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Amsterdam: Heroes, Villains and Many Shades of Grey

Published by Humanity in Action in 2013, Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue examines the different ways that European countries and the United States responded to the Holocaust. This anthology was created as part of “Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust, a series of events in Copenhagen commemorating the 70th anniversary of the flight and deportation of Danish Jews in October 1943.

Dutch civil society under Nazi occupation: an educational perspective

Since 2008, the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, in partnership with Amsterdam City Council, has organized the annual ‘Amsterdammer of the Year’ awards. Ordinary Amsterdammers who have made a positive contribution to the city can be nominated for this award, and in this way they serve as role models for their fellow citizens. In 2011, Mohamed Taha El Idrissi was voted Amsterdammer of the Year from the ten nominees, with over 18% of the votes. On a cold February evening he was walking across a bridge in his neighborhood when he heard cries for help. It soon became apparent that two people, who could not swim, had fallen in the water. El Idrissi, who suffers from reduced lung function as a result of smoking and chronic bronchitis, leapt into the ice-cold water and, with great difficulty, managed to save the pair from drowning and drag them to dry land. One of them had fallen into a coma, and the other was also in a bad way, as was El Idrissi himself. All three were taken to hospital, where they eventually recovered. El Idrissi never heard from the people he had rescued again, but he was left with a €270 hospital bill that he could not pay. Fortunately, his fellow Amsterdammers came to his aid. A fundraising drive raised more than enough to pay the bill, which had been increased by €100 due to late payment. Later El Idrissi said of his decision to jump into the water on that evening: ‘Actually, that should just be a normal response. If someone’s in trouble, you help them. But you often hear of people who just walk on by, or who are afraid. Then I think: well, that way things will never get better.’

Miep Gies 

Would Miep Gies have been voted Amsterdammer of the Year in 1945 if the award had existed then? Probably not. Nobody had yet heard of the Diary of Anne Frank, which Miep had saved after the arrest of the people in hiding in the Secret Annexe in August 1944. So soon after the liberation, the help that she, together with her husband and three colleagues, had given to the people in hiding for a period of 25 months was just another anonymous detail among the many wartime experiences that people had endured. Many years later, when the Diary of Anne Frank had become world-renowned, Miep Gies received the honor that was due to her. In 1972 (together with her husband, whose resistance work is much less well known) she was honored as one of the Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem for her help in sheltering Jews. A royal honor followed in 1995 when she was made a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau. She received special recognition at the Oscar ceremony in March 1996, when Jon Blair brought her on stage to join him in receiving the Oscar for his documentary Anne Frank Remembered. The audience gave her a standing ovation as ‘a true hero’. In 2013 the city of Amsterdam added its own tribute when, on Anne Frank’s birthday, a public park was named after her.

Visitors to the Anne Frank House today can see a video of Miep Gies talking about her decision to help the Frank family during their time in hiding. In fact, you can hardly call it a decision; it was more a natural, even an instinctive response to Otto Frank’s plea for help. No arguments about pros and cons, no weighing up of the risks, no sleeping on it, none of that. It is as if her decision was totally self-evident; as if she was surprised she even needed to be asked. But still, in mid-1942 she must have been aware of the dangers that could result from her decision. The German occupation of the Netherlands had already lasted for two years, and the hard-hearted and highly anti-Semitic civil administration had already well and truly shown its true face. But none of that can be seen in the video. The old film images show an almost girlish young woman, and we can imagine her during that famous conversation with ‘Mister Frank’. And although the circumstances are totally incomparable in so many ways, it still reminds you of the words of Mohamed Taha El Idrissi: ‘Actually, that should just be a normal response. If someone’s in trouble, you help them.’

