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Wartime and Postwar Dutch Attitudes Toward the Jews: Myth and Truth

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

412     August 1999  

The myth that the great majority of the Dutch people had a highly positive attitude toward the Jews during World War II, identified with their suffering, and took risks to help them has gradually been unmasked in The Netherlands itself over the past decades. The historian Nanda van der Zee summed this up in 1997: “The vain national self-image of the most tolerant people on earth, which had assisted its Jewish fellow-citizens so ‘charitably,’ was corroded in the 1960s when another generation born after the war started to ask questions.”

Israeli historian Joel Fishman has also refuted a follow-up myth. He has referred to the treatment of the Dutch Jews in the postwar years by the country’s democratically chosen government. The internationally known Dutch political scientist Arent Lijphart wrote that Holland “has no minorities that are disfranchised, deprived of their civil liberties, or subject to systematic discrimination.” Fishman has retorted that Lijphart’s statement could only be true if “the Jews in The Netherlands counted for absolutely nothing, and their history was of no consequence.”

Internationally, the benign Dutch war image has held on for over fifty years. In its introduction to The Netherlands, the 1999 Jewish Chronicle Travel Guide still writes: “the Germans transported 100,000 [Jews] to death camps in Poland, but the local population tended to behave sympathetically towards their Jewish neighbors, hiding many.”

Israel, where at least the authorities should know better, is no exception. One former Israeli ambassador to The Netherlands told this author that he regularly corrected draft speeches of visiting high-ranking Israeli politicians, to prevent them from thanking theDutch for their “extraordinary efforts” for the Jews during World War II without mentioning the substantial collaboration with the Nazis.

There were no extermination camps in The Netherlands, and the Dutch did not actively participate in the killing of Jews. The mass atrocities, for which Germany and so many other European nations supplied willing executors, did not take place on Dutch soil. Few people, however, would consider this itself a sign of great humanity.

Why Were So Many Dutch Jews Killed?

The percentage of Jews from The Netherlands murdered by the Germans and their associates in World War II was higher than in any other Western European country. There were approximately 140,000 Jews in The Netherlands at the outbreak of the war, representing 1.6 percent of the Dutch population, though in Amsterdam they comprised as much as 9.5 percent of the city’s population. Some 107,000 Jews were deported from The Netherlands, of whom 102,000 were murdered. Most of the remainder went into hiding, were married to non-Jews and thus freed from deportation, or fled abroad.

Several explanations have been given for this high percentage of Dutch Jews killed. Before The Netherlands capitulated five days after the German invasion in May 1940, Queen Wilhelmina and most members of the Dutch government fled to England. The Germans had initially intended to install a military government, but in the legal vacuum resulting from the flight, Hitler saw the opportunity to insert a civil Nazi government almost immediately.

The head of the Reich’s civil government for The Netherlands, the Austrian Nazi leader Dr. A. Seyss-Inquart, reported directly to Hitler. Seyss-Inquart brought with him several other Austrians who later were to show their efficiency, inter alia, in administering the looting and deportation of the Jews. The historian Jozeph Michman, former chairman of the Jerusalem-based Center for Research on Dutch Jewry, suggests that another reason for the high impact of the Holocaust in The Netherlands is that Hitler had special designs on the country and wanted to make it part of the Reich after the war.

Eichmann’s Pleasure

Since The Netherlands was well-administered and well-documented, it was relatively easy to round up the Jews. Orders were given by the occupiers and executed by the Dutch authorities. Yet another reason sometimes given for the high Jewish death-toll is that The Netherlands is a small and flat country in which it is more difficult to hide than in Belgium or France. This is a weak argument since, in the later war years, many hiding places were found for Dutch workers who had been called up for labor service in Germany.

After the flight of the Queen and the government, the highest remaining authorities in The Netherlands were the secretaries-general of the ministries, the senior ranking civil servants. These officials–in an inferior position vis-a-vis the German occupiers–were out of their depth, and helped to put the Dutch bureaucratic and institutional apparatus at the disposal of the occupiers. This greatly facilitated the deportation of the Dutch Jews after their property had been systematically looted.

In their preparations for the extermination of the Jews living in The Netherlands, the Germans could count on the assistance of the greater part of the Dutch administrative infrastructure. The occupiers had to employ only a relatively limited number of their own. Dutch policemen rounded up the families to be sent to their deaths in Eastern Europe. Trains of the Dutch railways staffed by Dutch employees transported the Jews to camps in The Netherlands which were transit points to Auschwitz, Sobibor, and other death camps. Van der Zee writes that with respect to Dutch collaboration, Eichmann later said “The transports run so smoothly that it is a pleasure to see.”

