Dutch World War II History is More Complex Than You Might Think

15 April 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

The Diary Keepers:  World War II in the Netherlands as Written by the People Who Lived Through It, Nina Siegal.  Ecco: New York, 2023.  Hardcover, 527 pages.

My family roots are in the Netherlands.  Both sets of my grandparents emigrated from there in the early 1950s.  My Opa Bredenhof had tales to tell of his experiences in the Dutch resistance during World War II.  I grew up with the impression that all Dutch people loathed Germans, many of them were involved with the Underground, and many others hid Jews from the Nazis.  The Dutch were invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1940, but when the Canadians finally arrived to liberate them in 1944-45, everyone rejoiced. 

But I later discovered this to be a one-dimensional view.  Before and after the German invasion, there were Dutch citizens who were Nazis.  Sadly, many of them were also Reformed church members.  It is estimated that, in 1936, 8000 confessing members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were members of the Dutch Nazi movement.  It’s true that the Synod of 1936 decided that church membership was incompatible with being a Nazi, but many ignored this decision and others openly disagreed with it.    A grandson of Abraham Kuyper took things one step further.  Along with some 20,000 of his fellow Dutchmen, Willem Kuyper joined an SS unit – working as a propagandist, he died for the Third Reich on the eastern front.   

When we’re personally involved, we have a tendency to look at history through a filter.  The good is accentuated and the evil is filtered out.  Journalist Nina Siegal’s book The Diary Keepers confronts us with a dose of the multidimensional reality about Dutch World War II history.  Some people were courageous in their resistance, some were selfless in their sacrifices, but others were opportunistic at best and cold-hearted Nazis at worst.

In Amsterdam one finds the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.  This organization houses an impressive archive of over 2000 diaries from the Second World War.  From this collection, Nina Siegal chose 9 diaries to represent the Dutch experience of the War.  She relates:

…I was seeking a range of perspective, not many but various.  I wanted to juxtapose and balance voices from the occupation period and provide a rounded view of the war.  I also hoped to explore gray zones, territories of moral indecision, and moments of social collapse. (p.30)

Three of the diarists were Jewish, two of whom survived the war.  The others include a Nazi collaborator and a Christian woman (Elisabeth van Lohuizen) who made every effort to save as many Jews as she could.  Her family were members of the Dutch Reformed (NHK) church in Epe, Gelderland.

Besides the diary entries, Siegal has several chapters of journalistic observation and reflection.  The last few chapters are especially interesting as she wrestles with the way the Dutch people came to terms with the German occupation in the years following.  One thing that particularly surprised me was how the Dutch government did little to advocate for the Jews during the war:  “Meanwhile, no Dutch government intervention on behalf of the Jewish community came from the exiled national leaders in London, nor were there any instructions from Dutch civil administration officials at home in the Netherlands” (p.358). After the war was not much better, as “several newspapers ran articles warning the surviving or returned Jews to show appreciation to resistance helpers, lest they solicit additional antisemitism” (p.463).

The Diary Keepers isn’t a Christian book, but it’s a book that Christians can nonetheless appreciate.  It’s about a history many Reformed people share.  It’s important to read it and understand how easily not just hatred, but even mere indifference, can lead to horrible crimes against humanity, even in a nation with such a respectable Christian heritage as the Netherlands.  But reading it will also acquaint you with the courage of brave Dutch people who did what they could to stand up against the horrible injustices of Nazism.  With stories of antisemitism on the rise as I’m writing this, it seems like we always need to be reminded that evil must be resisted.

Originally published in Clarion 73.5 (April 5, 2024)