Stiffnecked Netherlands apologized for Holocaust failures- at last

After years of refusal, the Dutch government has apologized for cooperating with Nazi genocide. Better late than never, but not quite good enough.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

OpEds Anne Frank's house
Anne Frank's house
Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has rather suddenly offered much belated apologies on behalf of his government for the failures of the Dutch authorities toward the Jews during the second World War. He did so in a speech at the National Holocaust commemoration in Amsterdam on January 26.

It was a radical departure from long time policies where he – and his predecessors -- found various reasons to refrain from admitting the truth about the widespread Dutch wartime betrayal of Jews. This fits an ingrained Dutch elite culture, which habitually avoids admitting failures, including major ones. This attitude enables the Dutch elite to arrogantly moralize to others.  

With that, late as it is, the only Western European government which had not done yet so started telling the truth about how the nations’ leaders failed their Jewish citizens during the German occupation. Better late than never.

In Western Europe, the Netherlands was the country with the highest percentage of Jewish victims during the Holocaust. When the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, there were 140,000 Jews living there; 102,000 of them were murdered by the occupiers during the war. 

Those who were deported to the death camps in Poland were arrested by Dutch policemen, transported by the Dutch railways and guarded by the Dutch military police in the transit camp Westerbork. Most of these Jewish deportees came from families that had lived in the Netherlands for several centuries.

In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac said in a far more detailed admission of the truth than Rutte’s recent one: “France committed the irremediable. It broke its word and delivered those it protected to their executioners. We maintain toward them an unforgivable debt.” Two years later, French socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was even more explicit and said, “Not even one German soldier was necessary to carry out this disgrace.” 

In March 1995, a few months before Chirac’s admission of the truth, then Dutch Queen Beatrix visited Israel. She spoke in the Knesset and said that there were many Dutch who had resisted the Germans, but they were the exceptions and that “the people of the Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens.” This was a whitewashed version of the truth.

She should have added something like: “Even the limited things our authorities could do, they did not. Our government in exile in London refrained from giving instructions to Dutch officials in the occupied Netherlands on how to act regarding German orders concerning the persecution of the Jews. My Grandmother Queen Wilhelmina also greatly failed. She did not call upon the Dutch population to help Jews who wanted to go into hiding.”

Rutte is Prime Minister of the Netherlands since 2010. He stalled all efforts to offer governmental apologies to the Dutch Jewish community. In January 2012 the, now defunct Dutch daily, De Pers, devoted its front page and another one to the apologies issue. This was based on two interviews from the Appendix of my 2011 book, Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process 1997-2000. There former Dutch Deputy Prime Ministers, Els Borst –  who was murdered in 2014 – and Gerrit Zalm, declared that they would publicly support the Dutch government if it offered apologies to the Jewish community. 

That same day, Freedom party MP’s Geert Wilders and Raymond de Roon posed parliamentary questions to the prime minister. They asked him why the Netherlands would not offer apologies to the Jewish community for the government’s misconduct toward the Jews during the Holocaust. Soon thereafter on that day the Associated Press sent out two articles on the lack of apologies by the Dutch Government which were picked up by many media outlets all over the world, from the U.S to China. 

Rutte got away with an irrelevant reply. He referred to a Dutch government declaration from 2000. However, the apologies offered to the Jewish community by the government at that time were unrelated to the war period. They referred to the formalistic, bureaucratic and heartless Dutch post-war restitution process. Even those apologies were only half-truths, as they claimed that this unacceptable attitude had not been intentional except for one case. There were, however, already many documented cases in which Dutch post-war policy toward the Jews was quite deliberate. 

Rutte also answered that his government saw no reason to apologize in part because there was no broadly supported advice from the Jewish community to do so. This was an extremely misconceived answer. Victims do not have to ask for apologies from the legal successors of those who failed. Those who are at fault are expected to present apologies on their own initiative.

In 2012, a poll found that two-thirds of the Dutch people were opposed to their Prime Minister apologizing to the Jewish community for the misconduct of the wartime government in exile in London. Only 27% of those polled were in favor of such apologies. 

At the beginning of 2015, parliamentarians Joram van Klaveren and Louis Bontes, of the small Voor Nederland party, again asked Rutte to apologize to the Jewish community for the wartime government’s failures. In his answer Rutte curtly referred to the glib statement of then Dutch Queen Beatrix in the Knesset in 1995. If there had then been at that time at least one Dutch journalist who verified what the Queen said, he could have published that his country’s government stood behind nothing.

The recent sudden apologies are important. Now the successors of the deficient authorities and the victims -- some of whom are still alive -- agree about the history of the failure. 

Rutte’s apologies were of a rather general nature. One is still waiting for the apologies of the Head of the Police --as many of them were major collaborators with the occupiers-- and of the Supreme Court whose wartime predecessors radically failed the Jews. Rutte should also have mentioned that the government was responsible for the failure of  Queen Wilhelmina and much more. These topics may be challenges for his future speeches. 




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