Uncomfortable facts and questions

The attitude of Dutch citizens during and towards the German occupation, and especially towards the persecution of the Dutch Jews, has been a sensitive subject for research for decades. In particular, this sensitivity arises from the high percentage of Jews that were deported from the Netherlands and killed during the Second World War, both in the absolute sense and in comparison with other countries. At the outbreak of the war, in May 1940, there were an estimated 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands. Over 103,000 – or 75% – of them were killed, by far the highest percentage in Western Europe. That painful fact looms like a dark shadow above every historical investigation into this period, and in a general sense above the constantly reinvented collective image of our nation in the period 1940 to 1945. This is particularly tangible in the commemoration and remembrance of this black page in our history. Through this commemoration and remembrance we express the values that we cherish as a society, and that were pushed aside during the German occupation.

The question of how these values relate to the extermination of the Dutch Jews, and to the attitude of the ‘ordinary’ non-Jewish Dutch people to this, is as relevant as it is uncomfortable. The black and white representation of occupying Germans and occupied Dutch is in any event seriously inadequate as an answer to this question. The question compels self-examination: an examination of the active and passive role of the Dutch people in implement- ing the persecution measures. In this context it is important to also examine the role of those who resisted the occupying forces, for example by providing help to Jews. After all, they not only represent the values we cherish, but they also give an insight into the ways in which those values are transmuted into concrete action.

That brings us to the educational relevance of our image of the persecution of the Jews. What patterns can we determine in the ways people thought and acted, and what do they teach us about ourselves and the society of which we form a part? What motivated collaborators to act in league with the enemy? What ethics can you expect from a victim whose life is at stake? What drove people to help others? Why did the vast majority neither help nor collaborate?

Research, commemoration, remembrance and education delineate our image of the past and its relevance to the present. They are dynamic in character, they influence each other, but they can also stand in uneasy relation to each other. Our self-image, both individual and collective, is fundamentally tarnished when the black and white moral perspective on the war is fragmented into countless shades of grey.

Remembrance becomes a complex issue when perpetrators are also made into kinds of victims, and vice versa. The same applies to education, as role models perish on the chopping block of academic research, or what is presented as such. Where does the Netherlands find itself today?

Growing interest

Let us begin with the good news: there is no lack of interest in the war. That can be inferred from the large number of new books with the war as their subject, from the attendance at memorial services, which is rising rather than falling, and from the amount of research that is being carried out into various aspects connected with the war. In this context, the somber warnings that the war would reach retirement age in 2010 and would only still be found in history books, seem premature to say the least. This is an important fact, because it shows that the war is still manifestly seen as relevant by many people, including young people. This is confirmed by the fact that various research projects and books have stirred up fierce public debate. The societal debate in the Netherlands on the nature and scope of remembrance ceremonies, carried out with great intensity, shows that the war evidently still matters. Within the limited scope of this essay I will examine some aspects of this debate and these discussions, which concern the attitude of the Dutch population with regard to the Holocaust, and which in my opinion have an educational relevance in terms of the development of civil courage.

Judgmental historians

The image of the war, and the persecution of the Jews during the war, has long been dominated by a black and white paradigm of right and wrong. Two historians in particular have helped to sustain this paradigm. Loe de Jong did so as director of the State Institute for War Documentation, which was set up only a few days after the liberation as a documentation and research institute on the Netherlands and the Second World War. Under De Jong’s leadership the institute would make a significant mark on the historiography of this period. His life’s work, The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War (1969-1994), consisting of 14 volumes divided into 27 sections, is regarded as the standard work on the years of occupation. What is more, De Jong reached a large audience thanks to the television series on the occupation that he presented, which was broadcast between 1960 and 1965.

‘Downfall’, by Jacques Presser, which sold over 100,000 copies within a year of its publication in 1965, has had a major influence on the creation of a paradigm of right and wrong, in which historiography became bound up with moral judgement. His conscious decision to carry out historical research from a personal, subjective perspective inevitably brought this in its wake. In their work both De Jong and Presser have placed a strong emphasis on the choice of individuals to take ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ actions. ‘Right’ actions meant resistance activities against the occupying power, and helping those who were exposed to persecution. ‘Wrong’ actions of course included collaboration with the enemy, but passive observation was also qualified as such. Although both historians acknowledged the circumstances that could influence the thoughts and actions of citizens during the occupation, in their eyes the choice was primarily moral in nature. For both of them, the standard for good actions was set high, and certainly when help to Jewish fellow countrymen was concerned they also arrived at harrowing conclusions. According to Presser in particular, the Dutch people had above all looked on passively as the Jews were taken away and exterminated, or in some cases had actively participated in this.

