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The Dutch Will Fight

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

A year or two ago, Holland was news only when the private affairs of the royal family attracted the eves of the world for a few short days. To judge from the outside interest then taken in them, the 8,500,000 ordinary Dutch citizens might not have existed. Today the situation has completely changed. On my return to England from a recent journey through The Netherlands, people no longer asked me for details about Princess Juliana’s private life, but wanted to know whether the Dutch will fight.

The reason is explained simply enough: The Englishman realizes that he will have to risk his own life if the Dutch are attacked, because the continued independence of The Netherlands is one of the vital interests of Great Britain. Besides, the Dutch still own the third largest colonial empire that enjoys close geographical contact with the British. A threat to one means danger to the other. How clearly not only the British Government but also leading members of the Opposition recognize the identity of British and Dutch interests was shown once more at the last annual conference of the Labour party. Almost en passant, Ernest Bevin, the most powerful of Britain’s trade union bosses, declared in his survey of foreign politics: “Holland we shall have to defend anyway.”

One has only to listen to the speeches of Holland’s political leaders at The Hague to realize that the Dutch know this well enough. During the debate on the military budget for 1939-40, Dr. J. J. C. van Dijk, Minister of Defense, said after a brief reference to Czecho-Slovakia’s fate: “For the future the question will remain whether the vital interests of the Great Powers will be so seriously threatened by an attack upon a small country that in their own interest they will feel driven to interfere. Holland’s strategical position gives the answer to this question.”

If after this anyone was still in doubt as to which Powers Holland assumed to be on her side, and which she considered to be threatening her, Dr. de Savornim Lohman, leader of the Christian Historical Union (one of the three Government parties), made it one hundred per cent clear by declaring before the First Chamber of Parliament: “The Berlin-Rome-Tokio Axis means danger to our colonies. Japan may, in the Far East, choose a moment when the British fleet is occupied near Europe so that for the moment it could not come to the assistance of The Netherlands, even in case of a direct attack on India. This creates a completely new situation. The time is not far back when our only care was for the maintenance of neutrality. Today we have to admit that we may have to face the possibility of a direct attack on Java, an attack which in the beginning—in the long run I believe we shall get assistance—we shall have to meet by our own strength.”

Yet there can be no question of the Dutch concluding any sort of pact. Holland’s national policy is based on the principle of neutrality. Only of late have voices been heard to point out that every value is determined by the price paid for it, and that neutrality, like peace, may be bought too dearly.

“It’s time we declared openly where we stand,” a liberal Dutch business man said to me. “This eternal talk about neutrality is just so much beating about the bush. After all, why should we be afraid to say that we are wholeheartedly on the side of the democracies?”

Utterances of this sort are taken as an excuse by the extremists on the Right to boast of themselves as the only true patriots with a full realization of Dutch responsibilities. “Neutrality shall always remain our guiding star,” they declare noisily, “Friendship with the democracies is all right as long as our relations with Germany don’t suffer from it, We must avoid anything that might be taken by Hitler as partiality against him.” Their arguments carry little weight with the rest of the population, which only too easily sees through the double game.

I was in Holland during the Easter crisis, after Italy’s occupation of Albania. As in September, 1938, so then the Government gave orders for partial mobilization, including the men of the frontier defense battalions. People with grave faces gathered round the newspaper agencies to read the latest dispatches, and following old democratic custom, discussion groups quickly gathered everywhere—the men-in-the-street were thrashing out the issues of the day. Since by far the majority of the troops had been sent to the eastern frontier, rumors were spreading that the Germans were on the point of invading the country. Dr. Hendrik Colijn, Prime Minister and Grand Old Man of post-War Holland, told the country over the radio that The Netherlands were not expecting any hostile act from any direction, but that the Dutch merely desired to show their readiness to maintain with all means at their disposal their well proven policy of independence and neutrality. At the same time he hinted at further measures to be taken for Holland’s defense.

Already in February, 1938, the annual contingent of conscripts had been raised from 19,500 to 32,000 men, and the training period prolonged from five and one-half to eleven months. A further increase in the number of men could easily be carried out, since hitherto often less than half the men on the register were actually called upon to serve their term of conscription.

But anyone who tries to form an estimate of Holland’s defensive power merely by counting men and arms would commit a serious error. More important than these and any additional outside assistance is another, more decisive weapon which the Dutch hold in their hands: the water that will flood the country if ever need should arise.

