Skip

More Dutch men served in feldgrau than in khaki
May 3, 2012 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Tomorrow is remembrance day in the Netherlands, as the dead and victims of World War II and beyond are honoured. Each year at the national memorial service at the Dam square in Amsterdam a poem is read by the winner of the school competition organised by the remembrance committee. This year there was controversy as the winning poem was about a Dutch volunteer for the Waffen SS, which was not appreciated by the Auschwitz survivors organisation, which threated to boycott the procedings. In the end therefore the poem was scrapped, but it had already laid bare a sore spot in Dutch history.

Auke de Vries' uncle was but one of several tens of thousands of Dutch volunteers fighting for the nazis, most of whom ended up in the Waffen SS fighting on the Eastern Front, in the SS division Wiking, the Freiwillingen Legion Niederlande or the panzer grenadier brigade Nederland. Many of the men that joined up were hardcore fascists, members of the NSB (Nationaal Socialistische Beweging), but quite a few were also genuine "idealists" thinking they could carve out a place for Holland in the new Germanic world order by fighting the Bolshevik menace.

Needless to say, this part of WWII history doesn't quite fit with the image that us Dutch would like to have as ourselves as innocent victims of the Nazi occupation, where after the war everybody had been in the resistance. Auke de Vries' poem lies bare this history again, which is one reason it became so controversial.

But for many people just the idea of honouring a collaborator at the national remembrance service, especially one who had fought in the Waffen SS, a criminal organisation responsible for countless war crimes and other atrocities, is an insult to every victim of Nazi Germany.

Something which is hard to disagree with, even though Auke de Vries' intentions were noble, as he said that "he wanted to show everyone loses during a war, no matter what side they are on":

'How can we learn from our mistakes if we are not allowed to name them', he said. 'I was born in peacetime. It is hard enough for me to make the right choices, so how must it have been for people during the war?'
posted by MartinWisse (38 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating post. We humans are a complicated lot, aren't we? Coming to grips with the complexities of the past isn't easy but for the sake of the future it must be done. How to do it is tough, but definitely some kind of dialogue is needed.

I do agree that everyone loses during a war. (Other, perhaps, than military-industrial interests.)
posted by kinnakeet at 12:31 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


While it is nothing equivalent to the Dutch joining the Waffen SS, I've often wondered what the post-war inner life was for Americans who trumpeted the glory of Hitler and the Nazi Party prior to US involvement.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:35 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Brave kid. Great kid. Hope it inspires A LOT of talk, in and outside of the Netherlands.

Nazis are too easy to hate - Godwin's Law exists because of this - and not every Nazi, Nazi sympathizer, and Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of a DOOM soldier. And after the War... reconciliation, return, but apparently only a careful, selective remembrance.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:46 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've often wondered what the post-war inner life was for Americans who trumpeted the glory of Hitler and the Nazi Party prior to US involvement.

Henry Ford, for one, made out all right.
posted by No Robots at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Everyone generally loses when a crime is committed, too, but that does not make the perpetrator into the victim. Though, interestingly, many perpetrators do see themselves as victims.

It's not that every Nazi or Nazi sympathizer was evil to the core, or that none were well intentioned. It's that what they did and what they stood for was wrong. And it also caused the suffering for which the (non-Nazi) dead and victimized are being remembered. So it isn't a day to feel bad for them, but for the people who were harmed by their movement and beliefs.
posted by bearwife at 12:52 PM on May 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


The poem's not bad and I could see including it in a remembrance event, but perhaps not this one; besides the objections of other attendees, from all I've read, it really was a case of espousing 'the wrong ideals' for almost all such volunteers, and while we might regret their deaths in war, it would be wrong to give even the impression of making equivalence with more obvious victims on a national occasion. But then (on preview), it certainly should raise wider questions of how and what we are commemorating and the lies we tell ourselves.
posted by Abiezer at 12:52 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


The poem, even in translation, is beautiful. One part of the article stuck out at me, though:

"Cidi spokeswoman Esther Voet told the NRC the piece is inappropriate for such an occasion and an insult to survivors. ‘As long as there are survivors, Remembrance Day should be about them and those they lost,’ she said."

