War and deception in the Netherlands

Black Book, Paul Verhoeven’s thriller about the Dutch Resistance to Nazi rule, is a cracking movie – and it raises important questions, too.

James Woudhuysen

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‘As every body knows’, Dr Joseph Goebbels once wrote in his diaries, ‘the Dutch are the most insolent and obstreperous people in the entire West’ (1). Paul Verhoeven has always been insolent and obstreperous. The maker of Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), his new film, Black Book, has rightly drawn commendations. It also throws into sharp relief some of the key issues of the Second World War.

I’ve not seen Verhoeven’s 1977 resistance movie, Soldier of Orange, which was inspired by a real-life strike by students and staff at Leiden University in the first winter of occupation. Yet the Dutch can certainly make such movies when they like to: Ben Verbong’s black-and-white epic The Girl with Red Hair (1981) is a case in point. In the case of Black Book, Verhoeven has given us an essay in wartime confinement the equal of Downfall and Das Boot. Indeed the sympathetic (!) SS doctor in Downfall, Christian Berkel, is excellent as a far-from-sympathetic top Nazi here.

Like Hitler in his bunker and the crew of a German U-boat, the Dutch had no hiding place in the Second World War. The Nazis and the geography of the Netherlands made sure of that; and Verhoeven brilliantly and very personally captures the sense of fascist terror closing in not in Amsterdam, where most Dutch Jews resided, but in Den Haag, the political capital of the Netherlands. Unlike in France, where the maquis could make the most of hills, mountains and forests, few could elude the Nazi occupiers in the Netherlands. Of 144,000 Jews there, only about 35,000 survived the war. In Norway, with a wartime population of three million, 50,000 people fled to neutral Sweden. In the Netherlands, with a wartime population of nine million, just 5000 got out (2).

Verhoeven succeeds in gripping you totally for the first two hours of his 145-minute film. But he grips because he makes the claustrophobia, and the fear of betrayal and discovery, so relentless. Early on, the Jewish singer and heroine of the film, Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) takes with her family and other Jews to a tugboat to quit the Netherlands, only to run straight into a machine gun trap laid by an SS patrol boat. Though not gratuitous, the violence of the cinematography is full-on Verhoeven: everyone but Steinn dies. Yet it is the sense of dread, of black turning out to be white and white black, which really hurts.

During the Second World War, the population of France stood at about 41million – much bigger than that of the Netherlands. Also, the history of Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France is still celebrated by British and French patriots today; by contrast, the record of British aid to the Dutch resistance was, from 1940 to 1943, a tale of shocking and lethal stupidity on the part of British intelligence. Through repeated carelessness, MI6, which ran its entire northwest European operations out of Den Haag, had its agents and codes there rolled up. Then in Operation Nordpol, HJ Giskes, an Abwehr colonel, took over British wireless operators and got them transmitting messages to Britain – messages which led to SOE’s N section sending more than 50 agents straight into the hands of German security. As Giskes wrote after the war: ‘The attempt of the Allied Secret services to gain a foothold in Holland had been delayed by two years. The establishment of armed sabotage and terror organisations, which might have disorganised the rear areas of the Atlantic Wall and crippled our defences at the critical moment of invasion, had been prevented.’ (3)

Hyperbole, perhaps; but with a British record like this, it’s little wonder that English-language books and documentaries on the French resistance far outnumber those on the Dutch.

Partly, no doubt, the accessibility of the French language, compared with Dutch, is also to blame here. And yet still the neglect of the Dutch case surprises. After all, Dutch skills in printing made for an internationally unrivalled underground press during the war, and the postwar Dutch government followed this up with a highly meticulous, and again internationally unrivalled approach to wartime records (indeed the meticulous nature of Dutch prewar population registration, and the difficulty of forging Dutch identity cards, were also factors aiding the destruction of the Jews). Given all the evidence available, and given also that so much of Dutch Jewry was deported to concentration camps (in France, about three-quarters of the Jewish population of 200,000 survived), it’s sad that what the English-speaking world knows of the Holocaust in the Netherlands is pretty much confined to The Diary of Anne Frank. As for the broader issue of the Dutch and the Second World War, the only popular work has proved to be Cornelius Ryan’s epic history of the battle of Arnhem, A Bridge Too Far. Like the book by Giskes, this, too, is forced to dwell on Britain’s wartime incompetence in the Netherlands.

