Shoah in Dutch collective memory

There are four distince periods in how the Dutch looked at the war, starting with denial of their complicity and progressing on towards the truth - although a prettified one.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld , | updated: 20:27

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Professor Fran van Vree.

“My book In the Shadow of Auschwitz appeared in 1995. It describes postwar-periods in the collective memory of the Second World War. These are illustrated with examples of books, movies, documentaries and monuments."

Professor Frank van Vree studied history and philosophy at Groningen University. He has been a professor at Rotterdam University. In 2001 he became Professor of Journalism at the University of Amsterdam, (UvA). Since 2016, he has been the director of the NIOD Institute for War - Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. He also teaches “The History of War, Conflict and Memory” one day a week at the UvA.

"The 20 years after the war are a period of a nationalistic and Christian vision of the war in Dutch collective memory. These years are characterized by 'looking forward and not looking backwards.' The idea of restoring national unity is propagated. The perception of an unbroken land and people dominates. The Dutchmen who collaborated with the German occupiers were driven out of history.

"This attitude manifests itself in its monuments whose themes are mainly resistance, political and military victims. There is little attention paid to other victims, let alone to Jews. Except for the Amsterdam deportation location the Dutch Theater, and the monument in the small village, Gorredijk, there is no attention for the persecution of the Jews in the public domain.  

"This changed with the television series, The Occupation, (1960 -1965) by leading war historian Loe de Jong. He chose however not to show Jews who have survived the concentration camps. De Jong thought this to be too confrontational. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem received a great deal of attention in the Netherlands. It coincided with the broadcasting of the issue of The Occupation about the persecution of the Jews.

"The Jewish historian Jacques Presser published his book, Ashes in The Wind (The Destruction of the Dutch Jews), in 1965. It made an extremely powerful impression. The book shattered the existing vision that resistance is Dutch and persecution of Jews is German. Presser explicitly mentions the participation in the persecution of the Jews by Dutch institutions including the police and officials.  

"On the tablet attached to the Dutch Theater in 1962, one could read the idiotic remark 'For our fallen Jewish  co-citizens.' The term 'fallen' is usually used to refer to military or resistance fighters. After three years this text was changed into 'deported Jews.'  That gave more recognition to what took place.

"Shoah history slowly penetrated into Dutch collective memory. Looking back the Netherlands was relatively early in giving a place to the persecution of the Jews in national history. In France and Germany, that took until the 1970's.  

"The second period with a changing collective memory starts around 1965 and lasts about 20 - 25 years. It is mainly characterized by a politicization of the war memory accompanied by increasing criticism of the nationalistic picture of the war period. Movies and literature from that time often deal with half-heartedness and collaboration.  

"A third period begins around 1990. The Shoah now takes a central place.  It becomes the main and most horrible chapter in the war history to be remembered. The war politicization fades away. One is now looking realistically at history including that of the first post-war period. During that time a major research project, 'Return and Reception,' is undertaken. It is also the time of renewed rehabilitation and restitution of Jewish assets.

"The last 10 to 15 years are a fourth period of collective memory. The interest in the war is widespread. Many of its aspects are studied. Specific locations can become very important. Many events are commemorated. There are nowadays about 80 war museums, almost all of them built after 1985.

"A possible interpretation of this development is that the generation that lived through the war did not need 'auxiliaries' to remember events. Nowadays remembering is no longer natural but must be made artificial and ritualized. The younger generation requires concrete locations and objects. One might call these 'anchor places of memory' or 'prostheses of remembering.'

When asked why the Netherlands has so many difficulties to offer apologies regarding its war government in exile in London for the failures toward the Jews, Van Vree answers: "The history of war memory shows that the Netherlands is willing to look at the weaknesses of its society. But at the same time the obstinate thought exists that the Netherlands has erred in many ways; but all in all it has done many things better than others.

"A second reason is that sometimes there is fear that reparations may have to be paid. There is a feeling that one should not say too loudly that one has done something wrong as that could result in financial consequences.

"The feeling of 'if we haven't done it well, we've done it better than others' is deeply ingrained in Dutch culture. On the one hand there is acknowledgement, on the other hand there is glossing over."


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