The Magazine

So Sorry

The old story: European politician gets in trouble, helps the Jews.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Professor Leydesdorff hailed the queen’s remarks because they point, in her opinion, to the responsibility of Middle Holland for the severity of the Holocaust, or as she put it, “the enormous contribution of the Dutch people (many Henks and many ladies named Ingrid) to the deportations”​—​as if the Freedom party’s supporters were to blame rather than the Nazis and the Dutch who aided them.

What made the story even bigger internationally was the release shortly afterwards of a poll of Dutch non-Jews on the subject (deliberately conducted on a Saturday, so it would exclude observant Jews): Only 27 percent supported the idea of a government apology to Dutch Jews. Reported this way, as it was, a reasonable person might conclude that the 73 percent who opposed the apology were at best indifferent to the fact that three-fourths of Dutch Jewry died in the Holocaust.

But in a much-quoted article, Gerstenfeld further colored the poll results. He too scorned the poor queen. “Even in recent days, some Dutch historians tried to inflate beyond proportion the importance of a few general remarks on this issue by the current Dutch Queen Beatrix in March 1995 in the Knesset” when she expressed her sorrow that “the people of the Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens.” The queen’s feeble fluttering, said Gerstenfeld, “pales in comparison to what French President Jacques Chirac said a few months later: ‘France committed the irremediable. It broke its word and delivered those it protected to their executioners. We maintain toward them an unforgivable debt.’ ”

Many commentators in the United States and Israel quoted Gerstenfeld’s encomium to Chirac; none mentioned that Chirac’s attitude to contemporary Jews and his policies toward the modern state of Israel were as contemptuous as his apologies were florid.

But let’s return to the Netherlands of today, and the Dutchmen who opposed an apology to the Jews. In equal numbers, they chose one of two other choices on the questionnaire​—​neither of them was “no, we don’t care what happened to Dutch Jews.” Half chose “no, it’s too late now​—​it should have been done closer to the event.” Half chose a third option, cooler than the second: “No, a later government isn’t responsible for the behavior of a government in exile.” But even if one excuses the Nos, are the pro-apologists (more likely to be over 35, and Catholic or left-wing) the heroes of the story?

Consider a poll taken across the border in Belgium just a few months earlier​—​a poll that has nothing to do with self-examination, but merely explored Belgian attitudes to the Nazis. Close to half of the Belgians believe that Nazism must be totally rejected: 44 percent. A barely smaller number, 43 percent, takes a more nuanced view, agreeing that Nazism contains interesting ideas, even though the respondent reports that he or she is very, or in part, critical of Nazism. Among the younger respondents, 50 percent were not aware that Nazism was anti-Semitic. These attitudes comport with a far more hostile attitude toward Jewish Belgians in the universities and government than we see in the Netherlands​—​and yet Gerstenfeld heaps praise on former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt’s 2005 apologies for Belgian collaborators in World War II. No one knows better than Gerstenfeld the various ways in which European states are turning on Israel, and the disingenuous excuses each one makes​—​but he doesn’t seem interested in comparing the graceful rhetoric of apology with the actual practice of the politician who apologizes or the attitude toward Jewry of the people who elected that politician.

But can we even weigh the culpability of the Dutch and their government in exile against that of the people and London governments of the other occupied countries of Europe? The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust totes up the proportion of Jewish citizens killed. By this crude, even repulsive, statistic, the Netherlands is the winner for Western Europe, with 71.4 percent of its Jewish citizens killed​—​about 100,000. Belgium’s score is 44 percent, France’s is 22.1, Norway’s 44.8, and Denmark’s 0.7. The question is this: Had the London government behaved in a way that would have satisfied those who now demand an apology, would it have moved the Netherlands down in the standings? It’s highly unlikely. Gerstenfeld himself holds up the Polish government in exile as a shining example of how to behave​—​yet 91 percent of Polish Jews were exterminated (and so were 10 percent of Polish non-Jews).

Dutch journalists and Jewish authorities note how infrequently the queen’s broadcasts to her Dutch listeners mentioned the predicament of Dutch Jews. For a generation, activists have complained of the same fault in Roosevelt and Churchill. And the response to all such complaints is the same. The vast majority of the population of occupied Holland​—​like the vast majority of the British, American, and ANZAC countries​—​was not Jewish. Whether they were in uniform, a citizen under threat of invasion, or a civilian under occupation, citizens of Allied countries needed the constant assurance of their leaders that their own safety, security, and lives were the focus of every moment of their government’s attention. They had to know that every risk taken and every life that was sacrificed was aimed at the swiftest possible victory and end to the war.

