Dutch History for the non-Dutch

(Part 7) World War II & the Occupation (1940 - 1945)

Initially the Dutch government had hoped to maintain its neutrality in any future wars. Hitler however wouldn't hear of any neutrality. The democratic governments of France and England at first relented to the wishes of Hitler. Anschluss was made with Austria and Hitler got the Sudetenland. England and France finally declared war when Poland was invaded by the German army. When it became apparent that a Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been signed between Hitler and Stalin and that the United States would stay out of the war, things looked bleak for the allies. Some government members had hoped that neutrality would be maintained, but many feared the inevitable.

The Dutch Scramble for the Air

Some preparations were made for a possible war with Germany, but many knew there was no chance to hold out indefinitely unless help came about.

As war broke out in the low countries and France, many civilians with cars tried to flee to Belgium and from there move further to France only to find that their access to France had been cut off by German tanks and British and French forces fleeing to Dunkirk. This event is nowadays known by the biblical name of exodus. Many didn't make it and got stuck and were either forced to return home, or they died in air raids from dive bombers such as the infamous Stuka bombers.

The government had made too many cutbacks in the previous years, and so the Dutch army was in a terrible shape. Some recent purchases had been made as early as 1939 from Swedish and Swiss arms manufacturers, but it was too little and too late. In the fight with Nazi forces German Panzer stood against poorly equipped Dutch soldiers on bicycles. The Dutch military had hoped the inundations and fortresses that had saved the Netherlands from WW1 would keep the Germans out of the core area of the Netherlands. It was wishful thinking.

Troops were stationed at the Grebbeberg, the recently finished Afsluitdijk and the Moerdijkbrug. Fighting was indeed intense at the Grebbeberg. What the Dutch military hadn't counted on, was German paratroopers. The Dutch defenses also were no match for German bombers. The Dutch army couldn't hold out against German might and with paratroopers occupying the major cities, it was only a matter of time. The Dutch navy did manage to halt the German army from advancing due west for a while, especially across the Afsluitdijk, were the German tanks were vulnerable and exposed on all sides.

The best defense however came from the Dutch airforce and anti-aircraft guns. The anti-aircraft guns were the only piece of modern equipment within the Dutch armed forces. Save for a few aircraft the Dutch airforce was almost completely destroyed in the war with Germany, but the airforce in return did destroy half of the entire German attack wave, which corresponded roughly to a quarter of the whole German airfleet. For every Dutch aircraft lost, the Dutch airforce destroyed five times as many German aircraft. Hitler was furious over the loss of so many aircraft and he hated the Dutch with a vengeance, because of those losses. Rotterdam was bombed and fires destroyed about a quarter of the whole city. Most of the city's centre with its old Merchants buildings were lost forever. Almost a thousand innocent civilians died in the bombing campaign and the subsequent fires and many thousands more were left homeless. All was lost! When Hitler threatened to bomb all the other major cities in the Netherlands, the government knew it had only one option left. The Dutch army capitulated on may the 15th, only 5 days after the invasion had started.

The royal family and some members of the Dutch government did what they had done before in similar circumstances, they fled to England. There they waited in exile for better times. As England was bombed in the battle for Britain, the royal family send their children to Canada. The princesses would remain in Canada throughout much of the war.

The February Strike

The Dutch didn't put up much of an armed resistance during the occupation. The Netherlands did not see any Partizans like in eastern Europe and the Netherlands had no Maquis like in France. Save for a few armed robberies, prison breaks and a few assassination attempts on collaborators, most resistance was passive resistance. Instead the Dutch resistance played a collosal game of hide-and-seek with the Nazi's and their collaborators, as the resistance tried to hide thousands upon thousands of jews, gypsies, gay men and women, jevoha's witnesses, resistance fighters and young men who were pressed into working in Germany's war time industries.

Most people tried to do what they had done before the occupation, but as pressure grew from the occupiers, it became ever harder to do so. The first open act of defiance of the Dutch came in 1941 on the 25th of february in an event that is known as the february strike.

