June 6, 2012
Not long ago, I reviewed Peter Longerich’s benchmark biography of Heinrich Himmler in these pages—a work of meticulous and compelling scholarship about the master architect of the Final Solution, a mostly ordinary human being whose claim on history is that he succeeded in putting Hitler’s apocalyptic fantasies about mass murder into operation on an industrial scale.
Himmler’s second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, figures importantly in the Longerich biography, and so I read with special interest the much-talked-about novel by Laurent Binet, “HHhH” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $26), translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Indeed, the title of the book is an acronym for the German phrase “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” (translation: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) that was used to describe the crucial relationship between these two men, each one a monster in his own way and, together, the executors of the Final Solution.
What intrigued Binet, as he readily confesses, were the dramatic possibilities of the incident that ended Heydrich’s life. Two commandos, one Czech and one Slovak, were parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia with the mission of assassinating Heydrich. They succeeded in causing his death—Heydrich was only wounded in the attack but later died of an infection—but only at the cost of their own lives and the lives of hundreds of wholly innocent victims of the revenge campaign that the Nazis carried out, including the entire population of the town of Lidice.
As a novelist, Binet decided to present the story under the guise of fiction. But he is also mindful of the moral dangers of fictionalizing the events of the Shoah, and so he breaks the narrative frame to address the reader with the bitter realities that lay just beneath the surface: “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story,” he writes, “you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”
But the frankness can be unsettling. He confesses that his research methods included leaving the TV set on the History Channel, and that he didn’t bother to consult the memoir that Heydrich’s wife wrote about the war. At one point, Binet makes much of his assertion that a character in Charlie Chaplin’s famous allegory of Nazi Germany, “The Great Dictator,” is actually a depiction of Heydrich. A few pages later, he announces: “I just said that one of the characters in Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it’s not true.”
The juxtaposition between artifacts of popular culture and authentic historical research make for strange bedfellows in the pages of “HHhH.” For example, he muses on “Conspiracy,” an HBO dramatization of the Wannsee Conference—the planning session for the Final Solution over which Heydrich presided—and expresses admiration for Kenneth Branagh’s performance, which depicts Heydrich as capable of both affability and authoritarianism. “I don’t know how accurate it is,” the author quickly confesses. “I have not read anywhere that the real Heydrich knew how to show kindness, whether real or faked.”
The same color commentary runs throughout “HHhH,” which narrates the life of Heydrich in fits and starts but is decorated and enlivened by Binet’s interior monologue, his candid announcements to the reader and his blunt confessions about his own problems with the book itself. “You’ll have gathered by now that I am fascinated by this story,” he confesses, on page 47. “But at the same time I think it’s getting to me.”
Indeed, he is perfectly willing to accuse himself of breaking faith with the heroes who are the focus of his book. He depicts a decisive moment in the life of one of the two commandos, Jozef Gabčík, and then he acknowledges his crime against history and identity: “How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet—a man who’s been dead a long time, who cannot defend himself,” writes Binet. “To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee.”
What Binet has done here deserves attention and even admiration, and it is provocative from beginning to end, but it comes with a caution and a risk. Binet is a novelist rather than a historian, and “HHhH” is neither a work of history nor a work of fiction in any pure sense. Rather, I would characterize the book—which I could not put down—as the troubled musings of an imaginative author on a subject that beggars the imagination.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” which will be published under the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.