But... the survivors on the German side, they are also survivors. I can understand if you want to remember the victims over the 'perpetrators' (though there is a strong argument for acknowledging the past as it happened, but it's a complicated question, and to some degree, everyone is a victim of war) but you're attempting some serious redefinition if you don't want to acknowledge those who fought on the German side and didn't die as survivors. The implications - the kind of dehumanising and sweeping under the carpet that work so well to motivate people to go to war, on a subtler, more insidious level - worry me...
posted by Dysk at 12:57 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also [PDF] a poem, by Sorley MacLean, who served in North Africa and put it well I think:
...

Far from me the Island
and every loved image in Scotland,
there is a foreign sand in History
spoiling the machines of the mind.

Far from me Belsen and Dachau,
Rotterdam, the Clyde and Prague,
and Dimitrov before a court
hitting fear with the thump of his laugh.

Guernica itself is very far
from the innocent corpses of the Nazis
who are lying in the gravel
and in the khaki sand of the Desert.

There is no rancour in my heart
against the hardy soldiers of the Enemy,
but the kinship that there is among
men in prison on a tidal rock

waiting for the sea flowing
and making cold the warm stone;
and the coldness of life
in the hot sun of the Desert.

But this is the struggle not to be avoided,
the sore extreme of human-kind,
and though I do not hate Rommel's army
the brain's eye is not squinting...
posted by Abiezer at 1:01 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


The boys poem was very good. It is ashame that it was boycotted.
The boy's point is valid. His uncle was not an inherent evil monster becuase of his wrong choice.
posted by Flood at 1:14 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Forgive: yes. Honor: NO
posted by Postroad at 1:36 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a fair ideal to try and think through what individuals thought and did, even if they fought for evil. Trying to reach out to a person's humanity is quite noble. However, I think it's the wrong arena, and think it was right for the poem to be withdrawn. It should be remembered that the foreign volunteers were mostly neither conscripts nor pressured, but those who really believed in Nazism. The foreign divisions were still actively fighting at the end of war, and often considered reliable due to their beliefs. They were not innocent, not even close.
posted by Jehan at 1:37 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


...not every Nazi, Nazi sympathizer, and Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of a DOOM soldier.

Except for the Pope when he comes up on MetaFilter. :)

Also, that poem does rule. What a shame.
posted by resurrexit at 1:42 PM on May 3, 2012


Seconding what Abiezer stated above.

It is certainly important to remember the mistakes of war, and certainly those who made the wrong choice suffered as well. The difficulty is that in presenting this poem as the winner, there is implicit in that selection the idea that 'this is the victim we choose to remember above all others'. It is precisely that moral equivalence which is the difficulty.

(I do find it highly ironic that there is a debate on whether or not to 'remember' the ones who made the wrong choice, when for so many years following the war, NSBers and their families weren't allowed to forget it.)

Perhaps this boy's uncle was a victim, I don't know. Certainly, in my family, he would not have been described as such. But perhaps that there is now even a debate on that is a sign that people are moving on from the steadfast distinctions of the past, which I can only see as a positive thing. The more I discover about that time, the more I realize that no-one was a saint, and that we all have to account for something. Remember, yes. But we also must remember that some made their choices better than others.

So, yes. The boy's poem is good, it presents an important reminder, and there is a forum for it somewhere. Probably just not here as the centrepiece.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:48 PM on May 3, 2012


but quite a few were also genuine "idealists" thinking they could carve out a place for Holland in the new Germanic world order by fighting the Bolshevik menace.

In a world where you're caught between monsters, picking a monster to fight for isn't the moral crime it might otherwise be.

I've seen it said that if the Germans had treated the peasantry well as they came through, instead of abusing them worse than Stalin, they'd have had a fair chance of winning the war, with all the support they'd have gotten. The peasants were eager to welcome the Germans, at first... they rapidly learned what a bad idea this was.

