Geert Wilders, the big-gesture Dutch politician who has made a career out of outspoken enthusiasms and denunciations in a country which is careful of its speech, has begun to take on water. In the June 2010 election, the Freedom party, which Wilders created five years earlier, was the third-biggest vote-getter. And when the free-market conservative Freedom and Democracy party and Christian Democrats formed a government with Wilders’s support, polls indicated that Wilders’s party was the most popular in the country. Between October and December 2011, its support shriveled by a third.
For once, Wilders’s problem wasn’t caused by his big mouth—the mouth which made him so thoroughly hated by the Dutch nomenklatura, the judges and lawyers he defeated in his hate-speech trial, the prestige journalists, and the professional class of bien-pensants (gutmenschen, as the Dutch say). His problem was that having finally been in a position to do something about his principles, he hadn’t. Holland’s oleaginous supporters of multiculturalism and internationalism were never going to warm to him. But now Middle Holland, “Henk and Ingrid,” showed signs of Wilders-fatigue. His issues were as popular as ever among his supporters: opposition to multiculturalism and open immigration, ensuring the right of women to be free from Islam’s forced marriages and enforced Burka-wearing, ending police and judicial toleration of crime by immigrants and within Muslim neighborhoods, moving policy away from EU norms toward capitalism, NATO, and support of Israel. But even to his supporters, he no longer seemed like the man to do anything about them.
The Freedom party sustains the majority of the present government, but Wilders seldom puts pressure on his affable prime minister, Mark Rutte. Rutte told the press in September that Wilders is predictable and doesn’t make a fuss. In the great financial crisis of the second half of 2011, a crisis in which the Netherlands, as the smallest wealthy country in the EU, has everything to lose and little to gain, Rutte has been complaisant about assaults on Dutch business interests, Dutch taxpayers, and Dutch sovereignty—an acquiescent partner in Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy’s ever-changing schemes.
Dutch liberals and free-market Euroskeptics (62 percent of the Dutch voted against the EU constitution in their 2005 referendum) watched in amazement as Wilders let Rutte have his own way about sending more and more euros and legal powers to Brussels. Wilders tweets à droite but legislates à gauche. While the euro collapsed, and EU leaders mused about further restrictions on Europeans’ right to self-determination, Wilders busied himself with a bill to ban kosher and halal slaughter, in alliance with the tiny “Party for the Animals.” The small Dutch Jewish population (about 40,000) was horrified, but Wilders didn’t attract any vegetarian voters. Neutral observers asked how Wilders could support Israel’s right to exist so strongly while denying Dutch Jews the right to live as Jews in their own country. Few believed that Wilders had anything against Judaism—the failed attempt merely suggested to all that he was unserious.
Looking, no doubt, for a noncontroversial way to recapture his momentum in the new year, Wilders’s eye fell on an unlikely savior: Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Israeli who grew up in Holland and now directs a Jerusalem think tank. Gerstenfeld is widely feared among European elites. He is the scourge of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism and is likely to pop up in any EU country with carefully documented statistics and dramatic examples of mistreatment of Jewish schoolchildren, hypocrisy on the part of proudly anti-Israel governments and media, and a well-turned phrase describing the level of anti-Semitism in contemporary Norway, Germany, Poland, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands—to name only countries that he eviscerated in the first three weeks of 2012.
Last year, Gerstenfeld published a big book on the Netherlands, but its subject was uncharacteristically abstruse: the complex negotiations (1997-2000) about compensating Dutch Jews who had survived the Holocaust but whose property was not restored by the postwar Dutch government. Even if his book (published only in English) was titled Judging the Netherlands, a scholarly account of a 15-year-old legal process over a 50-year-old postwar injustice did not attract much attention in Holland when it was published last June.
But in the slow period after the Christmas holidays, a reporter for De Pers, Dirk Jacob Nieuwboer, took a closer look at Judging the Netherlands. He found that the book included interviews with a couple of retired Dutch politicians who had been active in the 1997 negotiations, and who made comments on a subject the book didn’t treat, but was much sexier: the holocaust of Dutch Jewry itself, and how little the Dutch government in exile in London during the war tried to do to prevent Holland’s Jews from being deported and largely exterminated.
Nieuwboer’s story was printed on January 3, headlined “Sorry About Looking the Other Way.” Its subhead told the story: “The Dutch government in London said almost nothing about the Holocaust. Apologies would be in order, according to Gerrit Zalm and Else Borst”—the two politicians quoted in Gerst-enfeld’s book.
As a child, Gerstenfeld was in hiding in the Netherlands until the very end of the war, but the politicians he quoted have no particular expertise on the 1940-45 Nazi occupation of Holland. One was a child during the war; the other is a baby boomer. (This period was not the subject of the negotiations in which Zalm and Borst were involved in the ’90s.) Gerstenfeld quotes their conventional and reasonable indignation about the fate of Dutch Jews (71 percent perished) and their stern judgments about the wartime behavior of Queen Wilhelmina, grandmother of the present Queen Beatrix. The government in exile, according to Zalm, a conservative, “took a rather slack attitude regarding the persecution of Dutch Jews.” Borst, a Christian Democrat, was more passionate and felt she could see more deeply into the racist motivation of the Dutch government in London.
“They, along with many others, saw Jewish Dutch citizens as a special group and thought: ‘We have real Dutch people and we have Jewish Dutch people.’ ” Borst told Gerstenfeld that she “believes the response by the Dutch wartime government in exile would have been tougher had Nazis been deporting Catholics or Protestants.” (One should note here that the Nazis did deport Catholic and Protestant Dutch men, by the scores of thousands, to work in forced levees in the defense of Germany in the later years of the war.) Gerstenfeld himself spoke to Nieuwboer from Israel, advising the Dutch government not to wait for a request from the Jewish community, but to apologize immediately. “It’s not up to [the Jewish community] whether or not you should apologize. This is a debt of honor.”
Wilders saw an opening. Within a few hours, a tweet let it be known that he had sent a letter to the prime minister (who is also his cabinet colleague) demanding such an apology. The tweet echoed the language of the De Pers story: “Apologies from the Dutch government are in order after the weak response of the government-in-exile to persecution of the Jews during WWII.” The tweet linked to a Freedom party press release detailing three questions which Wilders tabled in parliament for his prime minister: Had he seen the news story? What did he think of Borst and Zalm’s opinion that the government should apologize? Was he ready to announce such an apology and if not, why not?
Wilders’s challenge to his colleague and his strongly implied criticism of the royal family was much bigger news than the opinions that Borst and Zalm expressed to Gerstenfeld two years earlier. It was so big it was picked up abroad. When the Washington Post and AP reported the story the next day, it was Wilders who played the leading role: “Wilders: Dutch government should apologize for ‘passive’ attitude to WWII deportation of Jews,” ran the headline. The “outspoken Dutch lawmaker . . . is best known for his strident criticism of Islam and also is a strong supporter of Israel.”
The demand for an apology was echoed by the president of the Auschwitz Committee, the Netherlands’ most prominent Holocaust remembrance organization. But -others who might have been sympathetic to the idea seemed to have been alienated by Wilders’s association with it. Selma Leydesdorff, who led a flamboyant radical feminist group in the early ’70s, is an oral historian of the Holocaust, writing copiously about the camp in Sobibor where scores of Dutch citizens were exterminated. She refused to align herself with Wilders: The present queen, she said, had offered far more than the formal apology Wilders called for when she addressed the Knesset in 1995, after being shown the honors that Yad Vashem paid to heroic Dutch men and women who saved so many Jews. “But we also know that they were the exceptions, and the people of the Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens.”
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.