The February strike

Laying of the wreaths at the Remembrance ceremony at the Dokwerker

On 25 February 1941, less than a year into the nazi occupation of the Netherlands, communist union leaders called for a general strike against the increasing persecution of the Jews. The resulting two day strike in Amsterdam and various other cities in North Holland, the February Strike was the first and only massive public protest against the persecution of the Jews in occupied Europe.

Amsterdam had long been a Jewish city, with a large Jewish neighbourhood in the centre and south of the city. Even before the Germans had conquered Holland, there had been clashes between Jewish people and sympathisers against the indigeneous Dutch fascists of the NSB, the National-Socialist Movement. After the occupation the latter became bolder and started systematically harassing Jewish Amsterdammers, who in turn defended themselves, often with the help of their non-Jewish neighbours and friends. This culminated in a street battle at Waterlooplein on 11 February, when a group of NSB thugs attacking Jewish owned businesses were themselves attacked by a communist strike team of Jewish and non-Jewish residents. As the smoke cleared, one NSB man was left mortally wounded, who died on the 14th.

This incident, as well as similar one when the German SD tried to raid a Jewish-owned icecream parlor and got their asses kicked, was the excuse the nazis needed to institute the first razzias, driving together several hundred Jewish men, beating and torturing them, before sending them off to the concentration camps. This razzia took place on February 23-24, with the communist appeal for a general strike following the next morning.

Though the strike in the end was largely futile, it did serve to rip the mask off the nazi occupier. After its brutal repression it was no longer possible to believe things could continue as usual. In Amsterdam the strike is still remembered each year with a march past the Dokwerker, the statue created in remembrance of the strike in 1951, located on the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, a centre of the old Jewish neighbourhood.

What makes the Februarystrike special is not just that it was such a public act of resistance, but that it was organised by the Dutch communist party and the communist aligned union, at a time when Nazi Germany and the USSR were still nominally allies. It was also one of the few public acts of resistance in the Netherlands, where the majority of the population not unnaturally just tried to keep their head down, while unfortunately the civil administration and bureaucracy went much to far along in their normal patterns of obedience to authority, even when in service to evil. It’s a proud moment for the Dutch left, one of those times when it took a principled stand, even if an ultimately futile stand, where it led the ordinary people of Amsterdam in, even if for just two days, resisting the deportation of their Jewish neighbours.

African Trilogy — Alan Moorehead

cover of African Trilogy


Mediterranean Front, A Year of Battle, The End in Africa
Alan Moorehead
642 pages including index
published in 1941, 1943,1943, compilation 1945

If journalism is history as first draft, then these three books, Mediterranean Front, A Year of Battle, The End in Africa; published in one volume as African Trilogy are history as second draft. Written while the Second World War was still ongoing, each of these books tell the story of one year of war in the desert, as seen by one of the preeminent war correspondents of the era. Written largely without the benefit of hindsight, from the notes that Moorehead took at the time, these three books together not only provide an interesting look at an important period in World War II, which England largely had to fight on its own, but also at how people at the time thought about the war, when the outcome was by no means certain yet.

If you’ve heard of Alan Moorehead, it’s probably for his post-war books on the exploration of the Nile, The White Nile (1960) and The Blue Nile (1962). During the Second World War he was a correspondent for the Daily Express, following the war in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily and the war in Italy. As becomes clear from reading these three volumes, Moorehead wasn’t one of those journalists content to stay at headquarters, but went chasing down the front whenever he could. Some of the incidents here certainly read like Boy’s Own Adventures stuff, several times barely escaping running into the enemy at several moments. Moorehead is a born raconteur, aimable, slightly understated, though with some of the attitudes and language use of the time that might seem strange to modern readers.

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The Wages of Destruction – Adam Tooze

Cover of The Wages of Destruction


The Wages of Destruction
Adam Tooze
800 pages including notes and index
published in 2006

When I read Hitler’s Empire back in August, I had actually wanted to read The Wages of Destruction, due to Alex Harrowell’s review when it came out. I couldn’t find it so Mark Mazower’s book was a more than acceptable substitute. Both books look at the economy of Nazi Germany and the empire it carved out, each in their own way. Whereas Mazower’s point of view is that of a historian turned economist, Tooze approached the subject from the other side: economicst first, historian second. And while Mazower primarily looked at the interaction and tensions between nazi ideology, economci reality and the demands of war, Tooze goes for the more fundamental question of how the fundamental constrains of the German economy influenced nazi decision making, argueing that seemingly irrational decisions made by Hitler and the nazi leadership, not the least the decision to invade Russia, made perfect sense when looking at the economic context.