Whereas the memory of the war in the years immediately after the liberation was still defined by the former resistance movement and the role that resistance had played in the recovery of freedom and national sovereignty, with the works of De Jong and Presser the persecution of the Jews became an increasingly central theme. The right-wrong paradigm that was employed by them led to a growing awareness that the Dutch people had seriously failed in their duty to help the Jews.

The spell broken

The paradigm of right and wrong has long dominated the historiography of the war and, through that historiography, the self-image of the Dutch people. It was only in the 1980s that a paradigm shift emerged, when a new generation of historians began to place more emphasis on an analytical and academic approach, and gradually distanced themselves from the political and moral perspective maintained by De Jong and Presser. The year 1983 can possibly serve as the tipping point in this shift. In that year two historians, Jan Bank and Hans Blom, gave their inaugural lectures on the war. Blom’s lecture in particular, with its somewhat provocative title of ‘Under the spell of right and wrong? Academic historiography of the occupation period in the Netherlands’, set the historiography of the war on a different track. He was later appointed director of the State Institute for War Documentation mentioned above. The fact that new times had emerged was also illustrated by the fact that in 1999 Blom changed the name of the institute to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation.

In his work Blom emphasizes the diversity of the wartime reality. He does not allow himself to become caught up in the moral paradigm of right and wrong. Although he has expressed great admiration for the work of De Jong, he sees him chiefly as a public educator, who holds up the mirror of the war for the moral edification of his fellow citizens. Incidentally, Blom does not deny the existence of right and wrong choices in the war, but he sees them as the extremes of a broad spectrum. He points out the importance of representing that whole spectrum, in all its complexity and diversity, without yoking it to moral judgments. In the 1990s there was an increasing focus on the dilemmas facing ‘ordinary people’ during the occupation. These dilemmas took the place of the stark black and white image of a society in which a few people had the courage and the moral strength to resist, while the rest had lent active or passive collaboration to the occupier. The growing interest in the individual memories of wartime eyewitnesses seems to have facilitated the fragmentation and disintegration of the image of the war.

The grey war

More recently, new historians and publicists have emerged who have followed the line initiated by Blom still further. They are not only interested in the actions of the great, grey majority, but even go so far as to qualify the concepts of right and wrong themselves. One exponent of this approach is Chris van der Heijden, who in 2001, with his book ‘Grey Past’, sounded the clarion call for a debate that is still raging with full intensity. Instead of heroes and villains, he primarily sees ordinary people with all their weaknesses, doubts and futilities. Perpetrators are portrayed as rather pathetic figures, who have ended up on the wrong side of history through a combination of an unfortunate confluence of circumstances and weakness of character. This same weakness of character surfaces in his description of both victims and members of the resistance.

Their victimhood and their moral choices are depicted by Van der Heijden in the context of their vulgarities, improper motives and opportunistic actions. Members of the resistance were no longer the steadfast heroes of old, but adventurers and womanizers who occasionally carried out ‘small acts of resistance’. Victims were not only helpless and innocent, but were also quite prepared to take advantage of others if this served their own interests. Helpers were not only altruistic, but also interested in the money they could make. The choice between right and wrong is no more than coincidental, it would appear. In Van der Heijden’s view of humanity, the dividing lines between perpetrators, victims, helpers and bystanders dissolve in a sea of shades of grey.

