Laurens Hogebrink is a former board member of the Dutch Interchurch Peace Council (IKV) which merged with Pax Christi Netherlands into PAX. The picture is the German War Cemetery of Maleme (Crete) with 4,500 people buried. An earlier version of this blog was published by the Orthodox Academy of Crete.
In Europe we have just commemorated the 75th anniversary of the German surrender in May 1945. For us World War II was over, though not yet in the Far East. In the Netherlands, Liberation Day is 5 May, when German capitulation became effective. That is: in the northern part. The south had been liberated already in the fall of 1944, but then the Allies were unable to cross the large rivers dividing the Netherlands.
In other countries it is hardly known that during the remaining months of occupation the north suffered terribly from what we call ‘the hunger winter’. Some 20,000 people died from hunger and cold. I have lived in a house where pieces of the wooden beams had been chopped off for heating.
Because of corona all large commemorations were cancelled, but our main news agency continues its daily news bulletins about events of 75 years ago as if they happened today. They will not stop until Japan’s capitulation in August. It is confronting. I am learning a lot more about the daily suffering in my country also after liberation. A grave has been discovered in the dunes with ten missing members of the resistance. A ship has arrived in Marseille coming from Odessa with survivors of Auschwitz. One of them is Otto Frank, the father of Anne. He hopes to be reunited with his two daughters. A few weeks ago, 120,000 German soldiers have marched back to Germany, leaving looted towns behind.
Of course, I knew about the German terror bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May 1940, about the crimes by the Germans during five years occupation, and about the destruction and victims during the liberation war in 1944/1945. The home of my grandparents was burned. There were also mistakes by the Allies, such as the bombing of Nijmegen which killed 400 people.
But these daily news bulletins add a new sense of how it must have been. And how it must have felt. They tell about village after village being conquered, often with very heavy civilian losses. Some look similar to German towns after the war. History books can only give a summary, but in these daily news bulletins it goes on, day after day, week after week. History becomes story after story.
For many people liberation meant ongoing suffering. Of course, I knew how strongly this applied to the few Jews who returned. Their homes were taken by other Dutch people, their relatives were gone. I also knew that on 5 May a huge crowd was celebrating liberation on the Dam Square in Amsterdam. Suddenly, German soldiers in a nearby building opened fire and killed 30 people. Similar things happened even in small villages. Liberation?
There was the mourning of the dead. And what about the uncertainty, not only among Jews, about the thousands who had been deported? How did this feel, day after day? In October 1944 a German officer was killed by the resistance near the village of Putten. The Germans revenged by setting more than 100 houses afire and deporting some 600 men to German concentration camps. Already on 14 April 1945 Putten was liberated by Canadian tanks, but the fate of the men remained unknown. People kept hoping. Then, on 10 May, five days after Liberation Day, there was news. In a packed church, in dead silence, the reformed minister read the names of 180 men who were now known to be dead. And the others? Eventually, it turned out that 550 of the 600 had been murdered or had died of hunger, disease and exhaustion. Liberation?
In these bulletins the war happens today. But how should we look at it 75 years later? For instance, I keep writing: ‘the Germans’. The Germans bombed, the Germans killed. But when I talk about the war with my German friends they often say ‘the Nazi’s’. The Nazi’s bombed Rotterdam. The Nazi’s executed hostages. I can fully respect this. They are a new generation – and a generation that has dealt with the war in a far more serious way than has been the case in many other countries. (Take France and the silence about the Vichy regime! Or take the Dutch inability to deal with our colonial past.) I admire this, it is impressive. Still, we will keep saying ‘the Germans’. Of course, we know that not all Germans were Nazi’s, that also many Germans died in concentration camps, that there were German resistance groups. Still, this is how we look at the war.
But – and this is my point – this is also how we look at what happened after the war. Very soon reconciliation processes started. They were not about reconciliation with ‘the Nazi’s’. They were about reconciliation with the Germans. The German people.
Some initiators of reconciliation had suffered in concentration camps. Then they saw in Germany the suffering there. The millions of refugees. The children without parents playing in the ruins of their homes. The hunger. The diaconal help they set up became crucial for post-war ecumenical work in Europe. Reconciliation started with recognizing the daily reality of suffering.
Parallel to this was the political work. Some of the ecumenical pioneers were also pioneers of European integration. Don’t repeat the mistakes after World War I, our future in Europe must be a future together. Indeed. What today is the European Union is the most important reconciliation project of the 20th century.
Last October I was on Crete. In May 1941 the Germans invaded Crete. They were met with fierce resistance, not only by Allied troops, also by villagers. The Germans revenged. I saw several places with stories like the one of Putten. But I also visited both the Commonwealth and German war cemeteries. And as part of the commemorations in my own country I have stood at American, British, Canadian and also German graves. I often do. There I can just think of young men, parents, wives and children, one generation ago.
But when driving home I think of the future. The current threats for European integration. The returning anti-semitism and extremism. White supremacy. Exclusive nationalism in Europe. Armed militias in the US. The corona crisis is feeding this dangerous polarization. In Europe the war is over, but every single day I read about its aftermath. Every single day I am reminded that working for a united, reconciled Europe is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.