As pressure mounted from the occupying forces and more and more razzia's took place on the Jews, the people eventually got fed up with it all. A strike had begun amongst metal workers in the north of Holland a few days earlier and so the Communists decided to organise a general strike. This general strike started on the 25th of february when tram drivers in Amsterdam refused to continue to work. All trams or streetcars in Amsterdam came to an inmediate halt. From there the strike spread to other places inside the Netherlands. The response of the occupying forces was violent. Communist party members were hunted down, many of whom were executed in the dunes near the Northsea, Jewish neighbourhoods were closed off and the Nationalist Socialist Movement formed mobs who humiliated, battered and stole from the jews, the city of Amsterdam and other cities that had participated in the strike were forced to pay monstrously high fines.

Nowadays the february strike is commemorated on the 25th of february. While the rememberance ceremony is open to the public, please note that with public is meant the Dutch civilians, victims and relatives of the victims who wish to attend the ceremony. This is in not a tourism event and this rememberance ceremony is not a festival. It has come to my attention that a Thai travel organisation either mistakenly or purposely (I personally belief it is the latter) mislead tourists from amongst other countries like Japan to belief that it is a festival. It is not a festival, in fact some elderly may find the presence of Japanese or German tourists flashing with their camera offensive for obvious historical reasons. Clients of this travel agency be warned! Disturbance of the public order in this manner is punishable by Dutch law with either a fine of the third category (maximum of 7400 euro) or a jail sentence of up to 6 months.

The Dutch Resistance

The Dutch resistance were a rag-tag of loosely affiliated groups from every tier of society, anything from dock workers, to tram drivers, bartenders, county officials, bureaucrats, students, clergy and farmers. Many of them were amateurs and had no formal training and were relatively inexperienced compared to the occupying forces. Illegal papers were started by the Dutch resistance almost inmediately after the Reichskommissariat had banned most papers and had censored the few remaining ones. Almost every political group of Dutch society had their own illegal paper. Communists and other groups alike resorted to acts of sabotage. A useful ally to the Dutch resistance were the Orthodox and Moderate Calvinists alike, who sought to save thousands of jews. Their act of resistance, especially for the Orthodox Calvinists was often religiously inspired and they saw the Jews as the folk who had brought them Jezus Christ their saviour.

Many Catholics had a different approach. Convents opened up to Jewish children and hundreds of Jewish orphans may have been saved in this manner. A lot of people also listened to radio Free Orange based in London, despite the fact that the Nazi's had banned the use of radio's.

The biggest and most important illegal effort of all, of the Dutch resistance was falsifying ID-cards and coupons for food rations. Especially the coupons were important, because without those, the resistance was unable to feed all of the thousands of Jews in hiding. Hiding that many people wasn't easy. The Dutch state apparatus was largely in tact and so the Nazi's had access to a state of the art administration that also tracked people's religion. However this new administration did have flaws as the resistance soon realised. Newly born were supposed to be enlisted by their father the following day they were born. In the absence of DNA and age indentification measures, many state officials couldn't tell who the real fathers were and so many Jewish infants were saved in this way by families willing to adopt children.

The biggest problem of all for the resistance came from the geography of the Netherlands, there simply weren't that many good places to hide a lot of people. The Netherlands was and still was for the greatest part flat, with no hills and mountains and no large forests. There was only one area inside the Netherlands at that time where one could hide a large number of people. The Noordoost-Polder (North East Polder) was a recently created polder of land reclaimed from the former Southernsea. It became affectionately known as the Nederlands Onderduikers Paradijs (Dutch people-in-hiding Paradise, the nickname is a pun on the abbreviation) as a large number of people wanted by the authorities hid there in the reeds. The Netherlands was also a densely populated country and with many symphatizers for the Nationalist Socialist movement, it was hard to find a place where you didn't have a racist next door or in the same neighbourhood or village.

Many jews thus ended up hiding at farms in distant rural areas, usually hiding in small huts in the field, or in the hay attic. Other places useful for hiding in the cities were abandoned warehouses, or attics. Anne Frank and her family for example hid in an upstairs apartment with the main door hidden behind a cupboard, until they were discovered by the Nazi's, after a man had betrayed them.