I wasn't alive back then, of course, and I don't know what the media was like, but from a modern perspective, it seems like Germany did a much better job of hiding how evil it was. Their propaganda division was way better than Stalin's.
posted by Malor at 1:49 PM on May 3, 2012


These soldiers were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.

...Seems like I've heard that before somewhere.
posted by delfin at 1:55 PM on May 3, 2012


> 'How can we learn from our mistakes if we are not allowed to name them', he said. 'I was born in peacetime. It is hard enough for me to make the right choices, so how must it have been for people during the war?'

This, to me, is far more eloquent than the poem, which is not overwhelming.
posted by stonepharisee at 1:59 PM on May 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


This, to me, is far more eloquent than the poem, which is not overwhelming.

Poems in translation rarely are.
posted by vorfeed at 2:00 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


...at least, not when translated by someone who was primarily trying to get the meaning across in a newspaper.
posted by vorfeed at 2:02 PM on May 3, 2012


More Dutch men served in feldgrau than in khaki

Any backup for this? I didn't see anything in the links.
posted by notmtwain at 2:12 PM on May 3, 2012


> In a world where you're caught between monsters, picking a monster to fight for isn't the moral crime it might otherwise be.

I don't really understand this argument. Why fight for a monster, no matter how many of them are fighting?

> I've seen it said that if the Germans had treated the peasantry well as they came through, instead of abusing them worse than Stalin, they'd have had a fair chance of winning the war, with all the support they'd have gotten.

I've seen it said too, but it doesn't make much sense. Yeah, if the Germans hadn't been Nazis, with all the irrationality and inhumanity that involved, they would have done better... but they wouldn't have fought the war in the first place. And as for the Russians, if the Bolsheviks hadn't taken over, they'd have had a much better century. And if pigs could fly...
posted by languagehat at 2:16 PM on May 3, 2012


In a world where you're caught between monsters, picking a monster to fight for isn't the moral crime it might otherwise be.
It strikes me that argument might be more valid in the Eastern Bloc nations (I recall reading about similarly vexed historical debates in the Baltic states) but not so relevant in the Netherlands, though perhaps the Red Menace did seem real to some.
To put it bluntly, I'm glad the Nazis lost the war they started, and since for that to happen some of their soldiers had to die, despite a general sadness at the human condition and vicissitudes of history I can't be too sorry for those that did. In fact, I hope I'd have done my best to kill them were I there at the time, as members of my family did.
posted by Abiezer at 2:18 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Forgive: yes. Honor: NO

That makes for a nice line but this is about a rememberance day, so where do you stand on 'Remember'?
posted by biffa at 2:52 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some context to consider here: the xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments have been rising in the Netherlands during the last few years, to the point that anti-immigration party (PVV) was the third largest party in 2010 parliament elections, coming out in polls as the most popular for quite a while. They were offering support for the cabinet until it fell apart a couple weeks ago, even though they had no ministers.

They started out as an anti-Islam party, but grew to become anti-Eastern European as well (one of the examples).

Attempts at absolving SS volunteers look quite worrying to me, given this background.
posted by egor83 at 3:00 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


In Greece a neonazi party might enter the parliament after this weekend's election. They are swearing up and down that they are nationalists, not neonazis despite their annual mourning Hitler's defeat and tasteful Hess magazine covers.

It's a pity we spend more time demonising the historic Nazi party (NSDAP) instead of exposing the sham of the ideology of hate, othering and scapegoating. Ignorance and hate can get hold of people so easily.

/depressed
posted by ersatz at 3:40 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


This was not completely unrelated:

A senior member of Germany's Pirate Party has provoked fierce criticism by likening its rapid rise to that of Adolf Hitler's NSDAP party.

Fascism can happen again. Economic turmoil is its natural fuel.
posted by bukvich at 4:12 PM on May 3, 2012


Interesting discussion and thoughts provoked by this poem. Ultimately, I, too, am happy that it wasn't "chosen", however much the discussion is raises is a valid and important one to have.

