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Harry Mulisch

The Assault

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1982

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The Assault is an historical fiction novel written by Dutch author Harry Mulisch. First published in 1982 under the Dutch title De Aanslag, the novel was translated and published in English in 1985 and later translated into over a dozen languages. Mulisch was born in Haarlem, Netherlands, the same setting in which The Assault occurs. The story is based on actual events and Mulisch’s experiences during German occupation in World War II. The narrative is told in the third person omniscient and is broken into five episodes—the years 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981—that follow the life of Anton Steenwijk from ages twelve to forty-eight.

The Assault opens on a January evening in Haarlem, Netherlands, in 1945. The city is under Nazi occupation, and the Steenwijk family—Anton, Mr. and Mrs. Steenwijk, and the eldest son, Peter—live a piecemeal existence within their home. They are subject to food and goods rationing as well as a strict military curfew, and they have moved their entire life into one room in their house. The family home stands on a quay surrounded by three other family homes.

Just as the family is poised to begin playing a board game before retiring to bed, they hear six gunshots that will change Anton’s life forever. Fake Ploeg, a Nazi Inspector, has been assassinated on their street. This is “the assault” from which the novel takes its name. Ploeg has fallen, dead, in front of their neighbor’s home. These neighbors are named the Kortewegs. As the hot-headed teenaged Peter watches in horror, the Kortewegs emerge from their home and drag Ploeg’s body so that it lies on the Steenwijks’ doorstep.

Against the objections of his mother, Peter runs out into the street in order to either move Ploeg’s body back or put the body in front of the house belonging to another neighbor, an elderly couple whose last name is Beumer. However, Peter only succeeds in taking Ploeg’s gun before backup Nazi forces arrive. Peter runs behind the Korteweg home and is never seen again. Anton later learns that Peter is executed inside of the Korteweg home by Nazi forces.

A brutal and cruel man in civilian clothes who bears a scar on his cheek then bursts into Anton’s home and questions his parents. He deposits Anton into the backseat of a military vehicle while Anton’s parents are taken away. The Nazis then set Anton’s home ablaze with a flamethrower. Unbeknownst to Anton, his parents are executed, along with a group of twenty-nine hostages. Anton likely would have been killed that night as well if he weren’t essentially forgotten in the backseat of the vehicle.

Upon his re-discovery by Nazi forces, Anton is incarcerated beneath a police station with a wounded woman whom, in the dark, he cannot see. She refuses to tell him her name or to hear his, in order to protect both herself and him. She is an Underground Resistance fighter whom Anton will later learn is named Truus Coster. She was also responsible for the murder of Fake Ploeg, along with another Resistance fighter named Cor Takes. Anton, however, will not learn this information until decades later. Coster offers soothing and motherly comfort and compassion to Anton in addition to bits of information about herself. Most importantly, she counsels Anton by telling him that he must always remember how, on this night, it was ultimately the Nazis who were responsible for the carnage, and no one else. She also tells him that in the fight against Fascism, those in the Resistance must take pains to never abandon their own humanity; otherwise, the Fascists will have ultimately won.

Anton is forced to recount his story to the Nazi Ortskommandantur before being released into the custody of his uncle. The rest of the novel follows Anton from adolescence to adulthood as he sharply suppresses and represses the great trauma and violence that he endured on that January 1945 night. Retreating into an orderly, apolitical, and wholly unobtrusive persona, Anton internalizes, in order to survive and carry on from the violence of the assault and its aftermath. Through both fate and his own subconscious search for the truth of why his family was murdered, he eventually pieces together a complete image of that fateful night.

A decade later, Anton encounters the son of Fake Ploeg, also named Fake. The younger Fake cannot bring himself to admit any wrongdoing on the part of his father and lays the blame for the murder of Anton’s family upon the Resistance fighters who assassinated his father, as they knew that reprisals would follow their act.

At the age of approximately thirty-three, Anton also meets Cor Takes, the Resistance fighter who, along with Truus Coster, assassinated Fake Ploeg. Takes’s brutal ruthlessness appears to demonstrate the opposite of Coster’s philosophy, as Takes openly admits to being willing to execute the children of Nazis in service to the Resistance.

Eventually, Anton becomes an anesthesiologist and marries twice. His first wife, Saskia, bears him a daughter named Sandra, while his second wife, Liesbeth, bears him a son named Peter. At the end of the novel, in 1982, Anton is forced by his dentist to join a demonstration against nuclear arms. There, he encounters Karin Korteweg, one of the people who dragged Ploeg’s body to his doorstep.

In an absurd twist, Anton learns that the Kortewegs chose to move Ploeg’s body because Mr. Korteweg was concerned about his pet lizards. However, they chose to deposit Ploeg’s body in front of the Steenwijk home and not the doorstep of their other neighbor, the Aartses, because the Aartses were hiding Jews from the Nazis. Ultimately, this piece of information absolves Mr. Korteweg in Anton’s mind and gives him a small sense of rational explanation for both the Kortewegs’ actions and the murder of his entire family.

The novel ends on an image of Anton with his son among the peace demonstrators. Anton has finally pieced together all of the disparate threads that coalesced during the assault and the subsequent murder of his family. Although he will be forever marked by his trauma, he is no longer a hostage to it, nor to his own repression.