Well before the deportations, the systematic looting of Jewish properties had begun. For instance, on German orders, the Dutch banks sent out forms to Jewish clients enabling the transfer of their deposits to LIRO, the “looting bank” instituted by the Germans to expropriate money from the Jews. Many Amsterdam stock market traders made good profits on the sale of shares and bonds taken from the Jews.

Other respectable Dutch citizens just “accommodated” themselves. Jacques Presser, a Jewish historian who wrote the official history of the persecution of Dutch Jewry during World War II, was interviewed shortly before his death in 1970 by filmmaker Philo Bregstein. Presser said that when he was dismissed as a high school teacher during the war, what affected him even more than the dismissal was the name of the person who had signed the dismissal letter: “That was a man who then and years after the war–I believe even justifiably so–had a reputation of total rectitude. I could only relate it to my general situation as a Jew, and was aware that, within the context of the interests at play, I was a dispensable piece of small change.”

Feeding the Myth: The Anne Frank Story

The myth of the exceptionally benign Dutch attitude feeds on several motifs. One is the February 1941 solidarity strike in Amsterdam and a few other cities; the other is the Anne Frank story. Her diary is widely read throughout the world. The house in Amsterdam where she was hidden occupies a respectable place among Europe’s most visited museums. The way in which she is remembered focuses on the courage of those who took risks to hide her. Her diary statement that she believed in the good of man is widely quoted. Society prefers to remember noble individuals rather than traitors.

The one-sided Dutch “resistance image” was heavily propagated in the postwar period. It conveniently ignored the fact that the vast majority of the nation accommodated itself to circumstances. The traumatized and impoverished remnants of Dutch Jewry were in no political or personal position to fight this distortion of history. They had to start from scratch to build up a new existence and, to keep their sanity, they had to look to the future. Some of the survivors were ill. After the Holocaust, many did not want to identify with the community. Furthermore, those who had been hidden during the war had mainly seen the better side of the Dutch. The majority, who had experienced a more representative truth, were no longer alive.

Nor was the Dutch Jewish community in those and later years an equal partner in negotiations with the Dutch government. The country’s bureaucracy did not facilitate the fight of this community and its individuals to regain their property. Immoral application of Dutch inheritance tax laws enabled the state to appropriate a substantial part of the assets of those who did not return.

Coldness and Abuse of Power

The immediate postwar attitude of the Dutch government reflected a coldness and abuse of power against this vulnerable community in many other areas. The remnants also had to fight an uphill battle to return Jewish war orphans to family members or Jewish institutions. The government commission appointed to decide on these cases was stacked not only with Christians, who had their own agenda, but also with baptized and assimilated Jews. In another example of Dutch insensitivity, for several months after the war a number of stateless Jews of German origin were locked up in the same camps as Nazis and their collaborators.

Michman told this author two stories which he had heard first-hand from those involved, and which illustrate that Dutch postwar authorities were well aware of discrimination against the Jews. Joop Voet, later Dutch honorary consul in Tel Aviv, worked at the Beheersinstituut, the government body which acted as custodian of the property of enemies as well as of missing persons, nearly all of them Jews. Voet was often told there that “legal restitution to the Jews would be in conflict with the postwar economic reconstruction of The Netherlands.”

The other story concerns a visit to postwar Dutch Prime Minister Schermerhorn, a member of the Dutch Labor party, by one of his former school colleagues who lived in Mandatory Palestine. Also present was Karel Hartog, then secretary of the executive of the NZB, the Dutch Zionist organization. Hartog later reported on the visit to his organization’s executive, of which Michman was a member. The prime minister had told them that they could not expect him as a socialist to help restore money to Jewish capitalists.

A New Museum of Dutch War Failures?

The time has come to provide a more balanced view of Dutch behavior during World War II. One could imagine the construction of a “Museum of Dutch War Failures” next to the Anne Frank house, to be visited with the same ticket. One major exhibit could be about Anne Frank’s belief in man’s goodness, in contrast to her latter experiences when one or more Dutch betrayed her and she died in the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.

Other exhibits could show pictures of individual Dutch collaborators who betrayed Jews and sent them to their deaths in exchange for a reward which, even if inflation-corrected, comes to less than twenty dollars in today’s terms. Yet another exhibit could include pictures of the majority of the members of the Dutch High Court of Justice who, in the early days of the occupation, did not consider the German-imposed removal of non-Aryans, i.e., Jews, from Dutch official life to contradict the country’s constitution. With this decision, they supported the removal from office of Court President L.E. Visser, who was Jewish.

