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Apologies for Holocaust Behavior and Refusal to Do So: The Dutch Case in an International Context

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)

The issue of Dutch institutional and governmental apologies for Holocaust behavior came to the fore again with the unexpected apology of Dutch Railways to the Jewish community in September 2005. These belated apologies should be seen in a broader Dutch context. After World War II, many myths about crucial aspects of the Dutch Jews’ fate substituted for history. Currently, the Dutch government’s refusal to apologize to the Jewish community stands out even more. It should do so for both the collaboration with the German authorities in the Netherlands and the failure of the London government-in-exile to undertake whatever little it could have done for the persecuted Dutch Jews. In 2000 Prime Minister Wim Kok, under pressure, presented partial apologies for the postwar Dutch governments’ treatment of the Jews. These expressed a new fallacy: that these failures were unintentional. In March 2005 Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, described the deportation of Dutch Jewry as a “pitch-black” chapter in Dutch history. In April 2005, he became the first prime minister to mention Dutch wartime collaboration without, however, apologizing.

More than sixty years after the end of World War II, occasionally the question reemerges in the Netherlands whether apologies to the Jewish community should be presented by the successor managers of those institutions that participated in the German-controlled process of detention and deportation of most Dutch Jews to their extermination. The same goes for the Dutch government, whose predecessors, in exile in London, ignored what happened to their country’s Jews.

This issue of apologies came to the fore again when on 29 September 2005 Aad Veenman, president of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS, Dutch Railways), unexpectedly offered an apology to the Jewish community for his company’s behavior during the war. The railways transported, on German orders, the Dutch Jews to the transit camp Westerbork in the eastern part of the country. A subsidiary of Dutch Railways also used Jews confined in the camp as forced laborers to construct a railway line to Westerbork to facilitate the transport of the detained Jews.

Almost all Jews in Westerbork were deported by Dutch Railways in cattle wagons on the first part of their journey to what would become for the overwhelming majority the places of their murder, mainly the extermination camps Auschwitz and Sobibor. Dutch engine drivers drove these trains to Nieuweschans at the Dutch-German border, where German drivers took over. Approximately 105,000 Jews were sent eastward, of whom more than 100,000 were murdered.

Veenman chose a highly symbolic location, the Amsterdam Muiderpoort Station, to present his apology to the Dutch Jewish community. From that transit point, eleven thousand Jews were sent to Westerbork from 3 October 1942 to 26 May 1944. Until then, the Dutch Railways management had denied that it would apologize for the services its wartime predecessors had provided, without any protest, in the deportation process of most of Dutch Jewry.

Why Apologize?

Veenman explained his decision to apologize:

By defining our role at that time, we can close a painful chapter in our history. We can now face each other in a better way and with renewed confidence. Furthermore we want, together with the Dutch Jewish community, to focus on the future of our community. For instance, to warn Dutch youngsters about the hatred and fascism that continually reappear in new forms. In this way our experiences from the past find a meaningful place in the present. Clarity and transparency provide one with equilibrium. It typifies a mature organization, with an important public role at the center of society.

Veenman also mentioned that he had hesitated about whether to apologize. “Should the NS today present its apologies?… It can be considered as another contribution to the ‘culture of being apologetic about everything,’ and about a subject that is so precarious and calls up so many emotions, both in Dutch society and in our company. Perhaps whatever one might do, will not be right.”

He concluded: “We are talking more than sixty years after the events. I can only make statements that fit in today’s context. Therefore, from the depth of my heart, and in all humility, on behalf of Dutch Railways I offer my sincere apologies to the Jewish community and other groups concerned.”[3]

Veenman gave his speech at the official beginning of a national poster campaign organized under the auspices of the Centraal Joods Overleg (CJO), the umbrella organization of the Dutch Jewish community. The posters called attention to the Shoah on the occasion of the sixtieth year of the liberation of the Netherlands. They were displayed at sixty-six railway stations throughout the country.

CJO took this initiative amid the current atmosphere of anti-Semitism and intolerance in Dutch society. Because of the posters’ design and texts, the campaign became controversial. The initial posters, which had photographs of deportees, had to be replaced by ones with text only. These, too, were frequently criticized because they were historically imprecise and suggested inaccurate associations between the current situation in the Netherlands and the Holocaust. The posters’ design, however, was not the responsibility of Dutch Railways, which only facilitated the campaign by providing space for it.

Myth and History

The importance of these belated apologies goes far beyond the specific case of Dutch Railways. The expressions of regret should be seen in a broader Dutch context. After World War II, many myths about crucial aspects of the Dutch Jews’ fate substituted for history. Major falsifications of national wartime history occurred throughout Europe, taking specific forms in different countries.