About this vital means of defense politicians and press are strangely silent, and yet the thought of it is ever present in people’s minds, As I traveled through the country, simple Dutchmen sitting in the bus beside me would point out of the window and say: “All that will be covered by water 1”

One day, after a visit to the flowering bulb fields, I passed two dozen empty army lorries on their way back from the frontier. In a field on the right, a peasant walked slowly on, sowing the new corn. Only for a moment did I see him turn his head towards the road. He had no time to spare, nor could he afford to leave his land untilled, even though it was doomed in case of war. No imaginative effort is needed to understand the age-old significance of that scene.

Any foreigner attempting to discover the exact delineation of the area to be flooded is looked upon with eyes full of suspicion. Roughly it may be said to be that part of the country that is lower than sea level; it centers around Utrecht and stretches eastward to the hills along the German frontier. Here the Maas, Waal, and lower Rhine Rivers form a dense network regulated by dikes and sluices which could very quickly be destroyed.

The north and the southeast of the country are probably indefensible. But the chain of big towns along the west coast—Amsterdam, Haarlem, The Hague, and so on—could hold out behind the water barrier for a very long time, though they would naturally suffer from air attacks.

I have heard foreigners doubt the efficiency of flooding as a defensive weapon. They are wrong. It is not only a question of several feet of water covering the country; it must be realized that the beds of rivers and canals varying in length and width will be hidden under the even surface and thus form ready traps, and that roads will become indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. In 1915 the Belgians flooded part of the Yser valley, and the Germans never got across in spite of the greatest sacrifices.

A more serious question is whether the Dutch will be allowed time enough to set the plan into operation. The Minister of Defense himself admitted that hostile forces rushed into Holland in the dead of night, at a time when no international crisis was expected, could naturally prevent or crush any immediate resistance. But the Dutch keep on the lookout, as they demonstrated for the second time last Easter. Their readiness, it is reported, has not gone unnoticed in certain German quarters. It is more than an official readiness: every single Dutch man and woman is prepared to resist.

I remember a conversation I had in a Haarlem cafe with a young Dutch Socialist whom I had known for many years as a convinced pacifist. The experiences of the last few years had caused him, like a majority of his comrades, to completely alter his views.

“Let them come, those Germans,” he said, hitting the table with the flat of his hand. “They’ll see what they get. We aren’t like the Czechs—if we say we’ll fight, we’ll fight. Believe me, we are just like the Irish.”

In surprise I looked at him to see whether he was joking.

“Every one of us will carry on the fight, individually,” he explained. “We won’t wait for orders from above. There’ll be a bomb going off here today and there tomorrow, even if they should manage to overrun us completely. Like the Irish, we’ll never give in till we have got rid of them again, as we got rid of the Spaniards 360 years ago. Don’t think we’ve forgotten it. It’s those heroic deeds of the past we dream of when we are boys.”

It was new to me to find in a Dutchman such passion and fierce determination, though it must certainly have been there before, hidden beneath the good-humored soberness. Of course, not many Dutchmen would express themselves as unreservedly as my friend. On the whole, they are a cautious people, and they always say rather less than more of what they think: they try to avoid burning themselves with cold water, as they themselves jokingly admit.

Yet there are many signs of change. I attended a number of election meetings in which Liberals, Social Democrats, and members of various other parties sat side by side and reaffirmed their faith in democracy and in the twin principles of “independence and neutrality”—which for the Dutch platform speaker hold the same place as “la civilisation” for the French: without emphatic reference to them, a speech is incomplete. The fact that members of different parties address the same public meeting is something very new. Hitherto the political groups, like the religious ones with which they are often identical, have kept strictly apart from each other. Only since 1935 has a new non-party association* the Eenheid door Demokratie (Unity through Democracy) set to work to remedy this state of affairs, which in certain respects might almost be said to amount to a sort of caste system. Maybe in time the efforts of the E.d.D. will lead to the disappearance of some of the smaller political parties. Not so very long ago, more than thirty parties and groups appealed to an electorate of roughly four million people. At the last elections, in April, there were still seventeen parties on the list, of which ten finally obtained seats. (Voting, by the way, is compulsory in The Netherlands for all men and women above the age of twenty-five, Those who stay away are called upon to justify themselves before a local court and they may have to pay a fine.)

The great surprise of the April elections was the complete defeat of the N. S. B., the party of the Dutch Nazis. In 1935, when they competed for the first time, using Hitler’s and Mussolini’s well known slogans, they received nearly eight per cent of the total votes. Overnight engineer A. A. Mussert, son of a humble schoolmaster, became Holland’s worst feared man. But in spite of an apparently unlimited supply of money which allowed him to beat the big drum in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, meetings, and demonstrations, his triumphal march was short. As early as 1937 he had lost nearly half of his followers, and last April his total vote was reduced to less than four per cent of the electorate. Today Mussert, though barely forty-five years of age, is politically as good as dead. As a Dutch friend said to me, “It’s not that he missed his chance—he never had one.” The Dutch, a thoroughly democratic and at the same time individualistic people, just wouldn’t stand for it.