Wir haben es nicht gewusst

More recently, the publication of the book ‘We Know Nothing Of Their Fate’ by historian Bart van der Boom of Leiden University provoked the inevitable commotion. The title, derived from the diary of the Jewish girl Etty Hillesum, who was killed in Auschwitz in 1943, refers to the question of whether Dutch citizens – Jews and non-Jews – knew of the fate that awaited the Jews. The subtitle refers to ‘ordinary Dutch people’. In fact, Van der Boom poses the ‘Was haben wir gewusst?’ question, but this time to the Dutch people. In Van der Boom’s view, this question is relevant to the understanding and appraisal of the attitude of Dutch citizens towards the persecution of the Jews. On the basis of a study of 164 wartime diaries, Van der Boom concludes that the vast majority of Dutch people at the time of the occupation had no knowledge of the Holocaust. He extends this notion to the victims themselves, who also did not know what awaited them. The majority of them acquiesced in their own arrest and deportation in the hope that, although they would suffer, they would still survive. And if the victims offered no resistance, what could then be expected of their non-Jewish countrymen? For the critic Robin te Slaa of the Volkskrant newspaper, the conclusion was clear: Van der Boom’s study meant the definitive end of the myth of ‘guilty bystanders’.

The return of the heroes 

As could be expected, a reaction has now commenced against the ‘greying’ of the image of the war. And once again this has originated from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, and its director Marjan Schwegman. ‘Where are the heroes?’ she wondered when she took up her post as director of the institute in 2007. Schwegman regrets that, because of the overriding emphasis on nuances, heroism is being written out of history. Where Van der Heijden condescendingly speaks of adventurers and womanizers, Schwegman sees an exceptional and unconventional character as a key source of an attitude of resistance. Heroes cross boundaries, they tolerate no infringement of their inner freedom, they overcome obstacles, and they show us that everyone has the choice to do good. Two other female historians from the institute, Jolande Withuis and Evelien Gans, concur with Schwegman in her opposition to the ‘grey paradigm,’ although each of them does so in a different way and on a different terrain. Gans in particular repudiates both Van der Heijden and Van der Boom, who in her view seriously obfuscate and ultimately extenuate the image of the Holocaust and the attitude of the non-Jewish Dutch people to it.

Too many shades of grey?

On his retirement in 2007, Blom observed that the abandonment of the right-wrong paradigm he had argued for in 1983 had indeed taken root in historical science, but not yet in public opinion, which in his view was still under the spell of right and wrong. How Blom arrived at this opinion is somewhat unclear. The strictly professorial eye may very well have played a role, because for years public debate has been dominated by the apologists of ‘greyness’ and the reactions to them. For that matter, this debate does not appear to concern the necessity of focusing on the great difference between right and wrong so much as the question of whether we have gone too far in putting right and wrong into perspective, and in that sense obscuring our image of the Netherlands during the occupation rather than clarifying it.

Otto Frank had his own opinions on the attitude of the Dutch people towards the Jews during the war. When, in 1979, an interviewer from the Basler Magazin remarked that the Dutch people had behaved in an exemplary way towards the Jews, Frank replied: ‘Yes, the Hollanders helped us tremendously. Where and when in history have you ever seen such a thing?’

The National Remembrance Ceremony and the Holocaust

The image of our country at the time of the occupation, and particularly of the attitudes of the Dutch population, has also had its repercussions on remembrance ceremonies. The intention and the scope of the most important ceremony, the National Remembrance Ceremony on May 4 in Amsterdam, has been the subject of discussion for years. A commemorative text, the so-called Memorandum, lies at the heart of the National Remembrance Ceremony. It reads: “During the national commemoration of Remembrance Day we remember all those – civilians and soldiers – who have been killed or murdered in the Kingdom of the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world in war situations or during peace-keeping operations since the outbreak of the Second World War.”

On its website, the National Committee for May 4 and 5 explains that this concerns Dutch victims, and therefore not perpetrators or victims of other nationalities.