For giving us a visceral and highly political treatment of armed resistance to the fascist jackboot, and in making the odd joke about British slip-ups, Verhoeven has performed an excellent service. The start is shaky and the machine guns are over the top. Forget about the nudity, too! Sometimes the actors’ faces, and their make-up, look a little too twenty-first century. There is the usual Dutch obsession with bodily functions, born, I maintain, from the prolonged prominence, in Dutch history and national mentality, of farm animals and their habits. In the final 30 minutes the intrigues and the subtitles move too fast for one to get every subtlety of the plot. But the acting is tremendous and the production is, like the film as a whole, convincing, enveloping, engrossing.

Above all, the political perfidy here simply clamps the eye to the screen.

Ten years ago, Bob Moore, now a professor at Sheffield University and the doyen of English historians of the war in the Netherlands, noted that newspapers such as Vrij Nederland continued to debate wartime persecutions and, not least, controversies over betrayals (4). Ever since the First World War, when the French executed the seductive Dutch dancer Mata Hari (1876-1917) on charges of being a double agent, the Dutch have enjoyed a certain notoriety for their double-dealing. What, then, was the real scale and nature of collaboration and resistance in the Netherlands from May 1940 to May 1945? How has this question been taken up in the past, and how today?

Heroes and villains

It is 1944. When Steinn joins the resistance, she finds herself under the spell of two people. Politically, she takes directions from Gerben Kuipers, a sympathetic local Stalinist leader in brown corduroy jacket (a terrific performance by Derek de Lint). Romantically, she takes Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a dashing ace at the sub-machine gun, and leader of a band of more-or-less youthful resistance heavies.

Under pressure from Kuipers, Steinn agrees to infiltrate the top of the Nazi apparatus in Den Haag. She changes herself into a gentile Ellis de Vries and seduces the head of the Nazi occupiers, Müntze (Sebastian Koch), into giving her a job at headquarters, where she plants a bugging device when she is not taking to the microphone for her voice at Nazi galas. She then makes the mistake of falling for Müntze. This arouses suspicions. Most important, a series of resistance escapades goes wrong, and more Jewish escapers are informed upon and shot. The heroic son of Gerben Kuipers is taken prisoner and tortured by the Nazis. From this point on, Black Book becomes a whodunit. Who is betraying the resistance and its escape routes around Den Haag?

Myself, I found it unlikely that a Jewess whose family gets machine-gunned by the SS would go on to have an affair with a top SS officer. Sebastian Koch is gorgeous, probably sexier than van Houten herself; but he’s made to play the top Nazi as pussycat – also unlikely. Still, you’ve got to have a plot somehow, and this one, with all its double-crossings, only begins to bewilder towards the end of the movie. Without giving the plot away, royalism and plain old-fashioned crime come out a lot worse than Stalinism.

In the movie, Verhoeven presents both the resistance and the occupiers as penetrated by each other’s spies – a bit like the policemen and criminals in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. From the experience of the Dutch side of my family during the war, I have no doubt that the doubts, intrigues and bloody ends met by the participants in Black Book are, by contrast with aspects of the film’s plot and characterisation, fully authentic.

They are also not that dissimilar to what went on in occupied France. The betrayal of resistance leader Jean Moulin was one thing, and certainly became part of postwar French controversies over the war. Moreover, there occurred a series of deadly postwar vendettas conducted by people in and around the French Communist Party, as people tried to take revenge on real and presumed traitors (5).

