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A Founding Myth for the Netherlands: The Second World War and the Victimization of Dutch Jews

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010. 


Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a tendency in Dutch society to characterize the Netherlands' role in the war in a positive and heroic light. Individual stories of resistance against the Nazi regime and efforts to hide Dutch Jews have been documented and celebrated. As Frank Bovenkerk noted, "Long after the end of the Second World War and the German occupation, the Dutch were still congratulating themselves on their heroic stance regarding the persecution of their Jewish countrymen" (Bovenkerk, 1999).

This positive image of the Netherlands’ role in the Second World War and its opposition to the evil of the Nazi persecution of the Jews has become a founding myth for the Dutch nation. According to this myth, Dutch society was united in its resistance to anti-Jewish actions and in its collective opposition to  German  occupying  forces. The  myth  further propagates the idea that Dutch society as a whole – and not Dutch Jews alone – was victimized by the Nazi regime. Since the end of the Second World War, Dutch society has been viewed largely as a collective body with a singular national history, in which collective resistance to the Holocaust is central. However, Jewish victimization has been denied a distinct place in this founding myth. This article explores the development of the founding myth and examines its consequences for Dutch society. Specifically, the article focuses on the way Jewish victimization has been constructed and perpetuated by the national myth.

The memory of the Second World War serves as a unifying memory that creates a sense of solidarity and national identity in the Netherlands. As a myth, a national memory of past events takes on a life of its own, separate and distinct from the historical context in which the events took place. In addition, the myth is used to justify present social conditions and affects public consciousness on various levels. The founding myth about the Second World War in the Netherlands states that all of Dutch society was united against the evil of the Nazi regime and Dutch society as a whole suffered from this evil. Its aim to create national unity in the aftermath of the war has been of central importance, even at the expense of historical accuracy.

The  founding  myth  of  the  Second  World War in the Netherlands did not develop immediately after the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, the Netherlands, like the other European countries, faced the difficult task of rebuilding a society destroyed by war. In addition to rebuilding society according to the strict ideological and religious divides that characterized the Dutch “pillarized” society, the Netherlands also had to deal with two colonial wars in Indonesia. At the time, remembering or memorializing the war and the experiences of the Dutch Jews was not a priority. Although literary and historical narratives from concentration camp survivors received attention and the prosecution of war criminals was publicized, society tended not to focus on the experience of the war.

As Dutch society attempted to move beyond the destruction of the war, Holocaust survivors attempted to rebuild their lives. For many individuals   and the nation as a whole, the best way to move forward was to suppress their terrible memories and focus on the present. As one pyschotrauma expert has noted,“The victim and his immediate social environment have a common interest in suppressing the threatening memories of the war and the more recent feelings of despair and confusion. In this way a‘conspiracy of silence’ develops” (Begemann, 1985, quoted in De Haan, 1998). Frieda Menco, a survivor of Auschwitz, describes how the experience of  the Holocaust was not discussed in her family even though her husband was  also a survivor of Auschwitz. In her family, it was not a subject that was spoken about; rather, there was “deafening silence” (Menco, 1997). In an interview, Bill Minco, a Jewish resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor, stated that after the war, Jews and others were too busy trying to get their  lives back in order to focus on what they had endured. He also suggested that, at the official level, the “conspiracy of silence” was maintained because many of the same Dutch officials who were in office before the war returned to their positions and did not want to look to the past for fear that what they might find would damage their public image.

Mythologizing Resistance

The “conspiracy of silence” after the end of the war saw the formation of views that would later become central to the founding myth. Chief among these views was the belief that many Dutch citizens risked their lives in the resistance movement against the Nazi regime. Many stories of heroism during the war emerged and these examples helped shape what Dienke Hondius has coined “the resistance norm” (Hondius, 2000), which effectively created a standard for evaluating war-time conduct in terms of “goodness” and “wrongness.” Although some Dutch individuals were singled out as wrongdoers and condemned by society, they were viewed as exceptions to the general standard of resistance that placed the Netherlands as a nation on the right side of the war, fighting for the good of all its citizens. Acts of individual heroism and resistance were not only celebrated, but also appeared to emblematize the Dutch nation as a whole. The notion of collective resistance has become a cornerstone of the founding myth.

