The Cost of War and Honesty

A definition to consider while reading this piece. Honest: free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.

During World War Two, the city of Rotterdam was viciously attacked by German Forces  following failed negotiations between Dutch and Nazi leadership. The bombing destroyed most of the city, and killed hundreds, if not thousands of people. Just a short hour and a half drive away is Amsterdam, another Dutch city who fared much better as a non-German city during World War Two. Simon Kuper’s book, Ajax, The Dutch, The War, presents a rendition of the events that took place when the Germans showed up at Amsterdam’s gates. Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens authored the book, False Flat, Why Dutch Design is so Good, which interprets the results of Germany’s bombing on Rotterdam. These two books parallel the results of two different cities reactions to the expansion of Nazi Germany, how they remember their history, and how different sects of these societies have reacted. Through the information which I will provide in this piece, I will argue that Amsterdam is a city of false monuments and history, whereas Rotterdam stood up for its citizens and got dealt the “short end of the stick.”

Kuper takes a very direct and understandable point of view when he writes about Amsterdam’s reaction to World War Two and the German forces arriving. He specifically made one comparison which sums up the reality of Amsterdam’s history. He states, “The British Author David Winner, who lived for years on a very dinky Amsterdam street indeed, calls the present day city “a Disney version of itself.” (239, Kuper) The parallel of Disney to Amsterdam will be a key component throughout this piece, which will tie back around to Rotterdam and their history. 

When speaking on the football club Ajax, Kuper notes the consistent denial of Jewish members even being involved in the club, let alone what their fates were during World War Two. Amsterdam has made steps to honor those who died, such as plaques around the city with commemorative details about individuals. However, what I have found is that the “common folk” are historically more supportive of the plight of Jews during World War Two, whereas the elites and Government officials are less sympathetic and prefer the path of least resistance. Obviously things aren’t always black and white, but looking at some key events in Amsterdam’s history there is a non-coincidental pattern. 

Focusing on Ajax, football clubs are debatably the most important function in Dutch culture beyond the Government’s role. Thus, being part of a club is highly prestigious and an honor, denoting a higher level of wealth and influence. As I mentioned before, I believe that those who have things to lose are much more likely to take the path of least resistance to keep their status quo. This behavior plagued Dutch society in the 1940’s, and unfortunately it’s still prevalent today. This began with the expulsion of Jewish members from the club as the German war machine looked towards Amsterdam. Actions such as the flying of the Nazi flag over the Ajax stadium, which was met with attendees storming out, is another example of normalization behavior of the Nazis by the upperclass. The enabling of the Nazi flag speaks levels to how those in power wanted to deal with the Nazi party, and on an equally important note how regular people felt about this normalization. Furthermore, The Dutch police force was instructed to help the Germans in rounding up the Jews and delivering them to the Germans. The police followed the instruction of Government officials, so it was clear who was calling the shots. In the instances I have laid out thus far, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the populus was on the right side of history, while leaders were not. 

During February of 1941, many members of the Dutch working class striked to stand in solidarity with the Jews. But the notion of this event being a strike inherently means that it was against the status quo. Most unfortunate of all, the strike was in direct response to the deportation of four hundred Jews from the Jewish quarter. When the awfulness of World War Two finally drew to a close, many parts of the world began to recover and rebuild from the destruction. Amsterdam’s post war council decided they wanted to tear down the Jewish quarter and replace it with a four lane highway. Once again, the “common people” came out in droves and protested for years against the construction, eventually winning during a vote which resulted in a twenty two – twenty one victory. The attempted removal of the historic Jewish quarter, along with the denial from Ajax of jewish members, follows the pattern of Amsterdam attempting to remove themselves from the negative connotations attached to the pure existence of jews in Amsterdam who went missing. 

Now comes the importance of the Disney quote from Kuper. Kuper states that Amsterdam’s lack of resistance may be the reason why their city has been able to maintain its culture and beauty. The events laid out thus far, with the context of today’s information, paints a picture of a subordinate country who bowed down to keep as much peace as possible. All the while the public was speaking out and making statements with their actions. Ironically enough, the country today has a massive tourist industry around the terrible events which were facilitated there. A house dedicated to Anne Frank and her family stands proudly in the city, and everyday tourists are shuttled in and out as they are told that the Dutch assisted in protecting the Frank family while the Germans hunted them. Kuper adds that another story, and the likely reality of the situation, is that they were betrayed by the Dutch police and handed over to the Germans. The interpretation I drew from the Disney comparison, which I posted in a piece earlier this session, was that when Disney World was being constructed, the land was pillaged and a thriving ecosystem was destroyed. But, you walk into Disney and you’re greeted by artificially produced fauna and flora. The name Animal Kingdom alone is a hypocrisy, and they have shipped in animals from around the world to build a “legitimate experience for the visitors.” Back to Amsterdam, the police helped round up the Jews, sports clubs turned their back on their Jewish teammates, the history and culture of the Jewish culture was outweighed in value to a four lane highway. Nonetheless, you walk around Amsterdam today and see commemorative plaques and historical sites dedicated to Jews who were killed during the war. But how could the dutch know where to put every plaque, along with the details listed about each person who died? This is because the Dutch police had a list of where every Jew lived and their information, which they made to assist the Germans in rounding them up. So the plaques meant to honor the Jews who died stem from the betrayal of those same people by the very government who is commissioning the plaques. So are the plaques truly an honest monument, or is the ability for them to exist another stain on the record of Amsterdam. 

