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Making “Never Again” a Reality: Lessons from the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War

“If we are not careful, our fear of the immigrant will result in massive racial aggression.”

“The plan to issue ‘vignettes,’ stickers, to all non-Dutch people residing in the Netherlands on which their level of ‘inburgering’ (naturalization) will be indicated looks suspiciously like the Star of David that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear in World War II.”

“The deportation of more than 25,000 asylum seekers who have been living in the Netherlands for years…”

“Every genocide starts with stigmatizing registration and expulsion in groups.”

These are just a few lines coming out of the heated debate in the Dutch media concerning integration, immigration, and asylum policies in the Netherlands. We think that they reflect an alarming rise in xenophobia and racism in the Netherlands, a trend that is slowly turning into widespread intolerance fueled by assailing fear.

About seventy years ago a specific minority group in Europe was gradually experiencing increasing discrimination: the Jews. Unfortunately, we all know the fate that awaited them during the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war much has been written about the roles of different groups involved in the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust: the perpetrators, the collaborators, the victims, and the resistance fighters. The main question we have asked is: What makes people commit such horrible acts - how did it happen?  In exploring this issue, we seem to have found a dark recess of human nature within all of us. In that vein, some people have also written about the largest group of all: the bystanders. As Elie Wiesel has put it:

“I’ve always believed this: the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. And I also believe that the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but indifference. The opposite of hope is not hopelessness but indifference. The opposite of life is not death but indifference toward the killing of others… In this tragedy, there were three roles: the murderer, the victim, and the bystander. Without the bystander, the murderer could never have victimized so many people.”

Because the bystander plays such a crucial role in the development of hatred, discrimination, and genocide, it is also crucial to understand how indifference is transformed into action. Bystanders must become members of a fourth group that Wiesel seems to omit, perhaps because there were too few of them: the resisters.

Why do or don’t people resist, and, more fundamentally, what is resistance in the first place? These questions have seemingly received little attention yet are perhaps more important to us now than they have been in many decades. Indeed, in recent years, it has become increasingly easy to compare the current societal attitudes regarding minorities with the prevalence of intolerance before the Second World War. We may not all agree on whether this comparison is just but, considering the fact that in 1932 few could have imagined the Holocaust, we think that in trying to make “never again” a reality we have to be on guard, always. The only way to halt the repetitive cycle of genocide that continues today, such as in Sudan as we are writing this article, is if bystanders stand up against injustice. To that end, we want to understand better resistance. This paper presents and analyzes the views of historians, former Dutch resistance members, and survivors of the Holocaust on defining and explaining resistance in the Second World War, and it applies this analysis towards understanding how to fight against the injustices of today.

What is Resistance?

In order to talk about resistance, it is first of all important to define what it is. Scholars and former resistance members often seem to differ on this issue. Professor Doctor Johannes Houwink ten Cate, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam, offers the two most commonly held definitions among academics. In the case of a totalitarian government, such as the Nazi regime that occupied Holland in WWII, resistance can be defined as anything that is contrary to the declared aim of government policy, no matter how small, because the state purports to control all aspects of society including individual behavior. A second definition labels as resistance whatever the occupying force considers to be resistance. Both leave room for a wide variety of activities in the private and public spheres of society, from simply listening to Radio Oranje, a station transmitted by BBC and operated by the Dutch government-in-exile from London, to publishing an underground newspaper.

Former resistance fighters themselves, on the other hand, tend to use the word “resistance” sparingly. Bill Minco, a former member of the resistance group the Geuzen, sees resistance mainly as actively risking your life to fight the occupier in order to help others: “You risk your life for the good thing, to fight the enemy. That is resistance.” On the other hand, Rutger Matthijssen, a member of the resistance group of Geert Lubberhuizen who tried to find hiding places for Jewish children, asserts, “You cannot say resistance is defined in a certain way. There are different intensities. It is more of a mentality.” 

“Resistance with a Small ‘r’”: the Degrees of Resistance

The complexities of defining resistance become apparent when analyzing situations that question our ability to categorize activities easily. For example, early in the occupation the Germans, with help from the Dutch Nazi party (the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, or NSB), created a charitable organization called Winterhulp (“Winter Relief”) ostensibly to offer help for ‘needy Dutch citizens.’ Despite the fact that outwardly the NSB made every effort to make Winterhulp appear as though it were an impartial organization, the Dutch people rightly saw it as a propaganda arm of the oppressor: it received very few contributions. The Verzetsmuseum (Resistance Museum) in Amsterdam presents this as a prominent act of “passive resistance.” 

