Inclusive Liberation

May 5 is Bevrijdingsdag – Liberation Day – in the Netherlands. The festivities are concentrated here in Wageningen because this is where the Canadian General Charles Foulkes took the German army’s surrender in 1945. Veterans from the Resistance and Allied forces, well into their 90s, ride in vintage jeeps while a couple of Dakotas lumber by overhead – all of these fewer each year. The city is crowded but most come for the music and street theatre for the kids. It seems to have less and less to do with what happened here more than 70 years ago.

It’s not just the passage of time and the passing of those who lived through the Occupation.  Few stories seem to have been passed down of what life was like during those five years of unfreedom. Many of my Dutch friends say they have heard nothing from parents and grandparents despite repeated importuning. A good friend told me that his mother harboured a deep layer of bitterness, which sometimes erupted in anger. He was sure it dated from the Occupation but till her death she refused to share it.

This contrasts with my own experience. My parents were refugees from Germany, escaping just before war broke out. They met in England and made their way separately and circuitously to Canada.  The rise of Nazism, the war and its consequences for them and more widely were often discussed around the table. Perhaps compared to my fiends’ parents, their choices had been clearer: surviving and doing what they could for relatives left behind. People living under occupation for five years must have faced continual choices and decisions, not all of which they might have wished to remember and recount.

The greyness of those myriad individual decisions may become sharper when one considers their effects in aggregate, in institutions and across the country. A relevant perspective is the fate of the country’s Jews.  Of the approximately 140,000 living there in 1941, 73% were murdered by the Nazis – the highest proportion in occupied Western Europe – more than half the Dutch losses, civilian and military, in the war.

One product of aggregated individual decisions was the so-called “polka dot map”. It shows with great precision the distribution of Amsterdam’s roughly 80,000 Jews in May 1941. Each dot represents 10 Jews. The map was drawn up at the behest of the Occupier by the staff of the municipality’s Statistical Department. It drew on the civil records and the registration in January 1941 of all those with one or more Jewish grandparent. Few are said to have avoided registering.  The map undoubtedly eased the task of rounding up and transporting Jews to concentration camps, which began in mid-1942.

That task was largely carried out by Dutch police and railway staff – few Germans were directly involved. Adolf Eichmann is said to have remarked that the whole operation ran “like clockwork”. In later stages, groups of bounty hunters , some organized by the police, profited from uncovering Jews in hiding, like Anne Frank’s family.

There are also accounts of individuals, including policemen, and small groups working to save Jews and help them hide. However, conspicuously rare are accounts of people acting together in significant numbers with the support of Dutch institutions to oppose the Nazi’s project. A notable exception was the February 1941 strike, instigated by communist dock workers in Amsterdam, which quickly became a general strike. This was the first and perhaps only mass action in occupied Europe by non-Jews in opposition to the Nazi’s anti-Jewish pogrom.

The experience of Denmark, which was occupied shortly before the Netherlands, was markedly different.  Opposition to persecution was open and supported by national institutions. It is a myth that the King, who had remained in the country, wore a yellow star as he rode his horse through Copenhagen.  He didn’t have to. He let it be known, through the prime minister, that he would wear one – and the Germans never imposed the measure in Denmark.

In September 1943, the Danish cabinet resigned when they heard of the Germans’ imminent plans to round up the Jews; no politician thereafter would agree to serve in a collaborationist government.  Politicians of different parties issued a joint statement declaring, “The Danish Jews are an integral part of the people, and therefore all the people are deeply affected by the measures taken, which are seen as a violation of the Danish sense of justice.”

Danes across the country cooperated in hiding Jews and getting them to harbours where they were taken in small boats to Sweden. More than 99% of Denmark’s Jews survived and returned at the war’s end. In their words and acts, Danes embodied an inclusive vision of citizenship. As Bo Lidegaard describes in his intimate history, Jews were “countrymen”. [1]

Denmark’s situation was different than the Netherlands’. Notably, the Germans treated it more delicately, intent on cultivating it as a model of what other countries could expect if they cooperated. But the Danish experience suggests that the Netherlands and particularly leaders of key institutions had more options to rally and encourage opposition, which might take many forms.  It is striking that the Dutch Queen, exiled in England, did not mention the Jews in her radio broadcasts until shortly before the war’s end. She did not call on police and civil authorities to do what they could to impede the round up and transport of Jews. Church leaders did not issue a common statement or pastoral letter along the lines of the Danish statement, emphasizing that inclusive citizenship. No one suggested non-Jews might wear a yellow star too.

It should not be forgotten that a vision of inclusive citizenship or even common humanity was hardly in evidence at the time in Canada’s national institutions. “None is too many” was an immigration official’s answer when asked how many Jews Canada should accept after the war and it was a widely shared view in and outside Mackenzie King’s government. Within Canada’s borders, First Nations only gained the right to vote in 1960. Our vision of citizenship has significantly broadened but is still partial and incomplete.


[1] Inclusiveness had its limits. When the Germans asked the Danes to hand over a number of communists after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the government responded with alacrity, providing more than requested , as Bo Lidegaard recounts.