Survival and Resistance: The Netherlands Under Nazi Occupation

Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D.

On May 10, 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands bringing war to ended five days later as Dutch forces surrendered and German occupation of the Netherlands officially began. Five years later, the Netherlands would be liberated. However, the toll in human life and suffering during those five years was enormous.

This talk will highlight the distinctive features of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Topics to be covered will include: a brief historical overview, the ramifications of the geographic and political landscape of the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation, and the consequences of Nazi invasion, rule, and policies to human life. In addition, special attention will be focused on the unique characteristic of Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation and the war. This will be contrasted with the fundamental nature of resistance as exemplified by Jehovah's Witnesses in the Netherlands and throughout Nazi occupied Europe

I looked out of the open window, over a large area of Amsterdam, over all the roofs and on to the horizon, which was such a pale blue that it was hard to see the dividing line. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, these cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.

These words were written by Anne Frank in February of 1944 - a young girl's description of life from an attic overlooking Amsterdam. For many individuals today, Anne Frank's diary represents their only glimpse of Nazi assault on the Netherlands - a narrow window onto that which was the Holocaust in Europe.

Between the time that Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933 until the end of World War II in 1945, over six million Jews were killed by the Nazi machinery. Less well known is that five million other individuals lost their lives as a result of Nazi ideology including the physically and mentally disabled, Poles, dissidents, Roma and Sinti, communists, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Holocaust was an incredibly complex moment marked by atrocity in human history. While the media often presents it as a singular event, each country with its diverse population and peoples experienced the Nazi assault uniquely. The Netherlands was no exception. Tonight I will briefly discuss some of the unique characteristics of the Nazi assault on the Netherlands and the Dutch response to this assault. In addition, I will also briefly examine the response of Jehovah's Witnesses to Nazi persecution.

The Netherlands had maintained during World War I, a policy of neutrality. While many of their neighbors fell to the Germans during World War I, the Netherlands remained outside of the war. With the advent of World War II, the Netherlands sought to again remain neutral - a hope bolstered by a promise of nonaggression made by Hitler. However, as with so many other promises made by Hitler and the Nazis, this assurance proved worthless. On May 10, 1940, the German army began its invasion of the Netherlands. Despite valiant efforts made on the part of the Dutch military, the Netherlands fell to the Germans after only five days of fighting. After the bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch capitulated.

Those five days were characterized by shock and horror particularly for the Jews of Holland. Persecuted individuals who had initially fled to the Netherlands as a safe harbor were particularly horrified. For those five days, many attempted to flee the country. However, these frantic, desperate attempts were generally unsuccessful.

At the time of Holland's capitulation, approximately 140,000 Jews resided in the Netherlands. By the time of the war's end, the Nazis had deported 107,000 Jews out of Holland. Of these, only 5000 survived to return home following the war and 30,000 managed to survive in hiding or by other means. Thus,over 75% of Holland's Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis. This represents the largest percentage of Jews to die from a particular country with the exception of Poland.

Why was loss of life so high in the Netherlands? Were the Dutch particularly anti-Semitic or callous? The answer to both is "no". More Dutch have been honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel, as "righteous gentiles" than from any other country. However, several factors, some of which made escape during those five days impossible, are responsible for this tragic loss of life , primarily, the Netherland's unique geographic and cultural features.

Attempts at escape from the Netherlands under Nazi control were virtually impossible. First, countries bordering on the Netherlands were under German control. Thus, flight across the Dutch border only meant entrance into another Nazi controlled country. Second, the west and north borders of the Netherlands consist of North Sea coastline. Safe passage through German patrolled waters was highly dangerous.

Additionally, the Netherlands in 1940 was a densely populated country. The land mass is approximately one and a half time the size of Massachusetts. Yet, it was home to over nine million individuals. The land was flat providing little forested, mountainous terrain suited for partisan activity or refuge. In essence, the geography of the Netherlands provided no place to run and few places to hide.

Culturally, Dutch society was stratified largely on the basis of religion. Thus, close friendships between Jews and Christians were uncommon in war-time Holland. This made it difficult for Jews to find a place of hiding within the homes of Gentile neighbors - individuals that they did not know. For those Jews with Christian friends, to accept shelter carried with it the knowledge that discovery placed their friend's lives into jeopardy. Additionally, most Jews who went into hiding did so as individuals. Rarely, were entire families hidden as in the case of the Franks. Thus, to go into hiding not only endangered the well-being of one's Gentile benefactors but often meant abandoning other family members including elder parents, spouses, siblings, or children.

One survivor has argued that a higher percentage of Dutch Jews died within the concentration camps than any other national group as their decency was their undoing. This could also be applied to life in the Netherlands as well. Failure to hide almost assured deportation to Auschwitz or the death camp of Sorbibor. Sixty thousand Jews were deported to Auschwitz; only nine hundred and seventy-two survived. Thirty-four thousand Jews were deported to Sorbibor; only two - two out of thirty-four thousand - lived to return to the Netherlands.

