‘A fiendish puzzle’
Gerton van Boom
Hilversum, May 7 2020
At home in self-isolation we were tuning in to the Ceremony of National Remembrance being held before a deserted ‘Dam’. To compensate for the lack of an audience and a sense of ‘connection’ our king was to give a speech. Not something he would normally do. Earlier in the year he had rather stumblingly delivered an apology to the people of Indonesia. We were now languidly awaiting the kind of laboured ceremonious speech that we had been used to listening to for the past 75 years. But we were in for a surprise; following Arnon Grunberg’s speech in the ‘Nieuwe Kerk’, clearly warning, but not naming, politicians such as the right-wing populists Wilders and Baudet, the king then delivered a stunning speech. A speech that will at last be a turning point in the writing of our history. With his speech King Willem-Alexander completed a triptych which also includes the previous apologies by Prime Minister Mark Rutte for the ‘wrong’ and active role of civil servants in registering and deporting Dutch Jews at the time of the Holocaust, as well as the aforementioned apology for the war crimes committed in Dutch Indonesia. So why is this speech so important? To find out we must turn to the most important passage (the whole speech is to be found in the appendix).
‘Real heroes who were prepared to give their lives for our freedom and our values.
But there is also another reality. Of fellow human beings, fellow citizens in need, who felt abandoned, unheard, unaided, not even with words. Not by ‘London’, not by my great-grandmother, who was always firm and fierce in her resistance. I can’t let it go’.
So, King Willem-Alexander thinks that both his great-grandmother, and the Dutch government-in exile in London, had abandoned the Dutch Jews who were under threat. And it bothers him. The Volkskrant rightly calls it the ‘open nerve’ of our historiography.1 The actions of our head-of-state and our government were not all right, they were not good enough. Yet, from the end of the Second World War until today, for seventy-five long years, we have cocooned ourselves in the image of having not (really) ‘known’ about the Persecution of the Jews. For many years, many have protested against that image. For, if we had ‘known’ then it is legitimate to ask why ‘we’ did so little to help and allowed the Jews to be crushed? Why did we deliver the Jews to the Nazi’s as a concession? This cannot simply be brushed under the carpet by saying: we hadn’t ‘known.’ If that were the case then we would have had to admit that ‘we’ were afraid, even cowardly, selfish, unsupportive, maybe even a little anti-Semitic, sectarian, powerless, not interested, small time traders who, on hindsight, were just little grey mice. In short, we were not that courageous little dwarf bravely standing up to the National- Socialist giant, the Third Reich, a superior military power led by the virulent anti-Semitic Adolf Hitler. After the war ended, we have steadfastly worked to build an image of ‘right and wrong’. The Germans were wrong and we, with the exception of Nazi sympathisers and NSB supporters, were on the whole, right. That is the image that has been inextricably woven into our historiography. Ironically, the former mastodons of the Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, the Jewish Abel Herzberg, Jacques Presser and Loe de Jong, irrefutably contributed to that image.
This image of ‘not having known’ suited everybody just perfectly: the queen, the Dutch Government, the civil service, the Dutch people, the Jews (Jewish Council during the war, the aforementioned Jewish historians after the war) and even the perpetrators. It provided an excuse for ‘not having done anything’. Cynically this also handed the perpetrators themselves an escape route. Even they hadn’t known. For instance, Commandant Gemmeker of Camp Westerbork was given a lenient punishment and a prematurely reduced sentence.
Let’s look at the case of Loe de Jong, for example. On the day the Netherlands capitulated he made a narrow escape to London. There he worked as a reporter for Radio Oranje (Radio Orange), a government-in-exile controlled broadcaster, which regularly reported on the Persecution of the Jews, but never systematically and insistently called for people to oppose it or for a massive wave of support for the Jews. So, after the war, it is valid to ask why he didn’t scream from the rooftops that the Jews, including his own family, were being murdered? The information was available but was passed over or arguments made to the contrary, it was not even used to issue a warning. Walter Laqueur overwhelmed us with the evidence in The Terrible Secret. Suppression of the truth about Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’; 1980. But what did ‘London’ do? All the evidence was largely ignored and overshadowed by wary (legalistic) arguments: the most effective action would be to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, that was the focus. Even slowing down the resistance and their activities was part and parcel of this fearful attitude. In answer to the question of why ‘we’ didn’t act we donned the collective cloak of ‘not knowing’. Until now!
