May 1940 – April 1945

Occupation & Resistance

War had come to the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, when Hitler launched his attack on France. The initial fighting lead to a stalemate, so the Germans bombed the defenceless city of Rotterdam. Most of the historic city centre was destroyed, leaving 900 dead and 85,000 homeless. Soon after, the Dutch capitulated to prevent another such attack.

Dutch resistance armband. “ORANJE” is a tribute to the Dutch monarchy’s House of Orange-Nassau and connects to BBC Radio Oranje, the broadcasting service of the Dutch government-in-exile and Radio Herrijzend Nederland which broadcast from the Southern part of the country. Listening to either program was forbidden under German occupation. This armband is located in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, INS 8077. 

For the next five years, the Dutch lived under Nazi occupation. Life was no longer free or easy. The Germans imposed new rules, limited travel, controlled media, culture, and education, and outlawed any non-Nazi organizations. Some Dutch were luckier than their eastern European neighbours in that the Germans saw the non-Jewish Dutch as fellow Germanic peoples suitable for assimilation, rather than races considered sub-human (Jews, Slavs, Roma, for example) who needed to be exterminated. Regardless, the Nazis ruthlessly stripped the country’s economy by exporting everything they could, including food. For many Netherlanders, resistance was the only option.

Resistance took many forms. Some were personal and passive while others were public and risky. The former was the most difficult to document for it was private and individual. After the Germans conquered and occupied the Netherlands, Dutch citizens had to choose between collaboration and resistance, both of which could bring painful and potentially lethal consequences. Some waiters suddenly stopped speaking German. People would leave cafés when Germans entered, or turn their backs on German parades. Even listening to the British BBC radio news, a banned activity, was considered resistance. Such acts were small but still dangerous; if caught, people could be imprisoned, or worse. And, because they were dangerous, these acts were considered patriotic.

“German and Canadian negotiators arrive at a schoolhouse, where they secretly discuss supplying food to the starving Dutch people still in German-held areas, 30 April 1945. Achterveld, Netherlands.” Photo: Ernest DeGuire. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, a154126.

The second type of resistance was to seek out like-minded people and form groups. This was a slow and risky process. Some people who were willing to turn their backs on Germans were not willing to move to active defiance. It wasn’t always clear who could and could not be trusted. Inviting a collaborator to participate in a resistance cell could result in jail, torture, or execution. Also, different groups had different goals. Some worked to educate and distribute propaganda, while others sought to help downed pilots escape to Great Britain, as did Mona Parsons. Other groups had deadlier intentions: they wanted to kill Germans.

“Members of the Dutch resistance guard fellow countrymen accused of collaborating with the Germans during the occupation.” Note the ‘ORANJE’ fabric armband on the resistance members. September 1944. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park,111-SC-194278 (Album 3584).

Other Dutch resistance fighters used different approaches to overt action: staging an ambush, derailing a train, or cutting telephone lines. Subversive actions, like organizing a strike or conducting industrial sabotage, were also tactics used by resistance fighters. In general, these activities helped the Allies in the liberation of the Netherlands, but they often produced a devastating human toll.

“Dutch Resistance Headquarters.” April 1945. Painting: Captain George C. Tinning. Located in the collection of the Canadian War Museum, 19710261-5457. 

The Germans executed an estimated 2,000 Netherlanders suspected in engaging in resistance activities. It is worth considering what would drive someone to defy the authority of occupiers willing to kill civilians. How bad must things be for people to risk their lives to make things better? Not everyone resisted, and some actually worked with the Germans. But there were many who were prepared to sacrifice everything. This took courage, determination, and not a little recklessness.

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