In the Netherlands, there were courageous individuals who took major risks to rescue Jews. The Dutch authorities, on the other hand, executed almost all German orders without protest. Whereas the collaboration of the government authorities has largely been ignored, the size and effectiveness of the Dutch resistance movements has been greatly exaggerated as has the role of the major ones in helping the Jews. At the same time, the importance and numbers of the many Dutch collaborators with the Germans were diminished. Among the latter was a contingent of twenty-five thousand Dutch Waffen SS volunteers.[4]

The myth of widespread Dutch resistance was most affected by the way Anne Frank’s story was presented after the war. The publication of her diary, and later the movie based on it, created the impression of broad Dutch support for the Jews in wartime Netherlands. Particularly in the United States, the Anne Frank story fostered a very one-sided picture of Dutch resistance.[5] Almost all the emphasis in her story was put on her time in hiding, whereas no attention was paid to her struggle for survival in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and eventual demise.

Little if any attention was given to the fact that 8,000 of the 24,000 hidden Dutch Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, were betrayed by Dutchmen to the German occupiers. The reward for informing on Jews amounted to about 30 euro in today’s money. Most of those betrayed were murdered in the death camps.[6]

Another aspect of Anne Frank’s life was only stressed in 1988 when Dutch filmmaker Willy Lindwer received the international Emmy award for his documentary The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank focusing on her short life after betrayal. The director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam demonstrated his support for the whitewashing of wartime Dutch history when he refused to allow Lindwer to film at the museum. Lindwer quotes him as saying: “Anne Frank is a symbol. Symbols should not be shown to die in a concentration camp.”[7]

The Debate about Apologies

As World War II and the Holocaust recede in time, bringing memory more in line with history becomes an increasingly important challenge. In this context, apologies such as those of Dutch Railways are of great significance. They represent an unequivocal declaration of failure and guilt toward Jewish compatriots. Such apologies do not end the historical debate but channel its continuation within an agreed normative framework.[8]

Official national apologies will also be preserved in archives and become an important source for historians. They will remain well documented for future generations, after all Holocaust survivors have passed away.

Some critics argue that Jews should not request apologies because deciding whether or not to apologize is a matter of conscience. Others claim that those who apologize are not the ones who are guilty. Although that is true, they do, however, represent the same institutions. Yet other critics say that many of the apologies made-for instance, those during the restitution negotiations-were not morally motivated, but rather reflected political pressure or fear of economic boycotts in the United States.

One such critic is the Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who stated:

The apologies of some Eastern European governments are insignificant symbolic acts, mainly designed to help those countries become NATO members. Those in power today are not the ones who murdered 6 million Jews. They can not request forgiveness for a generation to which they do not belong and which did not authorize them to seek forgiveness. Who is guilty? Not they, but those who murdered the Jews at the time. What price does an Austrian Chancellor have to pay when he finally apologizes on behalf of Austria? He is not the spokesman of the Austrian mass murderers, because he opposes their mass murders.[9]


The French Situation

Still other critics of apologies say that it is enough to tell the history as it was. That was what French  president Jacques Chirac did on 16 July 1995 when he spoke at a memorial ceremony in the Paris stadium Vélodrome d’Hiver, where the Jews detained in the first French roundup had been held.

He mentioned the assistance France had given the Nazis in arresting Jews as a step on the way to their murder: “France, the homeland of Light and Human Rights, land of welcome and asylum, France, that day committed the irremediable. It broke its word and delivered those it protected to their executioners.” He added: “We maintain toward them an unforgivable debt.”[10]

Two years later, Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin was even clearer. He said the initial arrests were “decided, planned, and realized by Frenchmen. Politicians, administrators, policemen, and gendarmes took part in them. Not even one German soldier was necessary to carry out this disgrace.”[11]


Mitterand’s Denial

These admissions of responsibility came after more than fifty years of denial. Former World Jewish Congress director-general Avi Beker says that former French Socialist president François Mitterrand “is a typical example of France’s longstanding inability to confront this indelible stain on its history. In 1994 Pierre Péan published a study which proved that, in his youth, Mitterrand had been an extreme rightist, employed within Vichy structures. Later he changed sides and joined the Resistance.”

Beker adds: “Mitterrand even voiced his opinion that reopening unhealed wounds was wrong. He claimed it was bad for France’s memory and sense of cohesiveness. The press and public intellectuals collaborated with this attitude, both out of respect for Mitterrand and an inability to confront their country’s complicity in what had happened.”[12]

French sociologist Shmuel Trigano says Mitterrand

had a rather ambiguous personality. He systematically refused to discuss this issue, not wanting to admit that the French Republic was responsible for Vichy’s crimes. He refused to equate the Vichy regime with the French Republic, arguing that the latter should therefore not assume its responsibility.

