How sincere an anti-fascist are you? Enough to get yourself killed? To get your family killed? To get thousands of people killed?
These are just a few of the questions that run through your mind as you read HHhH, a novel about the mission, Operation Anthropoid, to kill Reinhard Heydrich, number two in the SS and “Reichsprotektor” of Prague, in May 1942.
That Heydrich needed and deserved to die is beyond question. But how far would you be prepared to go? Getting yourself killed is probably the least troubling part of the operation – though the bravery of one Czech resistor who had the presence of mind to more or less instantly kill herself with cyanide as soon as she was arrested is one of the bravest of the many brave acts described in the book. But what about your family? Many parents will be familiar with the sense that they would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children, but what about sacrificing themselves and their children?
Yet, without such willingness, how can there be resistance at all? When the French resistors took their decision to kill for the first time on 21 August 1941 they knew that the inevitable consequence would be reprisals. But they also wanted that – because without reprisals there could be no general war, collaboration is too easy if there are no consequences to occupation for the general population. Who would say they were wrong to willingly begin a process that would lead to the deaths of thousands of innocents?
Of course, the moral imperative is and was clear. The Nazis had already killed millions of innocents by the time Heydrich met his doom. The plans for even more systematic mass murder – driven by Heydrich and his faithful servant Eichmann – were under way (though the Czechoslovak resistors did not know this). Killing Heydrich was a duty and you would wish you were as brave as those who did it, even though you doubt you would be.
HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich – Himmer’s brain is called Heydrich) is a great novel, if far from perfect. I bought it last summer to read on holiday but was rather put off by the post-modern premiss: the author, Laurent Binet, discusses, sometimes at length, his moral dilemma of making up dialogue between real people engaged in real events. But, actually, that does not really get in the way, indeed at times it is exceptionally interesting – for instance giving advice on how to survive brutal interrogation (the trick is to give your tormentors very limited information and very slowly – they don’t mistreat you because they want to know more, yet the information they get is meager and increasingly out of date) as well as there whys and wherefores of Studaten Germans.
Anyway, it’s a good book. Read it.
- Paperback review: HHhH, By Laurent Binet (trs by Sam Taylor) (independent.co.uk)
- Houellebecq does Nazism (notcomputersciencerelated.wordpress.com)
- Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution” (warhistoryonline.com)
- Books of the Year: 4…3…2 (meandmybigmouth.typepad.com)
- Five books… to look forward to in May 2012 (kimbofo.typepad.com)
- Day in History – Wannsee Conference 20 January 1942 (dokmz.wordpress.com)
- Kyle Reese… and Reinhard Heydrich (ericpetersautos.com)
- Boo, Ferry, Caro, Smith, Fountain, and Shadid Among Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards (reviews.libraryjournal.com)