Willem-Alexander implies, in a roundabout way, that his great-grandmother had known, but did not act appropriately. One could also look at it the other way around; if you think that great-grandmother acted wrongly, then it follows that she should have acted differently because she did know about the Persecution of the Jews. There is already a huge amount of evidence to support this view, and it is generally accepted in international academic research.2 Yet, the many new and dissident Dutch historians who echo the international viewpoint have so far been met with a downpour of denial from Dutch academics.3 Who at the very least have done their utmost to minimise the damage to the familiar image. Until now!
Who are these dissidents? Firstly of course, Chris van der Heijden with Grijs Verleden, recently reprinted unabridged, with the addition of an epilogue. There were some ‘right’ and some ‘wrong’ Dutch people, but the large majority were grey, neither right nor wrong, but scared, calculating people such as you and I. Very understandable, so why not admit it! Most people were totally powerless against the occupier. Van der Heijden has rightly tried to nuance the image of the predominantly courageous Dutch. His attempt initiated a downpour of, mainly academic, dousing. But the public at large thought he had a point and bought his book en masse.
Following Chris van der Heijden, Nanda van der Zee was the next to stand up (Om erger te voorkomen), then Ies Vuijsje (Tegen beter weten in), Geert Mak (De eeuw van mijn vader), Rob Bakker (Boekhouders van de Holocaust) and countless others. One day they will be allocated their rightful place in the historiography.
So then, who were these academic dousers? Most certainly they were almost all historians funded, directly or indirectly, by the taxpayer. This may sound all rather cloak and dagger, as if Putin had a hand in it, but the most prominent opponents of these authors are to be found among the academics who are on a payroll. Commemoration and politics (or politics and historiography), they cannot be completely separated, and up until now this dousing down of the unwelcome has proven to be very effective. After all, the professor working for a renowned university enjoys a higher academic status than self-employed historians in their garrets. The professional strives for nuance and argues of the complexity of truth, from which anything can then be shown. Others strive for clear answers and images. A comprehensive image needs to be clear in its outline. That is what Loe de Jong did too, but he chose a strict dichotomy of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. A nuanced image of the average Dutch person at the beginning of the war would probably have been grey at first and, depending on the circumstances, changed to ‘wrong,’ and sometimes to ‘right’, yet towards the end of the war the same person may have become part of the resistance, possibly even exaggerating their role, evolving under the changing perspective of the war. “Do ist der Bahnhof!” (taken from Van Kooten & De Bie – two famous Dutch comics). During the war every Dutch person had to deal, one way or another, with the phenomena of oppression and resistance.
During our king’s speech the late prof. Cees Fasseur came to mind, the Leiden historian who was given exclusive access to the Royal Archives on condition that he produced a ‘controlled’ two-volume biography of Queen Wilhelmina. Leiden university, as you may be aware, was founded in 1575 by William of Orange and has since been the academic breeding ground of our monarchs. Therefore, Fasseur was a logical, safe and loyal choice of the then Queen Beatrix.4 Fasseur had to bend over backwards in concerning Wilhelmina’s ‘knowing’. After all she spoke three times about the Persecution of the Jews on Radio Orange (on November 28, 1941; October 17, 1942; December 31, 1943). The queen even used the term uitroeiing (extermination) on those occasions. Fasseur tried to elaborately demonstrate that ‘extermination’ could also mean something other than the definition given in the standard Dutch dictionary (Van Dale: (in large numbers) to kill; = exterminate). According to Fasseur, it could also mean a kind of ‘removal’ and ‘displacement’. He was obliged to construct such a twisted definition, for otherwise the position that Wilhelmina hadn’t really ‘known’, and that both she and the government were therefore excused from not coming to the rescue of the Jews, would become untenable. Many historians already thought that such an argument clearly was untenable but Fasseur was loyal, standing fierce and absurdly persevering in defence of his Wilhelmina.