This argument-that the Republic cannot be guilty as it did not betray the Jews-was false. The Third Republic’s parliament had voted, with a great majority, to give Pétain absolute powers. He thus arrived at the head of the Vichy regime democratically and not by a coup d’état. Yet it remained inconceivable for many decades that the Republic could be guilty, irrespective of whether it was republican, monarchial or fascist.[13]

The denial of many Frenchmen, among them Mitterrand, proves that France’s belated admission of responsibility was important. This is underlined by the fact that the substantial violent anti-Semitism in France in the first years of the twenty-first century was hidden from the public by the Jospin government.

Yet admitting responsibility is no substitute for apologies. At a time, however, when the president of Iran and others, not only in the Arab and Muslim world, unashamedly deny the Holocaust while at the same time promoting a new one, official apologies and the historic mark they make assume an even greater importance than in the past.

The Austrian Apologies

Certain texts of former Austrian leaders, such as Prime Ministers Franz Vranitzky[14] and Victor Klima[15] as well as President Thomas Klestil,[16] reveal perhaps the paradigmatic sequence of contemporary apologies for prewar, wartime, and postwar failures: relating the facts, explaining who failed, taking responsibility for the failures, apologizing and stating that these apologies are belated, analyzing what risks the past derelictions pose for today, and finally suggesting what these apologies mean concerning steps to take for the future.

Klima said at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in January 2000:

In the awareness of both historical truths-that Austrians were victims and that they were perpetrators-and in view of our responsibility for the future, there must be no doubt about the continuation of the critical confrontation with the Nazi past…. Only if we can explain to the coming generations what happened and how it could happen, can we develop in them the ability to resist any form of inhuman ideologies…. We need symbolic acts of common remembrance and collective warning never again to stray from the path of democracy and freedom.[17]

Stressing the truth once again in 2006, Austrian president Heinz Fischer said in an interview that his country’s 1955 Declaration of Independence falsely represented Austria as a victim of the Nazis rather than as a coperpetrator of crimes. He also referred to the Moscow Declaration of 1943, in which the Allied leaders asserted that Austria was the first victim of National Socialism. This, he noted, led to a situation where the perpetrator role of many Austrians was set aside for a long time.[18]


The Cruelest Statement Ever

In the quest to understand the discrepancy between history and memory, it is illustrative to analyze the evolving position of Dutch Railways over more than sixty years. The initial denial of having been a link in the chain of the murder of most Dutch Jews fitted the overall postwar atmosphere in the Netherlands. This partly continues today, since no Dutch government has ever offered apologies for its predecessors’ failure in London exile to do anything to protect the Jewish population in the wartime Netherlands.

The war ended in the Netherlands on 5 May 1945. A few months later, on 17 September, a memorial meeting of Dutch Railways took place in The Hague. A year earlier a general strike had begun, ordered by the Dutch government-in-exile. By that time the deportations of the Jews had already ended. The minister of transport and energy, Th. S. G. J. M. van Schaik, stated to the railway employees at the meeting:

With your trains the unfortunate victims were brought to the concentration camps. In your hearts, there was revolt. But you did it, and that’s your honor. It was the duty the Dutch government asked of you, because the railways are one of the pillars on which the economic life of the Netherlands rests, and that should not be put at risk too early [i.e., only when the Dutch government found it useful].[19]

The minister’s words added insult to injury. In autumn 2005, Frans Peeters, an editor of the Amsterdam daily Het Parool, called van Schaik’s remarks “the cruelest statement ever pronounced by a Dutch minister…. It was out of duty that the Railways brought ‘innocent victims to the concentration camps.’ It was because of ‘the economy,’ i.e., for money.”[20]

Van Schaik probably described the train drivers’ feelings too positively. There is no indication that they regarded bringing detained Jewish civilians to a transit camp, or from there in a cattle train to an unknown destination, as different from any other job.


Not Asking Questions

In 1999, Lindwer made another documentary titled They Did Their Duty about Dutchmen who, by executing orders, were a vital link in the process of exterminating the Jews. In the film he interviewed a retired railway driver who participated in the transports of Jews, and who said, “You simply did not ask yourself what would happen to these people.”[21]

In his 2004 film Goodbye Holland, Lindwer draws more attention to this matter and lets this driver tell his story in more detail:

The train ride from Westerbork to Nieuweschans was an ordinary one. Nothing occurred. We stopped only once for a crossing train, because there was a single track from Winschoten to Nieuweschans. Had they scheduled me for this or that train, I would have boarded that train as well. I would have gone along, that was the normal thing to do. In the engine drivers room we sometimes sat with seven or eight men, perhaps more. We would sit and chat, but there was practically no talk about trains with Jews.

