- The Art of Staying Neutral: The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914–1918
In this solid, workmanlike, thoroughly researched study, Prof. Maartje Abbenhuis-Ash (University of Auckland) shows how difficult the maintenance of neutrality rendered life in the Netherlands during the First World War, affecting every person and every aspect of life. The Netherlands did not escape the war unscathed, or by much; by 1918 respect for neutral rights had evaporated. The army was overstretched, trying to remain a credible deterrent while involved in the administration of 75 percent of the country, managing refugees, and policing the borders. None of this was made easier by the country's historic antimilitary attitudes. (In how many countries does parliament debate publicly whether soldiers ought to salute?) Without the army, neutrality could not have survived, but its numbers, training, and the availability of good officers remained inadequate. The mobilization, aided by a bit of advance knowledge, went well, but the military lacked many essentials (even underwear) and the situation did not improve afterwards.
The belligerents constantly interfered with trade. Trade controls through semiprivate companies worked well but unrestricted submarine warfare caused a 90 percent drop in trade. Trade with Germany fell also, making the Netherlands less valuable to the Germans. In 1918 Woodrow Wilson, once a great advocate for neutrals, seized much of the Dutch merchant fleet, after which Germany threatened war unless it was granted transit rights. War was barely avoided. [End Page 1257]
Public patience waned. Military powers caused friction and confusion. Border towns were particularly affected, as the military shot suspected smugglers, expelled entire families, and did what it could to control foreign agents' movements. The military even banned some political meetings. The government pressured newspapers that were too partisan, and even twice prosecuted the pro-Entente Telegraaf. Public anger was even greater concerning tight rationing (starting in 1916), quartering of soldiers with civilians, and the deplorable living conditions of many soldiers. The government coped by granting leaves freely but this undermined preparedness and required controversial recalls. Civilian disturbances worsened and fanatical leftists tried to get soldiers to refuse to serve.
The end was nearly catastrophic. Leave cancellations resulted in mutinies, raising the specter of the Bolsheviks and Kiel. The Socialist leader announced a revolution. The government responded by firing commander in chief C. J. Snijders and preparing counterrevolutionary efforts. (Fortunately the troops, although bored and hungry, were no Bolsheviks.) Amidst all this the Kaiser arrived, as did 70,000 retreating German soldiers who were allowed to retreat across Limburg—infuriating the Allies.
Abbenhuis-Ash has made an important contribution. I question a few military-historical conclusions, such as Germany's reason for violating Belgium (p. 31), the military effects of the country's flatness (p. 40), her argument that antiaircraft weapons were not perfected (p. 91; when were they perfected?), and the effect of the U.S. declaration of war (p. 126). However, these items do not detract from the quality of her scholarship. Abbenhuis-Ash makes clear that the Netherlands's narrow escape from the war was no miracle, but the result of hard work and good policy, as well as fortunate circumstances. After the war, the Dutch gave little credit to their government or army, assuming that being strictly neutral was enough. This erroneous conclusion left the country terribly vulnerable to the crises that led to World War II.