Bart van der Boom, also a Leiden historian, carried Fasseur’s baton onward, albeit in a different way. He is the author of the equally praised and criticised book ‘Wij weten niets van hun lot’. Gewone Nederlanders en de Holocaust. (‘We know nothing of their fate’. Ordinary Dutchmen and the Holocaust). Six print rounds and a Libris Prize later one must admit that Bart van der Boom is an admirable historian. More than any other historian he was able to bring all aspects of the international Holocaust together and interpret it. Yet he needed to pull out all his intellectual stops to show that the ‘ordinary Dutch person’ could not have ‘known’ with any certainty about the Holocaust. That is perhaps largely true, but that very conclusion leads us straight back again to the question of guilt. If the bystanders (ordinary Dutch people) hadn’t ‘known’, then neither could they be held to account. Even though Van der Boom had not given himself the task of investigating this guilt-question he does address it in in his conclusions.
He draws three conclusions: ordinary Dutch people rejected the Persecution of the Jews, they did not know about the Holocaust, and the ignorance of the victims and bystanders provides an explanation for their behaviour. Implicit in this reasoning is the assumption that had people known what was happening then they would have protested against it.
He is able to reach these conclusions by (firstly) formulating a narrow definition of ‘knowing’. Quote:
‘By ‘knowing’ I mean, quite simply, subjective certainty. If the person in question felt that they themselves had an accurate idea of the fate that awaited the Jews, then as far as I am concerned that is knowledge. Neither the trustworthiness of the source nor the veracity of the story is relevant. A reliable story that is doubted does not count as knowledge, a fantasy that one believes in does.’
In applying this definition van der Boom enters a field where collecting information becomes obscure and diffuse, often accompanied by many false and contradictory accounts. If people (Jews and bystanders) have a strong conviction that deportation will quite probably end in disaster for the Jews, then this would not count as knowledge. Many were ambiguous (rightly so and forced by circumstance). For example, Etty Hillesum (the title: ‘Wij weten niets van hun lot’ (We know nothing of their fate) is taken from her diary). In various passages in her diary she wrote of murder, extermination and other fatal thoughts of doom, yet there was also uncertainty. Which caused her, for instance, to take a pair of stout shoes with her when she was deported. They were bound to be of use ‘there’. Thus, Van der Boom concludes: she had not ‘known’, otherwise she would not have been thinking about the suitability of her footwear. If she had ‘known’ about the Holocaust, then she would have expected to be gassed on arrival. So, she couldn’t have ‘known’ about the Holocaust. Van der Boom also states again and again that ‘knowing’ would have meant being aware of being ‘gassed directly on arrival’. As if that were the only, or most important, feature of the Holocaust!
What is really unfortunate is why Van der Boom applies this definition of ‘knowing’. He doesn’t provide an explanation. Nor does he tell us whether he had considered other definitions and if so, how he had weighed up those alternatives. His definition of truly ‘knowing’, applied to the Holocaust, doesn’t really convince. Nobody had real certainty about their fate, many were thoroughly convinced that they were probably facing a terrible fate, but subjective certainty in any war is simply impossible. Which means that when it is laid down as a criterium, the result of your academic research is already a foregone conclusion. That is, we had not ‘known’.
Why then didn’t Bart van der Boom choose a (slightly) broader definition of ‘knowing’? For instance: ‘Knowledge is attainable when information is made public, is reasonably accessible or could have been accessed on enquiry if there were any doubt’. When the information is provided by the highest Dutch authority then ‘knowledge’ is conclusively established. This definition of ‘knowing’ seems quite plausible. Yet Van der Boom ignores it along with all other possible definitions. Was he following a Leiden ‘agenda’ with his definition?