The driver added:

The [Dutch government’s] proclamation of 10 May 1940 ends as follows: “The government fulfils its obligations. You fulfill yours, wherever you’re posted and under all circumstances.” In May 1940 I was not obliged, but did so a few years later. I fulfilled my duty in the place I was posted. You can interpret that as you like, but that’s the way I perceived it then.[22]


Writing History

A. J. C. Rüter’s history of Dutch Railways’ wartime role was published in 1960. He wrote it on assignment from the RIOD (Dutch Institute for War Documentation). Dutch Railways tried to prescribe the author’s conclusions. When Rüter insisted on publishing his own uncensored views, the book’s publication was delayed for years. In the book’s more than 450 pages, covering five years of Dutch Railways’ history, hardly more than one paragraph deals with its treatment of the Jews.

Rüter wrote that both the management and the leaders of the Dutch Railways trade unions aimed at loyal collaboration with the occupiers. One could not have expected, then, the great majority of the personnel to venture any resistance:

The attitude of the railway personnel as far as the transport of the Jews is concerned illustrates this clearly: against these repulsive transports, there was hardly any resistance. There were train drivers who did not want to collaborate. They took sick leave or came late [for that trip]. But the train left with a replacement driver. These were only a few individuals.[23]

In February 1941, a general solidarity strike in support of the Jews occurred in Amsterdam, and was emulated in some other towns. The participation of Dutch Railways, a major employer in Amsterdam, was minimal.[24]

In 1995 the Railways Museum presented, in collaboration with NS, an exhibition on Dutch Railways during the war. It also gave attention to the deportation by rail of the Jews. One exhibit was a forty-page list of those deported in one transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz. There was one survivor.[25]

In a 1995 lecture, a former president of Dutch Railways, L. F. Ploeger, briefly touched on the issue. He wondered why W. Hupkes, the wartime president of Dutch Railways, did not use his influence to resist the transport of the Jews, Dutch soldiers re-detained as prisoners of war, and Dutch workers transported as forced laborers to Germany. Hupkes did, however, play an important role in the 1944 general railway strike.

Ploeger supposed that “in view of the high priority that the Final Solution had in the sick Nazi minds, the transport problem would certainly have been solved in another way.” He also offered another explanation, saying Hupkes considered that others in the Dutch Railways organization should have acted and it was not his responsibility to do so.

Ploeger made another, apologetic-sounding remark: “It’s remarkable that across the whole of Europe, the train has become the instrumental symbol of the extermination camps. That not the railways were the source of evil, but the crazy Nazi ideology, one would almost forget.”[26]


More Attention in the Twenty-First Century

In the twenty-first century, such summary remarks are no longer sufficient. The Dutch historian Isaac Lipschits, a Holocaust survivor, mentions Hupkes’s postwar appearance before the council that purged Dutch collaborators. The council’s chairman, J. M. van Bemmelen, asked Hupkes why he did not resign when NS was asked to transport Jews. He replied: “Nobody from the resistance came to ask me to let the trains strike. Everybody, buses and trams, transported Jews.”

Van Bemmelen persevered: “Why didn’t you resign?” Hupkes replied: “At that moment, it was more important that we stay in our places, that NS continue to operate.”[27]

Lipschits points out that after the war, employees who had not participated in the general railway strike of 1944 were reprimanded or punished if they had continued to work more than three days after it began. Those who had participated in the transport of the Jews were not.[28]


Transport, Efficient as Usual

Guus Veenendaal, who in 2004 wrote the 170-year history of the railways in the Netherlands from 1834 onward in 550 pages, devoted an entire page to the subject of the deportation of the Jews.[29]

He mentions that Dutch Railways carried out the transport efficiently, as usual. “There is only one known case of an apprentice train driver who refused to drive such a train. He was registered as sick, and it had no consequences for him. There are no other cases known of personnel who refused.”

The author supposes-for which again no proof is adduced-that the majority of the personnel drove these trains with great revulsion, but even so, the work was done. He mentions that a few employees asked G. Joustra, the chairman of the railway workers union, what they should do, and Joustra answered that it was better not to refuse.

Veenendaal adds: “On the other hand, notes with addresses and messages that the deported Jews threw out of the trains were collected carefully, and if possible sent to the addressees.”[30]


The Final Turnaround

Against this background, nothing presaged the radical change in Dutch Railways’ position as expressed in Veenman’s apology. Joost Ravoo, the Railways’ director of communications, explains the turnaround:

We were approached by the CJO, asking whether we were willing to facilitate a poster campaign at a number of stations to mark more than sixty years since the last trains departed to Westerbork and in the direction of the extermination camps.