Bill Minco says simply, though, “Passive is not resistance.” Minco understands resistance as an undertaking that requires, at the very least, concrete action. Sabotage and espionage clearly fit this description. But simply not contributing to a Nazi charity, it seems, can hardly be called resistance. If such a choice is not resistance, then what is it? For example, how do we categorize people who knew of Jewish people in hiding but did not betray them? Mr. Matthijssen tells of his group’s efforts to smuggle children onto trams and away to safety. Without the silence of the rest of the passengers, such rescues would not have been possible. “It was not Resistance with a big R, perhaps, but it helped. It is not nothing. We needed that help.” 

Indeed, the phenomenon of “not-betraying” blurs the line between resister and bystander. Mr. Matthijssen insists that without the tacit co-operation of many Dutch people, the active resistance work that he participated in would not have been possible. Frieda Menco, who was a hidden child until 1944 and an Auschwitz survivor, calls this tacit loyalty “decency” and not resistance. 

To the authors, “not-betraying,” however, is not always positive. To be sure, many who did not betray the resistance were loyal to the cause. But we should be aware that the Nazis also exploited the silence that resistance members relied upon. The same dynamic that may have kept the neighbor quiet about the hidden Jews next door may also have allowed him or her to sit and watch as that same family was taken away to be deported.  In both cases, neither resistance nor oppression would have been possible without the lack of action on the part of the bystanders.  To the authors, it seems that “passive resistance” can also be indifference.

Why Resist? The Problem of Motive

Resistance is often spoken of in noble terms as a valiant fight for the right cause. People resist for a variety of motives, though, sometimes clear but often murky. Often the cause itself is morally dubious. Terrorists in Iraq today, for example, could easily be labeled as resisters to the American occupation. More interesting than that debate academically is the fact that a large variety of motives may propel people to join the same righteous resistance movements. Resistance in Holland during the Second World War, for example, was not confined to any particular political or ideological group.

Ideological or political motives

Dr. Houwink ten Cate explains how the pillarization of Dutch society led to a diversity of resistance motives. At the time, roughly 80% of Dutch society, he says, was organized as either Catholic or Protestant. It was a deeply religious society and the calls of various priests and ministers to resist were no doubt an important motivating factor. The Verzetsmuseum (Resistance Museum) in Amsterdam presents, in literal fashion, the four “pillars” of resistance (Socialists, Catholics, Liberals, and Protestants), which mirror the pillarization of Dutch society at the time. The Communists in particular represented an ideological group whose political goals differed greatly from the rest of the Dutch resistance. Despite ideological divisions such as these, though, there was extensive collaboration between all types of resisters. Mr. Matthijssen said his group worked with Communists and others but that they “didn’t talk politics. There was only one enemy: the Germans.” The differences between them, he says, were of “minor importance” when compared to the struggle at hand. Similarly, Ronnie Goldstein, a former resistance member who also helped to hide Jewish children, says that people rarely asked why someone chose to resist.

Bill Minco often advises young people that “being against something is not the same as fighting injustice… Keep in mind that you can only fight against something if you know what you are fighting for.” Resisters ultimately band together because they share an ideology against something, and difficult times force them to set their differences aside. Still, in considering resistance today and in the past we should not forget what people are fighting for. In the aftermath of conflict, this can be especially important.

Psychological motives

Their personal ideological motives aside, people became resisters for various psychological reasons. Believing in a cause is a far cry from fighting for it, and the various reasons for which people joined the resistance shed light not only on the topic at hand but also human nature.

The first and most straightforward group who resisted were those who decided that they would stand up to Nazi oppression simply because they would not take it – they decided to fight injustice. These were the type of people, Bill Minco says, who simply “could not do it any other way.” Minco had heard from his uncle, who lived in Germany until 1938, about the treatment of the Jews there. Moreover, on May 10, 1940 (the day of the Dutch surrender), his hometown of Rotterdam was bombed and 800 people were killed. As he stood on a high building on his street watching the Luftwaffe fly low over the city center, “I decided that I had to do something. I was going to fight back.”  Mr. Matthijssen, on the other hand, admits that he may not have joined the resistance had he not been approached by someone who wanted his help hiding Jewish children because his apartment happened to be near the Utrecht train station. This simple request launched Matthijssen’s five years of ardent resistance work. Indeed, according to Ronnie Goldstein, many joined the resistance for the simple reason that they had been approached and their assistance requested. If more had been asked, she contends, more would have resisted, though “not by much.”

