Amsterdam: Collective Failure


Zach Lehan


Amsterdam: Collective Failure


To an outside observer, Amsterdam would seem like a city with a culture of rebellion.  A city that should not exist, fighting back against mother nature herself.  The people of Amsterdam promote a judo-esque approach to problems.  Judo being a martial art that uses an opponent’s strengths against them, “leveraging assets” to gain an advantage (Huff).  This has allowed them to coexist with the changing elements.  Working smarter, planning ahead.  This is certainly the case when the call-to-action is clearly beneficial to the country and individual.  However, history shows that their culture of flexible resistance cuts short when it calls for individual citizens to put themselves in a position of increased risk to help those in need.  The Dutch have always shown the ability to harness collective action.  The Dutch have a propensity to recognize problems, carefully consider solutions, and collectively act on a well-constructed solution. While collective action has driven the Dutch architecturally and economically, they need to recognize their collective past scars from WWII.

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” -Winston Churchill


Judo teaches flexible resistance.  When an opponent is stronger, it is ok to strategically and temporarily concede.

“In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones” (Kano, 39).

The Netherlands acted on these first principles.  They stood no realistic chance for resistance against Nazi Germany. The Netherlands was a weaker opponent and they understandably rolled over.  But they then remained complacent, and never attempted to rise back up or show widespread flexible resistance.  Their culture of solving problems as a community was threatened by the risk of speaking out as an individual.  The city that had historically solved problems through collective votes was now subject to individual decisions of defiance or to compliance with Nazi Germany. This led to a series of perceived moves of further self-preservation.  This manifestation of cowardice resulted in the genocide of their fellow man of various degrees from perpetrators and bystanders.

Culturally, we learned from Winner’s Brilliant Orange about AJAX’s, and later the Dutch National Team’s, creative approach to spatial awareness of the field. Essentially, spread the field on offense, and condense the field on defense.  This led to success and also revolutionized the game. AJAX took game planning to the next level and was rewarded with a decade of on-field success.

Architecturally, we learned from Delta Urbanism that 50% of Holland is less than one foot below sea level.  Remarkably, Joppe tells us that the entire city of Amsterdam is two feet below sea level.  How is this possible?  How can Amsterdam thrive in such an environment?  The answer is quite simple: detailed planning, construction, investment in infrastructure, and an openness to new ideas.

It is clear that the Dutch people and culture have thrived through careful and methodical planning.  However, after reading Kuper’s AJAX, The Dutch, The War: it is also important to consider that not everything is black and white.  Or, as Kuper states several times, “Goed or Faut.”

Along with this, Amsterdam’s preoccupation with planning was taken to the extreme.  In the case of Amsterdam in WWII, plans were followed with precision with no care for the consequences.

Fedis tells us that in 1941, the Nazis instructed Amsterdam’s Bureau of Statistics to inventory where their Jews lived: “The city’s civil servants carried out their assignment.  They processed their findings into a report and a series of easily read maps.” The Nazis used these maps to efficiently round up and kill ¾ of Amsterdam’s 80,000 Jewish population.  As this example illustrates, following a plan with precision is not always the right thing to do.  In this case, it had disastrous ramifications.

Joppe told us about Amsterdam’s historic architecture. But these wonderful facades need contextualization. Amsterdam’s architecture may have survived WWII, but its heart and soul were decimated. Architecture only represents a city’s shell.  What is important is the flesh and blood inside the shell.  Kuper tells us that the Nazis transformed Amsterdam from 1940 – 1945.  60,000 Jewish citizens of Amsterdam were killed by the Nazis.  He tells us that the trams still run in front of the theater, on the same routes, with the same numbers in the former Jewish ghetto. The buildings even have the same facades, except the city opera, which has replaced several destroyed Jewish homes.

If you weren’t Jewish, life for the collective went on as usual in Holland during World War II.  Kuper tells us that in the year of the Nazi invasion, four million tickets were sold to sporting events.  In 1943, eight million were sold. Other forms of entertainment, such as films and concerts, flourished. The Nazis in Amsterdam were more occupiers than warriors.  These occupiers permitted life for (non-Jewish) cooperators to go on as usual.

For the non-Jews of Holland, there was little fear of death or even major inconveniences as long as they complied with their occupiers.  Most did comply.  In fact, Kuper estimates that “a mere twenty-five thousand Dutch people were active in the Resistance, about .25% of the population.”

To Amsterdam’s credit, the population did stage the ‘February Strike of 1941’ to protest the Nazis’ treatment of Jewish people. This action was the sole mass-protest in Europe by non-Jews for Jews.

But what remained of Amsterdam’s vibrant Jewish community after WWII?

“The main thing is that the Jews are gone.  No other community of people in Western Europe suffered as much destruction in the 20th century.  The (Jewish) quarter, with its monuments and virtually unused synagogue, is now a sort of open-air museum with through traffic” (Kuper, 17).

In Kuper’s AJAX, the Dutch: The War, we learned that antisemitism is on the rise in Holland.  This is evident by the blatant antisemitic chants and grotesque demonstrations of “Jewish gassings” at soccer games.  Kuper also told us that soccer clubs of Sparta, AJAX and Feyenoord have largely erased their Jewish heritage.