Another big problem for the resistance was the organisation of resistance forces. Many jews lived in the cities in the west such as Amsterdam, but a lot of these cities had few good places to hide many people. So a good organisation was required to smuggle a lot of people out of the cities into to more distant rural areas, where they could hide the people who were sought by the authorities more easily, such as the previously mentioned hay attics and huts in the fields. One such famous route went from Amsterdam to Enkhuizen, where people boarded a ship to Stavoren, to be spread across various farms in the province of Friesland. Passes were required for travel, so many of the identity cards had to forged, which required the work of a good forger, even then it was relatively easy for the shipper to figure out who was who, so the good integrity of these boatsmen had to be assured. Many of these men came from more orthodox Dutch reformed families.

Meanwhile the smugglers themselves however often came from the cities, and often had a socialist or liberal background, while the farmers were often Dutch reformed families of the more liberal kind. The risks thus were very great, as many of these groups of people did not know one another, so there was no sure way of telling who was a real resistance member and who a nazi symphatizer. These networks did not write down their informtion in case it might be captured, so some of the organisers memorized everything important themselves, still if they were caught and spilled everything it could destroy an entire network of hundreds of resistance men and women, as the authorities only had to go down the chain one by one to destroy the whole network.

Capture meant that death was virtually certain, if the nazi's reckoned the person captured had no more information to tell, then these persons were executed in the dunes, else they were send to concentration camps, where few survived (estimates of survival rates vary, but in all cases less than 1 percent). Farmers if captured would not only lose their lives, but also their belongings, because the farms were torched to the grounds, if the nazi's discovered they were harboring jews.

One such person who was captured in this manner and fortunately for him held hostage in the better parts of the concentration camp Buchenwald, was Willem Drees, back then only a prominent member of the social democrats, he would later become the first prime-minister of the Netherlands after the war.

However the Dutch resistance did more than harboring Jews and young men, falsification of cards and distribution of food and illegal newspapers. A few members actually worked in intelligence gathering. Probably the most famous of these spies is a man named Peter Tazelaar. He was one of the few Engeland vaarders (England sailors) who actually made it all the way to England. In 1941 he was sent back to the Netherlands to set up a new line of communications to England, supposedly to install a new radio. He arrived by boat at the beaches of Scheveningen dressed in a tuxedo, if you as a reader are left thinking, "wait a minute doesn't that sound an awful lot like a James Bond movie?" then you're not mistaken, the character in the books of Ian Fleming is partially based on him. Unfortunately the plan failed, because the radio did not work, it had been damaged in the drop earlier, before his arrival.

The Collaborators & the Occupiers

A new puppet government was formed only a week after the surrender. This new government was lead by an Austrian known as Seiss-Inquart. In the Netherlands he was nicknamed "zes-en-een-kwart" (six and a quarter), the nickname sounded similar to his real name and was a pun on the fact that he limped. He was a veteran of the war with Poland and so he had a military background. However the puppet government installed by the Nazi's was a civilian government. In most other occupied countries the Nazi's installed military governments. Hitler did this for a reason. He saw the Dutch as the germanic brothers of the Germans and he hoped it would create sympathy amongst the population. Except for Nazi symphatizers many people saw right through this scheme of Hitler.

Much of the day to day government and many of the lower positions were in the hands of members of the National Socialist Movement. This political party was the sole political party in power soon after the installation of the new government. The party was lead by the Dutch engineer Anton Mussert. This man was both despised and ridiculed. The fact that he was married to his aunt only fed the many jokes about him.

Hitler however left most of the top positions to more able men, as the Nazi's soon realised that most of the men of the National Socialist Movement were too incompetent to rule anything remotely important.

The Nazi's did not station the finest of the German army in the Netherlands, excluding of course the SS men, some of whom were also present in the Netherlands. Most German men of the regular army stationed in the Netherlands, were those seen unfit for combat on the eastern front against the Soviet Union. They included young recruits, old veterans and men with all sorts of gastric illnesses and alike. Compared to other European countries life for these stationed soldiers in the Netherlands was relatively peaceful. Most of these soldiers were stationed near the dunes to watch for the Allies, who never landed there, but eventually came from the south in the autumn of 1944.

