Five years ago I may have been surprised by much of what Simon Kuper discusses in his book, particularly as it pertains to the modern day. It seems that anti-Semitism, or at least anti-Semitic humor, is widely accepted in the Netherlands. Kuper says he was surprised at the, “frequency of anti-Semitic jokes (as well as digs at Moroccan immigrants) in conversation,” and that few seemed concerned about this type of humor (Kuper 220). I grew up believing that we lived in a world that had moved past racism and anti-Semitism and that white nationalists could only be found in prisons and insane asylums, but this naïve worldview began to be deeply challenged while I was in high school and then permanently eradicated in 2016. The primary issue here is not those who make the jokes per se, but those who hear the jokes and don’t do anything in response. There will always be extremists and it is the responsibility of the rest of us to reign them in.
Growing up in Wyoming, one of the whitest states in the United States, I can partially relate to those living in the Netherlands. Encountering absolutely no minorities from day to day makes one think of racism in the abstract, and thus humor becomes more acceptable. The jokes that we would make, and I mean virtually all of us, in middle school are quite shocking in retrospect. It’s not fair to say we were or all are racist, but we did indeed engage in racist dialogue. I assume this is the type of culture that exists in the Netherlands, wherein anti-Semitic humor is never challenged and therefor becomes normalized.
The songs Kuper discusses on page 224 are another example of this unacceptable normalization. In a crowd of soccer fans there are undoubtedly a few genuine National Socialists and anti-Semites, but generally speaking most people are not hate filled bigots. These normal people, however, participate in the same hate filled songs because of this culture of normalization. I think we need to look at this as a systemic and not a personal failing. It is the institutionalizing of anti-Semitism that has led to such disgusting displays. We are all group animals and we do as the group does. It’s hard to picture ourselves engaging in such dark activities, but the reality is that if any of us were at Nuremberg in 1933 we’d likely be proudly participating and cheering on Hitler. Therefor we must not condemn the Dutch themselves but rather look for ways to change this culture of acceptance.
Kuper says that something changed around 2000 and that this anti-Semitic behavior became even more unopposed. This is what concerned me most from this reading. A cab driver here in Hamburg I spoke to several days ago who is from Yugoslavia told me that that several German passengers have told him that he should go back home. Without trying to drag politics into this discussion, we have seen the same type of rhetoric back home recently. The world seems to be drifting backwards as generational memory continues to be lost. My grandfather was a fighter pilot in the Second World War and liberated a concentration camp when he was roughly my age. He saw first-hand the result of systemic anti-Semitism and racism while all I have are words on a page and pictures. It would be much easier for me, and especially for my children and grandchildren, to once again fall prey to the spell of fascism.
Kuper quotes Dutch Journalist Frits Barend who says that, “there wasn’t a second World War in the Netherlands” (Kuper 72). The Netherlands immediately surrendered to the Germans and did not participate in the global fight against fascism. They hosted, albeit by force, their geographical neighbors and never participated in the war. Despite having a sizeable Jewish population, 13% before the war, it is not surprising how easily the Dutch have forgotten World War 2 compared to the British, French, Japanese, Germans, and especially the Russians. Aside from the Jewish Dutch, no one’s grandfather or father died in combat against the Nazis. Instead, the Dutch were so respected by the Germans that the Ajax club had the audacity to kindly ask their benevolent occupiers not to trample on their soccer field. I think being shielded from the Second World War has also contributed to the institutionalization of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands.
Finally, it seems clear that as in many other countries the Second World War is a sensitive subject. A Jewish man Kuper interviewed about his experiences asked, “Must we do this? Everything will be dredged up again” (187). For many victims of the Holocaust it is a painful topic to discuss. Victims struggle to talk about their trauma and often prefer to bury it as deep as they can. On the flip side, many in the Netherlands don’t want to discuss the Holocaust because of the ambivalent role they played in the Second World War. They were neither political or racial targets of Adolf Hitler and offered a disappointing level of resistance. While Russians and Americans in particular can’t talk enough about World War 2, the Dutch feel it is better left alone.
I like the idea of the stumbling stones and think the strategy should be widely employed throughout Europe. They can be a powerful and personal reminder of the Holocaust that may help us all better appreciate its enormity. I think all high school students should be required to take extensive classes about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and Nazism itself. The more our children know, and the more they can connect on a personal level through things like the stumbling stones, the better equipped they are to resist future fascism. History is cyclical and Nazism will rear its ugly head once again on a wide scale.
I connected this reading most with Beasley who first and foremost discussed the lack of mentions of slavery in children’s textbooks. It seems clear that this is the problem plaguing the Dutch: they don’t discuss the topic and therefor lack a deep appreciation for it. Because Kuper does not explicitly discuss textbooks I don’t want to over speculate, but I assume Beasley, as well as myself, would be sharply critical how the topic is discussed when it is indeed brought up. It is likely that the few specific figures who resisted the Nazis are highlighted as well as the fact that the Germans did indeed attack the Netherlands, while the countrys’ general apathy is ignored. Textbooks should explain the horrors of the war and the Holocaust as well as highlight those nations, especially Russia and Britain, that quite literally saved the world from Adolf Hitler and explain why others did not participate. History is doomed to repeat itself unless we fully understand it.
The first image I’ve chosen is a recruitment poster for the Dutch SS. The second is a group of Dutch members of the SS. Although a small minority of the country did continue to resist the Nazis, Germany generally believed the Dutch could be easily assimilated into the Third Reich.