The Netherlands is occupied by Nazi Germany. The queen and government ministers escape to England. Over 75 per cent of the Jewish population of the country are deported and exterminated. In 1944, the south of the country is liberated. The north remains in German hands until May 1945. During the intervening winter, there are many deaths from cold and starvation.
The years of economic malaise between the wars provided fertile soil for extremist parties in many European countries. One of them was the German Nazi party headed by Adolf Hitler. In the Netherlands, Anton Adrian Mussert, a hydraulic engineer, founded the National Socialist Movement (NSB) in 1931. Compared with parties like the Fascist League and the League of Dutch-speaking National Solidarists, which closely emulated the Nazi party but were a minor force in Dutch politics, the NSB was initially fairly moderate. In 1935 it achieved a major electoral victory but subsequently forfeited its popularity by adopting ever more openly anti-Semitic policies. By this time, Hitler’s power was entrenched. Unwittingly helped by a Dutch revolutionary socialist called Marinus van der Lubbe, who had set fire to the Reichstag as a protest against fascism, he had been able to convince the German parliament that he alone could lead the German people. A series of acts giving him special powers enabled him to establish a dictatorship. Van der Lubbe was executed as a communist. In the Netherlands, Hendrikus Colijn, leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party and head of the government, revived the policy of neutrality, believing that this would shield the country from involvement in the impending war. Hostilities eventually commenced with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the Netherlands was immediately mobilised.
Despite German promises to respect Dutch neutrality and the fact that no ultimatum or declaration of war had been issued, German troops crossed the border on 10 May 1940. Airborne troops were dropped near The Hague with orders to capture the government and the royal family. The plan was thwarted by determined military resistance and the government and royal family were able to escape to England on 13 May 1940. Despite its out-dated weapons and equipment, the Dutch army managed to hold back the German attack until 14 May but was finally forced to capitulate following the bombing of Rotterdam. The capitulation did not, however, apply to Dutch overseas territories. The government in exile continued to administer the colonies from London and on 8 December 1941 responded to the invasion of the Dutch East Indies by declaring war on Japan.
The first few months of the German occupation of the Netherlands were relatively quiet. Believing in a certain fraternal feeling and ideological affinity between the Netherlands and Germany, the Nazis allowed the country a civil rather than a military administration. This was a concession made to no other occupied country except Norway. However, the character of the occupation changed when it became evident that ‘Nazification’ was not proceeding as smoothly as expected. The political parties were dissolved and measures were taken against the Jewish community. This led to disturbances in Amsterdam, with one fatality. In reprisal, four hundred Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. This provoked a spontaneous general strike, which the occupying authorities broke two days later with a massive display of military muscle. It was the only open protest in Europe against the persecution of the Jews.
Over the next few years, more than a hundred thousand men, women and children, comprising some 75 per cent of the Jewish community in the Netherlands, were to die in Auschwitz-Birkenau or other concentration camps in Poland. Some of the Jews tried to evade persecution by going into hiding. Among them was the family of a thirteen-year-old girl called Anne Frank, who is now world-famous for the diary she wrote describing her experiences.
The Allied landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944 gave the Dutch new hope. By September, Allied forces were advancing through Belgium and the southern Dutch provinces were eventually liberated. The failure of a massive drop of airborne troops near Arnhem in an attempt to capture the bridges and advance towards Germany led to a difficult winter for the provinces in the north and west. Devastating food and fuel shortages combined with exceptionally severe winter weather caused the deaths of thousands of people from cold and starvation.
The liberation of the whole country was finally achieved in the spring of 1945. The German capitulation was signed on 5 May by General Blaskowitz in the presence of the Canadian General Foulkes and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Every year, on 4 May, the country remembers the victims of the war, while the following day it celebrates the anniversary of its liberation. In one of many remembrance ceremonies, Queen Beatrix lays a wreath at the National Monument in Dam Square, Amsterdam.