Despite the fact that the Netherlands was a neutral country, it formed a strategically vital target for the Germans, who invaded on May 10, 1940. Five days later, after the bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch surrendered.
The occupation lasted almost five years; for the Dutch, it was the most difficult period in their country’s history.
Dutch resolve, however, was not broken, and resistance continued amid brutal reprisals, starvation, and mass deportations that would see the Netherlands lose three-quarters of its Jewish population.
Nazi Invasion of the Netherlands
“I hereby direct a clear protest against this example of violation of what is fair between civilized states” – Queen Wilhelmina
On May 10, 1940, Germany launched an invasion of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium as part of Operation Fall Gelb (Operation Case Yellow) without any formal declaration of war. Clearly unprepared for modern styles of warfare, the Netherlands fell quickly.
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It was one of the first examples of using paratroopers to seize objectives before the advance of the main ground forces. For the Germans, the entire operation was a stunning success.
The German advances were overwhelming, and the bombing of Rotterdam left incredible destruction. The Dutch knew that further resistance would be futile and only leave more destruction in its wake.
By May 14, the Dutch army had surrendered, although a small contingent in Zeeland continued fighting until May 17.
Queen Wilhelmina fled the country and formed a government-in-exile in the United Kingdom. Many believed that she had abandoned her country, but she was adamant that she would never become a puppet ruler under the Germans, and today, her flight is seen as a pragmatic move. She continued to address the Dutch people via radio throughout the war. The rest of her family escaped to Canada. The escape of the Dutch royal family was achieved with the assistance of the British, who led a rescue mission.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the Dutch had remained neutral in the hopes that they could avoid the conflict, but after the invasions of Denmark and Norway, it became clear to most that the Netherlands was likely a prime target. Hasty preparations were made, but it was not enough.
There was a significant amount of denial within the country, with many people expecting Germany to leave the Netherlands alone. Nevertheless, for those who were more pragmatic and for those living in hope, the reaction was the same. Outrage swept the country.
A few days later, the fighting was over, and the emotion of outrage was joined with relief, humiliation, and a sense of abandonment, as many Dutch felt that the French and British should have stationed troops in the Netherlands to protect it from German invasion.
From the German perspective, the Dutch constituted fellow Aryans, and the Germans intended to treat the Dutch people a lot better than the citizens of many other conquered areas of Europe. From the Dutch perspective, they didn’t expect to be treated well, as they had a significant distrust of the Germans.
For a minority of Dutch people, the invasion was a blessing. The Dutch Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (National-Socialist movement / NSB) welcomed the German occupation as it brought the members of this right-wing movement significant power. Its leader, Anton Mussert, had expected to be installed as the ruler of a Dutch state allied to the Germans, but in reality, the occupation was under the control of the Austrian politician Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who served as the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands from May 29, 1940, to May 7, 1945.
The distrust of the Germans was exacerbated by the immediate effects of the German occupation in terms of food. The Germans blockaded the ports and effectively ended the importation of foodstuffs from abroad. Instead, the Dutch people would be fed by the Germans with careful rationing. The food that was distributed was healthy and based on modern dietary needs. It was low in fat, and the Dutch, who were used to a high-fat diet, began to lose weight; many assumed the Germans were starving them. This turned out not to be the case, at least not at this point in the occupation. Later on, as the Germans became more harsh towards the Dutch people, the threat of famine would turn into a reality.
Hope and Denial
Many Dutch people believed the occupation would be short-lived, some expecting it to be over by Christmas. Until then, they adopted a policy of conforming to the desires of the occupiers, or at least the appearance of conformity.
While the German soldiers, on the whole, treated the Dutch well during the beginning of the occupation, German leadership took control of all aspects of society and the economy, banning free speech and propagating Nazi ideology among the populace of the Netherlands. Naturally, most Dutch people saw this as an attempt to convert the country. While the NSB saw some initial growth, swelling to around 100,000 members, it remained a fringe group in terms of the total population and was utterly despised by the rest of Dutch society.