In 1938, Germany annexed Austria and overnight German law went into effect including all restrictive anti-Jewish legislation. The invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia resulted in immediate martial Nazi law and leadership. However, the invasion of the Netherlands resulted in neither. While the royal family including Queen Wilhelmina fled into exile in Britain, civilian leaders were not replaced. Rather, the Dutch civilian administration was subsumed by a civil German administration. Additionally, Dutch law remained in effect.

What accounts for this unique pattern of Nazi behavior in the Netherlands and how did this impact Dutch resistance to Nazi assault?

Hitler and his associates did not want to alienate the Dutch people - a people they considered to be of "superior" Germanic breeding. As as result of the Dutch religious stratification, the Dutch people could be certified as almost 100 percent Aryan. Hitler's ultimate goal was to make the Netherlands a part of Germany following the war. Through annexation of the Netherlands, Hitler hoped to further infuse the new Reich with the Aryan ideal. With this goal in mind, the transition to Nazi rule in the Netherlands was less abrupt and dramatic. While the Dutch had heard of the atrocities against Jews from Vienna and other cities following Nazi invasion - Jews forced to get down on their hands and knees to scrub the streets, synagogues burned to the ground, the rounding up of Jews into ghettos, and worse - none of this happened upon implementation of German civil administration.

This relatively uneventful transition had several effects. First, although the Dutch people were shocked and demoralized by the unexpected loss, they relaxed a bit. Many were deceived into believing that the Nazi occupation would not entail great hardship or the anticipated atrocities. Second, Dutch culture and tradition reinforced the idea of obedience to the law. These two factors combined led many to believe that all they needed to do was outlast the German occupation. Many believed that the war would be short-lived and thus, through a process of seeming cooperation and delay, the impact of Nazi occupation on the Dutch, including Dutch Jews, would be negligible. Unfortunately, the Nazi occupation lasted five years with devastating consequences for all of the Netherlands including the Hunger Winter of 1945.

The resistance movement was slow to take form in the Netherlands. As Nazi oppression slowly took shape, so did Dutch resistance. Hitler underestimated the Dutch people and the Nazis were unprepared to deal with the primarily non militaristic character of Dutch resistance. In many ways, there are some striking similarities between the Dutch resistance and the spiritual resistance on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Much of Dutch resistance can be characterized as either passive resistance or non-violent active resistance. For example, immediately following the Nazi occupation, American and British films were banned from theaters replaced by German movies including German newsreels. Dutch patrons took to walking out or booing during the newsreels. Thus, new laws were passed prohibiting such behavior. Subsequently, attendance at films dropped. Radio broadcasts under Nazi control consisted principally of propaganda. Thus, while it was illegal to listen to British radio, many Dutch began to listen to the BBC and radio broadcasts from the Dutch government in exile. In 1943, over one million radio sets were confiscated by the Nazis in response to these acts of resistance.

Additionally, the Dutch resisted becoming assimilated into Nazi ideals and culture. They considered themselves Dutch and looked towards the day for renewed Dutch independence. Subtle acts of rebellion occurred that underscore this desire. On Prince Bernard's birthday, many people took to wearing orange carnations - orange being the symbol of the Dutch ruling family. When mailing letters, stamps were affixed to the upper left hand corner as many believed the upper right hand corner was reserved solely for the stamp of Queen Wilhelmina. Symbolic gestures that their heart's remained true to the Netherlands. Only one-and-a-half percent of the Dutch population joined the Dutch Nazi party. In 1943, when university students were required to sign an oath of loyalty to the occupying forces, over eighty-five percent refused to sign and thousands rushed into hiding.

Many a Dutch were active in speaking out or publishing against the Nazis. These activities occurred in spite of the great risk involved. To be caught meant imprisonment or deportation possibly to Mauthausen from where few returned. Clergy regularly read letters from the pulpit. Underground newspapers flourished and were particularly invaluable after the confiscation of radio sets and the loss of electricity during the later years of the war.

Following the Nazi invasion, Dutch Jewry continued to enjoy the benefit of equal citizenship under Dutch law. However, soon, small oppressive measures were taken and began to escalate. First, Jews were prohibited from serving as volunteer air-raid wardens. Later, German Jews were ordered to leave the Hague and other coastal towns and the process of registration began. In September of 1940, it was decreed that Jews could no longer be admitted into civil service, not impacting those already in these positions. However, just two months later, all Jews were dismissed from civil service including the Chief Justice of the Dutch Supreme Court and forty-one university professors. Students and fellow professors protested. The last decree of 1940 mandated the registration of all Jewish businesses.

Nineteen forty-one began with the mandate for registration of all Jews living in the Netherlands. Maps were drawn up identifying the name, age, gender, marital status, and location of all Jews living in each city and town.