We recently celebrated ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Core) day here in Australia, and I can certainly empathise with a desire to complicate the simple discourse around the wars - especially World War II -, a discourse that is only growing more simplistic over time as fewer veterans remain and the events are leveraged even more as a nationalist and populist tool (at least, that's how I feel here in Australia. The contrast between ANZAC Day before and after right-leaning PM John Howard is somewhat revealing in my opinion).

But by the same token, I think it's right that, ummm, that we should have these discussions and that the outcome should be, "No, that's not okay." I think the dialogue and the reminder that the dominant, simplistic narratives of war in general and WWII in particular contain a truth, but not all truths is important, but that substituting one "truth" for another is not a solution for society and rather is much the same.

So I guess, good discussion, interesting poem, glad they're not using it.
posted by smoke at 5:11 PM on May 3, 2012


Wow, there are some scary comments following the poem:
Was the loss of this soldier to his family any less than the loss of Anne Frank to hers? [...] I think this boy's poem is wonderful. I'm just wondering why he is being punished for the sins of his ancestor. The Jewish community needs to move forward, like the rest of the world has, instead of always crying about the past. Perhaps they need to listen to a child.
I have the following quote for the Auschwitz survivors:

Just because you win the fight
Don't make you right
Just because you give
Don't make you good
Strange how easily valuable lessons are forgotten: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." If you go to great lengths to do things like suppress the expression of ideas you feel might somehow slight you, you must be prepared to be slighted, for the time will surely come when the pendulum swings in the other direction and the bullies become the bullied. You should know this by now. You have been warned.
Auke Siebe Dirk has written an inspiring poem. It would not have been easy to come to grips that one of your own family, the one you're named after, was in the SS. Like the Nobel winner Günter Grass's poem "What must be said" Jewish authorities opposed the right not only to 'free speech' but also the right to impose the view that Palestine belongs to them alone and that justifies the right to abuse Palestinians. For who is the Remembrance Day?
It is annoying to see victims taking role of their prosecutors. Maybe we should all first ask from advice these kind of organizations before opening our mouth? Poem is spot on. The one who sees glorifying SS in it, is not interested in dissecting the problem, but manipulating with the 'truth'.
And finally, the editor responds to criticism:
Editor's note: I don't think the comments responding to the poem reflect anti-Semitism at all ....
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:13 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


So I guess, good discussion, interesting poem, glad they're not using it.

More or less my conclusion as well. There should be some room to remember/mourn the German (and their allies) deaths as well, but not there.

Attempts at absolving SS volunteers look quite worrying to me, given this background.

I don't think this was quite what the poet tried to do, though you could certainly see it that way. I see it more of an acknowledgement that yes, this uncle was part of the family, made the wrong choices but nevertheless remains family. We don't really know anything about him other than that he volunteered for the Waffen-SS and fought in Russia, so how bad he actually was remains unknown.

(And SS volunteers were a very mixed lot; quite a few in the later stages of the war clearly volunteered as their best option to survive, e.g. Ukranian POWs who volunteered so as not to starve to death.)

Any backup for this? I didn't see anything in the links.

Not online right now, but it's generally accepted that this is the case, with some 20,000 or so Dutch men fighting for the Germans and a few thousand at most on the Allied side. I'll see if I can find some stats for this later.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:34 PM on May 3, 2012


I read somewhere today that 73% of Americans supported the war in Iraq, at the beginning. (it was in one of the links from the Noah Pippin post).

Every German soldier was not a nazi. Some were just Germans, doing what was demanded/expected/required. Many died for no good reason.

The real problem is people talking others into the notion that war is a good idea.
posted by Goofyy at 2:23 AM on May 4, 2012


Thinking about the discussion in this thread got me to re-read Primo Levi's 'The Black Hole of Auschwitz', where he deals with an earlier debate in Germany that attempted an equivalence between Nazi and Soviet crimes; Levi sets out clearly what made 'these two infernos [...] not the same' in his eyes.

