During the late summer and early autumn of 1944, as the Allies swept through northern France and Belgium, the liberation of the Netherlands seemed close at hand. In fact, Dutch liberation was only achieved in May 1945 after a tough and frustrated campaign. When the population was finally freed, the Netherlands emerged from almost exactly five years of Nazi occupation.
On 10 May 1940, the German Army crossed its eastern frontier into the Netherlands using the techniques of blitzkrieg – fast-moving war. The Germans viewed the Netherlands as something of an irritation on their path to France, which they sought to reach as soon as possible. Duly taken by surprise, the Dutch Army fought hard for five days, but a flat country with only rivers to act as natural defences was difficult to defend. On 14 May Rotterdam was subjected to heavy aerial bombardment, and when other cities were threatened with the same treatment the Dutch army capitulated. The following day the surrender was signed and the occupation of the Netherlands began. Queen Wilhelmina, a passionate anti-Nazi, had already left the country for London. When her prime minister, Dirk Jan de Geer, tried to negotiate with Hitler, the queen dismissed him and appointed Pieter Gerbrandy to lead the government-in-exile.
The new Nazi overlords, under the leadership of Reichskommisar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, hoped they would find a sympathetic ally in the Netherlands, which they considered a fellow “Aryan” nation. Day-to-day administration continued under the Dutch civil service, but attempts to Nazify the Dutch population met with almost complete failure. German treatment of the civilian population was relatively mild initially, but occupation became increasingly repressive in the face of Dutch non-cooperation and resistance. Nazi economic exploitation of the country included deporting around 400,000 people to Germany as labourers; those who resisted were met with brutal reprisals.
As an extreme anti-Semite, Seyss-Inquart was quick to implement anti-Jewish measures, forcing Jews to register and removing them from all official positions. Of the 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands – many of whom were refugees from Germany – a total of 107,000 were interned in Camp Westerbork, a transit camp in the country’s northeast. From here they were transported onwards to concentration and extermination camps across Europe, including nearly 35,000 sent to the extermination camp at Sobibór in Poland between March and July 1943. Seventy-five percent of the Dutch Jewish community died in World War II, a far higher figure than almost all other Western European nations.
As the war progressed and the Nazi grip tightened, the Dutch Resistance grew stronger and more active. Made up of diverse groups across the political spectrum, its activities focused on destroying German supplies and munitions, organizing strikes, hiding Nazi “undesirables” and forging identity papers. Military resistance wasn’t easy in a densely populated country with no mountains or large forests to use as hideaways, but there were several successful assassinations, including the death of the collaborationist Dutch officer, General Seyffardt. Unfortunately, the Nazis proved adept at infiltrating resistance movements and by the end of the war around 23,000 resistance fighters had been rounded up and executed, bringing the total Dutch casualties in World War II to at least 200,000.
Allied forces overran northern France and Belgium in the summer and autumn of 1944, and the Dutch expected they would soon be liberated. There was a mood of optimism in the air: 5 September is still known as “Dolle Dinsdag” (Mad Tuesday) after the premature celebrations that rippled through the Netherlands. It was a false dawn, however, and the Dutch would have to wait until May the following year before their country was entirely free.
The liberation of the Netherlands proved to be a slow and protracted grind, beginning with two campaigns: the ambitious – but only partially successful – Operation Market Garden, close to the German border in the east, and the Battle of the Scheldt in the southwest. As the Germans came closer to losing the war, they became increasingly ruthless. Reprisals against the Resistance and civilians grew more frequent, and in the bitter winter of 1944–1945 thousands died from starvation as the result of a German blockade.
Top image: Canal in Gelderland © Hilda Weges Photography / Shutterstock