Excessive tolerance for intolerance has been a major characteristic of the Netherlands in the past decades. A core element of this “pseudohumanism” is the emphasis on the needs and “human rights” of criminals, often at the expense of their victims.
Recently, criticism of this attitude – the cause of many substantial problems for contemporary Dutch society – has become louder. A turning point came early in November 2004, when a radical Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, murdered – out of religious conviction – the Dutch media-maker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street.
This killing of one Dutch individual by another led over a one-month period to more than a hundred verbal and physical assaults against individual Muslims and their institutions. Analysts consider that these incidents reflect a widespread belief that the Dutch authorities had long been unwilling or unable to guarantee order, so that some people decided to take “the law” into their own hands.
A Three-Decades-Long Debate
Piersma’s book is a case study of a three-decades-long debate over whether to release four German war criminals incarcerated in Breda, a town in the southern Netherlands. Three of these played a major role in sending more than a hundred thousand Dutch Jews, three-quarters of the prewar community, to their deaths. All four had been condemned to execution but were pardoned by Dutch ministers of justice.
One, Joseph Kotälla, died in prison. The other three, the ones involved in the gathering and deportation of Jews, were ultimately released. Willi Lages, who had been head of the Zentralstelle fuer Juedische Auswanderung in Amsterdam, an organization in charge of the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands, was freed in 1966 on medical grounds. Thereafter, he lived for another five years in Germany. Ferdinand Hugo Aus der F?nten had been managerial head of the organization, while Franz Fischer fulfilled a similar role in The Hague. Both of them were released in 1989.
Piersma, a historian and researcher with the NIOD (Netherlands Institute for War Documentation), recounts the details of this debate. Her main conclusion is that, although the releases were within the competence of the Dutch ministers of justice, because of the public controversy these gradually lost their independence of action. Piersma explains this development as a result of the increasing guilt feelings regarding the Dutch behavior toward the Jews during the war.
Erratic Postwar Justice
The lengthy debate provides many insights into the Dutch attitude and mentality toward the war, criminals, Jews, and others. That Dutch postwar justice was often erratic is an understatement. Several authors have addressed this subject. One is Guus Meershoek, who has researched the nonpunishment or hasty rehabilitation of many collaborators with the Germans among the Amsterdam police. 1 Some of these individuals later reached top positions in the Amsterdam force.
Germans and many Dutch collaborators had committed major crimes. After the war, 152 were condemned to death, and forty of these were executed. Among the eighteen Germans condemned to death, five were executed.2 The Dutch queen Juliana, by refusing to sign the execution order, saved the lives of the three aforementioned Germans who had been instrumental in the murder of so many Jews. By 1951, the Dutch Jewish weekly NIW accused the Dutch government of considering the murder of the Jews “a second-rate crime,” (p. 49). Piersma’s treatment of Queen Juliana, however, obscures more than it clarifies on this matter (pp. 48, 55, 63).
Dutch politicians, academics, and the media debated whether it was moral to keep major war criminals in jail. Leading proponents of release argued for generosity, mercy, and forgiveness. Yet, these presumptive humanitarians ignored the fact that governmental discrimination against Dutch Jewry persisted.3 At the formal ceremony making the tenth anniversary of the Liberation at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, in the presence of Queen Juliana, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, the very moderate Aron Schuster, declared that Dutch Jewry experienced discriminatory treatment because the remnants of Nazi ideology lived on in Dutch society.4
The contemporary historian Isaac Lipschits titled one of his books The Little Shoah. He explained this title by writing:
In the liberated Netherlands, the Jews were not physically threatened. However, we do find other symptoms of the Shoah. Verbal anti-Semitism became sharper; the despoilment of the Jews continued…. Deportation and extermination had come to an end, but the…isolation of Jews continued…. The reception [given Jewish survivors] was so cold, bureaucratic, hostile, humiliating and so disappointing that I call the post-war period “the time of the Little Shoah.”5
This Dutch attitude manifested itself in many other ways. Joel Fishman was the first to describe the infamous battle for the custody of Jewish war orphans,6 later followed by Elma Verhey.7 Much new material about the postwar discrimination against the Dutch Jews, concerning both restitution and related issues, surfaced in the second restitution round of the late 1990s.8
The role of the Dutch in the process that led to the mass murder of the Dutch Jews remains a sad chapter in the country’s history. In the fall of 2005, the chairman of the Dutch railways finally apologized for the role of this state enterprise in the deportation of the Jews more than sixty years previously.
Earlier that year, the current Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende made a further step toward admitting the failure of the Dutch authorities during the war. At a symposium he said, “There were Dutch officials who collaborated with the occupiers. They contributed to the horrible process in which Jewish Dutchmen were deprived of their rights and in which human dignity was defiled.”9 This may ultimately lead to the Dutch government finally admitting and apologizing for the fact that the Dutch government in exile in London was hardly concerned about the fate of the Dutch Jews.
Piersma’s book sheds light on how the current pseudohumanitarian mood in the Netherlands developed. It also gives insights into the new, politically correct morality that accompanies it. On the background of the contemporary confusion as to whether Dutch society still possesses a legacy of common values and if so, what these may be, along with the accumulation of unresolved questions concerning the Holocaust, this book makes for interesting reading.