Unity and Resistance
Before the war, Dutch society had been fractured and split along social, religious, and political lines. With the exception of the small minority of those who supported the NSB and the Nazis, the vast majority of the Dutch population found itself with a common enemy, and as such, a sense of unity thrived.
Around 5% of the Dutch people joined the resistance. While this may (or may not) have been a relatively small percentage, this was the section of society that went into hiding and used violent tactics to strike at German assets. Other forms of resistance were common and were much less “active.” The Dutch people took to hiding those wanted by the Germans. In particular, Jewish people found hope and protection in the families that secreted them away in the attics of houses. The famous Anne Frank was one of these Jews who were looked after by compassionate and brave Dutch people.
When those in the Dutch resistance were caught and executed, the Dutch were horrified. Given the initial attitude of the Germans towards the Dutch at the beginning of the occupation, it came as a shock. Especially since in the Netherlands, the death penalty had been outlawed for many decades, and the Dutch were not used to anybody being executed.
It was also not just Jewish people who the Nazi occupiers were after. Communists and outspoken critics of the regime were targeted, as well as people with mental disabilities.
Life was tough for everybody under Nazi occupation. Forced labor was implemented, and adult men were drafted to work in German factories, which were often targeted by Allied bombing runs.
Collaboration and Deportation of Jews
After the German conquest of the Netherlands, a Joodse Raad was created, a council that acted as a liaison between the Jews and the Nazi occupiers. The Raad was run by Abraham Asscher and David Cohen, supplied the Germans with information, and was responsible for organizing and selecting Jews for deportation. Asscher and Cohen were both tried for collaboration by the Jewish Community in the Netherlands after the war but were exonerated. Many Jews found themselves in difficult situations, being forced to collaborate on pain of death.
For their part, the Dutch did not sit quietly and do nothing. With the first waves of antisemitic policies came pushback in the form of protests and strikes from the Dutch populace. In February 1941, a strike was met with violent suppression by the Nazi regime, which tried thereafter to limit the amount of violence dealt to non-Jewish Dutch people.
This situation of being forced to collaborate was not just a situation for the Jews. Many Dutch people, especially those in the government and the police, were compelled to perform heinous acts in order to protect themselves and their families. Forced collaboration was an incredibly difficult issue that raised many questions, especially after the war, when people were put on trial for their assistance to the Nazi regime.
The outcome of the Nazi policies in the Netherlands was that over 70% of Dutch Jews were deported. This was a higher proportion than in any other German-occupied territory in Western Europe.
Not all collaboration was forced, however. Some elements of Dutch society supported the Nazis and did so openly. Up to 25,000 Dutch men even volunteered to join the German army and the Waffen-SS.
Liberation of the Netherlands
Hope became a reality in September 1944 with the beginning of Operation Market Garden. Although the operation achieved very limited gains, it represented the beginning of the collapse of German resistance. In the following months, the Netherlands was freed from German control bit by bit. The Allies, however, concentrated their efforts on Germany, not the Netherlands, and Berlin fell before Amsterdam was liberated. Many parts of the Netherlands were only free of German occupation once the Germans had officially surrendered.
However, the months in which liberation was achieved were not as happy as they could have been. The Germans cut off supply to the western region of the country where 4.5 million people lived, and as a result of the Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter), around 18,000 Dutch people starved to death, with relief only arriving as late as May 1945, with the complete surrender of the German forces in Europe.
By the end of the war, 205,901 Dutch people had died from war-related causes. Just over half of them were victims of the Holocaust. This total represented 2.36% of the entire Dutch population at the time and was the highest proportion in Western Europe.
For Dutch people today, the occupation of their country represents an awful time in their history. Generally being a liberal people who value freedom, the five years of Nazi governance is seen as a time that flew directly in the face of Dutch beliefs.
Not only did it aggravate Dutch ways of life, but it humiliated the Dutch people, who, for the most part, did what they could to resist.