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Commemoration of War Victims in the Netherlands – Changing Perceptions, Changed Meaning

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 12:33

Remembrance Day NetherlandsBy Marit de Lange, Faculty of Arts, Modern History and International Relations, University of Groningen

Remembrance of the Dead in the Netherlands is annually held on the 4th of May. On this day, we commemorate Dutch soldiers and civilians who perished during the Second World War and during later wars and peace operations. This day is followed by Liberation Day with festivities throughout the country. The ‘4th and 5th May Committee’ is the authority responsible for the direction, the contents and the form of the commemoration ceremonies on Remembrance of the Dead and the celebration of Liberation Day. The main ceremony on the 4th of May, that takes place on the Dam square in Amsterdam and is broadcasted by different channels on national television, is attended by the Dutch Queen Beatrix and other members of the Royal Family.

Remembrance of the Dead this year has been in the centre of the Dutch media attention for many weeks. The Committee intended that a 15 year old pupil should read his poem at the main ceremony in Amsterdam. The pupil wrote a poem about his great-uncle who served in the Waffen SS and reflected on the choices that his relative made. The pupil claimed that his great-uncle, whose siblings were resistance fighters, was also a victim, a victim of severe times of poverty and uncertainty that forced him to make the wrong choice of joining the SS, a victim who also deserves to be commemorated.

After the Committee announced its intention, opposing responses came from organizations centered on a “Jewish Holocaust narrative” as well as from private individuals. Some opponents appreciated the efforts of the pupil, but declared that the 4th of May was not the moment to declaim such a poem. Others responded furiously and stated that even the intention to read such a poem on the 4th of May was totally inappropriate. The 4th of May, as they argued, is for commemorating victims not perpetrators. Consequently, a national debate arose. The Committee therefore decided to remove the declamation from the ceremonial programme. Even though it declared that its intentions were clearly misunderstood, the Committee regards the 4th of May as too valuable to be overshadowed by such a polarized debate.

Many organizers of local commemoration ceremonies on the 4th of May are motivated by the idea of reconciliation. Therefore, the small village of Vorden intended to also commemorate German soldiers. Part of this commemoration was a procession on the cemetery that would be accompanied by the mayor of the community. A supplementary part of the procession route was supposed to lead along graves of German soldiers. The mayor indicated that he would also attend this part of the procession. A Jewish organization filed a law suit as they wanted to prevent this commemoration taking place. The court partly backed their view and decided that the commemoration could take place but ruled that officials were not allowed to participate in the procession if it would lead along the graves of the German soldiers. The mayor in his turn responded furiously to the decision of the court but decided to respect its decision. The procession did take place along the graves of German soldiers, but without the mayor involved.

Commemoration is perpetually a battle of colliding interests, a battle that shapes a society’s collective memory. The constitution and re-constitution of a collective memory is a continuing selection process and evolves around the question what part of the past a society considers valuable to be remembered and commemorated. Research shows that an overwhelming majority of the Dutch consider Remembrance of the Dead as an important day for remembering war victims and in particular the victims of the Second World War. However, a growing gap becomes visible between those who want to commemorate mainly Jewish war victims and those who ascribe an extended meaning to the ceremonies on the 4th of May.

For the latter, these ceremonies also symbolize changed views on Dutch history. After the Second World War, Dutch perspectives on the war and the occupation were characterized by victimization: the Netherlands was occupied and violated by its aggressive neighbor who had abused and wiped out many thousands of its citizens. Decades later, a different view emerged and was slowly accepted in society’s collective memory. The Dutch were not solely victims or heroic resistance fighters but also spectators who passively watched how their neighbours became constrained in their daily lives as stringent and discriminatory rules were applied, who watched how their neighbours were taken away from their homes and transported or were even actively involved in supporting the policy of the occupier.

Along with the recognition of our own role in the Second World War and the treatment of our fellow citizens came the recognition that people make certain choices in certain circumstances: good and bad have become limited conceptions to describe a grey and very complex reality. The poem of the pupil reflects the wish of a growing number of Dutch citizens to commemorate the 4th of May in a broader historical context.

Commemorating as such doesn’t imply that victims will be forgotten or that perpetrators will be forgiven but it does show a society that is currently trying to process a traumatic episode in its past. A process that will need time, and which without doubt will cause further controversy in the Netherlands in the next few years.