Accepting the idea that Dutch society as a whole was on the right side of the war and that solidarity with the Jews was the norm rather than the exception only compounded the silence surrounding the Jews’ experiences. Not only did Dutch Jews return home to a nation in the process of attempting to rebuild itself, they also returned home to an unwelcoming and un-sympathetic Dutch society. Supposedly so helpful to its Jewish countrymen in the face of Nazi persecution, Dutch society now expected gratitude from Jews for the assistance they received during the war. Furthermore, Dutch society suppressed Jews from publically voicing attempts to receive special treatment as victims. In July of 1945, the resistance magazine “De Patriot” stressed the proper role of Jews in post-war Dutch society: “Now is the time for Jews to remind themselves all the time that they have to be thankful. And they have to show their gratitude first of all by making up what has to be made up to those who have become victims on behalf of Jews. They may thank God that they came out alive. It is also possible to lose sympathy…They are certainly not the only ones who had a bad time and who suffered” (qtd. in Hondius, 2000).

This post-war sentiment certainly differs from what one would expect from a supposedly heroic and good Dutch society. Instead, post-war attitudes foreground and celebrate the non- Jewish members of Dutch society. Jews are not considered as specific victims with unique experiences, but rather as people whose survival has been contingent upon Dutch goodness. According to Hondius, the belief that Jews owed their existence to the heroism of their non-Jewish Dutchmen and that these Dutch knew what was best for the Jews eventually led to a denial of Jewish identity and community within post-war Dutch society.

The 1960s marked a turning point in attitudes toward the study of the Holocaust. At this time, the general public began to focus its attention on the fate of the Jews. The Holocaust became viewed as a unique experience that required specific scholarly attention. More than simply becoming a subject of academic interest, it became an almost metaphysical or sacred entity, existing beyond any historical framework. Interest in the Holocaust as a historical event for study and scrutiny was fostered by a number of factors. First, in 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann sparked public interest. Also, the societal factors that had earlier created this barrier of silence began to diminish. As a nation, the Netherlands was moving along with rebuilding itself and coming to terms with the loss of Indonesia. Greater numbers of survivors also began to give their testimonies about their experiences to an increasingly interested public audience.

It is plausible to trace a basic dichotomy in Dutch memory of the Holocaust back to the works of two Dutch-Jewish historians, Jacques Presser (1899-1970) and Loe de Jong (1914-2005). De Jong claimed that the war and, by consequence, the Holocaust, was the outcome of a German (or Fascist) struggle against the rest of Europe. De Jong’s broad view of the resistance gave the Dutch a way to think of themselves as “good guys” fighting against the German “bad guys.” Presser, on the other hand, considered the Holocaust as a human tragedy that would likely seriously challenge any faith in humanity, and that he had to describe as well as he could. He also raised the issue of Dutch complicity in discrimination and persecution.

Although both scholarly and public interest in the Holocaust exposed less than favorable facts about the Dutch involvement in the war to the image of a collective resistance-oriented nation, the founding myth of the Dutch as do-gooders continued to influence Dutch society. In an interview, Peter van Rooden went so far as to state that the remembrance of the Second World War is the first Dutch national memory.

The founding myth justified an equal treatment policy that had been required during pillarization and had the same effect of denying the unique suffering  of  the  Dutch  Jewish community. According to Ido de Haan, this resulted in “hardly any leeway for remembering the persecution of the Jews…The persecution as part of the arbitrariness of the past, and one of the main factors to legitimate the new system of social rights was that it did not distinguish between groups of citizens” (De Haan, 1998). The end of the pillar system did not bring about a change in the treatment of Jews as a distinct group of war victims. Instead, the desire to construct the Second World War as a national memory and unify Dutch society supported the notion that wartime Dutch society was united in the fight against Nazism and that all Dutch citizens, including, but not limited to Dutch Jews, were victims of the war.

