Last week the New York Times asked my opinion about the controversy in the Netherlands over the new permanent exhibition of the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. Here’s my view.
For me, two of the main tasks of the science of history are to increase our knowledge of the past and deepen our understanding of what happened. For knowledge we require facts. And for understanding we need to view historical actors in their own perspective – they had to react to developments without knowing where these developments would lead and without knowing what the end-results of their actions would be. Unlike us, they didn’t benefit from hindsight.
Collecting, preserving and presenting heritage, a historical museum also has to engage the public and educate people. It has to bring the past to life with limited resources, such as space and time. By concentrating on the Second World War, the Resistance Museum faces an additional challenge. There was no such thing as ‘the resistance’ in the Netherlands during the years of German occupation between May 1940 and May 1945 – not one united movement, a single membership organisation or a common strategy. Instead, many different individuals, groups and networks conducted many different forms of resistance. And not all of this can be presented in a single exhibition.
My first impression is that the new permanent exhibition – with its chronology, use of film and personal stories – achieves these aims. There’s attention for Jewish resistance, which has previously been somewhat overlooked. The space devoted to different people, including National Socialists, which has been criticised in some media columns, doesn’t strike me as unbalanced. But it’s early days; only time will tell whether the Museum succeeds in the long run.
Some of the publicity around the opening of the Museum has caused controversy. For example, about the using the word hero. ‘Hero’ or ‘heroine’ is a very subjective term, which has different meanings to different people. Its use suggests a value judgement being made, for example, expressing admiration.
During the 1980s I interviewed former resistance members, most of whom had so far never spoken publicly about their wartime activity. None of them wanted to be seen as heroic. They said they just did during the war what they felt that had to be done.
Furthermore, why denote people as ‘heroes’ when they took up arms, shot National Socialists and thus made a name for themselves, while overlook parents with children who couldn’t find a hiding place for their family, decided to let themselves be deported in the hope that they could continue to care for their children, and thus remained anonymous? Were they less courageous?
That’s why, like the Museum, in my work on Jewish resistance I’ve tried to avoid terms like ‘hero’ and ‘courage’, because the historian’s task isn’t to judge from a present-day perspective, which often distorts our view of the past. Instead, I’ve looked at group characteristics and personal circumstances that are measurable. Thus, I’ve found that Jewish resisters, for example people who saved Jews from deportation and cared for Jews in hiding, came from different population segments, differed in social position, age and gender, and ranged from individuals who were ideologically motivated to persons who simply wanted to help other Jews. Because they all fought against the odds, had a formidable enemy and constantly faced betrayal and arrest, resisters required a relentless energy as well as the ability to think quickly and act swiftly. They also had to be prepared to pay a heavy price – many of them lost their life.
Actually, controversy about wartime resistance isn’t new. Some resistance activity, such as the killing of traitors and collaborators, was already controversial during the war.
After the liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945, what the Dutch still call ‘de oorlog’ (‘the war’) has remained a sensitive subject. For a long time a ‘goed of fout’ (‘right or wrong’) view has dominated various public and political debates about contemporary issues. This view was purposefully related to the period of occupation with a perception of there being a simple wartime choice between resistance that was right and collaboration that was wrong, pertaining that in modern matters a simple choice is still appropriate. That perception is factually incorrect. In reality, during the war, the choice whether or not to conduct resistance, if at all possible, was much more complex for the vast majority of the Dutch population.
Why has controversy flared up again? At present, as before, people try to make sense of who they are, what to do, the reasons for doing it and how to do it. They search the past for examples in the shape of persons and acts they can emulate. Wartime resistance members and their activity can provide these examples. They are easily labelled as ‘heroes’ and their acts are called ‘courageous’. That’s fine, because searching and labelling is what humans do. But idolising resistance members now says something about the present; it doesn’t explain the past.