The Assault: Part 6: The Changing Past



Mulisch’s philosophy about time is inevitably connected to his views on history and writing about history. He has stated:

that one can visit the location of past events, but not the time. The past changes in  the same way that locations change–skyscrapers where there were once rhubarb fields, and sometimes the other way around. In our memory, skyscrapers are constantly being built and demolished as well; every moment in our past is constantly being revised. Make no mistake: the past is just as uncertain as the future. In the future (almost) anything can happen–but in the past (almost) anything can have happened. (1)

In other words, history is dynamic. The narrator of The Assault mentions in the prolog that this is “the [history] of an incident” (p. 3) (2). Not history, consisting of a series of incidents will be described, but the history of an incident–an incident that changes over time.

De Rover points out that the omniscient narrator could reveal all at any given moment, leaving no mysteries. However, the novel is based on the idea that not the narrator, but ‘time’ will eventually reveal all (3). And it does, at least for the reader.

Anton learns a little more about the assault from each person he meets, while each meeting also leaves him with new mysteries; at the same time pieces of the puzzle disappear because Anton forgets or suppresses them. However, the reader has a better memory, and Anton’s forgetfulness provides a dramatically ironic demonstration of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts as historical sources.

The Second World War certainly remains a dynamic issue in Dutch society, since it affected everything that followed. In 1961, Mulisch made a comment about history education that he has expanded most effectively in The Assault:

The schools completely forget that the purpose of history education is not to learn something about the past, but to understand the present. (4)

The episodes following the assault demonstrate the changing attitudes toward the war in Dutch society.

In 1952, people do not want to talk much about the war; they want to put it behind them and get on with their lives. The pain that has been inflicted is not addressed. For instance, when Mrs. Beumer invites Anton in, she chats about the weeds in the empty lot where Anton’s house once stood, and she explains his family’s death away as being God’s will (5).

At the same time, the war is still in the background. The country is divided on the issue of communism. During the war, the resistance consisted mainly of protestants and communists, two groups who agreed on very little, other than that Holland had to be liberated from the fascist yoke. Their opposing viewpoints are touched upon in every episode.

In 1952, many Dutch people are anti-communist because they are afraid of totalitarian, expansionist regimes; after all, they have experienced firsthand what those can lead to. They also take a pro-American stand in the Cold War because America won the Second World War.

When Anton arrives at a party in 1952, Gerrit Jan, the birthday boy’s older brother, is addressing a group of students:

“If you had one ounce of guts, you’d not only join the army, but volunteer to go to Korea. None of you have any idea what’s going on over there. The barbarians are storming the gates of Christian civilization” (p. 60).

Others refuse to judge the Soviets, since the communists, both Russian and Dutch, played a crucial part in the liberation. In 1966, the Vietnam War leads to heated discussions. At the funeral, a man called Jaap criticizes the Americans in no uncertain terms. When Anton’s father-in-law, De Graaff, wants to interrupt him, Jaap says:

“Oh, I know, next you’ll say I must have forgotten that the Americans came to our rescue.”
“That’s not at all what I was going to say.”
“I’m not so sure. In any case, I haven’t forgotten a thing, but you did forget something.”
“And what is that, may I ask?”
“The Russians also came to our rescue, even though we didn’t see them here in our streets. They were the ones who defeated the German army, and it’s still the Russians who are on the right side in Vietnam” (p. 104).

Although they mean what they say, the resistance fighters speak semi-jokingly. Anton observes that “Obviously this conversation was a kind of game that they had played many times before” (p. 105).

The attitude toward war criminals and collaborators also changes over time. At the birthday party in the second episode, someone mentions the fact that former SS-ers can avoid prison by enlisting in the army. Gerrit Jan replies: “[So what? You’re way behind, man, with your SS. In Korea they can make amends]” (p. 60) (6). This fits in with the general attitude of wanting to forget about the war.

Several real war criminals who were sentenced to death were pardoned in 1952, among others Willy Lages, head of the Gestapo in the Netherlands. In 1966, Lages was released from prison. Throughout the years, war criminals have been released, and every time that happens, there are heated discussions in the Dutch media, which are represented in The Assault by Takes and Anton’s reactions when they hear of Lages’s release. Take comments:

“Your parents and your brother also came under the jurisdiction of that gentleman.”
“Not the wreck he is now.”
“The wreck!” […] “just hand him to me and I’ll slit his throat. With a pocket knife if necessary. The wreck […] As if it were a question of physique!” (p. 134)

This unforgiving attitude is also demonstrated by Fake Ploeg Jr.’s situation. His mother is in a prison camp after the war (“They probably suspected her of being married to my father” (p. 88)) and later she is forced to clean houses for a living. As a result, Fake cannot afford to continue his high school education, and he becomes a repairman instead of going to university. As we will see, it was not until the early 1980s that Dutch children of collaborators dared to publicly discuss their traumas.

