The myth of the Good Dutchman

Do the Dutch preserve a self-image as a nation with a high level of morality by lying, obfuscating and hiding things that don't fit? Op-ed

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld  ,

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Sometimes a remark of a person in a minor publication sheds major light on an important national characteristic. Twenty years ago, Dutch-Israeli author, Miriam Dubi Gazan, interviewed the Dutch Ambassador in Israel, Como van Hellenberg-Hubar for the Dutch-Jewish "Joods Journaal". The article focused on the behavior of the Dutch during the Second World War.

By the time that article was published, historians had already proven that in the occupied Netherlands those who resisted or opposed the Germans had been a small minority of the population. Most people were indifferent. Many had collaborated in one way or another. Those included high ranking government officials, the police, municipalities, the majority of the supreme court, railroad leaders, and a multitude of others.

Nevertheless, the myth of the ‘good Dutchman’ during the war spread internationally. The diary of Anne Frank played an important role in this misrepresentation. She had been hidden with her family and others by good Dutch people in Amsterdam. Much less emphasis was given to their betrayal, probably by another Dutchman which led to her death.

Van Hellenberg-Hubar stated in the interview: "I am of the opinion that the myth of the 'good Dutchman' can have a positive effect. A myth can serve as an ideal picture. A picture which one has to meet. The positive norm, which the myth contains, is part of the norms and values in the Netherlands. If one effects the myth, the danger that the norm in this case, tolerance, also is effected. Tolerance is in essence not self-understood but a consequence of a conscious choice to give space to another. On that one has to work. Starting to deconstruct the myth can in this context be problematic."

What he said can be summarized as: “I am in favor of lying to embellish the Dutch past. We should lie or at least remain silent about its ugly sides.” Once one applies this view as a prism on Dutch society many of the attitudes of the country’s leaders during the past decades become much clearer.

It explains for instance why it took until 2016 for the researcher Rémy Limpach to disclose in great detail Dutch crimes in Indonesia – then still the Dutch Indies -- during what were euphemistically called the 'police actions' in 1947 and 1948. Then the Dutch suppressed the local uprising. Limpach concluded that Dutch colonial behavior in that war resembled greatly that of the British, French, Belgians or Portuguese. Two examples: Dutch soldiers instructed an indigenous boy to climb to a coconut palm tree and throw them nuts. They subsequently shot him out of the tree. Dutch soldiers also raped Indonesian women, including minors.

Decades ago, the Dutch historian, Cees Fasseur, undertook an official enquiry into these 'police actions.' In 2008 he said that “if you really want to know the Dutch war crimes the research has to be redone. Taking much more time, with many more historians and much better guidance.”


Holocaust hIstorian: 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.
Over the years there had been incidental disclosures about extreme misbehavior during the ‘police actions.’ The Dutch captain, Raymond Westerling, had 'pacified’ the revolutionary disturbances on the island of Sulawesi (then called Celebes). In 1973 he gave an interview over a diluted glass of whisky to the weekly Panorama. He spoke freely and revealed that he had court martialed 350 prisoners and executed them. The Dutch judicial authorities didn't react.

In 1969, Westerling was interviewed by a Dutch TV journalist. He admitted to major war crimes carried out by his soldiers, including executions of people without trial. He claimed that nothing could happen to him because the Dutch authorities knew about it. Partly due to threats the media received, this interview was not broadcast until 2012.

Another disclosure was in 1997 when Dutch historical journalist, Ad van Liempt, published a book whose title translates as The Train of Corpses. Why 46 prisoners did not survive the trip to Surabaya. Dutch soldiers had let the Dutch Indian prisoner train stand in the burning sun without giving them water.

Leading Dutch historians have noticed and commented on this Dutch inclination to remain silent about major ugly events in the past. Prof. Frank van Vree is the director of the Institute for War and Holocaust-Genocide Studies (NIOD) in Amsterdam. Under his leadership -- more than 70 years after the end of the colonial war in Indonesia -- the NIOD has finally started a large research program titled “Decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950.”

When asked why the Netherlands had so many difficulties when it came to offering apologies for the failures toward the Jews of its war time government in exile in London, Van Vree answered: "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."

Prof. Hans Blom had been director of the NIOD in the past. When asked about the Dutch inability to confront its own history concerning issues such as its failures in the war-time persecution of its Jewry, and the many crimes it committed during the decolonization wars in Indonesia, he said: “The Netherlands is a country where the need to make compromises was present very intensely early in its history."

“In addition, one can say that the Netherlands in the 19th and 20th century has developed a tradition to think that ‘we’ are a country with very high moral standards. In the 19th century it became unavoidably clear that the powerful Netherlands of the Republic of the United Netherlands was no longer a significant factor. This, despite the fact that we still kept our colonies for a century and half. In these small Netherlands a self-image emerged that it is nicer to be the world’s most moral nation, rather than the most powerful.

“In those circumstances, this attitude was also in line with Dutch interests. As a small country, one has much to gain from peace arrangements and international law. Thus, to a certain extent, one protects oneself against the desire for power of the big countries. In such a tradition of high moral self-image, it is more difficult to publicly and properly treat events where that is evidently not the case.”

There have been many other scandals of Dutch leaders obfuscating ugly issues from the past. It is against this background that one can understand why the Netherlands was the last country in Western Europe to admit and apologize for the failures and extreme misbehavior of its wartime government and institutions toward the Jews in their country. This apology was finally made by Prime Minister Mark Rutte -- after he refused to do that for years -- in January 2020.

Yet that does not mean that the Dutch mentality has changed. Currently there is another scandal concerning hiding an ugly event from the past. In 2015 Dutch aircraft bombarded and killed civilians in Hawija in Iraq. Then Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis was informed about this. She decided to lie about it when she wrote to parliament stating “that as far as known’ there were no civilian victims. In fact 74 civilians had been killed. In 2019, the current Minister of Defense, Ank Bijleveld, barely survived a vote of no-confidence on this issue. The scandal is still festering and the minister survived yet another motion of no-confidence in May 2020.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has been a strategic advisor for more than thirty years to some of the Western world’s leading corporations. Among the awards he received was the 2019 International Lion of Judah Award of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research honoring him as the recognized leading international authority on contemporary antisemitism. His most recent book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism.




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