A Bridge Too Far

The Netherlands were not liberated by the Allies in one go and for the Netherlands this would have future political consequences in the Netherlands after the war and many more short term consequences during the occupation (more of that later in this part). The military objective of Operation market garden was to capture a crossing on the river Rhine, so the allies were able to push into Germany. The liberation of the Netherlands was therefore only a secondary objective. The plan developed by the English Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, failed from the start for numerous reasons: (1) the allies ignored the intelligence sent by the Dutch resistance, (2) the allies did not know the terrain, (3) the allies were short on supplies, (4) the supply and equipment that was used, was often inadequate, causing communications between HQ and the frontline to faulter. In retrospect it is not surprising the plan failed, in fact it is all the more amazing that the allies actually managed to capture the first two bridges of the three they were supposed to capture.

reason 1
When the Allies landed in Normandy in july 1944 many people in the Netherlands were confident that the war would soon be over and that it might actually be over by christmas, unfortunately the German army proved to be a formidable opponent on the defense, even when fighting against strong opponents lead by now legendary generals such as Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower and Montgomery. By now in 1944 the Netherlands had undergone more than 4 years of occupation, not many of the resistance networks were left unscathed and so both the English intelligence and the Dutch government in exile questioned the validity of the reports send by the Dutch resistance and instead chose to ignore it. The Dutch resistance did warn the allies of the presence of an SS panzer division near the bridge, but because the English intelligence did not trust these reports, they were ignored. As it turned out this was a mistake on their part as the reports were indeed valid.

reason 2
English military planners had a very inaccurate picture of the Dutch landscape. The central parts of the Netherlands is actually a river delta containing many estuaries of major rivers such as the Rhine and the Meuse, so instead of crossing just one bridge as finally happened at Remagen, the allies were instead forced to capture at least two more bridges to get a bridge across the river Rhine, making it actually that much harder to push into Germany. Unlike germany with its autobahns, most of the roads in the Netherlands were not suited for motorised vehicles, although these roads were not unpaved and muddy tracks, many of the provincial roads were in fact quite narrow and not ideal for vehicles passing one another in opposite directions (the situation still is much the same today), let alone similar directions. Constructing bridges is also much more expensive than a stretch of asphalt road and so the Netherlands did not have many good routes for motorised vehicles. So the roads themselves became bottlenecks. Because many of these roads also served as dikes, most of these roads were elevated in the landscape, which made the Allies that much more exposed and made it that much easier for the Germans to fire at them. In most cases the Germans simply fired at first tank in front of the line, so all the traffic on the road would come to an inmediate halt. Progress in this manner was slow and tedious, with losses running ever higher with each step forward.

reason 3
The allies also had not cleared the river Scheldt of mines, so the port of Antwerp still could not be used. That meant the Red Ball express of trucks coming in from Normandy was stretched to the limit. With V2 missiles being fired from places like The Hague still plowing into the houses of London, the English were very impatient, and wanted to see those removed as soon as possible. This in turn meant that the supplies that were there, were often inadequate.

reason 4
The most serious example of poor equipment, was probably the radio's that did not function. This meant that the English and Polish troops busy fighting in Arnhem were unable to communicate with HQ. It soon turned out that losses became staggeringly high, as the paratroopers landed in the midst of an open moor, not far from an SS panzer division (the exact same one the Dutch resistance had warned about). In retrospect the plan had failed, as the Allies failed to meet the objective. It needs to be pointed out that many of the Dutch did not see it that way. They saw the plan as a partial success, afterall the southern half of the Netherlands did get liberated. The third bridge was seen as a minor setback and many people became ever more hopeful that the war would soon be over. However the north would endure many more months of cruel oppression, with one of the coldest and harshest winter in centuries, and the first starvation in the western parts of the Netherlands since the late middle ages.

consequence 1
When the Allies realised Montgomery's plan had failed, they turned their attention to Operation Lumberjack and the clearing of mines from the river Scheldt. To achieve the latter the Allies had to capture everything along the north and the south of the river. Particularly in the north, in the province of Zeeland pockets remained that were held by German troops. Many of these areas were hard to reach islands. Allied command hatched a plan that this time turned out be a better thought out plan than Operation market garden. Rather than have the countryside work against them, they would make it work for them. That meant inundating some of the polders in the province of Zeeland. The Germans were then either forced to go elsewhere, or their movement would be severely impeded (its a lot slower going wading through water, than walking across land). Meanwhile the allies had access to amphibious vehicles and boats (some still leftover from the Normandy landings). The plan worked and the port of Antwerp soon became fully operational, once the mines were cleared. That meant the red Ball express was no longer required, and a good supply line to the frontline could be more easily maintained.