The Myth of Collective Suffering

The construction of the Second World War as a national memory marks the second phase in the development of the founding myth. According to this part of the myth, all Dutch citizens, Jews and non-Jews, were victims of the national trauma that was the Holocaust. Even after the wall of silence surrounding the fate of the Dutch Jews came down, the construction  of the Holocaust as a national trauma, or

psychiatric experience, allowed for the possibility that all Dutch citizens could be united in their claims of victimization. As Ido de Haan writes, “while the vocabulary of psychiatry initially functioned as a medium for the public recognition of the persecution, it gradually became  a medium to deprive Jewish victims of the attributes of victimhood. As a result of the dominance of the psychiatric vocabulary, the persecution became a national trauma anyone could suffer from” (De Haan, 1998).

By converting the Holocaust into a national trauma, the founding myth erased differences between victims and their victimization. The language of national trauma only reinforced the myth that all members of Dutch society were victims of the Nazi occupation and therefore could not have played a role in the persecution of the Jews. Not only is this notion historically inaccurate,  it also relativizes the suffering of Jews and the Jewish community. As a community, Dutch Jewry suffered an incomparable loss to the loss of the rest of Dutch society. Seventy-five percent of the Dutch Jewish population was murdered during the war (Bovenkerk, 1999).

However, the most offensive consequence of this myth of collective suffering is that it obscures the fact that Dutch society was hardly innocent in its role in the persecution of the Jews. Although the myth speaks about heroism and resistance, in truth, only a small percentage of the Dutch population actually participated in the resistance movement while the majority of the population stood by and did nothing. By claiming that the persecution of the Jews was a national trauma suffered by all of Dutch society, the myth allows for the possibility of labeling Dutch perpetrators and bystanders as “victims” along with Dutch Jews.  De  Haan  correctly  points  out  that the “very same Dutch society that is said to have suffered so much from the persecution of the Jews was also the context for its effective execution” (De Haan, 1998). In this way, the founding myth dishonors the memory of Jewish suffering and also denies the historical reality of Dutch participation in causing this suffering.

Correcting the Myth and the Dangers of Re-Victimizing Dutch Jews

Since the 1980s, there has been a trend to confront the historical inaccuracies of the founding myth. David Barnouw of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation stated in an interview that Dutch society is now in a period of feeling guilty about its role  in the persecution of the Jews, as historical facts break through the façade of the founding myth. The process of demystification, however, has been slow and impact of the founding myth is still evident in Dutch society. Bill Minco stated that it is still somewhat uncomfortable in Dutch society to speak about and come to terms with the fact that some of the Dutch helped carry out the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. “The Dutch did not hide the Jews,” Minco said, “but they are now hiding the past” (Minco Interview, 2000).

The trend of demystification has led to an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the Jewish experience as victims of the Holocaust, as the recent settlement of reparation payments demonstrates. However, the recognition of Jewish victimization has the possible negative effect of once again victimizing Jews. If Jews are seen primarily as victims, there is the danger that they will not be seen as individuals, but rather reduced to a generalized conception of victimhood. Feelings of guilt about the past may lead some non-Jewish Dutch to want to acknowledge the victimization of Jews at the hands of Dutch society, but it may also lead others to once again construct the social role for Jews instead of respecting their individuality and agency. In this way, Dutch society may again patronize Jews, as it did in the decades following the war. Bill Minco stated that he has often felt this patronizing view that sees him particularly as a victim. For him, this characterization is a form of “positive anti-Semitism.” The legacy of the founding myth, therefore, could be that, in an attempt to demystify the past and come to terms with the Dutch role in the persecution of the Jews, Dutch society has actually managed to re-victimize Jews, by characterizing them solely as victims.

The importance of anti-Semitism is such that a closer investigation of this new phenomenon, so- called positive anti-Semitism, would warrant further investigation. In order to do so it is necessary to consider the varieties of meaning the word ‘victimization’ can have. In one sense, victimization can refer to the fact that a person is a victim, usually of a crime, an accident, or a natural disaster. In any case, it ap- plies to a form of human suffering that is arbitrary; it may strike any person, without respect to personal character and position.

