May 4 is National Memorial Day in the Netherlands. Originally, it was a remembrance day for the murdered and fallen during Germany’s occupation. In the past few years, the issue of memorializing the dead has been partly diluted and stripped of its significance. In several local memorial meetings, Jews are not mentioned specifically, even if they comprised the majority of local victims.
In 2012 at the national commemoration in Amsterdam, a 15-year-old boy was invited by the organizers to read a poem in memory of his relative after whom he was named, who had joined the SS. This was ultimately canceled, with great difficulty. Several Dutch towns also commemorate fallen German soldiers on May 4. After the small town of Geffen wanted to inscribe the names of its murdered Jews together with those of fallen Germans on its war memorial, relatives of the Jews protested. It was then decided to leave all names off the monument.
The above cannot be viewed as unrelated to the consistent Dutch refusal to admit the disinterest of the Dutch wartime government and Queen Wilhelmina in exile in London regarding the fate of Dutch Jews. The same goes for the massive collaboration of Dutch bureaucracy with the Germans in the occupied Netherlands.
However much the Dutch try to avoid it, this behavior is not forgotten. In February this year, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, wrote a letter to Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher. The text focused on his request that the Dutch government investigate what caused almost 39 percent of the current Dutch adult population to accept the huge lie that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.
Rabbi Cooper also wrote that it had been brought to his attention “that the Netherlands has neither admitted the negligence of its World War II government and the collaboration of the bureaucracy with German occupiers, nor offered any apologies. I believe the Netherlands is the only occupied country during the war where this is the case.” In his reply to the rabbi, Minister Asscher ignored this issue entirely.
The last time this topic got major attention in Dutch public opinion was when the Dutch daily De Pers devoted a front-page article to it. The article was based on two interviews from the appendix of my book Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process 1997-2000. Two former Dutch deputy prime ministers, Els Borst – who was murdered earlier this year – and Gerrit Zalm, declared that they would publicly support the government if it offered apologies to the Jewish community.
That same day, parliamentarians Geert Wilders and Raymond de Roon posed parliamentary questions to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. They asked him why the Netherlands would not offer apologies to the Jewish community for the country’s misconduct toward the Jews during the Holocaust. Thereafter, the Associated Press published two articles on this issue which were picked up by hundreds of media outlets all over the world.
Rutte got away with an entirely irrelevant reply. He referred to a Dutch government declaration from the year 2000. However, the apologies offered to the Jewish community then were unrelated to the war period, but referred to the formalistic, bureaucratic and heartless post-war restitution process. Even those apologies were only half-truths, as they claimed that this unacceptable attitude had not been intentional.
There were, however, many documented cases in which Dutch policy toward the Jews was quite deliberate. At the time it was already known that the post-war finance minister had preferred the interests of the stock market brokers who collaborated heavily with German occupiers, above those of the original Jewish owners of stolen securities.
Since then, a variety of other intentional examples of post-war misconduct toward the Jews have become known. The most recent is that the Amsterdam Municipality charged and fined Jews for non-payment of their wartime long-lease debts accrued during the Second World War. Their homes had been expropriated for use by Germans and Dutch Nazi collaborators. A few years ago it had already become known that Jewish survivors in Amsterdam were forced to pay gas and electricity bills accrued for their expropriated homes, after they returned from German camps or hiding.
Recently, art historian Professor Rudi Ekkart gave another example of deliberate post-war discrimination by Dutch authorities. At the beginning of this century, he headed a government commission which investigated the restitution of stolen artwork which had been returned by the American occupation authorities in Germany. He said that the Finance Ministry wanted to sell as much of the art as possible for the benefit of the Dutch Treasury.
They were opposed by directors of museums and the Education, Art and Science Ministry, which considered this “a good occasion to build a better national art collection.”
Ekkart added, “The voices of those who were entitled to them –former owners and their heirs – were not heard.”
Can all these shortcomings be explained by the Dutch national character? This is too hasty a conclusion. In 2005, then-president of Dutch Railways Aad Veenman offered apologies to the Dutch Jewish community for the collaboration of his firm with the Germans in the transport of Jews on the first leg of the journey to their deaths.
The railways organized a major publicity campaign detailing what had happened during the war. It was a very good example – by international standards too – of how one can deal with a difficult past.
The Dutch government can continue to ignore the misconduct of its predecessors during the Second World War. However, it would be mistaken to think that the failure to admit guilt and offer apologies will soon be forgotten.
Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus chairman of the
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000-2012) and a CIJR Academic Fellow