This antisemitic behavior is extremely dangerous because it signals to society that it is acceptable.  Kuper quotes a Jewish Feyenoord fan, who does not seem to be bothered by the antisemitic chants: “You don’t think these Feyenoord are ‘crashing’ AJAX because they’re anti-Semites do you? They’re just against AJAX.”

Hate, discrimination, and antisemitic activity will increasingly escalate if hateful actions go unchecked. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) refers to this as the Pyramid of Hate.  This hate builds in increasing intensity.  In the case of Nazi Germany, the culmination was the Nazi invasion of Europe.

Holland, like the United States, is experiencing an increase in nationalism. This new form of nationalism is anti-immigrant, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and empowers antisemitic actions.  Kuper tells us that the initial Dutch leader of this movement, Pim Fortuyn, was assassinated in 2002.  His successor, Geert Wilders, has continued Fortuyn’s ideology.  According to Kuper, Wilder’s party, the Party of Freedom, has 16% of seats in parliament.  Jews are now sadly a small minority of the Dutch population.  It is easier than ever for the collective to discount minorities. However, the silent voices of the killed Jews must be heard.  They are still an integral part of the Dutch collective and culture.

In Kuper’s book, the Dutch-Jewish author Lierbeth Levy states “Because Rotterdam was bombed flat it is a city with a memory.”  Rotterdam’s war memorial in Hanger 24 is unknown to most of its citizens.  It is hidden away. A city that was destroyed by WWII bombings has no visible reminder of the horrific Nazi actions. Public discussion, including memorials, are critical to remind us that antisemitism can quickly escalate to a horrific level.

Amsterdam seems like a city that would welcome strangers, protect their neighbor, and resist against any bad actor.  Historically, its people have demonstrated that their actions of resistance were for self-preservation rather than for the greater good.  In recent years, the increased education and acknowledgment of their past mistakes has significantly shifted their culture in a positive manner.  Hopefully, this trend continues, not just in Amsterdam but throughout the world.

Public memorials, like the Stumbling Stones, are an important reminder of the Nazi’s attempted extermination of Holland’s Jewish population. The Holocaust victims were no different than any of us.  Their tragic fate cannot be repeated. Reminders like the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC or Kuper’s AJAX The Dutch, The War:, serve an invaluable purpose.  However, it is the people, not the place.  The collective people need to memorialize their fallen countrymen and their dark past.

We cannot ignore history.  We cannot be so ashamed of it that we hide it away. We must confront it, learn from it, and grow from it.


History does not have to repeat itself.







Work Cited

Griffioen, Pim ., and Ron Zeller. The Netherlands: the Greatest Number of Jewish Victims in Western Europe, Anne Frank House,

Huff, A. S. (1998). Writing for Scholarly Publication. Sage Publication. Retrieved 2020, from

Kanō, J., Murata, N. (2005). Mind Over Muscle: Writings from the Founder of Judo. Japan: Kodansha International.





3 thoughts on “Amsterdam: Collective Failure

  1. In my essay I similarly wrote about the Rotterdam memorial and how even though the city was destroyed by Nazi Germany, a majority of its citizens are completely oblivious of the memorial. This is problematic because Rotterdammers should be aware of their city’s history. I agree that memorials such as the Stumbling Stones are important in the sense that they are widespread across Amsterdam and act as a constant reminder of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. However, if a majority of the public doesn’t know that they are there/ doesn’t know the true meaning behind them, then they are almost useless. While they do honor the lives of those lost, much of society still remains unaware of them. It may be likely that this contributes to anti-Semitism today. If the public was more educated, it’s possible that anti-Semitism would be reduced. I really like your final quote as it emphasizes the importance of growing and accepting mistakes from one’s past.


  2. We wrote about very similar topics – Kuper’s recollection of Dutch actions surrounding World War II is not easily shaken. Dutch solidarity was a double-edged sword. Yes, it enabled collective action which was often successful, and without it, support for the Jews like that of Ajax or of the February Strike of 1941 likely wouldn’t have materialized. But it also pacified non-Jewish Dutch who were content to see their lives continue as normal, and it enabled those who had collaborated with the Nazis to continue to live in Dutch society without justice. The problem with solidarity is that it wants to maintain the collective as purely as possible; as a result, it is unchanging and prioritizes preservation over justice. Had their collectivism been more flexible and had the Dutch people been able to push past their shame, perhaps the flagrant antisemitism we see today would have been able to be contained.


  3. Hi,

    Fantastic work! I thought your judo reference was extremely fitting. Personally, I am intrigued by the Dutch planning mentality; however, this mindset has sadly led to horrific outcomes. This is especially true in regards to the map of Jewish neighborhoods that the Dutch willing used to assist the Germans. I am curious as to how much of this complicit history is taught in Dutch schools. Perhaps Amsterdam is beginning to become more accepting of the past because there are architectural remains from this time; thus, it is unignorable? I agree that Rotterdam should feature more Holocaust monuments; however, the city must be careful in constructing these. While Amsterdam has many Holocaust monuments, many are unhelpful because they focus on Dutch heroism instead of victims. Because Rotterdam does not have any remaining history from World War II, it has the unique opportunity to tell its whole history in a meaningful way. The best way to go about creating tributes to the Jewish victims is consulting with the Jewish community. As a collective, the Dutch must commit to condemning antisemitism, or else this nonchalant attitude toward hate will continue.


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