Why the Dutch Never Learned From the Nazi Holocaust

Constructing a national identity.
Constructing a national identity.
When Dutch Antilleans took an aggressive stance last year to ban the blackface tradition of a national christmas holiday, it evoked a hysterical and hostile backlash among the country’s white majority. A family holiday that appeared capable of binding a fractured and divided nation had become a politically charged battleground. Black critics of the tradition were mocked, humiliated, harassed, threatened with death and their public protest criminalized by both fellow white citizens and the political establishment. It revealed the growing gap between the propagated myth of a tolerant progressive Netherlands and the reality of deep-seated racism embedded in Dutch society. This silencing of black dissent exposed that the notion of Dutch tolerance only extends to ethnic minorities as long as they neither challenge the established order of things nor assert any claim to power resources. It confirmed for many the existence of an invisibilized racial line that separates those who are imagined to belong to the nation-state, and therefore entitled to rights and benefits, and those who are not.

Deze tekst in het Nederlands.

This English text was published earlier on OpenDemocracy, slightly edited and titled “Selective Dutch mourning rituals“.

Most recent evidence of such racial divides is the public outcry sparked by a lecture organized in a mosque meant to commemorate the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, or what the Dutch Muslim group “Bewust Moslim” have referred to as the “Shadow Holocaust.” It was in part the date of the event, May 4, that caused the outrage since it coincides with the Dutch national day of mourning in honor of WWII victims. The police together with the mayor of Hilversum, where the event is to take place, stepped in with the attempt to shut it down. The timing, according to the mayor, is “very unfortunate”, not least the content. The far right political party Party of Freedom (PVV) also intervened and called for the immediate closing of the mosque. After initially being cancelled altogether, the event was allowed to take place with a different location. Finally it became a private event with an undisclosed location. All this happened within the scope of five days.

The controversy raises an important question: Why would the Netherlands, a country that projects an image of itself as the champion of freedom of speech and tolerance, go out of its way to block a handful of people from assembling for a talk?

What can explain such attempt at censorship is the challenge that a commemoration of the Palestinian 1948 Nakba poses to the white supremacist ideology underpinning the wars waged on people of color at home and abroad.

In the Dutch national psyche, the Nazi Holocaust is ingrained as the ultimate moral evil perpetrated in history. From a very early age, this idea is transmitted to Dutch citizens through school curriculums, museums, films, news reports, and so on. It is further engraved in the national consciousness through official ceremonies such as the ‘Remembrance of the Dead’ on May 4. This solemn ceremony functions as the annual cleansing of white western civilization, now forever redeemed from its moral aberrations, something that belongs to a past we feel collectively ashamed of. But we have learned, or so the narrative goes. If the “dark pages” of “our” history are behind us, we are now a civilized, democratic and progressive nation state that will defend human rights and freedoms at all cost. Public expressions of piety capturing this moral urgency abound on occasions such as May fourth. In the words of Minister of Interior Ronald Plasterk: “For us too, the generation after the war, the experience is a part of our lives. We will pass on these moral lessons to our children.” To him, the war has always been “the yardstick of good and evil.”

The national commemoration of the Nazi Holocaust thus serves in the collective memory and identity of the Netherlands as a reason to ‘feel bad’ about a wrongful past while producing the fictive idea of a “good” and virtuous society. Surely, a society that is “good” cannot possibly mean any harm, can it?

A mere glance at the historical record belies this fairy tale. Between 1946 and 1949, just after the end of WWII, the Dutch pillaged local communities and butchered over 100 000 Indonesians in order to keep control over its 350-year-old colonial possession. For the Dutch these were “police actions”, not genocide. Much like the Atlantic Slave Trade, in which the Dutch East India Company kidnapped and shipped off 550 000 Africans as slaves, these pages are left out of history. In contrast to the ostentatious collective shame that the Nazi Holocaust evokes, this episode is proudly referred to as the “Dutch Golden Age.” If the Jewish persecution is remembered as a tragedy of catastrophic proportions, the Dutch suffer from collective amnesia when it comes to the slave trade and labor that were foundational to the socio-economic prosperity of the Netherlands. A vivid representation of this selective colonial memory are the words uttered in 2006 by then Prime Minister Balkenende. In a debate on economic growth, he said: “Let us be optimistic! Let’s say: the Netherlands can do it again! That Dutch East India mentality, looking beyond borders…dynamic!”

What such selective commemoration of the past does is determine whose lives are grievable and whose are not. The aggrandizing of jewish suffering then becomes an ideological weapon that is used to the belittlement and invisibilization of the holocausts inflicted on brown and black people by Dutch white supremacy.

