of a movement
History, particularly of resistance is often told by the ultimate victors.
Nazis believed they were curing the world of its illness: Jews,
communists, ethnically “impure” populations, and, in turn, they filled
historical documents, (manifestos, speeches, interviews, diaries,
invented images of saviors and monsters. It is the narrative of the
others not so blatantly labeled) to this day. In the U.S.,
a few years ago, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the
documents, (manifestos, speeches, interviews, diaries, pamphlets), to
Apparently, it was convincing.
am not sure how fair it is to compare Binet’s effort to re-tell a
event in a novel to W.G. Sebald’s novel, Austerlitz.
This is playing at academic nitpicking. Unfortunately, the late German
Sebald, one of my favorite writers, died in a car accident in 2003. He
older, more experienced writer, “internationally” recognized (usually
everywhere but in the U.S.)
fictional namesake of Jewish heritage is born in Prague,
and after the death of his parents in the Holocaust, Wood explains, he
on the Kindertransport, where “he escapes his fate.”
novel is quite as self-aware as Binet’s: it uses enigmatic, layered
storytelling, along with photographs, to produce something akin to
mediation on fiction and the difficulty of writing history. But it has
searching, unbroken intensity, a formal difficulty, even a forbidden
that Binet’s very appealing novel lacks.
example, Wood continues, Binet’s description of “the Theresienstadt
sounds as if he’d worked it up from the Wikipedia.”
is not Sebald. HHhH is not Austerlitz, and
Sebald, for the most part, examines the lack
of resistance on the part of most German and Europeans during the
regime and the consequences “quietly” noted by his “fictional” narrator
walks along the countryside or visits aN historical museum either in England or in Germany.
focus is resistance, the resistance of ordinary people, specifically in
despite the narrative proclaiming the power and the might of Nazism.
could argue that Wood’s example of Binet’s description of “the
ghetto” is taken out of context, as they say.
first convey left for Riga
on January 9, 1942: a thousand people, of whom 105 would survive. The
convoy, a week latter, also sent to Riga:
a thousand people, 16 survivors…There is nothing unusual in this
numerical progression toward 100 percent. It is just another sign of
Germans’ famous efficiency.
me, it reflects the efficiency of our
daily news reports on drone attacks in Pakistan or in Afghanistan,
aside - and, most often, minus number of civilian casualties.
description of the H among Hs is as vivid
as is his description of the courageous parachutists, the resisters.
How does one person or a collective battle to destroy so destructive an idea as fascism once unleashed into the world.
HHhH is not, for me, as Wood claims, a novel
rise and fall of Reinhard Heydrich, the monster whom even Hitler called
man with the iron heart.’” Even Wood acknowledges that Binet has stated
Heydrich is not the protagonist of his book. “Heydrich is there - at
of everything,” Binet has written (New
Yorker), but he is not the subject of
the novel. And while Hitler called him “the man with the iron heart,”
people of Czechoslovakia
called him the “Butcher of Prague” - and it is from this perspective
writes his historical novel, HHhH.
“monster” would imply that Heydrich or someone like him is merely a
character like, maybe, Dracula or Darth Vader or those characters at in
Monster Inc., forgive me, according
Wikipedia, “a 2001 American computer-animated comedy adventure” in
“monsters generate their city’s power by scaring children.”
Binet is a historian, but HHhH is not
an excursion into history for history sake. Unlike the literature
written in the U.S.,
this author is not indulging a fantastical tale for the sake of the
Toni Morrison, once stated:
anything I do, in the world of writing novels or whatever I write,
the village or the community or about you, then it isn’t about
anything. I am
not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my
imagination…which is to say yes, the work must be political…
prominent writers in the West today fear identifying with another
in turns, identifies with resisters. Perhaps, too, I am reading too
much in HHhH, but it seems to me Binet asks the
following questions: How does one person or a collective battle to
destructive an idea as fascism once unleashed into the world, an idea
very human, and is able to re-grow its tentacles, and is able to
life in ever more creative ways? By the same token, in the face of the
seemingly insurmountable, what is it that resisters pursue at great
the point of death?