Is ‘subjective certainty’ the main objective in this case? Had he gone for a slightly broader definition of ‘knowing’ (see preceding paragraph) then this otherwise rich and impressive research would have led to a conclusion diametrically opposite to his findings, effortlessly leading to the conclusion that our authorities, political leaders, those in high office (who were best informed) and the bystanders (the ordinary Dutch people, and even the Jews) could have done more and should have done more. Is it possible even that the government had set out to deceive?
Wilhelmina knew about the extermination of the Jews and she did not really do anything to help. The government has a (legal) duty to protect her citizens and with the information then available Radio Orange should have been more often more insistent, and pro-active in instructing all citizens to assist the Jews, and not to comply with anti-Jewish measures. There should have been a call for solidarity being a duty. The reporting by Radio Orange concerning the Persecution of the Jews stands in shrill contrast to the current warnings to citizens on climate-change and the corona virus. Van der Boom could counter-argue that this is rather more of a political perspective than a historical one. He is an academic and defines and examines matter in a clinical way, sympathetic but not becoming caught up emotionally. Seemingly that has its appeal.
Many experts in his field have rejected his work. In the sixth edition the author responds to his critics but without giving an inch. His defence, as an academic on an intellectual level warding off the ‘emotional’, highly esteemed opponents, is to consistently refer to his objective research thesis. Until now!
Reading Van der Booms book one gets the feeling that his research objective is not that relevant. The real question being why the ordinary Dutch person didn’t really know based on subjective certainty? The information was available. Maybe not including all the technicalities, but the fact is that there were many reports from serious sources available based upon which a reasonable and acting government should have provided protection, information and warnings to her citizens. Even if only ten percent of the reporting leading up to December 31, 1942 could be deemed trustworthy then all the alarm bells should have been ringing for all the authorities in The Netherlands, including the leaders of the Jewish Council. All activities of the exiled government in London, the Head of State and the whole bureaucratic apparatus in The Netherlands (and the rest of Europe) should have been halted immediately until clarification had been obtained about the rumours of the mass murder of Jews in the east of Europe. As I have already stated, there were a wealth of reports from Eastern Europe and these were well known to the government in London, otherwise the queen and the government would not have backed the warning given out by the Allied Forces in December of 1942. The point is that they choose to do very little based on these reports and each and every mitigating circumstance was put forward in defence of not taking action, even by the Queen. As stated, the Allied Forces brought out a joint statement on December 17, 1942 reporting the murder of Jews in the east (when the deportations in The Netherlands had already been going on for six months and many Jews could perhaps have been protected). That was serious reporting, based on reliable sources. All the Allied nations accepted, endorsed and circulated its content. Therefore, at that point in time, that truth, in Van der Boom’s definition, does not qualify as “knowing’ simply because of the absence of complete subjective certainty about the uniqueness of the industrial murder of Jews in gas-chambers directly upon arrival. After all, if the Jews had known this, according to Van der Boom, then they would not have allowed the Nazi’s to send them to an unknown fate. The fact that they did allow it proves that they could not have known. But ‘knowing’ the exact details of murder and the time frame within which it would happen is perhaps unimportant. Most importantly the Jews could have had and must have had reasonable doubt about the Nazi’s motives, and they could have and must have reasoned that their lives were in serious danger. If we take that as a starting point, then there was every reason for serious concern. If you state that serious concern is only possible when one has one hundred percent certainty or complete subjective certainty, then a government will never be able to protect its citizens.