Another aspect of Dutch society that is affected by the Second World War, and that is addressed in The Assault, is the way authority is viewed.

In the first episode, members of the resistance kill Ploeg, the chief of police, a pre-eminent authority figure. One might think that this atmosphere of rebellion against authority would continue after the war, and that decision-making in many areas of society would be drastically democratized. However, this was not the case; on the surface, at least, life went on after the war much as it had before. Fake Ploeg Jr. touches on this when he imagines what would have happened if his father had not been liquidated:

“Possibly my father would have spent a couple of years in prison, and by now he would be back simply working for the police” (p. 92).

The ‘regent mentality’ was also still prevalent (7).

But by 1966, anti-establishment sentiments were back in full force. Provos, a group of postwar youth in Amsterdam, derived their name from their activities: provoking the establishment into actions that would reveal its true nature. During 1965 and 1966, Provos and their confrontations with the police created an atmosphere of unrest in Amsterdam (8), and this period was the second watershed, in which democratization of politics really gained momentum. (9)

Also typical of the anti-establishment atmosphere, and directly related to the War, was the throwing of smoke bombs at the royal carriage when Princess Beatrix married the German Prince Claus. These events in Amsterdam are touched upon in the funeral scene if the fourth episode.

In The Assault, the regent mentality is only indirectly mentioned–Anton shops in Regent Street in London right before he meets Saskia–but it is exemplified by the father of Anton’s friend who has a birthday party in the second episode and by Saskia’s parents. The notion that a regent knows what is good for people is represented by Saskia’s father ordering for everyone at a restaurant in the fourth episode (p. 123) (10).

Van der Horst describes a regent as follows:

The word itself summons up not only good breeding and respectability, but the affectedness that can accompany it. It is very close to what in Dutch is called ‘uit de hoogte‘, roughly the equivalent of the English word ‘snooty’. It is possible to identify people with a ‘snooty’ accent. It usually goes together with certain formal gestures, a controlled manner of speaking and expensive-looking, but never flamboyant, clothes which are in no way the height of fashion–more probably they are hopelessly outdated. (10)

When Anton briefly talks to his friend’s father in the second episode, he is described as:

a short man with gray hair brushed to one side, wearing an ill-fitting suit with pants too short for him, as was the fashion with a certain element of the Dutch upper classes (p. 61).

By 1981, society has changed drastically, and although the regent mentality has not completely disappeared among the establishment, the automatic prewar acceptance of their authority by the rest of the population had become unthinkable. The anti-nuclear demonstration is a case in point, but other examples are mentioned in The Assault.

Sandra and her boyfriend Bastiaan are squatters, living illegally in someone else’s private property. The building is barricaded, indicating that they will be forced out by the riot police in the near future, but not before the squatters have put up a fight.

Sandra, who is nineteen, is pregnant. A girl of her background and age would not have been pregnant before the war, let alone pregnant and unmarried.

Bastiaan, who, as a squatter is fighting his own war against the police, mirrors Takes’s war against the likes of Ploeg, although Anton, to whom postwar politics are what paper airplanes are to the survivor of a plane crash (p. 82), probably considers Bastiaan’s war quite immature.


  1. Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen: Zelfportret  (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1961) p. 168-169.
  2. White’s translation mentions “the story of an incident”.
  3. Frans De Rover, Over De Aanslag van Harry Mulisch (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1985) p. 60.
  4. Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen, p. 69.
  5. See also Herbert van Uffelen, “De Aanslag, ein Anschlag auf die Zukunft von Gestern?” Tijdschrift voor Nederlands and Afrikaans 1 (1983) 148-161, p. 150.
  6. White’s translation of this reply is so incorrect as to be incomprehensible, hence my own translation.
  7. Han van der Horst explains that in the seventeenth century, regents were local and provincial administrators, but that nowadays “a regent is someone who thinks that the people do not know what is good for them. The regent knows better.” The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch (Schiedam: Scriptum, 1996) p. 37-38.
  8. Mulisch wrote about his impressions of this period in Bericht aan de Rattenkoning (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1966).
  9. Van der Horst explains provos, depillarization and democratization of Dutch society on pp. 51-81.
  10. White translates ‘de man een vis’ as ‘fish for the man’; it should be ‘fish for everyone’.

Click here for the next post in this series.

