Ugly truth about wartime Netherlands


In 1940 about 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands. By 1945, almost three-quarters of them were dead. The Holocaust in the Netherlands, wrote Hannah Arendt, "was a catastrophe unparalleled in any Western country; it can be compared only with the extinction, under vastly different and, from the beginning, completely desperate conditions, of Polish Jewry". How to square Western Europe's worst Jewish death rate with the Dutch reputation for philosemitism?

Like most other Europeans, the Dutch took decades to come to terms with their wartime past. When I was at school in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s, it was customary to use the terms goed (good) and fout (wrong) to classify the behaviour of individual Dutch people in the war. The popular narrative was that most had been goed: distributing illegal newspapers, giving Germans the wrong directions to the train station, and protecting their Jews.

This story was widely believed abroad - partly because the Netherlands had an ancient liberal tradition; partly because of the story of Anne Frank, hidden by Dutch gentiles; and partly because the Netherlands later became a loyal friend of Israel.

The Dutch were indeed "good" in the war. Not in the Second World War, though, but the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when they and the US were Israel's only unconditional supporters. Arab countries took revenge with the oil boycott, inflicting the "car-free Sunday" on Holland. The Dutch prime minister was filmed cycling to work. This made a big impression on Israelis, who did not know that Dutch prime ministers generally cycled to work anyway.

The Dutch narrative of the war began shifting in the 1980s. By then, the wartime generation was starting to die off, and the historian Hans Blom propounded the new view that the terms goed and fout were too simplistic to encapsulate the years of occupation. Most Dutch people, he said, had never made great moral choices. They had just gone on with their lives and, late in the war, when the occupation became more brutal, their main preoccupation had been "the question of how to incur as little damage as possible".

True, the wartime Netherlands had few passionate antisemites. But, wrote Mr Blom, it did have a zealously antisemitic German civilian government led by fanatical Austrian Nazis, an efficient Dutch bureaucracy, a national tradition of obedience to authority, and a lack of forests or thinly populated regions where people could hide.

Moreover, as the Dutch Queen Beatrix told Israel's Knesset in 1995, Dutch gentiles who saved Jews "were the exceptional ones … the people of the Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens". Her speech scarcely dented Israeli belief in Dutch goodness. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin replied: "Holland, we embrace you. Thousands of Dutch tulips bloom in Jerusalem. If we could we would give them all to you."

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