This request and its context forced us to look again at the issue of the wartime transportation of the Jews. We realized then that in recent years NS, while giving more attention to the Jews’ deportation than in the past, had still never apologized for its role. I then proposed to Mr. Veenman that he should offer our contrition to the Dutch Jewish community, to which he agreed. His apologies have a double meaning. On the one hand, they are regrets for what happened; on the other, for the Dutch Railways not having apologized earlier.

Veenman consulted the two other NS board members, Bert Meerstadt and Marcel Niggebrugge. The decision to apologize was thus that of four individuals. All were relatively recent arrivals from elsewhere and hence outside the culture of the railways, long used to protecting its own. Nevertheless, condemning one’s predecessors is always difficult, even by newcomers, and they must be lauded for their courage.

Ravoo says that previous NS boards may have felt that it was acceptable for a state-owned company to say it acted on government orders. He adds: “the best compliment I received after the apologies was from someone who said: ‘NS now shows that it is not a company of civil servants anymore, but in control of its own destiny.'”[31]

Will the Government Ever Apologize for Wartime Behavior?

Now that Dutch Railways has apologized, the Dutch government’s refusal to apologize to the Jewish community stands out even more. It should do so for both the collaboration with the Germans in the Netherlands and the failure of the London government-in-exile to undertake whatever little it could do for the persecuted Dutch Jews.

In her Jerusalem speech on 28 March 1995 before the Israeli Knesset, Queen Beatrix said there were many Dutch people who had resisted the Germans. She added: “But we also know that they were the exceptions and that the people of the Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens.”[32]

Later that year, on 5 May, during the annual national observance of the end of World War II, the Queen added that thinking about the Holocaust should “fill us [with] a deep feeling of shame.”

Partly Apologizing for Postwar Behavior

The restitution debate at the end of the twentieth century also brought with it a discussion of government apologies. Speaking at the major Stockholm Holocaust Conference in January 2000, Dutch prime minister Wim Kok did not mention what had happened to the Jews in the wartime Netherlands. Referring to the postwar period, he noted:

The Netherlands has launched a number of investigations to identify shortcomings in the postwar restoration of legal rights to those deprived of them during the German occupation.

Their findings so far demonstrate that the restitution of legal rights in the impoverished postwar Netherlands was basically correct from a legal and formal point of view, but at the same time their reports identify and criticize a number of shortcomings: the length of the process, the cumbersome and inflexible procedures and above all the chill reception and lack of understanding that awaited those returning from the camps. A situation that was without any doubt not unique to the Netherlands.[33]

That same day, Dutch finance minister Gerrit Zalm stated on a TV program that the Dutch cabinet should present its apologies to the Jews. Several other cabinet members and parliamentarians supported this position. The next day Kok, under pressure, indeed offered apologies for postwar Dutch governments’ treatment of the Jews. It was often thought that a major reason the Dutch government had never apologized for any of its predecessors’ major wartime and postwar failures toward the Jews was fear that this would lead to additional financial claims. With the prime minister’s apology, however faulty, the argument lost its validity.

A New Fallacy

Kok’s apologies represented a new fallacy: that these failures were unintentional. There was detailed proof that on several major issues the Dutch government had knowingly given priority to economic interests over those of the despoiled Dutch Jews.[34]

This was confirmed by one of the Dutch commissions of inquiry, which studied the shortcomings of the postwar restitution process. The report of the Scholten Commission showed in detail that in the matter of restitution of looted Jewish securities, the postwar governments had explicitly given priority to the economic interests of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange over those of the victims. Government policy at the time considered that acting otherwise would have been bad for the economic recovery and reconstruction of the Netherlands.[35]

Lipschits has publicly mentioned that one day when he visited the Dutch  parliament, Zalm came over and said that he also wanted to apologize personally for the Dutch failure. Lipschits responded: “But at the time this happened you were still wearing short trousers.” Zalm replied: “It is the same institution I am responsible for.”[36] In other words, as finance minister he felt accountable for how his postwar predecessor Piet Lieftinck had behaved toward the Jews.

The Concluding Document of the Restitution Negotiations

On 21 March 2000, the Dutch government published a concluding document on the restitution issue that was sent to the parliament. It contained its reaction to the reports of various inquiry commissions that had researched in the last years of the twentieth century the postwar restitution issue.[37]

In the document, the government recognized that “looking backward with today’s knowledge and eyes” there was “too much formalism, bureaucracy, and above all chill in the postwar restitution process.” In view of that, “the government expresses sincere regrets and apologizes to those who suffered then without, however, supposing wrong[38] intentions by those responsible.”[39]

This partial apology confronted only in a very limited way the government’s moral responsibility for the postwar treatment of the Jews. It also hid the fact that there had been many with wrong intentions in high places.[40]