9 responses to “The Assault: Part 6: The Changing Past

  1. Hello,
    This is the most complete review of The Assault that I have ever seen.
    Yet I would dare to suggest that you are missing an extremely important message of the book. It is a message of hope. The message can only be received if one understands that although a secret is explicitly revealed at the end of the book, the book is not about that secret nor is Anton the really the central character of the book.
    Harry Mulisch has created a book with an even deeper secret, than the one that was revealed, which is only implicitly hinted at, that has sucked reality in to the story. The better you know about the past the better you understand the present. Is that not an invitation to take what we know of the past and apply it to the book. It works on both a national or world level and also on a personal level.
    Where were the Russians in the fall of 1944? Where were the forces of the US and UK? What did Trus Koster tell Anton? Ploeg had to be stopped because he could betray many more, correct? Well what in the hell was so different about Ploeg? Was it that he would shove a hose up your ass and turn on the water until you threw up your own shit? Did not every member of the Gestapo use torture?
    What was different about Ploeg is that unlike the other collaborators and Gestapo members who would soon be facing the death penalty when their area had been liberated. Ploeg had something to offer the allies to save his life. You see Ploeg was actually a communist and in his role as an interrogator he was using his position to guide investigations away from the communist resistance and point the investigations in the direction of the non communist resistance. Everything that he had done for the communists up to that time could have come undone if he fell in to the hands of American or British intellegence agencies. It was extremely important that be prevented.
    Why did a high profile target like Ploeg ride his bike home alone at nights?
    Because he knew that the communist underground was protecting him.
    Only an idiot would ride his bike if that was not the case and Ploeg was not an idiot otherwise the resistance would not have been able to use the cover story that he was dangerous to justify killing him so close to the end of the war.
    The final clue has been staring you in the face. What first name did the Author give Ploeg? He could have chosen any of hundreds if not thousands of names but he chose the name Fake!! If Ploeg was a fake Nazi then what in the heck was he really? He had to be a double agent.
    But if he was a non communist double agent he would have been safe after the war. What ever he had done for the nazis was to serve a greater good.
    But in non communist Netherlands after the war it would not be seen that way by those who had real power.
    Did you know that Harry Mulisch was able to travel to travel to a communist country during the height of the cold war? He would have certainly had the opportunity to meet the intellegence services of that country during this period. He could have been tipped off by them about how the communists had out smarted their enemies on at least one level after the war. Their intellegence gathering capability had survived the war in the Netherlands.
    Why would they want Mulisch to spread such a story? To spread distrust in NATO and give hope to intellegent European leftists.
    So what more is there to say? Well how about what country publicly announced that it had pulled its agents out of Iran a few day before, a number of years ago, saying that a US attack on Iran was immenent?
    In case you do not know I will give you a hint? It was not Belgium. You can google this yourself if you do not believe me?
    Do you think that perhaps this action by the Dutch might have prevented WW3? Such an action might not be proof that the Dutch military is riddled with communists symphathizers but I find that some compelling evidence.
    The result of this revelation is that now you and I and everyone else are now part of Mulisch’s book.


    • My goodness, Curt, I have no idea where you get all this about Ploeg being a fake nazi or much of the other things you mention. As for the book being about hope, well, the book is about a lot of things and I could have focused on many different aspects. But I chose to focus on Mulisch’s use of time in the novel, as is indicated in the titles of pretty much every post I wrote. Thanks for reading the post.


  2. Obviously Mulisch did not explicitly spell out in the book that Ploeg was a double agent. He expects extraordinary people to figure it out by themselves.
    Early in the book when Anton is reading about the time capsule Anton’s father replies to him that the better you know the past the more sense you can make of the present. A person could ignore that part of the story. A person could say, Mulisch was just filling up some space in his book before Ploeg was assassinated. If he was just filling up space then everything that I wrote is malarky.
    Mulisch could have written about anything to show a family huddling together on a cold winter night in January of 1945. Of all the subjects that he could have had the family talking about he chose history. He chose to tell us why hisotry is important.
    But how can we study history when there are no unbaised sources from which to learn history? Everyone has an Ax to grind. I am not really sure how to answer my own question. I will say that it is kind of like working on a jigsaw puzzle when there are pieces from a hundred or even a thousand different pictures all mixed together and there are a bunch of people around saying that if you put these pieces of the puzzle together the picture should look like THIS or THAT because they hope to gain something by getting you to really believe that the picture should look like this or that.

    This is not the only story ever written in which the most important part of the story is not expicitly spelled out. Two other examples are the Wizard of Oz, and Rebel Without a Cause. A documentary movie has been made about the real story in the Wizard of Oz. This documentary is available on Youtube. I told the real story hidden by the cover story in Rebel without a cause on another website a few years ago. I do not remember anymore exactly what website it was. You can try to beat it out of me if you want but I still will not remember. But the most important thing for anyone to remember is that John Crawford was really the biological son of the family maid. If a person understands that they might be able to unravel the true story……..if they are enlightened.


