November 28, 2011

The Dutch Catholic Experience in the Second World War

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

If the story of Belgium brought some relief in what has often been a quite dark story of the Catholic Church in the Second World War: here, at least, one can discover a Catholic Church that unhesitatingly denounced the darkness of Nazism and Fascism. This story was mirrored north of the border in Holland, and there will have been few countries where the Catholic Church was in a stronger position to resist the neo-paganism of the Nazis than there. Nowadays, this is a startling idea: the Church in Holland has suffered a long-term decline since the 1960s, and its influence on wider society is but a shadow of what it once was. This has many reasons, but one unfortunate side-effect is that the magnificent role played by the Church during the Second World War has been forgotten. Indeed, it came as a surprise to many in Holland to learn that so many Dutch Catholics had given their lives during the War.

Holland in the 1930s was a uniquely divided country, but found great unity in that diversity. Effectively, the country’s population lived in four large groups: Socialist, Liberal, Protestant and Catholic. These labels were not just applicable at the ballot box, or on Sundays, but permeated everything. Each group attended its own schools, where all prayed for the monarchy and the government, joined its own youth organizations, went to their own pubs and voted for their own political parties. There were special newspapers and radio stations for the four ‘pillars’, special football clubs and athletics’ organizations and a great esprit de corps.

What will surprise those who believe that this type of ‘segregation’ leads to sectarianism, is that it actually promoted a great sense of Dutch-ness, centered around shared elements, such as the monarchy, the national football team, the country’s traditions of openness and tolerance, and the cultural and political achievements of its past. The ‘pillar’ system, in other words, assisted in reducing tensions whilst allowing individuals and groups to retain their own identities.  

For Catholics this had some very practical consequences. For some centuries since the Reformation in the 1560s, they had been at best tolerated, at worst severely discriminated against. Ironically, it took the French Revolution to alter this, and when Holland regained its independence in 1814, the Church began to organize itself. As in England and Wales, the hierarchy was restored in 1850, providing the Church with an undisputed leader in the figure of the Archbishop of Utrecht. The main strength of the Church was in the two southern provinces of Limburg and North Brabant, which also became the base for Catholic political power, crystallized in the Catholic People’s Party.

At no point, however, did politicians manage to oust the leadership role of the bishops. These were, in the main, sober men, Ultramontane in outlook and rather authoritarian, but with a great sense of their pastoral duty and a very well developed sense of theology and justice. This was fed by the prominent Catholic University of Nijmegen, which would become a bedrock of anti-Nazi opposition after 1940.

The Archbishop of Utrecht, Mgr. Jan de Jong, was the personification of the Church during this period. Born in the predominantly Protestant north, De Jong was a professor and academic with great organizational capacity and a well-tuned sense of justice. He was also aware of the inherent dangers of neo-pagan Nazism, which had come to power a few years before his elevation to the see of Utrecht. As early as 1933, the eminent Dutch Carmelite, Bl. Titus Brandsma, had analyzed and condemned the basic tenets of Nazism.

The new Archbishop wasted no time in condemning the Dutch equivalent of the NSDAP, the NSB, in 1936, declaring that membership of the organization was forbidden for Catholics. The decree, well-intended as it was, shows something of the attitude of the Dutch episcopate: this was not electoral advice, but a command. Nonetheless, the NSB would garner quite some support in the province of Limburg, albeit that its membership was overwhelmingly non-Catholic.

When war came to Holland in May 1940, the bishops made an immediate stance against the occupation. All Dutch Nazis were excommunicated in the same month, and the Catholic press was informed that there was to be no collaboration. Archbishop De Jong contacted Dutch Reformed minister, Koeno Gravemeijer, the secretary of the Synod of the Reformed Church, and the two men were to become the pillar of anti-Nazi resistance in Holland. Illustrative of the powerful position in which De Jong found himself is that Gravemeijer suffered imprisonment for his activities, whereas De Jong was never even harassed.

In the south, it was the Bishop of Roermond in Limburg, Mgr. Lammers, who spearheaded the resistance, bolstered by the numerous Catholic refugees from Germany, Poland and other eastern countries. De Jong and Lammers totally condemned the attempts of the Nazis to merge all teaching, social and charitable organizations in Holland under one, Nazified, umbrella. This attempt at Gleichschaltung, or uniformity clashed completely with the pre-1940 Dutch social model and failed miserably.

From the beginning, the Dutch Church paid in blood for its principled opposition to the Nazis. At the Catholic University of Nijmegen, the Jesuit priest and professor of international law, Robert Regout, sounded the first trumpet of resistance, when he published The legal regime in occupied territory, in June. Under this bland legalistic title, Fr. Regout defiantly stated the right of the occupied to peaceful resistance. This was based on his long-standing belief in peace and justice grounded in Faith. Fr. Regout, the son of a prominent politician, was a public figure, known to millions from his talks on radio and his columns in the newspapers.

The Nazis feared Fr. Regout, and knew him to be in touch with his German Jesuit colleague, Fr. Friedrich Muckermann, who had fled Germany and was on the Gestapo’s most wanted list. Within a month of publishing his defiant paper, Fr. Regout was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and taken to Dachau, where he would die in 1942. The same fate befell his co-academic from Nijmegen, Bl. Titus Brandsma.

None of this appears to have deterred the hierarchy. The bishops funded lifelines for downed RAF pilots and for those wishing to travel to Britain to join the war effort. Churches and convents became bases for the persecuted. In May 1942, the Church openly condemned the increasingly brutal harassment of the Dutch Jews, with fatal consequences. Fr. Brandsma was arrested and taken to Dachau, and all Catholic Jews in Holland, some 700 in all, were immediately transported to the extermination camps. It was a fearful message that was sent, and one that had a great impact on the actions of Pope Pius XII; sometimes covert resistance was preferable to overt action.

Yet for the rigidly legalistic and moral Dutch episcopate, this was no option. In Limburg, 30 priests paid with their lives for their stance against the Nazis, including the vicar-general, Fr. Leo Moonen. In the process, these martyrs and their colleagues saved numerous lives and prevented others from undergoing great suffering. The Church was particularly active in sheltering men who were ordered to go and work in Germany in conditions that can only be described as slave labor. It is also noticeable that in the predominantly Catholic southern provinces, the survival rate of Holland’s Jews was higher than in the north.

No description of the Dutch Catholic experience in the Second World War would be complete without a mention of the Dutch East Indies. There, the Dutch colonial regime had encouraged the Catholic missions, and when the Japanese invaded in 1941 the Church became a prominent target. Closely associated with Dutch colonial rule, almost 200 Dutch missionary priests and sisters were executed. The others joined their flock in some of the worst prisoner camps that the world has ever witnessed, many never to leave again.

Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.

Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.

Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.

In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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