Had the Dutch government even considered urging a massive campaign of civilian noncooperation to stop Jewish deportations, a moment’s thought would have suggested that it was a self-defeating idea. How would the Dutch population, short of food, fuel, and money, themselves under constant threat of denunciation, arrest, deportation, and execution, have received such a noble suggestion coming from the safety of London? It would have convinced Henk and Ingrid that London was utterly out of touch with the horror of their daily lives, and that perhaps they had better make the best peace they could with the occupiers. As for arousing their conscience about the danger in which their Jewish fellow citizens lived​—​well, German and collaborationist propaganda was doing a perfectly good job of explaining that the Jews (and the Dutch legislators in London whose loyalties the Jews had bought and paid for) were the cause of this terrible and humiliating war in the first place. To urge Dutch families rightly fearful of their own safety, doubtful of their next meal, to heroism and self-sacrifice would be objectively pro-Boche.

If I were Dutch, I would be among the 73 percent as well, though for different reasons. It should be a matter of honor for Jews not to accept apologies from those who have not harmed us. More than that, we should not want people to apologize for a historical guilt that supposedly attaches to them simply by virtue of their nationality. Our kinsmen were killed by Hitler in his own vast class-action against a race he was convinced had harmed the German nation. It seems to me that it is the special duty of modern Jews to urge our fellow non-leftist citizens, wherever we live, to resist this game. (It is useless to urge this upon socialists, because racial, class, national, and even sex guilt​—​and the mysterious but necessary heritability of all of the above​—​is the foundation of their thinking.) We Jews have the distinction of being the initial victims of deracinated, intellectualized group hatred​—​not because of the natural human unfriendliness to rival nations, villages, families, believers in strange gods, and speakers of foreign languages, but because we were the first not to fit into post-Enlightenment categories of nationhood, Marxist class theory, and scientific racism. Jews of any nationality​—​Israeli, former Nazi-occupied Europe, or Americans​—​ought to be particularly scrupulous in refusing to ask for or accept an apology that is tainted by the innocence of the speaker, or to consider it in any way worthy of our dead. Are the Dutch, almost none of whom were older than children in the 1940s, to apologize for something they can only be held responsible for through a theory of blood-guilt?

Geert Wilders especially should have known better. He has been prosecuted for violating the Netherlands’ vague hate-speech code; he may be again. Criminalizing speech, even from the best of motives, is censorship; but so is requiring government declarations of what is true and what is not true, as the French have just tried to do with the Armenian genocide.

That Wilders should become a censor and dictator of correctness is richly ironic. He came to prominence as one of the few Dutch politicians to say what was on people’s minds, regardless of the cries​—​and police investigations​—​of “hate speech.” He has been prosecuted for his ideas, and it is perfectly polite to refer to him as dangerously extreme, barbaric, or fascist. After Anders Behring Breivik’s mass murder in Norway last summer, Wilders not only declared that he had had nothing to do with Breivik’s crime​—​and he was correct​—​but went on to say, to the horror of the Dutch establishment, that he would not tone down the volume of his warnings about Islamism and Islamization. But his recent experiments with political correctness​—​enforced “love speech”​—​have earned him no love. By associating himself with fashionable demands for public lamentation over the sufferings of yesterday’s Jews​—​and the fancied suffering of the animals today’s Jews eat​—​he has fixed in the minds of many Dutch sympathizers his own greatest weakness. Even after voters​—​unexpectedly​—​put him in a place of some responsibility and power, Wilders continued sloganeering.

As the journalist Joost Niemöller wrote a couple of weeks ago, “behind the slogans, he didn’t develop ideas about how to deal with the immigration problem, how loosening the EU’s control over us could be brought about, what the right relationship should be between religion and state.” When the government had to make unpopular moves, he didn’t defend them to the public. When the government acted in ways that contradicted Wilders’s promises, he complained in private, in a sense looking the other way. 

Moreover, Wilders’s brand-name issue, the threat of Islamization, has become less urgent. “The fear of Islam is waning in Dutch society,” says Arend Jan Boekestijn, a journalist, professor, and former MP in Rutte’s conservative party. “There are no terrorist actions these days. And reports indicate that Dutch Muslims are gradually improving in education and employment statistics. Even recent crime statistics show that Muslims are not scoring much higher than people in comparable Dutch-born socio-economic classes.” Here, too, Wilders risks being seen as fighting yesterday’s rhetorical battles​—​without being able to claim credit for having improved the integration of immigrants already in the Netherlands.

Henk and Ingrid can’t be happy that Wilders attacked the queen over a 60-year-old controversy instead of stopping his government from “idiotically sending,” as he said himself in a tweet, “Dutch tax money to support French banks.” They certainly aren’t happy that he agreed to cut their national pensions and raise the retirement age without demanding anything in return. As the Freedom party sinks, the once-Maoist Socialist party​—​anticapitalist and anti-Israel​—​has soared in the polls, partly with the support of defecting Freedom party voters. Had Wilders but served his queen with half the zeal he served some trendy causes, all of them pointless, he would not be so naked to his enemies.

Sam Schulman last wrote for The Weekly Standard on French politics.

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