    • Dear Curt, anyone who knows anything about Mulisch knows that he didn’t write A SINGLE WORD without a purpose. So no, no filler. If your theory is that Fake was a double agent, you should be able to show us evidence in the text. I’m very curious what I’ve missed. The book was originally written in Dutch, and Fake is a legitimate Frisian name. I’m definitely not discounting the possibility that Mulisch chose the name because of its English meaning, but it can’t be the only thing you base your theory on.


  3. Hello Barbara,
    Well, as far as I am concerned I pointed out my evidence in the text in my first post in which Trudy (the alias of Johanna Schaft) talks with Anton in the jail after Anton was placed in her cell. Her comments do not explicitly reveal that Ploeg is a double agent. Her comments could only be understood as hinting at that, if a person is aware of the history of that time.
    Of course it would be understandable if a person would not accept that conversation as evidence. In sorting out truth from fiction pictures of the puzzel when looked at alone can often be explained away. It is only when a series of puzzle pieces is looked at that a different picture can be built. Of course sceptics can claim that if the new picture is built by taking pieces from different puzzle boxes, the new picture has no more value than a mirage. It is an image that we want to see. It is not an image that is grounded in reality. I think that we have to keep in mind that information from the pictures that origínally came from different boxes can show clues that might be obscured by just looking at one box.
    Maybe my take on that jail conversation is just a mirage. I can present evidence however that will go beyond showing evidence in the text. I will now prevent evidence from post war reality.
    In March of 2012 Dutch Foreign Ministry official Raymond Poeteray was arrested for spying for the Russians. His handler was an American who successfully pretended to be a Russian pretending to be a German by the name of Andreas Anschlag. Here is a link with most of the story.
    So I wonder if anyone would propose that this name Anschlag was just pulled out of hat? Is it possible that the Russian Foriegn Intellegence Agency was poking fun at the Americans? It that were true it would nto be a very proffesional thing to do. If I were a referee I would call a penalty for unsportsman like conduct, more specifically, taunting


    • I’m sorry, but you’ll have to be more specific to convince me. I just read the ten pages again where Anton is in the jail cell with Truus (which is not an alias of Hannie Schaft), and I don’t see anything that remotely refers to Ploeg being anything other than a bastard who had to be assassinated


  4. It was on this night (9th of January) shortly after supper in the Netherlands that Fake Ploeg was assassinated on his way home from work. His family was waithing for him at home that night with some packed suitcases. They had been told that they were leaving on a train that night with their first destination being Lübeck. From Lübeck they were to get on a boat to Sweden.
    Of course we know that this infamous “collaborator”, a coworker of Fake Krist, never made it home. We did not know that as his arrival grew more and more overdue the panic of his wife and children grew with each passing minute. We also know now that they did not know that their husband, and father, was told that there would be a third part to the journey. The third part was to be from Sweden to the USSR by submarine.
    It was only through this ruse that Ploeg’s handlers could be sure that we would not take matters in to his own hands to try to save himself and his family. Of course his family could not have known that because it would not have made any sense to them at all.
    By coincidence it was also on this night in 1776 that Thomas Paine began setting the presses to publish Common Sense which would appear the next morning in Philadelphia. It was also after 11 pm on January 9th that Marie Agnes von Tresckow (geboren Zedlitz) went in to labor and latter gave birth to Henning von Tresckow in the early morning hours of the 10 of January 1901. These things appear to be just a coincidence but are they just a coincidence?


  5. The Gestapo Agent that entered the Steenwijk family home that night was real beyond any shadow of a doubt. I am frightened to print his actual name. Although he has been dead for quite a number of years his organizational ties continue to haunt Europe.

    This man not only survived the war. He never even had to appear at a trial let alone serve one hour in prison. After the war he settled in Karlsruhe were he opened a Citroen dealership with money that he had stolen from Dutch citizens. Then in 1951 he was allowed to join the Bundesverfassungsschutz where he served 25 years retiring in 1976 at almost the age of 66. He was a real piece of work. He could convince a shark to move to the Sahara. He had a daughter born in 1935 and a son born in 1939. They all survived the war as well. The lucky bastard.

    One of his brothers died on the eastern front, or more accurately stated never returned from the eastern front. And another brother lost a leg on the western front. But another brother, a pilot, became a POW during the Battle of Britan sustaining only minor injuries when his plane was shot down.

    He was a quite intellegent man, in a conventional sort of way. Yet not smart enough to have ever voted for the SPD, let alone the Greens, or the Leftists. He even lived long enough to see the reunification of Germany. But fortunately for the world he never figured out how Ploeg had suckered him in to arresting the wrong people while they worked together during the war.
    Ironically many of those people that this Gestapo agent had arrested and killed during the war he would have enjoyed doing business with after the war had these people survived.


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