The good, the bad and the muddlers

Image of Simon Kuper

One evening in March 1946, a woman named Atie Visser rang the doorbell at a house in the Dutch town of Leiden. A Mrs Guljé opened the door, and tried to turn on the light in the porch. But the light didn’t work; an accomplice of Visser’s had unscrewed the bulb. Visser said she had a letter for Mrs Guljé’s husband, the engineer Felix Guljé. He came to the door, and Visser gunned him down.

Nobody knew who killed Guljé until last year when Visser, then aged 96, confessed all. The murder was one of hundreds of postwar Dutch liquidations. Visser had been in the wartime Resistance. Her group considered Guljé a collaborator. In particular, they blamed him for rebuilding a little bridge that they had blown up. So he had to die. In fact Visser was tragically misguided: Guljé had done Resistance work, and reportedly hid Jews.

The murder and its aftermath raise a great question: how to understand issues of good and bad in the Netherlands and elsewhere in occupied western Europe? This question has absorbed me for years. I’m not Dutch, but I grew up in Leiden, five minutes by bike from Guljé’s handsome brick villa; as a boy, I fished in the woods opposite the house. I knew the local Resistance hero who had unscrewed Guljé’s light bulb. My book on the Dutch war – which tries to understand daily life in wartime through the medium of football – has just been published in the US. Visser in 1946 had interpreted the occupation years as a struggle of “good” versus “wrong” – in Dutch, goed versus fout. However, Dutch historians have now mostly ditched this Manichean schema.

As a child in Leiden in the 1970s and 1980s, I was raised on tales of goed and fout. I formed the impression that the average Dutch person, when not delivering his illegal newspapers, had been feeding his hidden Jews. This was an only slightly simplified version of the then prevailing national myth. Even today, the myth of Dutch wartime goodness still thrives abroad.

Dutch perceptions began to shift in 1983, when the historian Hans Blom gave a lecture entitled “Obsessed by goed and fout”. Blom said the terms illuminated little about the Dutch war. A few Dutch people in wartime had indeed been goed, and a few had been fout, but most were neither.

The vast majority hadn’t made great moral choices. They had just tried to muddle through the war while minimising personal damage.

Researching my book, I too got frustrated with the schema of goed and fout. The terms seemed to cover very few people in the Netherlands or the rest of occupied western Europe. Nor were the words much use in explaining outcomes. The fact that about three-quarters of Dutch Jews were murdered, the highest proportion in western Europe, wasn’t because Dutch people were particularly evil. Indeed, anti-Semitism in the Netherlands was surely weaker than in France, where proportionally far more Jews survived. Rather, the Dutch Holocaust was a story of efficient Dutch bureaucracy and blind Dutch obedience in an historically peaceful country that couldn’t begin to fathom Nazism. The Dutch policemen who rounded up Jews, and the railwaymen who sealed the train carriages, did evil. But they weren’t motivated by evil. They were just trying to muddle through the war.

Moreover, some Dutch people – like Visser herself – had been simultaneously good and bad. The Resistance, though largely staffed by angels, also attracted a disproportionate share of criminals and adventurers – a fact that remains taboo to mention. Some Resisters had their own agendas, like Nicolas Sarkozy’s French communist hero Guy Môquet, executed by the Germans aged 17, who arguably wasn’t a Resister at all; he followed the then communist line of welcoming the surrender of capitalist France.

Like the words goed and fout, even the word “war” rarely seemed to apply in the Netherlands. Today, any mention of the second world war tends to evoke thoughts of Auschwitz, Dunkirk and Stalingrad, but the experience of many people in occupied western Europe was pretty tame. Of course Dutch wartime life was generally miserable. There was a grimness, as in an economic depression. But there was little of the death, or fear, or great moral choices that we now associate with war.

The Dutch journalist Frits Barend even argues that except during the “Hunger Winter” of 1944/45, there wasn’t a second world war in the Netherlands. There was a war if you were Jewish, or in the Resistance, but about 98 per cent of Dutch people were neither. And they rarely pondered goed and fout.

Visser did. Now a stooped 98-year-old who wears gloves indoors, she was surprised by the commotion that her confession unleashed. “But the world is quick nowadays, isn’t it?” she remarked on Dutch television. “Not me. I’m very slow.” It seems she wanted to get her story off her chest before dying. When she goes, the schema of goed and fout will have lost another believer.

‘Ajax, The Dutch, The War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour’ is published in the UK by Avalon (£10.99) and in the US by Nation Books ($15.99).

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