In response to these oppressive measures against the Jews, the Dutch Communist Party - a political party already deemed illegal by the Nazis but still operating within the Netherlands - organized what has become known as the February Strike. On Tuesday, February 25, 1941, municipal workers of Amsterdam went on strike essentially shutting down public transportation within the city. Over the course of the day, the strike intensified as metal and shipyard workers, white collar workers, and manual laborers joined the strike. The strike continued until Thursday, spreading across the country to other cities. An infuriated Nazi administration struck back hard, squashing the strike. It however, remains the only such general anti-pogrom strike to have occurred in Nazi-occupied Europe.

In 1943, more mass strikes broke out in response to deportations and conscription of Dutch labor into Germany. The 1944, the railroad workers strike, while in and of itself an act of resistance, was further supported by a secret underground organization which provided financial support to the striking workers. This group also worked to provide food and money to those in hiding.

Finally, underground resistance groups were organized to serve a variety of functions including the rescue and sheltering of Jews and other persecuted individuals. Underground cells were involved in the manufacture of false papers or acted as couriers of secret documents to countries outside of the Netherlands to assist Allied war efforts. It is estimated that over fifty to sixty thousand individuals were directly involved in underground activities with hundreds of thousands more offering assistance. More than ten thousand lost their lives as a direct result of their courageous efforts.

According to Louis de Jong:

In 1944, Queen Wilhelmina, who completely identified with the men and women of the Dutch underground, in some of her broadcast speeches characterized the Dutch nation as 'a nation of heroes.' Not a single underground paper felt compelled to approve this qualification. They knew better. Most people, however anti-German their feelings, tried to protect themselves, their families, and their property, adapting themselves to the increasingly difficult circumstances of daily life. It was but a minority that proved willing to accept great personal risks and to put everything, even life itself, at stake.

Nations of heroes do not exist. But there were among the Dutch tens of thousands of ordinary human beings, men and women, who did save the country's soul.

While most individuals are aware of the extreme persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust, far fewer are aware of the brutal persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses by the Nazis. Approximately one month after Hitler claimed power in Germany, all religious literature printed by Jehovah's Witnesses was banned from circulation. Hitler referred to the Witnesses as "so-called Earnest Bible Students" and as "troublemakers". He confiscated their literature and their property and said that it was "for the protection of the people and the state." Within six months, a number of Witnesses had been sentenced to terms in prisons and concentration camps being among the first individuals interred at Dachau.

Why did Hitler so vehemently despise Jehovah's Witnesses? Such a question of course is multifaceted and has many answers. However, one factor was certainly clear. Hitler could not control the Witnesses nor gain their allegiance. The Witnesses refused to serve in Hitler's army as they were already in the army of Jehovah. The Witnesses refused to salute Hitler as their allegiance was to God. As such, the Witnesses continued their teaching and publications in spite of increasing persecution and assault at the hands of the Nazis.

The work of Jehovah's Witnesses can be viewed as a form of resistance - spiritual resistance. Despite proclamations and decrees, the Witnesses continued to engage in Bible study and prayer. They continued to reach out to individuals with their literature and preaching.

There are some parallels between Dutch and Witness resistance.

First, the Dutch refused to accept the mantle of Nazism - they fought to retain their identity as Dutch. Similarly, Jehovah's Witnesses also refused Nazism. They courageously continued their work identifying themselves as servants of Jehovah. They refused to bow to Hitler or to accept the tenets of National Socialism despite the most brutal strategies of the Nazis. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses were the only group that could leave the concentration camps at any time simply by signing a statement denouncing their faith. Under threat of death, faced with torture, starvation, and beatings, few signed the declaration.

As the Dutch continued to speak out and publish against Hitler and Nazism, so did the Witnesses. Throughout the Nazi occupation of Europe, the Witnesses illegally published and distributed literature some of which focused on the atrocities being committed by Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, some of this literature managed to be distributed in the concentration camps against incredible odds. Jehovah's Witnesses were the only Christian group that uniformly spoke out against Hitler and Nazism often paying for this resistance with their lives.

Additionally, the Witnesses established an underground network. This network served many functions including hiding Witnesses who were being sought by the Nazis and those who had recently escaped from neighboring countries. The underground also played a role in the transport and distribution of food. This included not only food for the body but spiritual food in the form of literature and readings.

Finally, one could argue that the Witnesses engaged in an occupation long strike against involvement in the Nazi war effort. Witnesses refused to serve in the military. They refused to be involved in the production of war materials and supplies. This resistance was consistently met with Nazi hostility and resulted in imprisonment and potential loss of life.

Acts of resistance on the part of the Dutch and Jehovah's Witnesses provide us with models of courage in the face of atrocities. They provide for us lessons in the value of belief, of community, and of involvement.

After World War II, the Netherlands gave up its identity as a neutral state and has become an active participant in world affairs. They are charter members of both the United Nations and NATO. They have been actively involved in U.N. peacekeeping forces and The Hague serves as the current home to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

In this time of current crisis in Kosovo as well as other places around the world, it is imperative that we not turn our back or look away. Rather, we must look to those models of courage and commitment, and choose action in accord with our individual faiths and beliefs.

To quote Elie Wiesel,

There may be a time when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

Paper presented at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, April 6, 1999.

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