To come back to the role of our authorities; the reports were abundant and could be taken seriously, but no action, or hardly any, was taken in lieu of them. In the absence of an urgent call for action or any warning the ordinary Dutch person was not well informed. Neither were the Jewish victims, as the Jewish Council took the same line. There couldn’t be one hundred percent certainty about the fate of those deported and so the victims lived in desperation, truly believing that the ‘hope’ that all would end well was their only comfort. To look back in 2012 and make judgements about what people really knew at the time, based on incomplete and sometimes unreliable information is unfair, and does not take into account human nature and the difficulties of war time reporting, even after the end of the war it still took about fifty years to precisely chart the Holocaust. In Van der Boom’s book any inconsistency or lack of clarity is latched onto in order to come up with a detailed argument for not ‘knowing’. He has hardly taken any account of the hybrid reasoning of humans who find themselves in difficult circumstances. And what choice did some of them have? Going into hiding was only for those with plenty of money and /or a firm social network outside their Jewish circle. Again, Van der Boom is right in stating that no-one could have ‘known’ based on his definition of ‘knowing’, but the question is whether or not this is relevant. Van der Boom would have been better advised to set himself different research objectives.5
The ordinary Dutch person and Jews behaved as they did because they were not given enough information and they were not warned. The ordinary Dutch people and Jews did not behave as they did primarily because of not ‘knowing’ (no matter what definition of ‘knowing’ is used). The ordinary Dutch people and Jews did not know because they were not given enough information and were not warned. So, who should have informed and warned them? The Queen and her government.
King Willem-Alexander then no longer applies Bart van der Boom’s definition of ‘knowing’. It bothers him that his great-grandmother acted as she did and had therefore ‘known’. The king leans towards the same definition of ‘knowing’ and ‘extermination’ (uitroeiing) as most other people and the Van Dale. It’s time for the academic lackeys of the historical cover-up to pack their bags. They played their role with vigour. Until now!
We are finally entering a new phase, one in which, unfettered, we can and must embrace the fact that we, as bystanders or as ordinary Dutch people, played a part, and in a small but not insignificant way contributed to the Persecution of the Jews. We were more grey than ‘good’. We were a bit cowardly, we were powerless, we blamed the Nazi’s for their Persecution of the Jews, we looked after ourselves and did not look after those ‘different’ Jews. We were even slightly (socially) anti-Semitic. We should have done more for the Jews. The Jews should have done more for themselves. Solidarity is a legal duty that should be enshrined in law and taught at school to prevent this happening again. But above all, our politicians, now warned by Arnon Grunberg6, our authorities, our bureaucrats, our ‘leaders’ should have accepted their responsibility. And yes, that statement is more political than historic.
The resistance paper Slaet op den Trommele wrote on July 15, 1942 that the measures taken against the Jews were part ‘of a fiendish puzzle, that now, with their destruction concluded, comes to an end’.7 More than seventy years later, our king has laid down a piece of this puzzle. A crucial piece in the jigsaw. Long live the King!
Responses may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 See ‘de Volkskrant’ dd May 6, 2020, p. 10.
2 The International Holocaust literature puts more emphasis on the national collaboration of local people and administrators in the Holocaust than the Dutch academics in their writings. Which makes the Netherlands an island in this, in an academic sense. Take for instance authors such as Raul Hilberg (De vernietiging van de Europese Joden – The Destruction of the European Jews) and Götz Aly (Europa tegen de Joden – Europe against the Jews) to name but a few.
3 Look at how the academic world and academics of the NIOD try to damage Ies Vuijsje (Tegen beter weten in). There were hardly any reactions on the content, only “just nonsense from an amateur historian”. Chris van der Heijden can also count on a host of academics still trying to bring his book Grijs verleden into disrepute.
4 Fasseur was also the author of the Excessennota from 1969 in which he tries to qualify the excessive force used by the Dutch in Dutch-Indonesia between1945-1949. De Groene Amsterdammer, December 5, 2008 comments that there is a lot wrong with this official report. De Groene wrote: “The Excessennota was practically exclusively composed and written by Cees Fasseur. The later professor of History of South East Asia in Leiden, an historian and lawyer, he was at the time a civil servant at the Ministry of Justice. His research is the only one where both the whole period and the whole area of military intervention have been addressed. But it is far from complete.” So, Fasseur had experience in massaging away sensitive material in order to protect the government.