Never Giving the Jews the Benefit of Doubt

Lipschits has provided many examples of how discriminatory the intentions of the Dutch postwar authorities often were. He notes that in the lengthy postwar restitution process, the Jews were never given the benefit of the doubt. He mentions how the Jews had to bring proof to get their possessions back, even though this was often impossible as all documents had been destroyed. He also underlines how Nazi-collaborators, whose possessions were taken away, got much better financial compensation than despoiled Jews after the war. Lipschits cites many other examples of financial discrimination that continued even in the 1960s.[41]

In April 2000, Kok visited Israel. In an interview with Israeli radio, he repeated his statement the previous day to the representatives of the Dutch community in Israel: “The Dutch have never been responsible for the misbehavior of the Germans in the Netherlands during the war.” Of this, however, the Dutch had never been accused. In this way Kok circumvented the real issue at stake: the responsibility for the wartime misbehavior toward the Dutch Jews by the Dutch authorities, institutions, and many individuals.[42]

Several months after the government issued its document on restitution, another party in the renewed Dutch restitution process offered its apologies. The Amsterdam Stock Exchange Association and Amsterdam Exchanges published an advertisement in which they condemned and regretted the actions of their predecessor during and after World War II.[43]

The Exchange had a few months earlier made a derisory restitution offer to the Jewish community. Under pressure from the Hevesi Committee, a monitoring group on restitution issues consisting of state financial officials from across the United States, the offer was soon increased more than thirtyfold. The more or less forced apologies were part of the resulting agreement.


Balkenende Admits Cases of Treason

A further development came when in March 2005 Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, a Christian Democrat, visited Jerusalem for the reopening of Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Museum. In a speech, he described the deportation of most of Dutch Jewry as a “pitch-black” chapter in Dutch history.

Balkenende said that coldness and indifference toward the Jews had been dominant in Dutch wartime society. He mentioned that there had been examples of courage, friendship, and solidarity with the Jews but also of treason. He added that it had been very difficult for the Netherlands to admit the truth about what happened from 1940 to 1945.[44]

Balkenende’s speech compared unfavorably to that of Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who at the same event said: “Two years ago I recalled the share of responsibility of my country by mentioning the role that some Belgian civil servants and administrations have played in this tragedy. I want to repeat these apologies today.”[45]

Ronny Naftaniel, the director of CIDI (Dutch Center for Documentation and Information on Israel), criticized the Dutch prime minister for not going far enough: “It was a meaningful and warm speech. I did not hear apologies for the behavior of Dutch officials and police during the war. These collaborated and helped with the deportations in a major way.” Also in a meeting with Dutch Jews living in Israel, Balkenende was asked to explicitly present his regrets.[46]

The Dutch daily Trouw also criticized Balkenende for not offering apologies, even if doing so was not a simple matter. “On behalf of whom does one present apologies? For what does one present one’s regrets?… The least would have been to apologize for the share of some government departments and servants in this black chapter.”[47]

On 4 May 2005, Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen also went further than any Dutch prime minister ever had. At a ceremony at a war monument in Copenhagen, he apologized for the extradition of Jews and all others “handed over to an uncertain fate in Hitler’s Germany with the co-operation of the authorities.” In an interview with a Danish newspaper, he condemned the “elite then in power, which was not just neutral, but led an extremely active policy of accommodation, with wide- reaching consequences for Jewish refugees and forced laborers.”[48]


Mentioning Authorities’ Collaboration

On 11 April 2005, Prime Minister Balkenende spoke at the thirtieth- anniversary symposium of CIDI. He became the first prime minister to mention Dutch wartime collaboration, saying: “There were Dutch authorities who collaborated with the occupiers. They contributed to a horrible process in which the rights of Jewish Dutchmen were taken away and in which the human dignity of Jewish citizens was damaged.” He added: “We know that in the Netherlands many people risked their own life-and often with success-for other people. But there was much chill, indifference, and treason in the Netherlands.”

Balkenende further noted:

Also after the war, when there was a huge need for understanding and consolation and help for the Jewish victims, the Netherlands showed its bad side.

Where warmth was necessary, there were rules and formalities. For those who needed understanding, there was often no interest. Where a listening ear could have meant so much, there was mainly talk about one’s own suffering. The authorities failed in the first period after the war to find a human approach toward those who returned. It is good to recognize that. In 2000 the government expressed its honest regret and apologies. Only after a certain time-thanks to the pioneering work of historians such as De Jong and Presser-the capability of empathy and self-criticism increased.