The number of Dutch Nazi collaborators during World War II exceeded the number of those active in the resistance, even if one does not include in the first category the unknown number of those who stole Jewish property. Many cases are known of Jews who hid their possessions during the war with non-Jewish acquaintances and neighbors, who then denied any knowledge of this when the Jews returned after the war.

It is also not widely known that–relative to its population–The Netherlands had the highest number of Waffen SS volunteers in Western Europe. Giving these facts as much attention as the hiding of Anne Frank would help to balance the international perception of Dutch attitudes during World War II.

The Postwar Issue Revived

In postwar Netherlands, considerable attention has been given to documenting the war’s history. After the war a special institute was established for this purpose and continues to carry out research, known today as NIOD, The Netherlands Institute of War Documentation. However, the attention paid to the immediate postwar period was very limited. Throughout the decades, only a few writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have mentioned that, overall, the returning Jews were less than welcome in many places in The Netherlands, that Jews had been discriminated against in postwar restitution cases, and that there were expressions of anti-Semitism both by the Dutch government and in Dutch society.

Yet a change is now taking place. In recent years, there has been an intensified international debate on the fate of Jewish property during and after the war. This debate has also touched The Netherlands, where some new facts have been discovered that have helped bring this issue into the limelight. One involves Dutch government employees in charge of the restitution of looted Jewish property who, in 1968, auctioned off some remnants of it among themselves at ridiculously low prices. Another involves the accidental discovery of part of the LIRO archive in an Amsterdam building which once belonged to the Ministry of Finance.

The previous Dutch government realized that major damage to the country’s image could occur if fragments of negative information on Dutch behavior during and after the war kept being exposed in the international media. The excessively positive image of the Dutch during World War II could rapidly switch to a negative one. The recent Swiss experience has shown how individual pieces of bad news can rekindle a publicity storm time after time.

In one ironic twist of fate, until recently, a painting from a “contested” prewar Jewish collection was found to have been hanging, until recently, in the Dutch ambassador’s residence in Israel. After the Dutch authorities had already ordered it to be removed, the story was published in Israeli newspapers. The more the investigations continue, the more negative information will be revealed.

Books and newspaper articles continue to report additional stories which further erode the myth of Dutch behavior during the war. In the recently published book Dienaren van het Gezag (Servants of Authority), historian Guus Meershoek analyzes the attitude of the Amsterdam police during the war. Among many examples of misbehavior, he mentions how on one occasion Dutch policemen entered a Jewish cafe, searched the people there, took away the jewels they found which the Jews–according to German orders–should have handed over to LIRO, noted them in the police records as found objects, and then distributed them among themselves.

The Commissions of Inquiry

The Dutch government thus decided that it should become pro-active on this issue. In 1997 it instituted four commissions of inquiry to investigate the looting of Jewish property during the war and restitution afterwards. Furthermore, a body called SOTO, headed by historian Conny Kristel, a NIOD employee, was established to assess the postwar treatment of returnees. Although SOTO does not deal exclusively with Jews, they are its main concern.

Some commission reports have already been published. The Kordes Commission, which dealt with the LIRO bank, demonstrated in its final report an understanding of how cold the treatment of the remaining Jews by Dutch postwar governments had been, and recommended that payments now be made to the Jews for several wrongs. One of these involved the fact that the Dutch government did not return most of the taxes taken, without the knowledge of the owners, from looted Jewish accounts during World War II by Dutch tax authorities, including for years after the account owners had been gassed.

One major objection to the Kordes Commission’s conclusions concerns their opinion that it was correct to apply the Dutch inheritance tax laws to the fortunes of the murdered Jews. This subject could become an academic case study. It is a paradigm of how a normal law in a democratic country can become a perverse tool if applied in an extreme situation, particularly against a politically weak community. The Dutch government instituted its inheritance tax laws for a normal society in which the vast majority of people die a natural death. It then used these laws to appropriate money from the estates of a community which it had been unable to protect, 75 percent of whom were murdered over a two- to three-year period.

The Scholten Commission’s Abuse of Confidence

Another government commission of inquiry, the Scholten Commission, has come under major criticism. Most of the commission members are former board members of banks or insurance companies; thus they can hardly be considered impartial and fit to supervise an independent inquiry into institutions from which they have received money in the past.