There were also those who were simply looking for adventure, who did not make a principled choice. Some, in the case of families hiding Jews, even resisted for money. A family who demanded payment for their aid hid Frieda Menco. “You didn’t have to be nice to resist. When you do good things in life, it doesn’t always mean that you have a good character,” she says. 

The status of the war also had much to do with resistance support. The Battle of Stalingrad, in August 1942, was a major turning point in the occupation of Holland. Those who had been watching from the sidelines, receiving only bad news about the Allies up until that point, suddenly began to realize that Germany might lose the war. In that period many joined the resistance. When Canadian forces finally liberated the south Netherlands in September 1944, all of a sudden everyone was in the resistance. Among some resistance members these people were called “the September artists.”

So, while resistance was driven by a variety of motives, the resistance as a whole was celebrated after the war as a mass movement. As Frank Bovenkerk has written, after the war “the dominant moral classification was into two categories, good and bad or right and wrong.” But, as has been demonstrated, there were a multitude of shades of gray in between these extremes. Even if one can define resistance activities themselves, one still has to grapple with the problem of motive. How should we view those who resisted for ulterior, perhaps selfish, perhaps unsavory, motives? As Bill Minco points out, the Communists at the time were ostensibly fighting against the Nazis for an “equally inhuman system,” that of Josef Stalin. Should they be held in as high esteem as other resisters? Yet they did help to overthrow Nazism in oppressed countries all over Europe, and many did this out of a yearning for equality or better rights for workers. 

Looking back on the family that hid her for money, Frieda Menco considers, “If we would have survived until the end of the war by staying in hiding, they would have been the first we thanked – we would have seen them as the ones who saved our lives. Yet in fact, they were terrible people.”  Though this may be one story out of many, it illustrates that resistance did not always result out of noble motives. The word “resistance” cannot always be equated with morality, even if for the right cause. The actual doing of good things may be of the utmost importance, but we should not forget how and why people become resisters.

When to resist?

Particularly salient is the question of when one should begin to become a resister. It was a choice that many made too late – in regard to many Jews, it was a fatal mistake.

Mr. Matthijssen illustrates this difficult choice with an example. At the end of 1940, Jewish professors in universities all over Holland were fired. Students at Leiden and Delft went on strike, prompting the permanent closing of the former. Matthijssen says this was a good principled stand, but it was impractical. Those on strike immediately became unemployed and thus qualified for forced labor in Germany. Many of the strikers even ended up going to school at Utrecht rather than staying unemployed. Matthijssen says many decided to wait for the right moment to make an outright stand. As he says, “One of the lessons we can learn from this early period is that it is very difficult to be principled because you have to pay for it. The future is very uncertain and so you are always postponing decisions. It is a difficult balance.”

Bill Minco’s group was one of the earliest to resist the Germans actively, conducting sabotage and espionage throughout 1940, particularly in Rotterdam and nearby towns, and publishing the first illegal pamphlets. In January 1941, though, the Geuzen was betrayed and the Germans arrested Minco and 18 of his group. Fifteen Geuzen were shot on March 13, 1941, but Minco and two others had their death sentences commuted because they were minors. He spent the rest of the war in several prisons and camps, including Mauthausen, Auschwitz, and finally Dachau. “What the Geuzen did in 1940 had no effect on the enemy,” Minco says. “What’s important is that they did it, and early on.” To Minco, the Geuzen’s valiant early stand laid the moral foundation for resistance work later in the war.

Both Minco’s and Matthijssen’s stories demonstrate the difficult balancing act involved in resistance work. Do too much too early and you may be caught – wait too long, and it may be too little, too late. The Jews, for example, registered themselves in droves and held out hope that “labor in the East” meant just that. They did not resist the request of the occupier to register themselves. Being an illegal (unregistered) Jew could mean severe punishment. Perhaps compromising by registering, they may have thought, could ease the burden of oppression. In the end, though, as Minco says, “The Dutch people let the Jews go. But the Jews also let themselves go.”