It reflects the efficiency of our daily news reports on drone attacks in Pakistan or in Afghanistan.
title of Binet’s novel, HHhH, refers
to Reinhard Heydrich - “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich,” that is,
brain is called Heydrich.” As the brain for the SS head, Himmler, it is
Heydrich who thinks the plan and coordinates the Final Solution. The
for the Final Solution, called the “Blond Beast,” represents the human
its worst, producing mayhem, suffering, and death on the belief that he
Nazi pogrom are doing the world, (and Germany, of course), good.
idea must be killed. It is, as Binet characterizes, a bold and
Kill the thinker who makes concrete the extermination of other human
solution to an imagined problem.
this reason, Binet’s novel begins by introducing the reader first to
Gabcik and then to Jan Kubis (the first line of the novel begins,
(“Gabcik - that’s
his name - really did exist”). “His story is truly extraordinary. He
comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of
in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World
Gabcik and his team of parachutists, young people readers may not know
as the Hs because history, particularly of resistance is often told by
the ultimate victors, have been part of the
writer/narrator’s imagination since childhood, since his father told
story “pronouncing the words ‘partisans,’ ‘Czechoslovaks,’ perhaps
certainly ‘assassinate,’ and then the date: ‘1942’.” The
years, imagined Gabcik lying in some room with shutters closed,
writer/narrator wants to pay “tribute” to these men, but of course,
would it be
a “tribute” to add what he, the author, imagines?
writer/narrator tells us that he has spent years researching the whole story as possible, that is, the
surrounding discourse, including, books, biographies, manuscripts,
cartoons, newsprint, films, (commercial, documentaries, propaganda),
speeches, signed and unsigned Nazi documents, and testimonies of the
perpetrators as well as surviving witnesses and comrades and compared
information to what he had remembered from his father’s stories and
what he had
learned in school.
writer/narrator imagined and asked questions of the material becoming,
had already been, a part of him. It was already his history. It is the
process of learning that can be exciting and sometimes unsettling - as
citizens in the U.S.
can testify to, so reading corporate logos and bar-codes at the malls
his youth, the writer/narrator of HHhH also learned from his father
Slovaks collaborated with the Nazis and the Czech resisted. “In my
mind, this meant that all Czechs had been resistance fighters and all
collaborators, as if by nature.” He soon understood he had simplified
issue: “hadn’t we, the French, both resisted and
here is Gabcik (Slovak) and Kubis (Czech), for Binet, the protagonists,
expectations. It is Binet’s intention to engross the reader with the
these two resisters, young, with the future ahead of them, with the
of youth. Yet, we meet Gabcik and Kubis training in England
for the mission in Prague. There is no certainty of
return to England.
two men have become part of the historical landscape: Aurelia, the
in question, had learned their names in school, like all the little
Slovaks of her generation. She knew the broad outline of the story, but
much more than my warrant officer. I had to wait two or three years
knew for sure what I had always suspected - that this story was more
and intense than the most improbable fiction. (HHhH)
of Reinhard Heydrich’s story or that of the Nazis? At the Wannsee
January 20, 1942, “Heydrich and his assistant Eichmann set down the
enforcing the Final Solution,” as if it was just another day at the
for Heydrich, it was another day at work.
this time, mass executions had already begun in Poland
and the USSR
but they had been entrusted to the SS extermination commandos, the
who simply rounded up their victims by the hundreds, sometimes by the
thousands, often in a field or a forest, before killing them with
the job of extermination had to be carried out, did it have to be so
time consuming? The “method” “tested the executioners’ nerves and
troops’ morale.” (So compassion was considered - just not for the
victims of execution). Even Himmler “fainted” while attending one of
executions, the writer/narrator informs us. So it was up to Himmler’s
hand man, Heydrich, to think. And he did. “After Wannsee, the
the Jews - which Heydrich entrusted to the tender care of his faithful
- was administered as a logistical, social, and economic project on a
“head of the secret services of the Nazi Party and the SS,” becomes
“the interim Protector of the Reich of Bohemia and Moravia in
Heydrich wants to make a good impression and become the
Protector - no interim Protector. Hence the Wannsee Conference
and the Final Solution! “It was at the Wannsee that the genocide was
rubber-stamped.” (In the West, where the American Eagle flies high,
conferences are called “summits” today, and no - the people are not
to sit at the great tables and sup and debate their fate).