Even today, dissimilar nations like the Netherlands and France share quite similar feelings of bad faith and guilt about the war. What is so great about Black Book is that Verhoeven focuses like a laser on the events and roles that originated those feelings. His picture of the Dutch resistance as a broad church of bickering political currents, complete with mixed-up Stalinists, nationalists and anti-Semites, is probably rather accurate.

Verhoeven’s picture of the Liberation, in which Dutch mobs exact some terrible revenge on Nazis and their sympathisers, is more open to debate. The scenes are ugly, and are probably pretty accurate in terms of what happened. But in his usual manner Verhoeven strays a little, tending to hint that a lumpen mass working class of revengers was as bad as the SS. It is a bad idea, but one that is of a piece with Verhoeven’s not-so-faint cynicism about human beings in Black Book. Before going over to the resistance, Steinn is forced to recite the New Testament by heart to stay in with the Christian family she hides with. Mercenary gain, more than ideology, is a driving force in the movie. The mob scenes are the only occasion in which the plebian character of Dutch anti-fascism is directly referred to.

All of these defects, such as they are, are little surprise. To see why, let’s look at the significance of the war to the Netherlands today, and the historiography of the Dutch experience of the Second World War.

The war in contemporary Holland

It is a hilarious feature of Black Book that an airhead friend of Steinn’s declares that the Dutch language is a dialect of German, ‘because Goëring said so’. But even now the Second World War remains a source of great confusion, for the Dutch, in terms of their identity – not least, their identity versus Germany. As the British historian AJP Taylor acerbically pointed out in 1975, writing about the May 1940 German bombing of Rotterdam: ‘Some 900 civilians were killed, a figure swelled by the Dutch foreign minister to 30,000. This legendary figure is still often repeated.’ (6)

In 2000, Moore rightly summed up the broader picture: ‘Since 1945 it seems that the “memory” and remembrance of the persecution of the Jews has been appropriated by disparate political and social elements of Dutch society for their own ends while ignoring or marginalizing the surviving Jews themselves. This remained the prevalent mode until the 1970s when, prompted by psychiatric studies, survivors were given more prominence. However, a glance at any newsstand in the Netherlands today will demonstrate that the Holocaust remains a cultural icon, albeit one that reflects it as a national trauma in which non-Jewish as well as Jewish survivors have a voice.’ (7)

In his more recent and quite fascinating book, Assassination in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, the distinguished conservative and Anglo-Dutch cultural critic Ian Buruma writes that, in the Netherlands, shame over the butchering of the Jews ‘poisons national debates to this day’. When political mavericks such as Pim Fortuyn made public their hatred of Islam, their Islamophobia was compared with wartime anti-Semitism, and Anne Frank’s name was invoked as a warning (8).

In the Netherlands guilt about what wartime ancestors had ignored, let happen or contributed to has long had, and continues to have, an intimate relationship with the Dutch application of multiculturalism. As Buruma notes, moreover, Dutch multiculturalism has, in the face of today’s challenges to it, been sometimes strongly defended by leading Jews – for example the former mayor of Amsterdam, who had survived the Holocaust, and the current mayor of the northern university town of Groningen. The son of Jewish survivors, the latter knew all too well how the local, tiny minority of Jews had been literally decimated during the war (9).

All in all, the Second World War remains a live issue in Dutch society. Indeed, its prominence has led some to believe that ‘it may well be impossible to reconstruct a national identity in the Netherlands while the memory of the Holocaust remains’ (10).

The historiography of Dutch resistance

Immediate postwar literary accounts of what happened in the war in the Netherlands were naturally often rather personal in nature – where they were not apologetic, as in the case of tales by the Churches and by supporters of the bourgeois Jewish Council. This was the era, as Buruma points out, of the Dutch building monument after monument not to the victims of the Holocaust so much as to their own suffering (11).