Indeed, in general it would seem that most people chose to resist too late. Minco speaks of the “September artists,” those who resisted only when Holland was on the verge of liberation, and Matthijssen refers to those who were constantly calculating the Allies’ chances of victory, most of them choosing sides only after Stalingrad. Minco and Mathijssen, who had both joined the resistance early on, realize the complexity and at the same time the importance of resisting “on time.” Who knows how many lives could have been saved if individuals had refused to be bystanders a year or perhaps even a few weeks or days earlier? Thus, when it comes to the question, “When should I resist?” the answer would seem to be, “The earlier, the better.” 

Resistance Today

Richard von Weizsäcker, former federal president of Germany, once said, “We learn out of our own history what the human being is capable of doing,” and “The one who closes his or her eyes to the past becomes blind to the future.” So when faced with the Dutch history concerning the Holocaust, particularly the role of resistance fighters and bystanders, what do we choose? Do we learn, or do we close our eyes?

According to a report by the Landelijk Bureau ter bestrijding van Rassendiscriminatie (National Office to Combat Racial Discrimination), “Rapportage Racisme in Nederland (Report on Racism in the Netherlands),” after Pim Fortuyn’s campaign in 2001 many political parties struck a harsher tone concerning immigration and integration. The present cabinet is continuing the trend that began in the 1990’s of a more rigid alien integration policy. In the political arena, the debate has become increasingly heated and controversial.

In recent years two forms of racism have become particularly visible, namely anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism. According to the Centrum Informatie en Documentatie Israël (Center for Information and Documentation Israël) (CIDI), in 2002 the number of anti-Semitic incidents increased in comparison to previous years. In addition, the incidents tended to be of a more serious nature than in the past. 

In addition, events that have caused great international turmoil, especially 9/11, have reinforced anti-Islamism in the Western World. Recent incidents have included public humiliation, graffiti, threats, violence, and even arson. Compared with the relative infrequency of such incidents in the years preceding 9/11 the level of anti-Islamism in the Netherlands is on the rise. These are only two examples of problems minority groups are confronted with in the Netherlands. It is important to remember that minorities like the Moroccans, Turks, Antilleans, asylum seekers, Roma, and Sinti all experience their own difficulties.

As the lines taken out of the media at the beginning of this article have shown, some boldly say that the same thing that happened to the Jews prior to and during World War II is happening again: gradual separation, registration, and stigmatization of certain groups. This brings us to the analysis of the question concerning resistance today. What does resistance mean now? Is “resistance” per se even possible, or required, in a democratic country? And how do the dynamics that we have studied concerning resisters and bystanders apply in the present?

Everyone with whom we spoke suggested that “resistance” is not the appropriate word to use when referring to efforts to end today’s discrimination. Bill Minco has qualified resistance as fighting against the enemy, specifically with risk to your life. This danger is not normally present in a democracy. Speaking out against racists or using politics to end intolerance are perhaps better characterized as “protest.” Yet as Matthijssen tells us, resistance is also a matter of mentality—a comment echoed by almost everyone we interviewed. The resistance mentality, according to Minco, “is underpinned by knowledge. You have to remain informed about what is happening around you. You have to get an education. You need to learn from history. And you must decide that you will never be a passive bystander.” 

In Holland and in other Western countries, we may not face material occupiers, yet many of our inhabitants experience some form of discrimination, injustice, or oppression. The resistance ideal espoused by those we interviewed means that to be involved in “resistance” one must make sacrifice. Speaking out is certainly important, but the words of those who have witnessed the Holocaust remind us that to “resist” injustice we must take it a step further. In the Second World War, this sacrifice meant lives ¬– now, it might cost one status, money, or time. The realization that sacrifice is necessary is even more important in these relatively peaceful domestic times, as, unlike during the Second World War, one is not forcefully confronted with injustice or danger. As Frieda Menco says, “War brings out the worst and the best in human beings. Yet in a given society the majority of people are normally indifferent. If you live in a country where lives consist of work, sleep, eat, and work again, why would the extremes of good and bad be brought out of people?” 