Several months later the chairman of the Dutch Central Bank, A. H. E. M. Wellink, was also critical of his institution’s behavior during the war, saying in 2006: “within three weeks after the capitulation [of the Netherlands] it was put under German supervision and very rapidly it turned into a financing instrument of the Germans. The number of bank employees who took a principled position and resigned could be literally counted on the fingers of one hand.”[49]


The Failure of the London Government

Two questions remain. The first: what are the consequences of the Dutch government having admitted its wartime and postwar failures only in part and so late? There can be no exhaustive answer to such a complex question. A partial reply is that there are many lessons both the Dutch government and society have not drawn. This became most clear before, during, and after the Srebrenica disaster. There, six to eight thousand Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serbians after the Dutch UN soldiers fled the town. Before that, the Dutch had assisted in separating the Bosnian men from the women and children.[50]

The second question is whether the Dutch government will ever apologize for both the role of Dutch wartime officials in the Netherlands and the government-in-exile in London. The latter, for its part, never explicitly instructed the Dutch authorities to disobey the German orders against the Jews.

The London government’s disinterest in the fate of the Dutch Jews, however, went far beyond this. Lipschits notes:

After the war a parliamentary inquiry was held on the performance of the Dutch government-in-exile in London. A Jewish civil servant, Henri Dentz, told the commission that in 1943 he had written a report on the murder of the Dutch Jews by the Germans, which was circulated. His testimony illustrated that the London government had shown no interest in the fate of the deported or those in concentration camps.[51]

Dentz, who worked for one of the Dutch government bodies in London, had then estimated that 115,000 Jews had been deported and 90 percent of these had been murdered. He also gave a detailed description of the looting of Jewish belongings. He sent his report at the end of 1943 to all Dutch ministries in London and to a number of other institutions, including the Red Cross.

After the war, he appeared before the parliamentary inquiry commission on government policy during 1940-1945. He was asked: “At the end of 1943, beginning of 1944, there was according to you nobody working for the Dutch government in London who dealt with the needs of the deported and those detained in the concentration camps?” Dentz replied diplomatically: “Let me put it that I could not find anybody.”[52]


Will the Dutch Government Ever Apologize?

The Dutch historian Dienke Hondius, who has researched the reception of the Holocaust survivors in Dutch postwar society, mentions that the Dutch government-in-exile in London did not do the little it could have to help Jews. It rejected requests for help from Jews who had escaped from Holland to elsewhere during the war.[53]

Hondius writes, based on earlier research by Lou de Jong:

The persecution of the Jews was never on the agenda of the exiled Dutch cabinet during the war years. Although the deportations had started in July 1942, it took more than a year and a half before the Dutch government officially contacted the Polish government-in-exile for information about Dutch deportees in Poland. The lengthy delay is all the more significant given the fact that both governments were housed in the same building, Stratton House in London.[54]

Until now it seemed that only ongoing third-party exposure of the issue might lead the Dutch government finally to apologize. The precedent of Dutch Railways shows there is also another possibility: a feeling of moral commitment to do so. Perhaps one day there will be a Dutch prime minister who will present his apologies to the Jewish community, not because he is under pressure, but because he has the inner need to admit to the guilt of the Dutch wartime government.

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[1] Research for this article has been supported by the Israel Maror Foundation and by the Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Research, Documentation and Education of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany Inc.  .

[2] The author wishes to thank Tamas Berzi, research assistant at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for his help in collecting part of the data for this project.

[3] Toespraak Aad Veenman, president-directeur NS, Station Muiderpoort, 29 September 2005. [in Dutch]

[4] Sytze Van der Zee, Voor Fuehrer, Volk en Vaderland: De SS in Nederland (Alphen a/d Rijn: Sythoff, 1997), 56-57. [in Dutch]

[5] David Barnouw, Anne Frank voor beginners en gevorderden (The Hague:  SDU Uitgevers, 1998), 8. [in Dutch]

[6] Ad van Liempt, Kopgeld: Nederlandse premiejagers op zoek naar joden (Amsterdam: Balans, 2002.) [in Dutch]

[7] Manfred Gerstenfeld, Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003,) 40.

[8] Gerstenfeld, Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 31, 32.

[9] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Yehuda Bauer in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 118.

[10] Discours du President de la Republique, M. Jacques Chirac, lors des ceremonies commemorant la grande rafle des 16 et 17 juillet 1942 (Rafle du Vel’d’hiv) Paris, 16 juillet 1995, [in French]

[11] Discours du Premier Ministre M. Lionel Jospin, à l’occasion de la ceremonie du Vel’d’hiv Paris 20 Jullet 1997, [in French]

[12] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Avi Beker in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 166.

[13] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Shmuel Trigano in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 211.

[14] Erklärung des Herrn Bundeskanzlers im Nationalrat, 8 July 1991 [in German],

[15] Remarks by Federal Chancellor Victor Klima at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, 26 January 2000,

[16] Ansprache vor der Knesset in Jerusalem am 15 November 1994. Wiener Zeitung on Line, [in German]

[17] Remarks by Federal Chancellor Victor Klima.

