Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)

Decades of Dutch Debate on Releasing World War II Criminals

Manfred Gerstenfeld on
De Drie van Breda: Duitse oorlogsmisdadigers
in Nederlandse gevangenschap 1945-1989

by Hinke Piersma

Excessive tolerance for intolerance has been a major characteristic of the Netherlands in the past decades. A core element of this "pseudohumanism" is the emphasis on the needs and "human rights" of criminals, often at the expense of their victims.

Recently, criticism of this attitude - the cause of many substantial problems for contemporary Dutch society - has become louder. A turning point came early in November 2004, when a radical Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, murdered - out of religious conviction - the Dutch media-maker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street.

This killing of one Dutch individual by another led over a one-month period to more than a hundred verbal and physical assaults against individual Muslims and their institutions. Analysts consider that these incidents reflect a widespread belief that the Dutch authorities had long been unwilling or unable to guarantee order, so that some people decided to take "the law" into their own hands.

A Three-Decades-Long Debate

Piersma's book is a case study of a three-decades-long debate over whether to release four German war criminals incarcerated in Breda, a town in the southern Netherlands. Three of these played a major role in sending more than a hundred thousand Dutch Jews, three-quarters of the prewar community, to their deaths. All four had been condemned to execution but were pardoned by Dutch ministers of justice.

One, Joseph Kotälla, died in prison. The other three, the ones involved in the gathering and deportation of Jews, were ultimately released. Willi Lages, who had been head of the Zentralstelle fuer Juedische Auswanderung in Amsterdam, an organization in charge of the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands, was freed in 1966 on medical grounds. Thereafter, he lived for another five years in Germany. Ferdinand Hugo Aus der F?nten had been managerial head of the organization, while Franz Fischer fulfilled a similar role in The Hague. Both of them were released in 1989.

Piersma, a historian and researcher with the NIOD (Netherlands Institute for War Documentation), recounts the details of this debate. Her main conclusion is that, although the releases were within the competence of the Dutch ministers of justice, because of the public controversy these gradually lost their independence of action. Piersma explains this development as a result of the increasing guilt feelings regarding the Dutch behavior toward the Jews during the war.

Erratic Postwar Justice

The lengthy debate provides many insights into the Dutch attitude and mentality toward the war, criminals, Jews, and others. That Dutch postwar justice was often erratic is an understatement. Several authors have addressed this subject. One is Guus Meershoek, who has researched the nonpunishment or hasty rehabilitation of many collaborators with the Germans among the Amsterdam police. 1 Some of these individuals later reached top positions in the Amsterdam force.

Germans and many Dutch collaborators had committed major crimes. After the war, 152 were condemned to death, and forty of these were executed. Among the eighteen Germans condemned to death, five were executed.2 The Dutch queen Juliana, by refusing to sign the execution order, saved the lives of the three aforementioned Germans who had been instrumental in the murder of so many Jews. By 1951, the Dutch Jewish weekly NIW accused the Dutch government of considering the murder of the Jews "a second-rate crime," (p. 49). Piersma's treatment of Queen Juliana, however, obscures more than it clarifies on this matter (pp. 48, 55, 63).

Dutch politicians, academics, and the media debated whether it was moral to keep major war criminals in jail. Leading proponents of release argued for generosity, mercy, and forgiveness. Yet, these presumptive humanitarians ignored the fact that governmental discrimination against Dutch Jewry persisted.3 At the formal ceremony making the tenth anniversary of the Liberation at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, in the presence of Queen Juliana, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, the very moderate Aron Schuster, declared that Dutch Jewry experienced discriminatory treatment because the remnants of Nazi ideology lived on in Dutch society.4

The contemporary historian Isaac Lipschits titled one of his books The Little Shoah. He explained this title by writing:

In the liberated Netherlands, the Jews were not physically threatened. However, we do find other symptoms of the Shoah. Verbal anti-Semitism became sharper; the despoilment of the Jews continued…. Deportation and extermination had come to an end, but the…isolation of Jews continued.... The reception [given Jewish survivors] was so cold, bureaucratic, hostile, humiliating and so disappointing that I call the post-war period "the time of the Little Shoah."5

This Dutch attitude manifested itself in many other ways. Joel Fishman was the first to describe the infamous battle for the custody of Jewish war orphans,6 later followed by Elma Verhey.7 Much new material about the postwar discrimination against the Dutch Jews, concerning both restitution and related issues, surfaced in the second restitution round of the late 1990s.8

Belated Apologies

The role of the Dutch in the process that led to the mass murder of the Dutch Jews remains a sad chapter in the country's history. In the fall of 2005, the chairman of the Dutch railways finally apologized for the role of this state enterprise in the deportation of the Jews more than sixty years previously.

Earlier that year, the current Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende made a further step toward admitting the failure of the Dutch authorities during the war. At a symposium he said, "There were Dutch officials who collaborated with the occupiers. They contributed to the horrible process in which Jewish Dutchmen were deprived of their rights and in which human dignity was defiled."9 This may ultimately lead to the Dutch government finally admitting and apologizing for the fact that the Dutch government in exile in London was hardly concerned about the fate of the Dutch Jews.

