Monday, 25 July 2016

Movements and Revolutions #3 - Remebering the Dutch Teenage Partisans

On July the second, sculptress and former member of the anti-Nazi Dutch Armed Resistance, Truus Menger Oversteegen, (pictured) died at the age of 92. Ideas of anti-fascism are often used in a patriotic way, in order to remember those who died during the Second World War. However, her life should remind us of the important role that Socialists and Anarchists played in the fight against the Nazis. Importantly, the fact that the Dutch state did not recognise Overteegen’s role in the resistance until 2014, tells us something about the politics of WW2 commemorations. During the war, Oversteegen, Mirjam Ohringer, and Els Schalker Kastange, described themselves famously as the ‘three musketeers’. All three were militant left wing women, who had had radical values instilled in them long before the outbreak of the Second World War. Each of them also suffered great personal losses as a result of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In 1941, just one year after the invasion, almost all of Mirjam’s family, was swept up in a wave of anti-Semitic arrests in Amsterdam, and subsequently murdered in Mauthausen concentration camp. Els’s father was murdered in Dachau, while Truss lost three member of her resistance group, including Hannie Schaft - ‘The Girl with Red Hair’, who became an icon of Dutch antifascist resistance. After World War two ended, they promoted an unapologetically left wing form of political commemoration, under the slogan ‘Not Now, Not Then, Never’, as an attempt to promote the real story of Dutch resistance.

The Netherlands before the War

Mainstream story’s about Anti-Fascist resistance in occupied Western Europe tend to focus specifically on Germanys 1940 conquest. This is hardly surprising. Before the German Invasion, the Netherlands had Aheared to a policy of strict Neutrality. The country had narrow bonds with Germany, and less so with Britain. The fact that they had not been invaded during the First World War, and had not engaged in a war with any European country since 1830, meant that Anti German sentiment was not strong there. In addition to this, the German ex Keiser had fled to the Netherlands in 1918, and lived there in exile. The shock of the German invasion forced the country to adopt a neutral stance during the war, even going as far as shooting down British planes as well as German ones, and routinely handing refugees that the Dutch police caught, over to the Gestapo.
This absolute cowardice from the Dutch government to resist the Nazis in any meaningful way whatsoever either prior to or during the war, meant that the seeds of resistance were sewn early. By November 1938, during the Kristallnacht, many Dutch people received a taste of things to come. During the Kristallnacht, the burning of German synagogues could be seen from the Netherlands. As if to send a message out to their own government as well as Dutch fascist movements, an anti-Nazi movement started to gain popularity, it was one that would persist into and long after the war. Involved in this resistance were Oversteegen, Ohringer, and Schalker Kastange, the ‘three musketeers’ whose families participated in ‘Red Aid’, a group which helped Jewish and political refugees illegally cross the border between Germany and the Netherlands. They proudly recall in their memoirs that, at an early age, they learnt to be silent about the strangers that were hidden in their bedrooms. In the first years of the Nazi occupation, these young women handed out leaflets, distributed illegal newspapers and helped to procure aid for refugees.  Their success in never being caught, depended on what they had learnt from Red Aid. All this happened while the Dutch government routinely failed to stand up against the fascists.

Growing Resistance

In 1941, Socialists and Anarchists in the Netherlands participated in a general strike, in response to the first Nazi raid on Amsterdam’s Jewish Population. This was unusual for the Dutch, who up to this point had only participated in more subtle forms of resistance, such as tearing down posters and handing out leaflets. Regardless of this, resistance was what was required. The old Jewish quarter in Amsterdam had been cordoned off into a ghetto. In the raid, 425 Jewish men were taken hostage by the Nazis and sent to death camps. Many citizens of Amsterdam rightly protested this gross violation of human rights. The next day, factories in Zaandam, Haarlem, IJmuiden, Weesp, Bussum, Hilversum and Utrecht all joined in. During the protests Mirjam’s father hid one of the printing presses producing the anti-Nazi leaflets in his tailor shop, while Truss and her sister Freddie leafletted factories. The strike was sadly destroyed within a day, with German troops firing on the unarmed protesters, and killing at least nine people. Despite this, resistance only intensified as a result, and no other country showed such overt refusal to cooperate with the occupiers.
As I mentioned earlier, with the neutrality of the Dutch government towards the Nazis, political repression was originally not as harsh as it was in other occupied territories. However, the repression that followed the general strike was brutal, firmly changing the nature of resistance. It became much more dangerous for Jews to participate in organised protest. Most, Like Mirjam, were forced to go into hiding. Deportations, supported by the compliant Dutch police force, went up, while some people could earn small sums of money for reporting Jews. It was around this time of mounting oppression, that a local militant approached Truss and her sister, both of whom were still in their teens, to join the partisans. This small cell of fighters, consisting of eight members, was connected to other groups through their commander Frans Van Der Wiel, and became one of the most famous Dutch resistance groups. When the student Hannie Schaft joined them in 1943, they considered her the ‘intellectual’, because all the initial members came from working class backgrounds. Together, the three women and five men sabotaged railway lines, rescued Jewish children and killed Nazi collaborators. While violence was never their aim, they grieved over the murder of Jews and political opponents. Truss even courageously carried on after her comrades were arrested and shot, a fate that befell Hannie Schaff.

After the War

When the nationalist forces led by Prince Bernhard, a onetime Nazi sympathiser, joined the fight, they rolled back the Community Party’s influence in favour of a conservative led ‘national front’. There are still rumours that Truss’ fighting units were deliberately turned over to the Nazis. For years tensions remained between the Dutch government and the communists. These tensions were quickly washed away however in the post war commemoration culture, which celebrated a unified struggle, led by the monarchy, against the German invaders.
Despite this, for left wing militants like Truss, the struggle extended beyond national liberation. They had hoped that a defeat of fascism would usher in a left wing reconstruction of Europe. Despite this, the Cold War quickly dashed their hopes, and revamped tensions between communists and nationalists. 1n 1952, when the Communist Party organized the first commemoration for Hannie Schaff, the government ironically banned the demonstration, and a police force was sent in to disperse the crowd. For years, the Dutch left organized its own World War Two commemorations, separate from the official ones. It is no surprise that it took the Dutch state until 2014, to give Truss and her sister acknowledgement for participating in the resistance.


Even the long overdue recognition of left wing freedom fighters, has served the function of depoliticizing resistance movements. The horrors of Nazi occupation are used to remind us of abstract notions of sovereignty, justice and democracy, and to reinforce the idea of liberal capitalism as a free and democratic socio economic system. For veteran fighters like Truss, this kind of commemoration must seem vacuous and void of any political message. They believed that fascism grew up in the folds of free market capitalism. They knew that their willingness to take direct action and resist the pre fascist state, helped them survive in the dark years that followed. As we lose this generation of resistance fighters, we must not let official culture erase their revolutionary politics. We are living in an era of officially sponspered nationalism, persecution of refugees and the growing threat of far right movements. Therefore, it is important that we fully remember this legacy.

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