As Moore notes, from the 1960s onward, official chronicles of the Second World War emerged to uphold the familiar, simple line of a struggle between Good and Evil. In the wake of the Eichmann trial in 1961, the focus for historians shifted from Nazis and Dutch to Nazis and Jews, with the wider population playing more of a backseat role.

On the streets, the youthful counter-cultural Provos of 1960s Holland, Buruma notes, revolted against their parents by portraying their police harassers as the Orange SS, or the Gestapo in clogs (12). But back with historians, interpretations changed. Dutch scholars rushed to dispel the old image of a majority of Dutch goodies resisting a minority of German baddies. Both the conduct and psychology of resisters, and the degree to which Dutch civil servants and the police collaborated with the occupiers, came under the microscope.

Perhaps Le chagrin et la pitié (1969), Marcel Ophuls’ sobering documentary on the resistance around Clermont-Ferrand, helped change the Dutch political weather around the war. Certainly by the 1980s, myths of the resistance had lost their talismanic character for the left in Dutch society, as elsewhere. The Soviet Union was in the final stages. The European left was in retreat. As a consequence, the resistance was no longer what it once had been.

In the post-heroic 1990s, and since, historical analysis of the wartime Netherlands was dissipated and made personal once again. History turned to local stories, to the mercenary and criminal motives of occupiers and resisters, and – inevitably – to the fate of hidden Jewish children: how they were forced to convert to Christianity, or subjected to abuse at the hands of their rescuers (13). It is in this bleak, apolitical context that we can understand some of misanthropic moments in Black Book.

Conclusion: class neglected

One of the many ways in which Black Book does not pull its punches is in its treatment of the extent of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis. Indigenous Dutch fascism, led by Anton Mussert, was a small but noisy phenomenon; nevertheless, it organised a Netherlands Legion for the Leningrad front in 1942-3, and, late in 1943, no less than an SS armoured brigade for the fight against partisans in Croatia. Between 30,000 and 50,000 Dutchmen entered various kinds of military service, and another large group, also, became V-Männer, or trusties, of the Nazis (14). On top of all this, anti-Semitism was a fact of Dutch life before, during and after the war. As with the British government during the war, the postwar Dutch government had little time for anti-fascist Jews trying to enter its borders.

The prevalence of rightist sympathies in the Netherlands, however, is not the same as collective guilt. No fewer than 10,000 members of the resistance died during the war. That brings out a second matter: how the war in the Netherlands represented not just the culmination of that neglected thing, Dutch class struggle, but also its historic defeat.

Historians rarely associate the Dutch with the class struggle in the way that they do the French. But the huge scale of unemployment and hunger in Depression Amsterdam led to workers’ groups attacking jewellery shops, so great was the desperation there – particularly among Jews, who were mostly very poor. With the German communists of the KPD annihilated, and the French sort rabidly patriotic and rabidly pro-Moscow, the prewar portents were not good for Dutch followers of Joe Stalin. Nevertheless, the working class showed some nobility around the charnel houses of the occupation.

Buruma is right not be sentimental about it, but the strike of February 1941 was an incident of bravery in which perhaps 300,000 people took part. Though merely anti-fascist, that strike often went beyond nationalist, Christian, liberal, social-democratic and Stalinist reactions to an invading oppressor.

Over the weekend of 22-23 February, 600 Nazi police descended on the proletarian Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, sealed it off, and abducted 425 Jews. In the days that followed, Amsterdam municipal employees, metal workers, shipbuilders, shop workers and tram staff went on strike in protest, only to see street demonstrations end in murder at the hands of German police and SS troops. A state of emergency was declared. The selflessness of the strikers, and their demand that the Jews be released, was almost unparalleled throughout Europe’s years of occupation.