The most frequently heard criticism of this intention concerns the fact that no special place is set aside for the Jewish victims of persecution. They are commemorated of course, but only grouped together with civilians and soldiers in war situations and peace-keeping operations. In view of the magnitude of the Holocaust and its impact on Dutch society, there are many people, both Jews and non-Jews, who do not understand this. The above-mentioned historian Jolande Withuis has referred to it as a ‘hotchpotch commemoration’, which has lost significance by lumping everything and everyone together. The addition of other wars and peace-keeping missions in particular has led to a universalization that is seen as problematic. The criticism of this general character of the National Remembrance Ceremony cannot be seen completely separately from the criticism of the passive or even collaborationist attitude of Dutch citizens towards the persecution of the Jews. Among the circles of Holocaust victims and their surviving relatives in particular, the current intention of the commemoration is felt as a lack of recognition of the events of those times, and of the circumstances under which the persecution could occur.


In 2012 a great controversy arose surrounding the National Remembrance Ceremony because of the original decision to have a fifteen year old boy read out a poem about his great-uncle, who had voluntarily joined the Waffen SS during the war and had died while fighting on the Eastern Front. That seemed suspiciously similar to the commemoration of perpetrators, partly because the poem ended with an appeal not to forget the great-uncle, after whom the schoolboy was named. The committee emphasized that this concerned the educational meaning of the poem, which showed what the consequences of making a wrong choice can be. Nevertheless, it was ultimately decided, partly in the context of the ongoing debate on the intention of the remembrance ceremony, to omit the reading from the ceremony. Whether no perpetrators are in fact remembered on 4 May is questionable. What is certain is that Waffen SS volunteers later fought as volunteers for the Netherlands armed forces in the Dutch East Indies and in Korea.

Bruder, reicht die Hand zum Bunde!

The step towards the commemoration of perpetrators on 4 May has in fact currently been taken on a local level. The best-known example is from the village of Vorden in the eastern Netherlands, where ten German military personnel who died when their aircraft was shot down in March 1945 are buried in the local churchyard. In 2012, the plan was to stand at these German graves after the conclusion of the official remembrance ceremony for an austere commemoration, accompanied by the Vorden Male Voice Choir singing the hymn Brüder, reicht die Hand zum Bunde! The court put a stop to this, however, with a noteworthy judgement. The court prohibited the ceremony, because the commemoration of German military personnel would be disrespectful to other surviving relatives. This judgement was overturned on appeal, however. There are therefore no legal impediments to the commemoration of deceased members of the German occupying forces during the National Remembrance Ceremony on 4 May.

The planned commemoration of Germans on 4 May drew a great deal of national publicity. There were sharp protests, particularly from Jewish circles and circles surrounding the former resistance. Set against these protests were declarations of support for the initiative in Vorden, which were based on a variety of considerations. Some stressed the importance of reconciliation, so many years after the war. Others felt that these fallen warriors should also be regarded as victims. After all, in many cases they were just boys, who had not been capable to make their own decisions.

The controversy surrounding the commemoration in 2012 did not take place in a vacuum. Commemorations are the prism through which a country views its own past. They incorporate the outcomes of academic research and public debate, even though this is usually delayed. In the discussions regarding commemorations we can recognize elements of the historiography of the war over recent decades. The clear black and white perspective of right and wrong has been replaced by a nebulous image with many shades of grey. That can make commemoration a sometimes uncomfortable affair.

Educational tasks

The question is how the developments in the historiography of the Second World War, the remembrance of that period and its commemoration affect education, which has traditionally been linked to remembrance and commemoration. Can the remembrance of the war still play a role in the moral education of young people if all we have to offer is a muddy palette filled with shades of grey? Can we mold them into unconventional free spirits who, when push comes to shove, will combine their ‘small acts of resistance’ with heroic deeds? Are we, with all our weaknesses and futilities, still able to develop civil courage when we need it or, rather, when others ask that of us because they are in peril? Will we be able to make it clear to young people that you do not need to know what ‘their fate’ is in order to take action when, right in front of you, your neighbors are first treated unjustly and then taken away? These questions are relevant, but also difficult to answer.