The report of this government-appointed commission was paid for by the institutions it investigated, which undermines its value. Only a minority of the institutions approached agreed to cooperate with the commission’s researchers. Thus, the first report from the Scholten Commission was methodologically flawed, as has been pointed out in reactions to it.

Detailed critical comments on this report were also made by the CJO, the central Jewish consultation body which encompasses the main organizations of the Dutch Jewish community. It charged the Scholten Commission with “abuse of their confidence,” a particularly radical statement for the very prudent representatives of Dutch Jewry.

The historian Isaac Lipschits, one of the first authors to draw attention, decades ago, to postwar discrimination against Dutch Jews, told this author of yet another shortcoming of the commission’s researchers. He visited one of the banks that was willing to cooperate, where he was very well received by its archivist and given a detailed file on the safe-deposit boxes of Jews which had been broken open–on German orders–during the war. The archivist told Lipschits that the researchers of the Scholten Commission had been told about these files but had shown no interest in them.

Twelve Billion Dollars Not Returned?

It remains unclear how much was looted from Dutch Jews during the war and what percentage was restored afterwards. The Van Kemenade inquiry commission is expected to publish an estimate at the end of 1999. The local branch of the international KPMG auditing firm was hired to develop these figures.

In Spring 1999, the historian Gerard Aalders, a NIOD employee, published the book Roof (Looting), on the expropriation of Dutch Jewish property during World War II. The numbers he suggests remain the subject of debate. Lipschits believes Aalders’ estimates are far too low, and that the amount may be close to 2.5 billion guilders at that time, of which less than 50 percent was returned after the war.

Based on Lipschits’ rough estimates, and multiplying what was not returned by a factor of at least 20, to compensate for inflation and interest over 50 years, one reaches a figure of about 25 billion guilders, or twelve billion dollars at 1999 values.

The Dutch government is obviously responsible for what happened with regard to the restitution of Jewish property after World War II. Aalders, who gave a lecture at an international symposium organized by the Center for Research on Dutch Jewry in November 1998 in Jerusalem, was heavily criticized by the public for focusing on the question of whether the postwar restitution laws were correctly applied, rather than emphasizing their morally doubtful character.

Aalders published an article quite similar to his lecture in the main Netherlands daily NRC Handelsblad in which he described what had occurred after World War II: “For the robbed Jews who had been harder hit than any other group, no extra provisions were made. A public discussion as to whether that was desirable or not has never been held.”

Dutch Co-responsibility for the Jewish Fate?

A more complex matter is the extent of Dutch government responsibility for what happened to the Dutch Jews during the war. One aspect of this concerns the flight of the government and the Queen to London and its constitutional impact. Another is the quality of the contingency plans left behind. Nor did the government in exile give clear instructions as to how the Dutch civil servants should behave when the Jews were isolated, looted, and transported to their death, while they did so on the occasion of other deportations. Queen Wilhelmina mentioned the suffering of her Jewish subjects only three times in her radio speeches to the Dutch people during five years of exile.

The issue is not that the Dutch officials under the occupation served the Germans and few of them were heroes. The issue is much more that the present Dutch government cannot claim that its wartime predecessors in exile did their utmost to provide clear instructions to the Dutch authorities under occupation as to how to behave on matters of discrimination against the Jews, making possible the accusation of their co-responsibility for the fate of the Dutch Jews in the war. For example, the Dutch police was a body meant to arrest criminals. However, it also systematically arrested innocent Jewish citizens on German orders. Can later Dutch governments be exempt from legal responsibility for those actions?

In 1998, Avraham Roet, an Israeli businessman of Dutch origin, founded the Israel Institute for Research on Dutch Jewish Assets Lost during the Holocaust, which has become a source of information for those seeking documentation in this field. Roet recently made public a letter sent to him by a well-known Amsterdam law firm in which one of the senior partners writes: “certainly morally, and arguably legally, the Kingdom is responsible for what happened to its subjects that it could not protect during the Nazi occupation.”

Today, the Dutch government has a difficult task before it: it must manage a politically hot issue with both financial and image risks. One of its goals must be to avoid trouble with the world Jewish community. It has seen how the Swiss state and its institutions have experienced worldwide criticism from the media, boycotts by some American institutions, and problems with the American justice system.

The Dutch government is well aware that similar actions could be taken against major Dutch banking interests in the United States. For instance, the financial damage that class action suits could cause might far exceed the amounts the Dutch government intends to pay the Jewish community.