SS volunteers were a very mixed lot; quite a few in the later stages of the war clearly volunteered as their best option to survive, e.g. Ukranian POWs who volunteered so as not to starve to death.
Is there any suggestion this was the case for any of the volunteers from the Netherlands though Martin? As I said above, would be surprised if the argument applied there.
posted by Abiezer at 3:13 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Martin, I re-read the poem after you comment, and now it looks even worse.

"Poor kid, wanted to escape the poverty and have a better life, so he went to fight Russians with the SS. Turns out this was a wrong choice. Well, no big deal, he's a part of the family anyway."

I see a few obvious and very disturbing things here, seems they aren't so obvious for everyone, guess I should list them... don't know where to begin, actually.


"No way back" - how come? You can always right your wrongs, or at least try to. There were other choices, there was Resistance... Well, if you see your service in SS as a way to a better life, why would you try to change anything?


> so how bad he actually was remains unknown

Voluntarily joining Nazis isn't bad enough for you? And not just collaborating, doing some civil service or working at a factory - but joining goddamn SS, actually fighting for them and with them?


> volunteered as their best option to survive

If you steal and kill for your own survival, you are still a criminal. If you kill others not just to survive, but to get a better life for yourself... you really see nothing wrong here?


Xenophobia, hatred and fear of the other are alive and well - not only in the Netherlands, in Russia as well, in the rest of the Europe, in the US, everywhere... Some things must be remembered - that Nazis were criminals, that hating and prosecuting people on the base of their race, faith on nationality alone is bad. I saw this happening back in NL, I spent four years there; I see this happening in Russia now, and I'm really worried by all that.

Suggesting to remember your family members, but to forget what they did, to "get over it" - that's just not acceptable. If we get over what has happened and forget it, these things might happen again. And, as I said, it is happening - Wilders and Fortuyn are nowhere near German Nazis, but it is the big step in that direction.
posted by egor83 at 4:35 AM on May 4, 2012


egor83 I think we can, surely, be a little more generous here - the poem was written by schoolkid, after all. I don't think there's anything wrong - indeed, I think it's an absolutely necessity - in acknowledging that war makes victims of everyone it touches. Sympathy for the Nazis, you say? I dunno, I don't think sympathy starts a lot of wars, you know? And I do think it's very hard to know exactly when, where and how a line gets drawn. The Nazis weren't Nazis as we know them overnight; history throws demarcations into relief and I would love to have the faith I wouldn't champion fascism, but I'm sure no one does - including a lot of people who ended up supporting Nazis.

A more complicated example: My own grandfather fought on the "right" side of the allies during the war. But he fought against "the Japs". Was he fighting for freedom etc? Well not so much, really more for British imperialism, and worse; his motives and indeed the motives of many Australians were inextricably wrapped up in the kind of racial superiority and hatred that was inspiring the Nazis at the exact same time on the other side of the world. Things are not so clear-cut as all that.

I think it's very important to get past the simplistic, often nationalistic narratives of war and conflict that are so often stoked publicly.

But having said all that, as I alluded above, I feel it's equally misguided to use the ubiquitous suffering of war to put a false equivalency in place and say "well, the Nazis had it rough on the Eastern Front so really it was just like concentration camps." It wasn't, and it's not. And using this schoolkid's totally valid attempt to capture his relative's suffering and his family's discomfort and acceptance of the role pops played in the war as not only representative, but as actually iconic of WWII sufferingwould be a grave disservice, and a real elision of what made that conflict especially heinous, and blur the horrible realities - not of the war itself, but of what led to the war, and continues to fire much hatred in the world today. None of that invalidates this kid's attempt to articulate his histories, but selecting the poem would definitely have invalidated a lot of other people's.