longer need the task of be given, more or less on the quiet (if you can
talk of killing millions of people ‘on the quiet’), to a few death
the entire political and economic infrastructure of the regime is at
on little Heydrich and violin lessons and school days when his
called him “Suss” because of his “hooked” nose and rumors of Jewish
his family. The writer/narrator offers a picture of a young Heydrich
father and a probable or an improbable dialogue about the war. Why,
young man. “Because France
and England are
jealous of Germany,
my son?” Invented dialogue? Yes, says the writer/narrator but
from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life
pages of history.”
yesterday, it seems, I recall a similar scene, only it is Bush II to
citizens of the U.S.
after September 2001. Because they want
to take away our freedom! They are jealous!). The young, sign up
The rest of you, go shopping! The “logistical, social, and economic
a very large scale” - again!
young Heydrich joins the Freikrops. The young Heydrich thinks of
idea behind the dialogue, the idea of racial, social, and economic
Heydrich really come to the Reich regime from nowhere? Did he really rise to the top of the Nazi government
from somewhere below to become the
Butcher of Prague?
the other hand, we are told that Gabcik and Kubis had never been to Prague. We see
camaraderie with each other and other members of the resistance,
simple people, sympathetic families, housewives, and children. There
women and girlfriends who love them and wish them success. We see
their description to suggest they are prone to violent
thoughts, but clearly, HHhH
tracks the resisters as they train and fight. We are told how the
respond when one of their members is killed in battle. We know how
and the women, families, and children respond when news of deportations
massacres of their fellow countrymen and women reaches them.
distinguishes the violence on behalf of the Czech resisters from those
Heydrich’s gang? It has been asked and seems, in hindsight,
self-evident. But HHhH asks that we, the reader,
the question of violence again in light of current invasions, wars,
and austerity measures at home expanded globally. Or have the
movements of the past been labeled with a bar code and marketed as past
once understandable because politically advantageous to the ultimate
our own era?
France, under the newly-elected Socialist, Holland, announced it will join the EU and the U.S. in drone surveillance operations
al-Qaeda (Guardian, October 22,
Merkel announced that her country is prepared to train Malian security
providing “material and logistical support.” The level of international
cooperation, claims one source in the Malian government, is
the meantime, “in dire poverty,” the people of Mali,
according to Chance Briggs,
national director of World Vision, face food and nutrition challenges.
would be intolerable to see further pain and suffering heaped on
their families in Mali.
They have enough to deal with in the past few months.”
the people of Czechoslovakia, foreign flags, symbols, and eventually
arrive in your country whether you are in need of “freedom” or not.
the Butcher of Prague never sleeps.
day - May 27, 1942 - has been selected. Gabcik and Kubis’s boss,
Moravec, based on the latter’s memoirs, summoned the men “separately”
the mission - to warn them of the “most probable outcome.”
Gabcik, the mission is a war operation, and the risk of being killed
thanks the colonel for having chosen him for such an important mission…
men say they would rather die than fall into the hands of the Gestapo.
are Czech or Slovak. You do not like it when they tell you what to do,
they hurt people - that’s why you decide to leave your country and join
elsewhere with your compatriots who are resisting the invader… The
you join the Foreign legion…But you do finally end up with a
division formed in a town full of Spanish refugees, and you fight
French when they in turn are attacked by the Nazis…You join the special
and are trained in various grandly named castles all over Scotland and
You jump, you shoot, you fight, you throw grenades…You believe in
you believe in vengeance. You are brave, willing, and gifted. You are
die for your country. You are becoming something that grows inside you,
that begins, little by little, to be bigger than you, but at the same
remain very much yourself. You are a simple man. You are a man.
are Josef Gabcik or Jan Kubis, and you are going to make history.
the writer/narrator of HHhH is
present on May 27, 1942.
I am, exactly where I wanted to be. A volcano of adrenaline sets ablaze
curve in Holesovice Street.
It is the precise instant when the sum of individual microdecisions,
transformed solely by the forces of instinct and fear, will allow
perform one of its most resounding convulsions, or hiccups.
diary dated May 28, 1942: “An alarming rumor comes from Prague.”
by Hitler himself, Heydrich is the man who brought the city of Prague under the
orderly control of the Nazi
regime. Heydrich, the “Blond Beast,” who, the writer/narrator imagines,
imagines his image as death itself soaring: “Everyone is afraid of you,
your boss…” But maybe not everyone!
