Prior to the German invasion, the Netherlands had adhered to a policy of strict neutrality. The Dutch had not engaged in war with any European nation since 1830. During World War I, the Dutch were not invaded by Germany and anti-German sentiment was not as strong after that war as it was in other European countries. The German invasion therefore came as a great shock to the Dutch people.
On 10 May 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands without a declaration of war. The day before, small groups of German troops in Dutch uniforms had entered the country. Many of them were wearing Dutch helmets, some made of cardboard as there were not enough originals. Although the Dutch army was inferior in nearly every way, four days later it looked as if the Dutch had stopped the German advance. Hitler, who had expected the occupation to be completed in two days, ordered Rotterdam to be annihilated – leading to the Rotterdam Blitz on 14 May which destroyed much of the city center and killed over 1000 – followed by every other Dutch city if the Dutch refused to surrender. The Dutch, who had quickly lost the bulk of their air force, realised they could not stop the German bombers and surrendered.
Nevertheless, while the Dutch envoy who had just signed the ceasefire agreement with the Germans was on his way back, German bombers roared overhead, and Rotterdam was indeed bombed. The Dutch soldiers who died defending their country, together with at least 800 civilians who perished in the flames of Rotterdam, were the first victims of Nazi occupation which was to last five years.
The Nazis, who considered the Dutch to be fellow Aryans, were less repressive in the Netherlands than in other occupied countries, at least at first. The open terrain and dense population made it difficult to conceal illegal activities. Furthermore, the country was surrounded by German-controlled territory on all sides, offering no escape routes. If the Germans discovered people were involved in the resistance, they were often immediately sentenced to death. It was the social democrats, Catholics, and communists who started the resistance movement.
The Nazis deported the Jews to concentration camps, rationed food, and withheld food stamps as a punishment. They also forced adult males between 18 and 45 to work in German factories or on public work projects. In 1944 trains were diverted to Germany, known as "the great train robberies", and people were selected to stay in Germany as forced laborers. They were selected as "able to work or not". Males over the age of 14 were selected as "able to work" and females over the age of 15. Over the next five years, as conditions became increasingly harsh and difficult, resistance became better organized and more forceful.
In the Netherlands, the Germans managed to exterminate a relatively large proportion of the Jews. The main reason was that before the war, the Dutch authorities had required citizens to register their religion so that church taxes could be distributed among the various religious organizations. In addition, the country was occupied by the oppressive SS rather than the Wehrmacht as in the other Western European countries, as well as the fact that the occupying forces were generally under the command of Austrians who were keen to show that they were good Germans by implementing anti-Semitic policy.
On 25 February 1941, the Communist Party of the Netherlands called for a general strike, the February strike, in response to the first Nazi raid on Amsterdam's Jewish population. A street in the centre of Amsterdam would be cordoned off and the Jewish people would be taken away to Germany. Many citizens of Amsterdam, regardless of their political affiliation, joined in a mass protest against the deportation of Jewish Dutch citizens. The next day, city hall in Amsterdam was blown up in order to destroy all records. Even though eventually the strike was put down, as German troops fired on unarmed crowds, from that day on the opposition to the German occupation intensified. Apart from the general strike in occupied Luxembourg in 1942, the strike was unique in the history of Nazi-occupied Europe, although it was quickly suppressed.
It was also unusual for the Dutch resistance, which was more covert. Resistance in the Netherlands took the form of small-scale, decentralized cells engaged in independent activities. Some small groups had absolutely no links with others. They produced forged ration cards and counterfeit money, collected intelligence, published underground papers such as De Waarheid, Trouw, Vrij Nederland, and Het Parool, sabotaged phone lines and railways, produced maps, and distributed food and goods.
One of the riskiest activities was hiding and sheltering refugees and enemies of the Nazi regime, Jewish families like the family of Anne Frank, underground operatives, draft-age Dutch, and others. Collectively these people were known as onderduikers ("people in hiding" or literally: "under-divers"). Later in the war this system of hiding people was used to protect downed Allied airmen. Corrie ten Boom and her family are among those who successfully hid several Jews and resistance workers from the Nazis.
In February 1943, two operatives of a Dutch resistance cell called CS-6 (for their address, 6 Corelli Street, in Amsterdam) rang the doorbell of a 70-year-old Dutch collaborator, retired Lieutenant-General Hendrik A. Seyffardt, in The Hague. After he answered and identified himself, they shot him twice in the abdomen. He died a day later. This assassination of a lower-level official triggered a cruel reprisal from SS General Hanns Albin Rauter, the killing of 50 Dutch hostages and a series of raids on Dutch universities. By accident the Dutch resistance attacked Rauter's car on 6 March 1945, which in turn led to the killings at De Woeste Hoeve, where 116 men were rounded up and executed at the site of the ambush and another 147 Gestapo prisoners executed elsewhere. A similar war crime happened on 1-2 October 1944, in the village of Putten, where over 600 men were deported to camps to be killed in retaliation for resistance activity.
Already on 15 May 1940, (the day after the Dutch capitulation,) the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) held a meeting in order to organize their underground existence and resistance against the German occupiers. It was the first resistance organisation in the Netherlands. As a result, some 2000 communists would lose their lives in torture rooms, concentration camps or by a firing squad. On the same day, Bernardus IJzerdraat distributed leaflets protesting the German occupation and called on the public to resist the Germans. This was the first public act of resistance. IJzerdraat started to build an illegal resistance organisation called De Geuzen (named after a group who rebelled against the Spanish occupation in the 16th century).
A few months after the invasion, a number of Revolutionary Socialist Worker's Party (RSAP) members including Henk Sneevliet formed the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front. Its entire leadership was caught and executed in April 1942. The CPN and the RSAP were the only pre-war organisations that went underground and protested against the antisemitic action taken by the German occupier.
In addition to these groups, the NSF ("Nationale Steun Fonds", or National Support Fund) financial organization received money from the exiled government to fund operations of the LO and KP. The principal figure of the NSF was the banker Walraven van Hall, whose activities were discovered by the Nazis, and who was shot at age 39
With the Normandy invasion in June 1944, the Dutch civilian population was put under increasing pressure by Allied infiltration and the need for intelligence regarding the German military defensive buildup, the instability of German positions, and active fighting.
Portions of the country were liberated as part of the Allied Drive to the Siegfried Line. The Allied paratrooper disaster of Operation Market Garden liberated Eindhoven and Nijmegen, but the attempt to secure bridges and transport lines around Arnhem in mid-September failed, partly because British forces refused to accept intelligence offered by the Dutch resistance regarding German strength of forces; unfortunately they were right in believing that the sources had been compromised. The Battle of the Scheldt, aimed at opening the Belgian port of Antwerp, liberated the south-west Netherlands the following month.
While the south was liberated, Amsterdam and the rest of the north remained under Nazi control until their official surrender on 6 May 1945. For these eight months Allied forces held off, fearing huge civilian losses, and hoping for a rapid collapse of the German government. When the Dutch government-in-exile asked for a national railway strike as a resistance measure, the Nazis stopped food transports to the western Netherlands, and this set the stage for the "Hunger winter", the Dutch famine of 1944.
Some 374 Dutch resistance fighters are buried in the Field of Honor in the Dunes around Bloemendaal.
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