Give Us Less WWII – But Also More

It’s now early May, the time of year when many West European countries celebrate their liberation at the end of World War II. Today is in fact Liberation Day in the Netherlands, a public holiday, while yesterday was Dodenherdenkingdag – Day for the Remembrance of the Dead. And at a ceremony in The Hague a certain Eberhard van der Laan, a former government minister for the Dutch Labor Party, gave an interesting, even provocative speech (covered here in the Algemeen Dagblad) calling for a line of a certain sort to be drawn under the WWII experience so that society can finally move on.

The “hook” to Van der Laan’s speech, as it were, was the fact that it has now been 65 years since the end of the war – that’s the standard retirement age, at least within Europe, so why don’t we finally put WWII out to retirement as well? With this, the ex-politician was giving voice to what many in Europe surely have always thought in secret about the War (especially those too young to have lived through it): for how long will we have to keep paying respect, keep letting it influence our lives? It’s a very pertinent question, especially when applied to Germany and the issue of when, if ever, the guilt for what that nation perpetrated will finally be washed away and made irrelevant through the eroding effect of all the passing years.

But forget that: Van der Laan is a Dutch ex-politician, not German, and he was speaking at a ceremony held in one of the two Dutch capitals. So his argument about putting WWII “out to pension” is along Dutch lines, and so not about guilt but just about the fact that it still comes up as a subject so much in public discussions. His implication is that it’s just not very relevant anymore for most public dialogue, maybe even harmful (e.g. calling people “Nazis”); his implication might even be that he agrees with the roughly 1-in-5 of the Dutch who believe that Liberation/Remembrance Days should be celebrated once every five years, not every year.

Interestingly, there was another explicit angle to Van der Laan’s speech which even points to some degree in a contradictory way, for he called at the same time for more proper research to be done on the War. OK: So the common, uninformed people should talk about the War less, while researchers should look into it more. In fact, one reason he offered for upping that research effort was to revise any idea that Dutch behavior under occupation could be characterized as a slappe houding, i.e. spineless. Sure, the Dutch were the European champions – other than Germany itself – in ensuring that their Jews were delivered to the Nazi gas chambers. (About 75% of Dutch Jews met this fate; that particular number, however, is nowhere to be seen in the AD article nor, one supposes, in Van der Laan’s speech itself.) But they had excuses: it was more difficult for Dutch Jews to make their way to lands where they would be safe; the Netherlands simply had more policemen employed than, for example, Belgium, and these participated in the German Jew round-ups while those in Belgium did not.

Are you confused here as I am? That first excuse (harder to get elsewhere to safety) sounds somewhat reasonable (but applies just as much to Belgium), but the second one about the policemen does not. Anyway, “[o]ur parents and grandparents were just as sturdy/robust [NL: flink] as those in other lands,” is Van der Laan’s conclusion. Indeed, his own parents were apparently active in the Dutch Resistance; but otherwise I do think he is trying to put an artificial gloss on the whole WWII situation. Again, the number is 75%, Mr. Van der Laan. Still, you’re probably right when it comes to your two non-polemical proposals: it is likely time to push WWII back further into history when it comes to public observance, but let’s do have some more historical investigation as well. I wager that that 75% figure will still stand up to that pretty well.

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