Few nations have such an uneasy relationship with their World War Two past than the Netherlands. As with the Germans and the Japanese, the majority of the Dutch people tend to look upon this period of history with regret, if not shame.
The Dutch had their Nazi equivalent, the unoriginally named Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB) (National Socialist Movement), a fringe party that secured a best of 300,000 votes in the 1935 election. Their leader was Anton Mussert, a vile if pragmatic fascist who realised that his only means of wielding any kind of power was to first encourage and then to assist a German invasion.
Mussert got his wish in May 1940 when the Wehrmacht invaded the neutral Netherlands, with the Luftwaffe almost obliterating Rotterdam in a simultaneous bombing blitz.
Hitler, who did not reciprocate Mussert’s adoration of him, humoured the NSB leader by giving him responsibility for quelling Dutch resistance to the invasion. Whilst he was eventually named ‘Leader of the Dutch People’ by Hitler in 1942 – the Dutch ‘Leider’ coincidentally translating into the German for ‘Unfortunately’ – Mussert never governed, with the Fuhrer preferring instead the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his Reichskommissar in the Netherlands.
Where Mussert was more useful was in his rounding up and deportation of thousands of Dutch Jews. He had help, however, and it is here where the Dutch historical guilt lies.
With Queen Wilhelmina leading a government-in-exile in London, many Dutch people unable or unwilling to flee their homeland had a difficult choice. Take up a potentially futile resistance against Nazi occupation, or collaborate with their new German overlords? History suggests that the vast majority took the latter course, creating one of the most collaborationist regimes of the war.
Whilst acts of bravery and heroism occurred – particularly the harbouring of Jews by Dutch families – the Nazis had little difficulty in compelling complicity from their new subjects. Dutch Jews were deported and murdered in their thousands, a repressive Gestapo state was established, and some Dutch men even fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.
Fanatics like Mussert – who was executed at The Hague for high treason in 1946 – can be easily dismissed. The actions (or lack thereof) of the average man and woman on the street, on the other hand, are hard to overlook. Given the minority support for the NSB prior to WWII, it suggests that few Dutch people shared their extremist and racist views. Yet thousands still collaborated with the Nazis.
This being so, it is somewhat surprising that the far right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the populist and controversial Islamophobe Geert Wilders, is threatening to top polls in the Dutch election on the 15th March.
Using slogans such as ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ and ‘The Netherlands is Ours’, Wilders has ridden a populist wave in Europe and the West that is demanding an overthrow of the established liberal order.
Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has initiated a last-ditch plea to court a restless public increasingly sceptical of open borders an EU interference. ‘Act normal, or go away’ Rutte declared in an open letter published in a national newspaper. His cries smack of desperation, having lost significant ground to the PVV in recent months.
That Wilders is a man possessing beliefs and rhetoric not incomparable with the fascist leaders of WWII is obviously worrying. The Dutch people seem to have forgotten their not too distant past, focusing instead on current grievances that populists such as Wilders promise can be fixed with a healthy dose of nationalism and xenophobia.
There are undoubted concerns across Europe over uncontrolled immigration, the bureaucratisation imposed by Brussels and the weakness of some of the newer EU member states. The victory for Brexit in the UK and the rise of the National Front in France are testament to this.
Still, some perspective must be gained. Demanding change should not go hand-in-hand with racist and hostile politics, scaremongering or turning a blind eye to existing inequalities.
The Dutch more than most should recognise this given their experiences in WWII. Memories can fade and collective responsibility may be rejected or conveniently forgotten, but the dark stains of the past persist within the national identity.
It is fortunate that Wilders and the PVV are unlikely to be able to form the coalition government that they will surely require. Similar hopes must be held for the rest of the Europe, where a populist, nationalist resurgence is looming large.
To think that history cannot be repeated is a dangerous and delusional sentiment. Europe has been warned.