[18] Eva Linsinger and Michael Völker, “Kein Wort für die jüdischen Opfer,” Der Standard [in German],

[19] Isaac Lipschits, De Kleine Sjoa (Amsterdam: Mets & Schilt, 2001), 164. [in Dutch]

[20] Frans Peeters, “Die lijn naar Westerbork diende goed doel?” Het Parool, 22 September 2005. [in Dutch]

[21] “Radertjes in het nazirijk,”Trouw, 2 June 2000. [in Dutch]

[22]  Jo Verstappen, former engine driver in Goodbye Holland directed by Willy Lindwer, 2004.

[23] A. J. C. Rüter, Rijden en Staken (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960), 117. [in Dutch]

[24] Ibid., 117-18.

[25] “Geen onderwerp blijft onbesproken,” Rijden of Staken NV Nederlandsche Spoorwegen ’39-47,” special supplement of De Koppeling in collaboration with the Spoorwegmuseum, 1995. [in Dutch]

[26] L. F. Ploeger, De Nederlandsche Spoorwegen, lecture at symposium “Bedrijven en Vakbonden in bezettingstijd,” Soesterberg, 1 May 1995. [in Dutch]

[27] Lipschits, De Kleine Sjoa, 163, quoting L. de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Part 12 (Leiden, 1988), 463.

[28] Ibid., 164.

[29] Guus Veenendaal, Spoorwegen in Nederland (Amsterdam: Boom, 2004,) 438. [in Dutch]

[30] Ibid.

[31] Personal communication, Joost Ravoo.

[32] Address by Her Majesty the Queen to the Knesset, 28 March 1995 (Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst).

[33] Speech by Wim Kok, prime minister of the Netherlands, at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, 26 January 2000,

[34] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Investigating Much, Paying Little: The Dutch Government and the Holocaust Assets Inquiries,” Jerusalem Letters/Viewpoints, 424, 15 February 2000.

[35] Commissie Scholten, Tweede Wereldoorlog: Roof en Rechtsherstel. Eindrapport van de Begeleidingscommissie onderzoek financiele tegoeden WO-II in Nederland, Leiden, 15 December 1999. [in Dutch]

[36] Personal communication, Isaac Lipschits.

[37] Government of the Netherlands, Regeringsreactie naar aanleiding van de rapporten Tegoeden Tweede Wereldoorlog, 21 March 2000. [in Dutch]

[38] This is a literal translation from the Dutch; the English version uses the word “bad,” which is not the same.

[39] Government of the Netherlands, Regeringsreactie.

[40] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Jewish War Claims in the Netherlands: A Case Study,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 12, Nos. 1 & 2 (Spring 2000): 55-95.

[41] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Isaac Lipschits in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 180-87.

[42] Gidon Remez, interview with Wim Kok, Israel Radio Network B, 3 April 2000.

[43] “Amsterdam Stock Exchange Association and Amsterdam Exchanges Express Regret for the Conduct of the Exchange during and after World War II,” Jerusalem Post, 9 August 2000.

[44] ANP, “Balkenende: uitroeiing joden ‘pikzwart hoofdstuk,'” Volkskrant, 16 March 2005. [in Dutch]

[45] Statement by Guy Verhofstadt, Embassy of Belgium in Tel Aviv,

[46] Frank Poorthuis, “Geen openlijke excuses voor Nederlandse rol bij Shoah,” Volkskrant, 17 March 2005. [in Dutch]

[47] “Een excuus zou ook zestig jaar na dato op zijn plaats zijn geweest,” Trouw, 18 March 2005. [in Dutch]

[48] BBC News, (published: 4 May 2005).

[49] Toespraak door dr. A. H. E. M. Wellink ter gelegenheid van de overhandiging van het eerste exemplaar van Erik Schaap, Walraven van Hall. Premier van het verzet (1906-1945), 10 February 2006. [in Dutch]

[50] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Srebrenica: The Dutch Sabra and Shatilla,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, 458, 15 July 2001.

[51] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Isaac Lipschits.

[52] Isaac Lipschits, De Kleine Sjoa, 12, based on Enquêtecommissie Regeringsbeleid 1940-1945. “Verslag houdende de uitkomsten van het onderzoek” (‘s Gravenhage, 1950), Part 6c. [in Dutch]

[53] Dienke Hondius, “A Cold Reception: Holocaust Survivors in the Netherlands and Their Return,” Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1994): /0031-322X/47-65.

[54] Ibid.

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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is an international business strategist who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and boards of some of the world’s largest corporations. Among his ten books are Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003); American Jewry’s Challenge: Conversations Confronting the 21st Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) and, most recently, Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? (Jerusalem: JCPA and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2005).