consequence 2
Meanwhile the north of the Netherlands was completely cut off from the the south. Most of the southern rural counties supplied many of the cities in the west such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam with food. Germany too was cut off and food was hard to come by and many German citizens by now had to live on the few scraps they could find. To solve part of that problem for their citizens, the Nazi's appropraited a lot of food from the rich and fertile Netherlands, which only served to increase the shortages in the west. Eventually the stores were depleted and so starvation occured. This starvation is nowadays known as the "hongerwinter" (hunger winter). Most people in Amsterdam had few options left to them, they could either starve to death, or flee to the rural counties in the north, were there was still some food to be found amongst the farmers. Some were unable to flee for numerous reasons and many tried to survive by eating tulip bulbs. If properly boiled tulip bulbs can indeed be eaten, but they taste very bitter and don't make for a good nutritional meal. With electricty and gas cut off, boiling in itself was severely problematic and a lot of cityfolk resorted to cutting down trees. Fleeing to other areas was not without risks, many were mugged, or froze to death on route. Those who did make it, sometimes were exploited by farmers, who managed to enrich themselves in this manner. It is estimated that some 20,000 people died of starvation during this winter. Burying that many people was also a big problem for the local authorities. There were no coffins to be found, the wood was used to light the fire in order to boil the tulip bulbs, and with the ground frozen solid, it was neigh impossible to bury anyone.

Relief finally came in february 1945, when British intelligence officers managed to strike a deal with local German commanders. Allied bombers made many food droppings containing parcels with American crackers and the international Red Cross distributed Swedish whitebread, both the crackers and whitebread where then known as luxury foods in the Netherlands, which stunned the people who received the food aid. Those who had survived the initial hardship, were forever grateful that their lives were saved. The relief effort also had another effect in that it not only saved many lives, but also destroyed all efforts of Nazi propaganda.

consequence 3
Some of the political prominents caught by the Nazi's were not send to concentration camps, but were instead held hostage at a Catholic convent in Sint Michielsgestel in the province of Noord-Brabant. Many of the politicians held there would become influential after the war. During the war many of these politicians had noticed how important it was to work together in resistance networks, whatever the political or religious background of a person. It was decided that all would be different after the war, an idea emerged that was called the "doorbraak gedachte" (breakthrough thought). All differences were to be set aside and there was even talk of political parties meging together, some of which eventually did for some time. Labour (PvdA) was formed after the war, from both liberals and socialists alike, though the liberals ultimately left the party, the two groups did fully cooperate together for a few years. For the religiously inspired political parties it was an entirely different matter, most of these parties had their largest following in the south and with the south no longer occupied and with Sint Michielsgestel liberated, they were free to go about what they like, and so protestants and catholics felt no need to cooperate. It was not until the late eighties of the twentieth century that catholics and protestants merged into a new party called the CDA, after church attendings dropped and when both groups noticed, they were being politically marginalised by the liberals and social democrats, and even then some of the orthodox calvinists soon left the newly formed CDA. It is still a matter of speculation how the Netherlands might have been very politically different if the entire country was liberated at once.

consequence 4
With the south cut off by the rivers, it actually became in some instances more difficult for the resistance to communicate with the Allies and so it became difficult to predict when the Allies would finally be marching to the north and liberate the whole of the Netherlands. With freedom close by, some resistance fighters became overconfident and took too many risks, and many of the resistance networks, also hampered by the subsequent winter and the starvation, were caught and their networks rolled up. Many good resistance men and women thus ended up in concentration camps or were executed.

However the worst thing of all was that many people had actually counted on being liberated in september 1944. Particularly the 5th of september nowadays known as "dolle dinsdag" (Mad Tuesday) in 1944 was a black day for the resistance, when almost the entire top of the national people-in-hiding resistance group was executed. In all the Nazi's killed 120 men and women, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties.