IN PRAGUE ON MAY 27, 1942,
THERE WAS AN ATTACK ON THE INTERIM REICHSPROTEKTOR, SS
events of this day are already history - as are the deaths of Gabcik
both of whom fought bravely to the very end. “It had taken eight
storm troopers nearly eight hours to get the better of seven men.”
dies from wounds sustained in the car bombing but not the ability of
to mobilize those committed to institutionalize repressive methods of
As the writer/narrator points out, Heydrich was dismissed from the
on April 30, 1931, and, there after, the doors of the Freikorps are
him. Of course, the Freikorps! - the writer/narrator’s father exclaims.
not, since it was the “paramilitary organization dedicated to the
against Bolshevism.” Who “rubber-stamped” their existence? The Social
Democratic government! “My father would say there was nothing
that…the Socialists have always been traitors…it was indeed a Socialist
crushed the Spartacist uprising and had Rosa Luxemburg executed. By the
this shift in symbols had been “invented” by a novelist, would the
information be considered “worthless” while the same narrative,
authenticated by a historian would have more value?
is recognized by his peers and supervisors as a grateful “public
“duty was to prevent factory occupations and to ensure the smooth
public services in the event of a general strike.” Here, Binet suggest,
where Heydrich acquires his “acute sense of duty toward the state,” and
his imagination thinking of more and more repressive methods on behalf
state. In time, the Butcher of Prague’s competition is the equally
well-respected Albert Speer, the refined and cultured man, who prefers
of ignorance when it comes to the details surrounding Heydrich’s duties
needs a select crew of workers to
build not only the Lebensraum, “the
living space” for the expansion of fascism as practiced by the Nazis
the building of structures for what must be controlled and contained
(This scenario is foreign
to us. We
live in a capitalist state, and capitalism only needs more markets to
of traitors, those who pursue glory are not alone. The acquisition of
labels on material goods motivates others, a good many others, to
and dutiful to the state. When asked by a Czech judge how he could
comrades, Karel Curda responded: “’I think you’d have done the same
thing for a
million marks, Your Honor!’”
according to the writer/narrator of HHhH,
was sentenced to death and hanged in 1947. “As he climbs onto the
tells the hangman an obscene joke.” Gabcik and Kubis he is not.
himself in invincibility, and Curda, a modern man, envisions bar codes!
“He sold Gabcik and Kubis to the Nazis, but
he gave them all the others.”
story is finished and my book should be, too, but I’m discovering that
impossible to be finished with a story like this.”
HHhH returns to an image of Jozef Gabcik
onboard the boat where his journey has never ended. Traveling across
Baltic, across the “dark coastline of Poland,
along the “alleyways of Krakow [,]… he and the other ghosts of the
army have finally managed to set sail for France.” As Gabcik focuses
“boat’s waterline,” The writer/narrator imagines
Gabcik is “joyful at the prospect of finally fighting the invader”
the writer/narrator is “also there”…among the shadows of the soldiers
civilian clothes who pace around the boat are other shadows:
men, misty-eyes lone women, well-behaved children holding a younger
hand...And a fellow comrade walks up to Gabcik and asks for a light.
writer/narrator sees that “Gabcik recognizes the Moravian accent.”
monument and plaques honoring the work of Gabcik and Kubis as well as
in which these resisters fought bravely cannot contain their spirit. It
on. If HHhH seems a bit ambitious,
well, so be it! HHhH is not a work one would expect the current
machine to honor.
Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate
American Literature/Cultural Theory. Click here to contact Dr.
 …”I learned of the
true extend of
the perversion of the law under the Germans, the acts of violence they
committed daily in the basement of the Petschek Palace, in the Pankrac
and at the killing grounds out in Kobylisy. After ninety seconds in
defend yourself to a judge you could be condemned to death for a
offense barely worth mentioning, the merest contravention of the
force, and then you would be hanged immediately in the execution room
the law court…” W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz,
translator, Anthea Bell, The Modern Library, New York, 2001.