With this nightmare removed, political life has more or less returned to normal. The most influential single group is still the Roman Catholic State party, representing almost to a man the Catholic third of the population. The Protestants, though in the majority in the country, are split up into too many groups to assert a united pull. The two biggest of them form, together with the Roman Catholics, the present Government. They are Prime Minister Colijn’s Anti-Revolutionaries and the Christian Historical Union.

The Anti-Revolutionaries are the orthodox Calvinists. No more conservative group could be imagined. “It is strongly opposed to Liberalism and Socialism and aims at founding a policy based on that traditional national character created by the Reformation and molded by William, Prince of Orange-Nassau.” The Anti-Revolutionary party stands firmly behind the Queen, who in turn has always shown complete confidence in the Prime Minister and his policy. Judged from the point of view of Dutch internal politics, both have often shown themselves to be very reactionary, but in these troubled times even the Opposition has realized the extreme importance of these two people at the head of the country—nobody could stand more firmly against Nazi policy. “Our Prime Minister will never fly to Berlin,” a Social Democratic leader declared to the thundering applause of his party friends.

The Christian Historical Union is the smallest of the three Government parties and might be considered as representing the more liberal Protestants: liberal in the religious, not in the political or economic, sense of the word. So firmly established is the Government majority that at present there seems little hope for the Opposition. It is led by the Social Democrats, who have about a quarter of the population behind them.

“To be a Social Democrat is often synonymous with being an outcast,” a young journalist complained to me. “As if we were revolutionaries who walk about with knives in our pockets, and a box of matches to set fire to the town!”

Here, too, a change is gradually coming about, as the Government points out, because the Social Democrats themselves are changing. The first consideration of every Dutchman must be the united front against the spread of the Nazi empire, and the Social Democrats have therefore for the first time in February, 1939, given their full support to the military budget. In recognition, the Government has repealed the order that members of the Social Democratic Labor party were, like Nazis and Communists, forbidden to join the armed forces as professional or reserve officers, or to serve the crown in any way. Before long, it seems, the Social Democrats will have established themselves as a “respectable” party—thanks to Adolf Hitler’s foreign policy.

Much of the present internal political struggle can be understood if one remembers that the Roman Catholics, like the Social Democrats, get their chief support from the working class, which has been the hardest hit by Colijn’s extremely conservative financial policy. For years now the number of unemployed has rarely been less than 360,000 and working conditions for the employed, consequently, are bad. If nothing is done to create large-scale reemployment, the Roman Catholics must expect to lose their hold over their men and see them join the Social Democrats, who are persistently advocating a plan for public works.

Since 1929, Dutch trade has been as good as halved, so far as the money value is concerned. Measured in weights, the imports have had to be cut down about a quarter to offset diminished exports, but there is still an unfavorable trade balance. During the past years great efforts have been made to get away from the barter trade with Germany and to exchange a greater proportion of goods with the democratic countries. Great Britain in particular has shown willingness to give a helping hand, realizing a little late in the day that trade plays as important a political role as do military pacts, and that it therefore requires similar diplomatic encouragement. In plain figures, Great Britain is receiving today 22.5 per cent of Dutch exports (20.5 per cent in 1929), as compared to 14.8 per cent which goes to Germany; in 1929, the latter figure was still 22.9 per cent. Similar tendencies can be seen in Dutch imports. In Holland, as elsewhere, German goods have lost their popularity. I was told in a large retail store that they were forced upon them under the quota regulations, but that customers refused to buy them.

The feeling against Germany is so strong that even the refugees, many thousands of whom are living in Holland, have been made to suffer from it. The man-in-the-street is too simpleminded to distinguish, in the long run, between one sort of German and another. It can only be hoped that no permanent hatred will develop for which Hitler’s successors will have to pay, just as the Weimar republic was made to pay for the Kaiser’s mistakes. Like everything else, this depends largely on the question of whether there will be peace or war. People who have seen their country devastated by modern warfare are not likely to show mercy to the defeated enemy—and there is little doubt that under present conditions Germany would be defeated. If Hitler realizes this, war may yet be avoided. But if he dreams of resurrecting the Holy Roman Empire—not to speak of his colonial ambitions—then Holland, like the rest of Europe, is doomed to go up in flames, because for five hundred years The Netherlands formed an essential part of this empire. Against such a threat, the Dutch can only uphold their own national principle: to defend their independence to the last man’s breath. I see no reason to doubt in the Dutch determination.


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