Education is not like physics, where in many cases effects are predictable. Nevertheless, in a general sense we can indeed make a statement about the moral education of young people, the usefulness and necessity of which few would dispute. A major purpose of this education is to create awareness of certain patterns in how people think and act. In extreme situations such as the Second World War these patterns become highly visible, and can become associated with specific roles: perpetrator, helper, victim and bystander.

Against this background, I would like to discuss two aspects that, in my opinion, are of vital importance for a meaningful educational approach in the context of academic research on the one hand and commemoration and remembrance on the other.

The value of right and wrong

Firstly, the moral distinction between right and wrong continues to be essential in the development of values and standards. The history of the Second World War and the Holocaust can play a major role in learning about that distinction. The fact that the historical reality has been infinitely more complex, or ‘greyer,’ in no way detracts from this. The education of young people is not so much concerned with that historical reality itself as with shedding light on particular patterns within that reality that can serve as positive, or indeed negative, examples. This means that education based on the Second World War and the Holocaust must by definition maintain a certain distance from, in the words of the German historian Leopold von Ranke, ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’.

Education is more concerned with a well-founded schematization of that reality in models that offer starting points for the achievement of particular educational objectives. Of course new insights arising from academic research can be incorporated in this schematization, but it primarily remains a model constructed for educational purposes. Influencing the behavior of young people does not proceed via specific historical events or individuals, but by revealing patterns of behavior from the past and their possible consequences. Education is concerned with the categorization and raising of awareness of actions, within which lie choices. By placing the emphasis on patterns of thought and action, it is also possible to examine the relevance of the past to the present in a more general sense or, in more popular terms, to find out what we can learn from history. Such an approach avoids crude comparisons between historical developments or events, which commonly lead to fruitless discussions of similarities and differences.

Different functions

Secondly, it is important to keep a clear sight of the different functions of commemoration and remembrance on the one hand and education on the other. The tendency to give an increasingly educational content to commemoration and remembrance as the distance in time from the Second World War becomes ever greater can easily lead to misfortune. For as long as a personal element is still present in the remembrance of fellow human beings, a certain restraint is appropriate when it comes to connecting that remembrance to an educational mission. Of course commemorations inspires reflection, and this does not confine itself to the past. That is also the way it should remain, and this can also be taken into account in the formulation of the ceremonies. But contrived attempts to seize upon remembrance ceremonies for ill-considered and somewhat sentimental reconciliatory gestures, or for messages about making the world a better place, are deleterious to both the importance of remembrance and the aim of education. That same restraint is also appropriate where the connection between places of remembrance and education is concerned. Visitors to the Anne Frank House will not be terribly receptive to debates on right and wrong or human rights when they are standing in Anne’s room. That little room is a place of remembrance and reflection, not of education.

Back to Miep Gies and Mohamed Taha El Idrissi. Anyone carrying out research into these two heroes would undoubtedly encounter people of flesh and blood, with both good and less good character traits. But they are also Righteous Among The Nations and Amsterdammer of the Year. We learn exactly what that means when we have to go into hiding from persecution, or when we fall into an Amsterdam canal. Because one day our lives too may depend upon the right and wrong choices of others.


•     •     • 

About the Author

Ronald Leopold - Born in 1960. From 1978 to 1985, Leopold studied history and literature at the University of Groningen. He wrote his doctoral thesis in Budapest, where he lived for two years. Since 1985, he has lived with his wife and daughter in Amsterdam. Following his studies, Leopold held a number of positions at the General Pension Fund for Public Employees. In 1990 he moved to the Pension and Benefit Board, a public agency responsible for the implementation of legislation offering financial support to victims of the Second World War. Ronald Leopold has been the executive director of the Anne Frank House since January 2011.


Leopold, Ronald. "Amsterdam: Heroes, villains and many shades of grey." In Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, edited by Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, 124-136. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2013.

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