The Dutch government is clearly aware of the dangers. According to the Volkskrant daily, in a highly unusual step, the Dutch government has paid over $100,000 to Hill & Knowlton, a leading American public relations firm, to deal with issues concerning its restitution policies in the American media. The Dutch government justified its decision by stating that there had been reports in the media that the Dutch had not been diligent enough after the war in returning looted art, brought back from Germany, to its rightful owners.

Obtaining a Seal of Approval from the Jews

One of the Dutch government’s major political goals, in its quest for damage-control, is to obtain recognition that, while its predecessors may have failed, it is now acting reasonably under the circumstances. The only people who can give this seal of approval–we might call it “a kashrut stamp”–are the Jews. From the Dutch government’s point of view, it is unfortunate that there are so many potential Jewish counterparts. From the Jewish side, this may be an advantage. If the results of the negotiations are not satisfactory, there will be so much criticism of the negotiators from other Dutch Jewish interests that any such approval would become ineffectual.

Ideally, the present Dutch government would like to receive testimony of good conduct from the representatives of all Dutch Jews around the world. This is impossible. The government will thus, at best, have to make do with certification by the leading bodies of Dutch Jewry and Jews in Israel of Dutch origin.

In The Netherlands, the main Jewish body involved in these matters is the CJO, though its claim to exclusive representation is contested by some smaller organizations. In Israel the various organizations of Jews of Dutch origin have created an umbrella body, “Platform Israel.” However, the thousands of Dutch Jews who emigrated to North America after World War II are not organized.

Another aim of the Dutch government must be to reach a generally accepted historical truth about the systematic looting of Dutch Jewry during World War II and the question of restitution thereafter. From the government’s point of view, the best solution would be if the Dutch Jewish community would accept the validity of the conclusions reached by the government inquiry commissions.

After what has been published so far by the Kordes and particularly the Scholten Commissions, however, this would be a major historical and political mistake. The Jewish representatives should focus on the financial side of the negotiations, and leave the political and historical aspects to be judged by future generations. At least some of the Dutch Jewish leaders are aware of this. One said to this author, “We have to avoid falsifying history in exchange for money.”

Paying as Little as Possible

There are indications that the Dutch government has at least one more aim: to pay as little money as possible to the Dutch Jewish community. The negotiations potentially could become very one-sided. The government is very powerful with a huge infrastructure and almost unlimited means. The CJO and Platform Israel represent small communities with limited organizational structures and few human resources.

On the other hand, the Jewish representatives have a few cards to play. The Dutch government must wish to avoid the involvement in the negotiations of international Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress. These organizations are not dependent on the Dutch government, their financial claims will exceed those of the Dutch Jewish community, and they may even desire some additional international media exposure. These are excellent reasons for the Dutch government to try to keep world Jewry out of the negotiations.

Against this background, statements appear in the Dutch media which remind one of anti-Semitic stereotypes, for example, that Jews are money hungry. Some Dutch officials claim that the Jewish community should primarily aim “for recognition and not for money.”

This led Hans Vuijsje, director of JMW, the Dutch Organization for Jewish Social Work, to write to one of these officials: “The statement that we should not talk about money but about ‘recognition’ is seen in our circles as chutzpah, cheek. It is the opposite of the facts. It is not the Jews talking all the time about money, but Dutch society. The question about ‘recognition’ is: for what? Not recognition as war victims, that has already been given [but]…recognition that the possessions of the Jews have been handled in a careless way.”

An Israeli Aspect

One specifically Israeli aspect of the debate is that The Netherlands has heavily criticized Israeli policies on many occasions over the past decades, mainly within the framework of the European Union. These one-sided criticisms have often been dressed in the cloak of morality. It is obvious that they have been highly politically motivated, because there has been much less European criticism of murderous Arab dictatorships.

The studies of the Dutch government’s own commissions of inquiry strengthen what was known before, that democratically elected Dutch governments and several major institutions behaved immorally toward the Dutch Jews when this was profitable. The further research of the inquiry commissions will demonstrate consistent moral failures of a series of Dutch governments.

These can be used as a powerful argument against the Dutch government when the European Union tries to put pressure on Israel in the forthcoming peace negotiations. A nation that has frequently exercised discrimination against a weak minority should concentrate, in the future, on its own shortcomings before criticizing other nations.

The debate on this issue will undoubtedly heat up in the near future when further commission reports are published and negotiations begin with the Dutch government on what will be returned to the Jews. At present it seems quite probable that the work of the commissions of inquiry and SOTO will not accomplish what the Dutch government wants. They will not mark the end of the investigations of how the Dutch government and society treated the Jews in the postwar years, but rather may well signify their beginning.