An interesting aspect of the strike was the leading role played in it by 1,200 Communist Party members in Amsterdam – even though, in February 1941, they were still under instructions from Moscow to preserve the Hitler-Stalin pact. As early as November 1940, indeed, the CPN called for all political strands within Dutch society to put aside differences in defence of the fatherland and against the German invader (15). This, however, was not the position of the far left Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front, whose 400-odd members considered the war to be one between rival imperialist blocs. Nevertheless, the MLL helped organise the February strike. Its illegal newspaper, Spartacus, had a circulation of 5,000 at the time – not bad, given that the total circulation of illegal papers then was about 57,000 (16).

In the event, the strike proved a heroic gesture but had little impact. Most of the leaders of both the Stalinist and Trotskisant organisations that organised it were rounded up and shot. What had happened to the KPD in 1933 happened to the Dutch left in 1943. After that it was all over. As the Dutch leftist Wim Bot has perceptively written, capitalist rule in the Netherlands, as elsewhere, surprised the left by proving highly durable after the Second World War:

‘An important difference compared with the situation after the First World War was that the rise of the anti-capitalist struggle did not lead to a growth in the political influence of the revolutionary socialist tendencies. Revolutionary groups did not sufficiently understand what the long-term effects of the series of defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1930s would be. With the destruction of a great part of the cadres of the workers movement by fascism, Stalinism and war, the influence of the revolutionary socialist tendencies disappeared also.’ (17)

In real life and in the end of The Girl with Red Hair, the bourgeois politics of the Allies is enough to get the Dutch resistance to put down its arms. In real life, too, Nazi reprisals after the fiasco at Arnhem condemned 15,000 Dutch to death by famine in the winter of 1944-45. Nevertheless the Dutch left, like the left everywhere, ended the war believing it had been a victory. No wonder the class dimensions of the war in the Netherlands are the subject of neglect today – even among relatively balanced writers such as Bob Moore.

Paul Verhoeven’s revisionist account of the Dutch resistance – revisionist in the sense that he refuses to paint it lily white – need not concern itself with these things. But a new generation of Dutch, insolent and obstreperous, might just care to do that.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University

(1) Goebbels, entry for 10 September 1943, in Louis P Lochner, ed and trans, The Goebbels Diaries, Doubleday, 1948

(2) There are different estimates for the precise figures. The figures here are from the author’s research and MRD Foot, Resistance [1976], Paladin 1978, p268, citing Louis De Jong in European Resistance Movements 1939-1945, Volume I, Pergamon Press, 1960, p143.

(3) HJ Giskes, London calling North Pole, William Kimber & Co, p136. See also Foot, op cit, pp259-267.

(4) Bob Moore, Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945, OUP, 1997, p14.

(5) See among others Irvin M Wall, French Communism in the era of Stalin: the quest for unity and integration, 1945-1962, Greenwood Press, 1983.

(6) AJP Taylor, The Second World War, Purnell Book Services, 1975, p51.

(7) Bob Moore, review of Ido de Haan, Na de ondergang: De herinnering aan de Jodenvervolging in Nederland 1945-1995, SDU, 1997, in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol 14, No 3, 2000, pp445-446.

(8) Ian Buruma, Assassination in Amsterdam: the death of Theo Van Gogh and the limits of tolerance, Atlantic Books, 2006, pp19, 51.

(9) Ibid, pp52-3, 95.

(10) De Haan, summarised in Moore’s review, op cit.

(11) Ibid, pp226-7.

(12) Ibid, p83.

(13) Bob Moore, ‘”Goed en Fout” or “Grijs Verleden”? Competing Perspectives on the History of the Netherlands under German Occupation 1940–1945’, Dutch Crossing 27, No 2, Winter 2003; and Moore, ‘The Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Belgium, France and the Netherlands’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Volume 50, Number 3, 2004.

(14) Foot, op cit, pp263-264.

(15) See Grahame Lock, ‘On Sneevliet, the Dutch Communist Party and the February strike of 1941’, New Left Review 127, May-June 1981.

(16) Wim Bot, ‘Generals without troops: Dutch Trotskyism during the Occupation’, Revolutionary History, Vol 1, No 4, Winter 1988-89, p2.

(17) Ibid, p17.

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