Harry Mulisch

The Assault

A slowly unravelling mystery and a spellbinding tale of guilt and innocence, set in the Hunger Winter of 1944

As the only child of a Jewish mother and an Austrian banker who worked with the Nazis, Harry Mulisch brought together two moral extremes in his biography. It is no coincidence that the war features in his work time and again. De Aanslag (The Assault), published in 1982, is his most successful war novel. This book is a thriller and a moral-philosophical novel in one.

The ‘Hunger Winter’ of January 1945. Twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk is playing a board game with his brother Peter in the darkened back room of their house in Haarlem one evening. Suddenly they hear six shots. When they look out of the window, they see a policeman lying in the street, next to his bicycle. It turns out to be a man who was collaborating with the Nazis, and he has not survived the attack. That same night, the Germans set the family’s house on fire. Anton is locked up in a dark cell at a police station. When he is released, he discovers that his brother and parents have been executed.

In the decades after the war, Anton Steenwijk gradually finds out what happened that night. At political riots in 1956, he meets the son of the murdered policeman, who presents him with the following argument: Was it the fascists’ fault that the family’s house went up in flames and Anton’s parents died? Or was it the fault of the resistance fighters, who knew the Germans would be sure to take revenge?

Exactly ten years later, Anton talks to the embittered resistance man who killed the collaborator. But the truth of the situation only becomes clear to Anton when he meets the daughter of his former neighbours. She tells him that the policeman was shot dead in front of her family’s house but that her father wanted to save his lizards, which represented ‘eternity’ to him. They therefore moved the body so that it was found in front of the Steenwijks’ house and not in front of the house of the neighbours on the other side – as there were Jews in hiding there.

This finally resolves the mystery, a quest that has lasted for decades, but Mulisch allows the moral ambiguity of the war to remain. At the same time, this is also a book about loss and mourning: after all those years, Anton remains numb with grief – and so it is significant that he chooses the profession of anaesthetist. Nothing can change the course of events, not even coming to understand them: ‘Was everyone both guilty and not guilty? Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?’

A detective mystery crafted like a Greek tragedy, of a clarity and a profundity that make it exhilarating to the intellect.

Le Monde

Mr. Mulisch brings exceptional skill and imagination to his task […] You can hardly help being reminded of the clarity of Dutch paintings; characters are established with deft economy.

The New York Times Book Review

We may read The Assault in part as a thriller. But it is a political thriller that removes the post-war scar tissue protecting society. And it is a psychological thriller probing the moral devastation between neighbors, fellow students, husbands and wives that is still a fading factor, 40 years after the event, in Dutch life.’

The New York Times

Mulisch not only does away with the cliché of the resistance of the Dutch (in the sense of all Dutch people), but he also uses dramaturgical skill to dismantle all the parameters of political morality. Why and how a person becomes a swine – or not – this is a story that must be told over and over again.

Christoph Buchwald, Süddeutsche Zeitung


Long, long ago in the Second World War a certain Anton Steenwijk lived with his parents and his brother on the outskirts of Haarlem. Along a quay, which for a hundred metres ran beside the water and then with a gentle bend became an ordinary street again, four houses stood quite close together. Each surrounded by a garden, with their small balconies, bay windows and steep roofs, they had the air of villas, although they were on the small side; on the upper floors all the rooms had sloping walls. They were in need of paint and looked somewhat dilapidated, since even in the 1930s not much more had been done to them. Each bore an honest, bourgeois name from more carefree days:

Sweet Spot
No Place Like Home
My Dream Dwelling
Restful Corner

Anton lived in the second house from the left: the one with the thatched roof. It already had that name when his parents rented it shortly before the war; his father would have preferred to call it “Eleutheria” or something of the kind, written in Greek letters. Even before the catastrophe struck, Anton had not interpreted the name “No Place Like Home” as perfect suburban living, but as a certainty that nowhere was truly like home, – just as “extraordinary” does not refer to the ordinariness of living out of town (and even less to living out of town in general), but on the contrary to something that is not ordinary at all.

(Excerpt translated by Paul Vincent)


Harry Mulisch

Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) was born on July 29, 1927 in Haarlem to a Jewish mother and a half-German, half-Austrian father. After his parents divorced in 1937, he was raised by his father’s German housekeeper. The father was joint director of a banking firm which was a repository for stolen Jewish…

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De aanslag (1982). Fiction, 254 pages.
Copies sold: 769,000

Themes: WWII classic


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