As I say, good discussion to have, right decision to make.
posted by smoke at 5:10 AM on May 4, 2012


Yes, the war brings suffering to everyone involved. However, erasing the line between aggressor and invaded, between criminal and victim, calling SS soldiers "victims" and asking "Was the loss of this soldier to his family any less than the loss of Anne Frank to hers?" - it's all very wrong.

I'm not trying to paint WWII as black-and-white, as despicable and foul Nazis versus glorious and honorable Red Army/Allies in shining armor, nothing like that.
You're spot on that nationalism, feeling of racial superiority and contempt for other nations was also present among the people on the winning side - but that's what I was trying to say.

The war is not over yet. Nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia are all still here; and I think it is important to remind and emphasize that the wrong choice that guy did was wrong; not gloss over it. Suggesting to get over Nazi crimes of the past - to me - means supporting chauvinists and xenophobes of today, and there's plenty of them.

There's indeed a lot to remember. Let the heroes be remembered as heroes; let the criminals be remembered as criminals. Honour the people who risked and lost their lives fighting against overwhelming odds; do not try to get over the crimes of those who tried to divide people, those who gave in and joined the Nazis; remember, the fight is not over yet.
posted by egor83 at 5:52 AM on May 4, 2012


I don't really understand this argument. Why fight for a monster, no matter how many of them are fighting?

Of course, that always works out really well for people.

Yeah, if the Germans hadn't been Nazis ... they wouldn't have fought the war in the first place.

I doubt that. The conditions imposed upon Germany after WW1 invited a future violent response. And it's not like they were the only country to invade Poland.
posted by robertc at 7:20 AM on May 4, 2012


> Of course, that always works out really well for people.

I have no idea what (doubtless snide) point you were trying to make with that link. I was a conscientious objector myself, and I'm proud of it. If everyone was a pacifist, there would be no wars.

> The conditions imposed upon Germany after WW1 invited a future violent response.

No, they invited a future corrective action, which could well have been peaceful. War is not the solution to everything, unless you're Adolf Hitler or someone who thinks like him.
posted by languagehat at 9:41 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that corrective action was always likely to be war, the head of allied forces at the end of ww1 predicted the armistice was just going to be a 20 year truce as a result of the conditions imposed on Germany.
posted by biffa at 5:04 PM on May 4, 2012


I have no idea what (doubtless snide) point you were trying to make with that link.

You said you didn't understand, I was trying to give you some understanding. Not everyone has your moral fortitude and resolve. The social pressures can cause even people who dislike both sides to pick one of them.

War is not the solution to everything, unless you're Adolf Hitler or someone who thinks like him.

You're making it sound like Hitler was one of a handful of people willing to go to war in Europe and, but for him, the war would never have happened. Europe had been at war with itself more or less constantly for thousands of years before Hitler came along. Pretending like it was all his fault isn't helpful.
posted by robertc at 5:09 PM on May 4, 2012


> But that corrective action was always likely to be war, the head of allied forces at the end of ww1 predicted the armistice was just going to be a 20 year truce as a result of the conditions imposed on Germany.

Who knows? We can't rerun history. But the vast majority of the European population was sick and tired of war and totally uninterested in going through it again; it wasn't like the pre-WWI period when people actually seemed eager for war, which they saw as a healthy cleansing process. I find it very easy to imagine that had the Weimar Republic managed to last (which might have been possible, for instance, had Stalin seen the danger of Nazism earlier and had the German Communists oppose the Nazis rather than the liberals) the situation could have been resolved without war. Bear in mind that nobody thought the Soviet Union or apartheid South Africa could be ended without mass violence. Pessimism is not always right.

> You're making it sound like Hitler was one of a handful of people willing to go to war in Europe and, but for him, the war would never have happened. Europe had been at war with itself more or less constantly for thousands of years before Hitler came along. Pretending like it was all his fault isn't helpful.

No, it's pretending war is inevitable that isn't helpful.
posted by languagehat at 5:22 PM on May 4, 2012


« Older Beyond the Serpent's Grasp   |   September 1st, 1859: The Week... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post