Piersma's book sheds light on how the current pseudohumanitarian mood in the Netherlands developed. It also gives insights into the new, politically correct morality that accompanies it. On the background of the contemporary confusion as to whether Dutch society still possesses a legacy of common values and if so, what these may be, along with the accumulation of unresolved questions concerning the Holocaust, this book makes for interesting reading.

*     *     *


1. Guus Meershoek, Dienaren van het gezag: De Amsterdamse politie tijdens de bezetting (Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 2003) (Dutch).

2. Ido de Haan, Na de Ondergang: De herinnering aan de Jodenvervolging in Nederland (1945-1995) (Den Haag: Sdu Uitgevers , 1997), p. 87 (Dutch).

3. Manfred Gerstenfeld , Europe's Crumbling Myths (Jerusalem: JCPA, Yad Vashem, World Jewish Congres, 2003) pp. 72-79.

4. De Haan, Na de Ondergang, p. 74.

5. Isaac Lipschits, De Kleine Sjoa: Joden in Naoorlogs Nederland (Amsterdam: Mets & Schilt, 2001), p. 10 (Dutch).

6. Joel S. Fishman, "The War Orphan Controversy," in "The Netherlands: Majority-Minority Relations," in Jozeph Michman and Tirtsah Levie, eds., Dutch Jewish History, Vol. 1, Proceedings of the Symposium on the History of the Jews in The Netherlands, 28 November-3 December 1982, Tel Aviv-Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Institute for Research on Dutch Jewry, 1984), p. 431.

7. Elma Verhey, "Om het joodse kind" (Amsterdam: Nijgh & van Ditmar, 1991) (Dutch).

8. Manfred Gerstenfeld, "Jewish War Claims in The Netherlands: A Case Study," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 12, Nos. 1 & 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 55-95.

9. Speech at the International Symposium on the Occasion of the Thirty-Year Jubilee of CIDI.

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The above book review appears in the Spring 2006 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.

Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (, the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad.

From the Editors - Manfred Gerstenfeld and Shmuel Sandler

Teaching Morality in Armed Conflict: The Israel Defense Forces Model (At issue) by Amos Guiora

John Paul II and the Jews: An Evaluation by Sergio Minerbi

A Psychoanalytic View of Contemporary Anti-Semitism by Avner Falk

A New (or Perhaps Revived) "Uninhibitedness" toward Jews in Germany by Andrei Markovits

The Politics of "Transmigration": Why Jewish Refugees Had to Leave Switzerland from 1944 to 1954 by Simon Erlanger

Deconstructing Memory and History: The Jewish Military Union (ZZW) and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Laurence Weinbaum and Dariusz Libionka

The Improvement in Israeli-South Korean Relations by Yaacov Cohen

Technology and Jewish Life by Manfred Gerstenfeld and Avraham Wyler

The Columbia University Report on Its Middle Eastern Department's Problems: A Methodological Paradigm for Obscuring Structural Flaws (At issue) by Noah Liben

Book Reviews:

Review Article
: Eran Lerman on Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism by Dore Gold, and Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude by Robert Baer

Herbert Eiteneier on Djihad und Judenhass: Über den neuen antijüdischen Krieg by Matthias Küntzel

Manfred Gerstenfeld on Deutsche Zustände by Wilhelm Heitmeyer (editor)

Nelly Sayagh on La Guerre d'Oslo by Joel Fishman and Efraim Karsh

Michéle Mazel on Arguing from the Constitution by Jeremy Rabkin

Shalom Freedman on Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman

Chaim Waxman on Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future by Ben Shapiro

Isi Leibler on Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? by Manfred Gerstenfeld

Joel Fishman on La France, Israel et les Arabes: le double jeu? by Freddy Eytan

Manfred Gerstenfeld on Élèves sous influence by Barbara Lefebvre and Ève Bonnivard

Françoise Ouzan on Les frontières d'Auschwitz: Les ravages du devoir de mémoire by Shmuel Trigano

Michéle Mazel on Le dossier Lyon III by Henri Rousso

Manfred Gerstenfeld on Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany 1945-1953 by Jay Howard Geller

Manfred Gerstenfeld on De Drie van Breda: Duitse oorlogsmisdadigers in Nederlandse gevangenschap 1945-1989 by Hinke Piersma

Stephen G. Donshik on American Jewry's Challenge: Conversations Confronting the Twenty-First Century by Manfred Gerstenfeld

David R. Parsons on The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South by Eli N. Evans

Sarah Schmidt on Jews and Australian Politics by Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Philip Mendes (editors)

Jewish Political Studies Review


Invoice No. ________

Date _______________

Annual Subscription Rates:

  Individual Institutions
& Libraries
Outside Israel: $26 $40 $20
In Israel: NIS 70 NIS 110 NIS 40

Back Issues or Single issues - $12 each

Enclosed is my check for US$/NIS: ____________

Name:     _____________________________________________________________

Address: _____________________________________________________________


All checks should be made payable and mailed to:

Center for Jewish Community Studies
Baltimore Hebrew University
5800 Park Heights Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21215
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
13 Tel Hai Street
Jerusalem 92107 ISRAEL