Without being forced to deal with injustice on a daily basis, we see the prevalence of a phenomenon called “bystander apathy.” During the Second World War a vast majority of the population took an attitude that can best be described as that of accommodation, while only very small groups either resisted or collaborated. In several studies conducted in this field it is estimated that 2% of the population was involved in active resistance and 3% in collaboration – the rest were bystanders. This indicates a distribution of moral behavior in any population, with good and bad at the two extremes and a vast majority in the neutral range somewhere in between. While we do not have similar statistics for today, the problem of indifference is perhaps even greater, considering the fact that in Dutch society in everyday life, generally, people are not confronted with circumstances that force them to choose. This is an important point because without the majority settled in a neutral middle ground, many forms of injustice would be virtually inconceivable.

According to Scheleff, a criminologist, there are three conditions that prevent people from intervening to stop a crime from occurring. The first is diffuse responsibility. (“There are so many people around who also see it happening—why should I be the one to intervene? It’s not my business anyway.”) The second condition concerns problems in identifying with the victim. (We are more likely to help our relatives and friends, people within the bounds of our moral universe. For all we know, those who fall outside of these bounds may deserve what they get.) The third condition involves the difficulty of imagining being able to intervene effectively. (“What can we do nowadays to help the victims of terror in distant countries?”)

Lou de Jong, a Dutch historian, states in his series “De Koninkrijk der Nederlanden” (the Dutch Kingdom) that “what happened to the Jews had one important aspect in common with the activities of the illegal groups: Most Dutchmen didn’t notice much of it in their daily lives.” De Jong is noting here that one is often able to dismiss easily the disturbing images of war or genocide because they are from another country in a distant land. Even when injustice is taking place in our own land, the information is easily dismissed when it does not touch, interfere with, or harm our own small worlds. Unless it affects us noticeably, it tends to leave us neutral—indifferent at the core.

Some people today have attempted to bridge this emotional and physical distance. Martijn Engelbrecht, an Amsterdam artist, performed an art experiment in 2003 whereby he distributed thousands of forms asking people whether they would be willing to report any illegal asylum seekers in their neighborhood. Engelbrecht said it was a “pleasant surprise” to receive only three responses from people willing to report their illegal neighbors, although he comments, “three is already too much.” He did, however, inflame debate about the issue of illegal asylum seekers, as he received hundreds of complaints from various groups, including those who felt it reminded them of the occupation during the Second World War. “I think very often people don’t think so hard about issues that are far away from home,” Engelbrecht explains. “There is an imbalance between letting the government do what it does and how it is if you are asked to betray your own neighbor. I wanted to bring this issue directly to them.” 

While we can offer no concrete solutions, it is clear that one important step towards ending indifference is to make people aware that problems that seem distant are in fact urgent and personal.

Conclusion

Resistance in the Second World War offers us invaluable lessons of how we can begin to approach living up to the rhetoric of “never again.” Small groups of malefactors will always attempt to perpetrate evil on a wide scale – this, history has shown, is not something that can be made to disappear. As such, the responsibility for preventing genocide or war will depend on each one of us, on our willingness to resist. To that end, we have attempted to understand what resistance is. It can arise from a multitude of motives, and can be carried out in many different ways. But true resistance, we believe, involves sacrifice. If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that to stop injustice society desperately needs people who are willing to risk everything to stop it from the moment that it begins. Resistance begins within each one of us. As Bill Minco said, “I believe that every human being can choose between good and bad. If you want the world to become a better place, then it has to start with yourself.”  So, as he added when we parted, “Don’t forget to look in the mirror.”

References

Interviews

Bill Minco, former resistance member.

Rutger Matthijssen, former resistance member.

Frieda Menco, hidden as a child and survivor of the Holocaust.

Ronnie Goldstein, former resistance member.

Prof. dr. Johannes Houwink ten Cate, historian, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Dr. Dienke Hondius, historian, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Martijn Engelbrecht, artist.

Articles & Publications

Maas, Walter B., The Netherlands at War

Presser, J., Ashes in the Wind

Minco, Bill, Daarom

Bovenkerk, Frank, The Other Side of the Anne Frank Story: The Dutch Role in the Persecution of the Jews in World War Two.

Landelijk Bureau ter bestrijding van Rassendiscriminatie, Rapportage Racisme in Nederland.

Wertheim, Anne-Ruth, Als we niet oppassen zal onze angst voor de immigrant uitmonden in massale raciale agressie / If we are not careful, our fear of the immigrant will result in massive racial aggression, NRC Handelsblad, 19 June 2004.

A lecture given by Bill Minco during Humanity in Action 2004.

A lecture given by Ronnie Goldstein.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2004

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