5 All responses to the book can be viewed on the website kept up to date by the author: wijwetennietsvanhunlot.blogspot.com. Most of the criticism made in this article has probably also been made by others. Not many books have received criticism and admiration in such equal share. It is to the author’s credit that he has not avoided the discussion, even in the light of some very nasty comments. He discusses this openly in a new epilogue to the 6th edition. He closes with “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He is quite right, although it is rather inappropriate for a topic in which gas-chambers and crematoria play such a prominent role.
6 The integral text of the National Remembrance-reading by Arnon Grunberg in the Nieuwe Kerk on May 5, 2020 was published in de Volkskrant the next day
7 Bart van der Boom, ‘Wij weten niets van hun lot.’ Gewone Nederlanders en de Holocaust, Amsterdam, 2012, p. 244 and 460.
The speech by King Willem-Alexander at the National Remembrance Day Ceremony on ‘The Dam’
Amsterdam | 05-05-2020
It feels strange, this nearly deserted Dam. But I know that you join with me this National Remembrance Day, and that we stand here together. In these exceptional months we have all had to give up some of our freedoms. We have experienced nothing like it since the end of the war.
Today we are able to make a choice. To protect lives and our health. Then, the choice was made for us. By an occupier with a merciless ideology, sending many millions to their death. What did it feel like, that ultimate imprisonment? There is one testimony I shall never forget.
It was here in Amsterdam, in the Westerkerk, nearly six years ago. A small man, bright eyed – standing proudly upright despite his 93 years – who told us the story of his journey to Sobibor in June 1943.
His name was Jules Schelvis. He stood there, fragile but unbroken; the church was full, but hushed. He spoke of the journey with 62 people in one cattle truck. Of the bucket on the bare floor. Of the rain spattering in through the cracks. Of the hunger, the exhaustion, the filth. “In the end you looked like a tramp’, he said. And, in his voice, you could hear how awful that made him feel.
He spoke about the watches being snatched from wrists by the soldiers when they arrived. About how he lost sight of his wife, Rachel, in the chaos. Never to see her again.
“What person in their right mind could have imagined this? How could the world allow us, honest Dutch citizens, to be treated as scum?” His question lingered between the pillars of the church. I couldn’t find an answer. I still don’t have one.
I also remember how he described the time before the journey. Following a razzia, he and his wife, together with many hundreds of others, were carried away to the station at Muiderpoort. I can still hear his words: “Hundreds of people looked on without protesting in any way, as the packed trams, heavily guarded, rode past.” Right across this city. Right across this country. In plain sight of our countrymen. The changes seemed to come in stages. Each time a further small step. Not being allowed into the swimming pool. Not being allowed to play in an orchestra. Not being allowed to ride a bike. Not being allowed to go to college. Being made homeless. Being arrested and deported. Sobibor began in the Vondelpark. With a sign: “Jews not allowed”.
Yes: a lot of people protested. Men and women who decided to act, against the odds, brave citizens risking their own safety for the sake of others.
I think of all the citizens and soldiers who fought for our freedom. The young soldiers who died on the defence line of the Grebbeberg. The soldiers who lost their lives serving in Dutch-Indonesia. The resistance fighters on the Waalsdorpervlakte, who were shot or treated inhumanely in internment and concentration camps. The soldiers who didn’t return home from peace missions or were seriously wounded there.
Real heroes who were prepared to give their lives for our freedom and our values. But there is also the other reality. Of fellow human beings, fellow citizens in need, who felt abandoned, unheard, unaided, not even with words. Not by ‘London’, not by my great-grandmother, who was always firm and fierce in her resistance. I can’t let it go.
War throws its shadow on generations to come. Even now, 75 years after our liberation the war is still a part of us. The least we can do is; not look the other way. Not make excuses. Not cover things up. Not condone segregation. Not accept what is unacceptable. And: defend and cherish our free and democratic constitution. For it is only this that can protect us from the arbitrary and the insane.
Jules Schelvis survived hell and then as a free man found the strength to rebuild his life. Much more than that. “I still have faith in the human race”, he said. If he still could, then so can we. We can, we will do it together. In freedom.