There is a fair argument to be made that had the Government not cooperated, thousands more would have died. But the quote that has been echoed by politicians and leaders in response to the Coronavirus is “one death is too many.” This is a clearly idealistic point of view given that people die every minute, but the sentiment is that every life counts. Thus, the Government of Amsterdam settling to Nazi standards is valuing the lives of certain civilians over the lives of others. This is where Rotterdam comes into play. When German forces arrived at the bridges of Rotterdam they were met with military resistance. Turf war-esque fights broke out and the residents of Rotterdam were not going to let the Germans walk in and take it over without a fight. Because of this, the city was bombed time and time again, destroying the city/buildings/etc and killing hundreds of residents. But the immediate cost is not the only cost. What was the economical implications of the bombings? How many years back was Rotterdam set? How many “tourist attractions” where set to fire by the bombings? So what are you left with? Amsterdam is a thriving city world renowned for its architecture with a flourishing tourism economy. Then you have Rotterdam, who stood up to the bully, and took the courageous and heroic actions to keep their people safe. What did they get out of this? Betsky and Eeuwen included a quote which I believe answers that question perfectly, “After the Second World War, the city pilled up rubble form the bombings in the park. Over time, shrubs and then trees took root on the bricks and concrete remains, creating a small hillock on the otherwise flat land.” (22, Betsky) This pile of rubble will be passed by most and considered to be a blemish in the land. But that’s the cost of war and standing up for your people. So what did the people of Rotterdam get for standing up. A blemish, a mark, a sign of war, and an honest memorial. 

Works Cited

 Kuper, Simon. Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War. Orion, 2011.

Aaron Betsky, False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good (New York: Phaidon, 2004), ch. 1.

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3 thoughts on “The Cost of War and Honesty

  1. This was was a great piece that spoke to a lot of thoughts I’ve been having over the last week. I really like that quote you bring in on the idea that modern day Amsterdam appears to be Disney World in comparison to the dinky town it may have been throughout the war. I’ve been reading some similar ideas from other students, and think you do a great job conveying the idea of Amsterdam’s facade and that there is a lot more depth to the history of the city. You bring up great points on the purposes of monuments, and the reminders and stains they bring out of Amsterdam’s history. Monuments are interesting markers of city’s and nation’s histories, and you do a great job discussing their purposes in Amsterdam and the modern day arguments made over them. So, overall, again, this was a great piece that made me go back to think about the material more and go over even more of the arguments you added!

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  2. Your essay brings up a topic in the history of World War II which is all too often ignored and forgotten: collaboration. Hitler and the Nazis were an unspeakably evil group of people, and the topic of collaboration should never be construed as lessening this evil or shifting blame. However, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, the Netherlands, and many other western democracies all bear some responsibility for allowing the Nazis to attain the level of power they had by the 1940s. The allied powers allowed the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland. The Soviet Union participated in the invasion of Poland. Numerous European governments rolled over to Nazi invasion and surrendered. Amsterdam is no exception.
    The question then becomes, and I think you maneuvered this well, which was more honorable? Doing as Rotterdam did and defending their city to the bitter end, losing thousands of lives in the process? Or saving Dutch lives by allowing Nazi occupation, as Amsterdam did. I think you choose the right answer to this question: Amsterdam did not dishonor itself by surrendering. It was the wealthy and powerful citizens of Amsterdam specifically, and the dishonor lies in the fact that, to this day, the role they played in the Holocaust has not been fully acknowledged. When you refer to Rotterdam’s pile of bombed out rubble that was turned into a park, I’m inclined to agree that this is a far more honest monument to what happened than any museum or memorial in Amsterdam. The description of the home of Anne Frank being turned into a tourist attraction was especially poignant in this regard. While Germany continues to repent for their actions in the war, it could be argued that many other countries have not done enough to acknowledge their own role in the atrocities of the war and the Holocaust.

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  3. Hi,

    Well done! I really enjoyed your essay. I thought it was interesting how you related the cities’ landscapes to resistance. In addition, your point about the “common folk” standing up against persecution was thought-provoking. Before reading this essay, I somewhat extended the notion of complicity to all Dutch people during this time; however, your example of the protest over the four-lane highway proved otherwise. I appreciated your comparison between Disney and Amsterdam. I think Amsterdam is talented at crafting an image and masking its dark history. While it is important that the city has Holocaust monuments, it is incredibly sad that many of them stem from poison roots. Your description of Rotterdam’s resistance and its consequences helped me better understand the current landscape. Perhaps Rotterdam has so few distinguishable Holocaust monuments because it fears retribution for once more standing up to persecution? I wonder if saying little about the Holocaust is better than advertising a false reality? Both Rotterdam and Amsterdam need to work on how they memorialize Holocaust victims. I think a good place to start is by fully acknowledging the Dutch role in Jewish persecution.

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