Which is not to say, nor does Tooze, that Nazi ideology wasn’t not irrational or evil, but that if you take into account their worldview, that in this context their decisions were rational and clearheaded and clearly informed by the economic realities of Germany. To the Nazis, as to most intelligent observers between the wars, it was clear that Germany was doomed to be a second rate power, not big or rich enough to seriously challenge countries like England, with its vast colonial empire, let alone America or the USSR. Under the Weimar Republic, the best it could hope to achieve was to become a middling European power, growing rich on American coat tails. Nazism set out to change this, to conquer a larger living space for the German race by force and through pure willpower and technology transform the German economy into the equal or even the superior of the American. This struggle lies behind all strategic decisions the Nazi leadership made in the runup to the war and during it, each time putting their faith into another great leap forward, each time still finding themselves in the same box, in the end not having been able to overcome these fundamental limitations.

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Middelburg 17 May 1940 — the Forgotten Bombardment

the Middelburg market square after the bombardment
Market square after the bombardment.

If the bombardment of Rotterdam, together with that of Warsaw is one of the biggest atrocities of the early Second World War, it was not the only one. Three days after the bombardment forced the capitulation of the Netherlands, another Dutch town was bombed to the ground: my hometown, Middelburg.

Unlike Rotterdam, Middelburg has been somewhat forgotten outside Zeeland, only a footnote to the history of the German invasion in the “frightening May days of 1940″. But since this is the seventieth anniversary of the bombardment, some care has been put into making sure it won’t pass by unnoticed again. An academic research and lecture programme has been set up, as well as a series of more conventional remembrances, an educational package has been prepared for the province’s secondary and primary schools, all of which is of course coordinated with a frankly not very good website. A bit of a waste opportunity that site, only available in Dutch, with the history of the bombardment, the most important part, hidden away in PDF files. On the plus side, it has some good pictures of the devastation caused by the bombardment, the picture above being one of them.

aerial picture of a devastated Middelburg
What Middelburg looked liked after the bombardment.

On 10 May 1940 the Germans invaded the Netherlands and Belgium on their way to France. As they had tried more or less the same thing in the First World War the French strategy was to meet them halfway, moving into Belgium and the Southern Netherlands to stop them. As you know this wasn’t quite succesful, but some French units (including French Moroccan units) managed to get as far as Breda before retreating westwards into Zeeland. This was the reason why the Dutch surrender on the fifteenth did not include Zeeland, as that was occupied by French troops. The slow withdrawal of the French meant that on the 17th Middelburg was near the frontline, with most inhabitants fortunately evacuated already as a precaution. That day a combination of aerial and artillery bombardment by the Germans broke the last resistance in Zeeland, with the last French soldiers already having disappeared into Belgium.

Twentytwo people died in the bombardment, which could have been much higher had there been no evacuation. The material devastation however was enormous, with most of the historical centre — some parts dating back to around 800 CE — destroyed. Some 253 houses and 320 shops and other business buildings were destroyed, as well as another 18 or so public buildings, including the old abbey and the city hall. The evacuation may have saved lifes, but it also meant there were few people other than the voluntary fire fighters available to extinguish the many small fires that the bombardment started; much of the damage therefore was done by fire rather than explosion. That it was such nice, warm, dry spring weather didn’t help either…

Unlike Rotterdam the bombardment was not intended as a terror bombardment, but a tactical decision to break the remaining resistance in Zeeland. The Germans supposed that Middelburg was were the French units had their headquarters and allegedly also believe there were artillery and anti-aircraft guns in place in the city, which was not the case. These reasons for the bombardment do not excuse the crime of course, but do make the bombardment more understandable than that of Rotterdam.


aerial picture of Middelburg taken from Google Earth

Middelburg today.

After the war the rebuild of Middelburg had to start. Where in Rotterdam the city had chosen to be brutally unsentimental in rebuilding its city centre, chosing for a throroughly modern approach, Middelburg chosen to try and recreate the old centre, though it did take advantage of the opportunity to rationalise the centre somewhat. The large open market in the heart of the city was split in two by creating a new row of houses through the middle of it, several smaller streets completely disappeared, while a few other changes meant the rebuild city hall and abbey were more visible, no longer hidden behind cramped streets. It worked out well in the end, though the price was high.