As a consequence, any contestation of this ideology, like the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba, must necessarily be suppressed for white supremacy to remain intact. If “their” lives become grievable, this could shake the racial hierarchy that conditions who is accorded full human status and who is not, whose lives are worth less and therefore exploitable and disposable. If the same moral outrage is sparked over the 1 million Iraqi deaths as a result of the US-led invasion of Iraq–in which the Netherlands was actively complicit and profited from–it is questionable whether such a murderous imperial adventure could be sold to the public as righteous. If the humanity of brown and black people were recognized, would it be possible for the Netherlands to turn them into threats to the nation that must be contained, normalized, pacified, degraded and exterminated?

Statements made everyday by political authorities make palpable the status that brown and black people have in this country. Unlike the liberal white establishment would like to have us believe, this is not merely confined to the political far right. It is also central to the well-established and respected Labour Party. In the words of their own party leaders, Dutch Moroccans own an “ethnic monopoly” over public disorder and require both “physical and verbal smacks by police, family and neighbors.” Or “the Moroccans who refuse to behave must be degraded, before the eyes of their own people.”

An indication of the utter normalization of such violently racist language is that none of these statements ever elicit any public outrage. But how could they? This racist vitriol is not uttered in a vacuum. It is a language crafted over centuries of colonial domination, during which white men produce knowledge about barbaric others. Historically and today, this ‘knowledge’ has firmly established a hierarchy in which white greatness is asserted over black inferiority. It is what justifies acts of aggression against people of color at home and abroad under the mantra of civilizing missions. As the former police chief of Gouda reminds us, “they” are inherently savage: “The residents of Gouda come from the Rif. They are Berbers, which comes from the word barbarian, and their wild and rough characters are culturally embedded, which enables them to live on the streets more easily. You could say their behavior is genetically determined (…). One can tell that they have different cultural habits than us.”

If the white establishment so comfortably speaks of brown and black people as savages that need to be tamed, what does that say about the realities of most people of color in this country? It is no surprise that this discourse is in perfect harmony with the precarious socio-economic conditions they face.

According to the latest Annual Integration Report (2013), sixteen percent of non-white Dutch citizens, 28 percent of youth and even higher numbers in the most marginalized urban neighborhoods are unemployed. Also, poverty is significantly more prevalent among non-whites. Twenty percent of Turkish and Moroccan people live below the poverty line — three times more than their white Dutch counterparts.

The socio-economic disparity is also visible in the racialized distribution of yearly household incomes. While it is 18 000 euros among “non-Western immigrants”, this is 25 000 among whites.

Police violence and intimidation, stop and search, detention, longer and harsher penitentiary sentences are also disproportionately endured by people of color. Dutch Antillean male youth are eight times more likely to be profiled by the police than whites. In the prison system, 67% of those incarcerated are people of color. Confirmation of the pervasive racism embedded in the police forces came to public light recently when Amnesty International released a report accusing the Dutch police of engaging in systematic racial profiling. The police, when confronted with these findings, responded by an outright dismissal saying they are simply “unfounded and false.”

One manifestation of this racial profiling is the police killing of an unarmed 17-year-old Dutch-Surinamese kid. Rishi Chandrikasing was running away as he was shot in the neck. Unsurprisingly, his killer was acquitted, revealing the legal blessing enjoyed by the police to systematically murder brown and black people. More importantly, it reveals that for people of color, these statistics are not just numbers. They are a matter of life and death.

Speaking about the Nazi Holocaust, the aforementioned Minister of Interior said in all earnest and without the slightest sarcasm, “How do we make sure this never happens again? (…) Whatever problems we identify and tackle, we must never use them as reasons to seclude and discriminate against entire categories of people.” The solemnity of these words suddenly seems an utterly perverse and pretentious display of self righteousness when put against the backdrop of the above mentioned facts.

So on top of being daily spat on by the entire white establishment, these deviants are pulled by the hair and forced to kiss a flag drenched in their own blood. How can one not expect resistance? How can one not expect a complete and utter refusal to pay homage to “the ultimate moral evil perpetrated in history?” The decision by Dutch Muslims to organize a Nakba commemoration on Remembrance Day could signify such a symbolic turning of the back to the politics of memory imposed by the establishment. Even though this is nowhere near identical with holocaust denial, one can be assured that the full ideological arsenal that comes with that accusation will be employed to silence a long due interrogation of a system that produced the binary of worthy and unworthy lives.

This hypocrisy, taken to extremes, reveals that May 4th is by no means a commemoration of the historical fact of genocide. It is the commemoration of an ideological construction that upholds the greatness and supremacy of the white Dutch establishment. Only then is it possible to speak such ostentatious moral language while simultaneously denying the past and present wars on people of color.

Denying this holocaust, then, is neither an expression of anti-semitism nor ignorance. It is a powerful act of resistance.

Abulkasim Al Jaberi en Bryan van Hulst Miranda