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  • The Many Meanings of Freedom: The Debate on the Legitimacy of Colonialism in the Dutch Resistance, 1940–1949
  • Jeroen Dewulf


In Murder in Amsterdam (2006), a study on the current debate on multiculturalism in the Netherlands, the British-Dutch scholar Ian Buruma expressed his surprise about the fact that several decades after liberation from Nazi Germany, the Dutch continue to relate contemporary debates to the Second World War.2 The behavior of the Dutch population during the German occupation has indeed developed into a pivotal element in modern Dutch history, a guideline to moral conduct and a reference in almost every intellectual debate that touches upon ethical questions. While immediately after the war there was a tendency to highlight the country’s allegedly heroic resistance— famously described by historian Louis de Jong as “the Dutch spirit of resistance”3 — the perspective changed dramatically in the mid-1960s when historian Jacques Presser presented his study Ondergang (translated as Ashes in the Wind, 1965) as an indictment of Dutch acquiescence to the Holocaust.4 In light of the fact that some 73 per cent of the Jewish population in the Netherlands had been transported to Nazi death camps—the largest percentage in Western Europe—any complacency about the behavior of the Dutch people during the occupation sounded empty, if not hypocritical. As a result, the focus switched from resistance to collaboration, from heroism to guilt.

With resistance movements becoming an increasingly peripheral topic in the debate on World War II, the position of the different resistance movements on the legitimacy of the country’s colonial policy remained a neglected subject of investigation. This is surprising as it was precisely the discussion on Indonesia’s independence that broke the united front of the Dutch resistance groups. In this article, I intend to analyze how colonialism was discussed in the Dutch clandestine press and why it eventually developed into a divisive element when liberation approached. I will specifically focus on the political contradictions in relation to the notion of freedom that was invoked as a key element to forge national unity in the resistance against the German occupation yet turned out to be an element of discord when Indonesian anti-colonial intellectuals also appealed to freedom when claiming their independence.

The Netherlands Under German Occupation

Soon after the flight of the Dutch government to London and the surrender of the Dutch army, which was accelerated by the devastating bombardment of Rotterdam on 14 May 1940, control over the Netherlands passed from a military to a civilian governor. The Austrian Arthur Seyss-Inquart headed this civilian government. His first priority was to keep order and to secure the transport of commodities in support of the German military campaign. Unlike Poland, which had been ransacked after the invasion, the Nazis wished to preserve the industrial capacity of the Netherlands and wanted to integrate the Dutch economy with that of Germany. For the majority of the population, life did not change much immediately after the invasion. The economy continued almost as usual; the German soldiers behaved decently; there was no hunger and no terror. Only Jews and communists had serious reasons to fear.

The choice of Seyss-Inquart as Reichskommissar can be interpreted as a reflection of Hitler’s long-term ambitions regarding the Netherlands: the Nazification and Germanization of the country, followed by its dissolution and absorption into a greater Germany, similar to what had occurred to Austria.5 Under Seyss-Inquart, culture was seen as an ideal tool to promote a rapprochement with Germany. In November 1941, he created the Nederlandse Kultuurkamer (Dutch Chamber of Culture). Membership in the Chamber of Culture was compulsory for everyone working in the cultural sector and nothing could be represented, executed or published without its permission.6

The massive strike in February 1941, a reaction to the implementation of anti- Semitic measures, forced Seyss-Inquart to change tactics. He realized that the Dutch would not voluntarily accept Nazism and that in order to successfully complete the Nazification of the Netherlands he needed an iron fist rather than velvet gloves. In a reaction to increasingly aggressive German policy, resistance started to develop. In particular the Arbeitseinsatz (forced labor in...

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