This matter-of-fact meaning obviously applies to the Dutch Jews: they were victims of Nazi persecution and extermination. But it can also be applied to Dutch society as a whole. Such use of the term actually happened in the decade and a half after the War. Dutch society correctly viewed itself as victims of Nazi terror. In this same period, however, the Dutch behaved badly to those Jews who returned from hiding and from the German camps, despite the fact that these people had been hit much worse during the war than the general population.

There is an interesting paradox here. There are two groups of ‘victims’, but no solidarity between them. Their respective claims of victimhood seem to mutually exclude, or at least compete with, each other.

Victimization can also mean the process by which an individual or a group is viewed as victims by other people. The group in question can either claim this as a sort of status, or the members of this group can be forced into the role of victims regardless if they want this status or not. Both senses of the term victimization appear in Dutch national history. To apply this term may help to clarify the behavior of the Dutch toward their Jewish fellow citizens.

In the first period, from the end of the war till the 1960s onwards, the Dutch used their own national image as a victimized nation as an excuse not to give their Jews the additional support they needed to rebuild their lives. Then, from 1965 onwards, the Jewish claim to extra help was recognized, but the Dutch didn’t actually listen to what the Jews wanted or needed. Instead, they patronized the Jews and force them into the role of victims. There was   no place for Jews to enter the discussion and their voices were discounted. Thus, Jews had   no chance to prove the extent of Dutch collaboration with the Nazi’s or to protest against  the treatment they received after the war. This position would have challenged the founding myth of united Dutch“goodness” during the war, a myth that was needed to give the country a sense of unity.

It was not until the 1980s that the surviving Jews made their voices heard. The result is well known: a huge debate, official apologies, significant reparation payments after prolonged negotiations in which the World Jewish Congress played an influential role. The outcome of the process is certainly positive, justice demands no less. Still, it might well be that the process had the negative effect to lead to a new pattern of victimization of the Jews in Dutch society, comparable to the positive anti-Semitism that Bill Minco described.

Even among Dutch people who sympathize with the Jewish cause, the process of negotiation has been shown to lead to misunderstandings about the strength and organization of the Jewish community in the Netherlands. Some people have gotten the impression that there is a strong, determined and well-articulated Jewish community in the Netherlands. As Bill Minco stated, there are only a few representatives of some organizations with strong voices, but they do not represent all the Dutch Jews. It was they who argued the cause for reparations.

The most reasonable explanation for this phenomenon would be that it stems from fear. Fear for the enormity of the crimes, fear for the possible extent of the reparation claims and their practical legacy, and fear that a strong group with help from outside would use their victim status as a claim to be the moral standard of ‘our’ Dutch society. This is the sort of fear that fosters anti-Semitic feelings, without anything positive about it at all.

The experience of the Second World War left Dutch society searching for a national identity from which a new period in their history could begin. This identity was built upon the heroic stories of resistance in the Netherlands to the Nazi regime and the belief that Dutch society had stood by and protected its Jewish citizens. While individual acts of heroism and resistance certainly existed, the formation of a national myth focused upon these acts, and extending this heroism to describe the entire Dutch nation, obfuscated the truth of the war experience.  By attempting to create a story of national unity and solidarity, the national myth has ignored the crucial differences between Jews and non-Jews in their experiences of the war. While the attempt to demystify the past is a crucial step for Dutch society in moving forward while not forgetting the past, it is also vital that Jewish survivors are not simply labeled as victims. To do so would be to expose them to the same process of identity construction that has formed the myth, where Jewish identity was constructed and therefore Jewish suffering was denied.


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About the Authors

Matthijs Kronenmeijer studied theology and Arabic studies at Utrecht University and Jewish studies at Oxford. Since 2005, Kronemeijer has been working as a researcher and policy advisor for the Catholic Military Chaplaincy Service of the Dutch Ministry of Defense. For the past ten years, he has been involved in the Catholic Council for Israel, the organization responsible for Jewish-Christian dialogue in the Netherlands.
Darren Teshima is an attorney at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in San Francisco. Darren specializes in commercial litigation, and also represents pro bono clients seeking asylum. Darren attended Amherst College and Georgetown University Law Center, and clerked for the Honorable David O. Carter in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.


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