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‘Don’t assume that someone else will step in’

Her book ‘Veel valse hoop’ (Much False Hope) about the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands was immediately hailed as a seminal work. German historian Katja Happe gave the Cleveringa Lecture on 26 November. She is fascinated by what makes people take a stand.

Read the full text of the Cleveringa Lecture in Dutch, English or German.

What is your inaugural lecture about?

‘How different people voice their opinions in times of occupation. Cleveringa did this very publicly in his protest speech against the dismissal of Professor Eduard Meijers. In my inaugural lecture, I look at others, such as Marcel van Blankenstein, a Jewish radio journalist at Radio Oranje in London. And I tell the story of Isaak Kisch, a Jewish lecturer in private law at the University of Amsterdam. He was dismissed in 1940 and, in contrast to Meijers in Leiden, was allowed to give a farewell lecture. This was brave and touching. For him, no longer being allowed to give lectures was a huge loss, but he chiefly expressed his worries about his students. I pose the question: when do you choose to voice your opinion? And would you do so if your life was in danger? Each individual decision – regardless of whether you speak up or not – changes the course of history.’

What did the people of Leiden do during the war? Leiden celebrates the reopening of the University in September 1945. (Photo National Archives)

What strikes you about the culture of remembrance in Leiden?

‘I think it is good that the University still remembers Cleveringa’s speech, but many aspects of the occupation have yet to be studied. For instance, I’d like to know more about ‘normal’ Dutch people, also in Leiden. What did they do during the occupation?’

Many entertained the false hope that things wouldn’t escalate

Your book Veel valse hoop (the Dutch translation was published in 2018) made a great impression in the Netherlands. You reconstruct why 75% of the Dutch Jews were murdered, the highest percentage in North and West Europe.

‘There were several reasons for this, of course. German deceit about their true intentions, Dutch civil servants blindly obeying authority and the failure of many organisations in the Netherlands and outside to take action. Many entertained the false hope that things wouldn’t escalate and that the war would be over quickly. The Dutch government in London did little for the Dutch Jews, nor did they want to pay because giving the Germans money might prolong the war. What struck me was that foreign aid organisations such as the International Red Cross were not particularly active for the Dutch Jews. Smaller aid organisations did what they could for this group, but without money and influence, they were fairly powerless. A lesson from my book is: don’t assume that another organisation will step in.’

The book was immediately hailed as a seminal work. How did that feel?

‘I hadn’t expected it to be such a success. The attention may be because of the different perspective, that a German historian has written a book with a different slant on Dutch history. And topics such as foreign policy and the aid organisations at the time had not been as thoroughly researched in the Netherlands.’

You are currently the director of Ladelund memorial site in northern Germany. Ladelund concentration camp is where over 100 men from the Dutch village of Putten were murdered in 1944. They were rounded up in Putten in retaliation for an act of resistance. How is that commemorated now? 

‘A reconciliation process gradually came about after the war. That was in part through the actions of Johannes Meyer, a German pastor from Ladelund. He wrote a letter to the surviving relatives in Putten in 1946, in which he acknowledged Germany’s guilt. He invited them to come to Ladelund. Families from Putten first visited Ladelund in 1950 to see the graves of their relatives, and the contact has grown since then. And people from Ladelund come to Putten each year to remember the round-up. I myself recently visited Putten. Real friendships have grown between the people of Putten and Ladelund, which is lovely and very special to see. Relations between the Netherlands and Germany have been better for years as it is.’ 

I only discovered that my grandad had been in the SS when I was about 30

Your grandfather was in the SS during the Second World War. Did that have an effect on you, both personally and in your work as a historian?

‘No, not really. He died when I was about 15. I loved my grandad and still do. I was interested in the past as a child already, but that was mainly from history lessons at school. I only discovered that my grandad had been in the SS when I was about 30. I was carrying out research into SS members at the Bundesarchiv, the German Federal Archives, and out of curiosity searched for his name. That’s when I found him. Yes, it was a shock to some extent because he hadn’t told us, and no one spoke about it in the family. But we did know that he had been in the army. My grandad and grandma acted like the majority of Germans. In that respect, it would have been more surprising if he had been an active member of the resistance. All I know is that he was in France at the beginning of the war and went to Yugoslavia later on, where the fighting became very fierce – I know that as a historian. At some point, I’d like to find out what he was doing there.’

Text: Linda van Putten
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Katja Happe (1970) studied German and history in Siegen (Germany) and history in Groningen. She was a guest researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and an academic advisor at Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. At present, she is the director of Ladelund memorial site in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

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