The Liberation of the Netherlands

The north of the Netherlands still needed to be liberated. Allied command noticed the steady, but swift progress of Soviet forces in northern Germany and it was decided that the western forces should be in Lower Saxony before the Soviets. The objective was thus political in nature, they wanted to prevent Denmark from being liberated by Soviet troops, before the British, Canadians or Americans could get there. The military objectives however were twofold, (1) capture the river Ems estuary (Emden was still used by German u-boats) and (2) capture the city of Hamburg (Hamburg was then the seat of most of Germany's northern civil radio stations and also held most communication offices of the German army, its was the Hamburg radio station for instance that was used by the infamous Lord Haw Haw).

The northern branch of the Allied forces began liberating the Netherlands in the spring of 1945. The north of the Netherlands was eventually liberated by mostly Canadians, some English, some Americans and an all Polish brigade. Most of the isles in the Wadden sea would remain occupied until the 8th of may (after the formal surrender). The fighting in the north of the Netherlands was fierce, particularly in Groningen. The battle of Groningen ensued between the Canadian 2nd infantry army and the 34th SS grenadeer division and a rag-tag group of Dutch nazi symphatizers. It tooks 3 days to liberate the entire city (till this day the largest urban battle of the Canadian army), with hundreds of casualties on both sides and about a hundred civilian casualties. Most of the city centre lay in ruins after the battle, with only the Martini church and city hall left unscathed.

The liberation of the Netherlands by the Canadian army, forced many of the Germans and Dutch Nazi-symphatizers to flee to Germany. Many of whom did not make it and were either captured by allied forces, or by the Dutch resistance on route. Anton Mussert was captured on the 7th of may 1945, only two days after the liberation. He was imprisoned, tried and eventually executed for the crimes he committed. He was executed in the dunes only a few hundred meters from the execution spot of many resistance members. Many of the lesser known collaborators who were captured and were executed on the spot by members of the Dutch resistance seeking revenge for their lost comrades. The heads were shaven of women who had been seen together with German soldiers and collaborators during the occupation. Many men who had collaborated with the Nazi's on a lesser level were humiliated and beaten in public, their names forever shamed as traitors and wicked henchmen.

The liberation finally came on the 5th of may 1945, when the German commander Blaskowitz formally surrendered at the hotel "de wereld" (the world). Present at the meeting were Prince Bernhard and the Canadian general Charles Foulkes. Spontaneous festivities began on liberation day, with millions turning up on the streets, dressed in orange and waving Dutch flags.

After the liberation
Nowadays the 4th of may is known as memorial day in the Netherlands and the 5th of may is known as liberation day. On every 4th of may there is 2 minute silence in the whole of the Netherlands on 8 o'clock in the evening in memory of the departed. Afterwards members of the royal family, the government, the military, Dutch citizens and any present representative of the allies who fought to liberate the Netherlands, lay wreaths at the national memorial in Amsterdam. Festivals are held throughout the country on the 5th of may in nearly all provincial capitals, and many of these music festivals are well attended, particularly by young men, women and children. Initially these festivals were held every five years (to commemorate the 5 years of occupation), but gradually the festivals became annual and the 5th of may was made a public holiday by act of government.

Life was hard after the liberation, most of the country lay in ruins. Most of Rotterdam, which was bombed by Nazi Germany, had to be completely rebuild. Cities like Arnhem, Nijmegen, Groningen and The Hague that had suffered from bombing raids and the subsequent fighting also had to be rebuild. There was a severe shortage of housing in the Netherlands. Metals of any kind were hard to come by, which made things difficult for many industries. The Germans had thoroughly scoured the Netherlands for every bit of metal they could find, to be used for Germany's wartime industries. These metals could have come from anything, such bells from church towers, railroad tracks and so on. There were almost no busses and trains left, most of the bicycles were missing, because they had been commandeered by German soldiers who had fled to Germany. The Netherlands had also lost many of its citizens, a lot of young men had died in the dunes. The few jews who made it back alive to their homes, soon noticed everything was gone, their entire families wiped out in the concentration camps. Most of the household furniture was burned up in the winter of 1944/1945 and many of their belongings had been stolen by the Nazi's. The war had been costly and the Netherlands were basically stripped clean by the Nazi's and their henchmen.

Continue to PART 8