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Harry Mulisch: Siegfried (Siegfried)

Rudolf Herter is a Dutch author who, in many respects, is a lot like his creator. He has a Dutch mother and an Austrian father. He is one of the leading Dutch novelists. He has written a thousand-page book called The Invention of Love, which immediately reminds us of Mulisch’s Discovery of Heaven. His father seems to have been a collaborator with the Germans during the war. He is now an elder statesman, feted around the world. He is married to Olga but they are separated. He is living with Maria, some thirty years his junior, while Olga is living with a cardiologist. At the start of the novel, Rudolf and Maria are setting off for Vienna, where he will be interviewed, including on television, and given an award at a special ceremony for him. Their seven year old son will be in the care of Olga. The journey proceeds smoothly. During the TV interview, he mentions Hitler, to the mild annoyance of the Austrian interviewer. They were discussing Herter’s artistic philosophy and he mentioned his idea of taking a real person but putting that person in a completely fictional, extreme situation, in order to try and understand them. Initially, it is clear that he is referring to his estranged wife but he then comes up with the idea of doing it with Hitler. He makes the point that Hitler remains a complete enigma, unlike, for example, Stalin or Mao Zedong, which is why so many books have been written about him. He immediately decides that this is something he may try at a later date.

The next day he attends a book signing. At the end, when everyone has gone, an elderly couple approaches him and say that they had heard his interview and they said that they could help, as Herter has put it, to catch Hitler in a net. He makes an appointment to go and see them in their old people’s home the next day. He listens to the story of the people, Ullrich and Julia Falk, the next day. Ullrich had lost his father as a child in World War I and had been brought up by his mother, who did cleaning for the well-to-do. Ulrich did various jobs, including head waiter, before finding work in a café, frequented by the Nazis. He met and married Julia and became a Nazi. He even participated in the Dollfus assassination. One day, a Nazi came to the café and said that they were looking for a married couple with experience of being a waiter and butler to go and work in Berchtesgaden. Eager to escape Vienna, as he was afraid of being arrested for the Dolfuss assassination, Ullrich accepted. The couple found that they were working for Hitler and Eva Braun. They give a detailed account of their duties and what happened there but the key event, that caused them the greatest surprise, was when they were summoned to a meeting with Hitler, Eva Braun, Bormann and others, to be told by Hitler that Eva Braun was pregnant.

Great efforts are made to conceal the pregnancy from everyone, even the household, and Ullrich and Julia have to pretend that they are the parents, with Julia stuffing cushions and so on down her to simulate pregnancy. Eva departs on a pretend journey to Italy but is, in fact, hidden in the house. The child is born and named Siegfried and Julia and Ullrich become his de facto parents though both Hitler and Eva Braun show him lot of affection. He is born in 1942 but, by 1945, the situation has changed. Mulisch uses this story and the subsequent fate of Siegfried to discourse on the nature of Hitler. What is the nature of his evil? Did he, as Herter suggests, have nothingness within him? If not, what was the nature of his evil and was it different from that of his fellow Nazis and other ruthless dictators? That Mulisch is interested in his topic is very clear and very understandable. However, for me, a novel should be used to illustrate interesting ideas and not, as Mulisch/Herter is inclined to do here, to discourse on them. As he himself points out there are many, many books on Hitler and what made him what he became but they are generally to be found on the non-fiction shelves. Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a fascinating read and a very clever idea and, as always with a book by Mulisch, very well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English in 2003 by Viking
Translated by Paul Vincent