English

'We know nothing of their fate''. Ordinary Dutchmen and the Holocaust

The book

In April of 2012 my book 'We know nothing of their fate'. Ordinary Dutchmen and the Holocaust was published. Based on the analysis of 164 wartime diaries, written by Jews and gentiles, it argues three points:
1. Dutch gentiles were not indifferent to the persecution of the Jews, but on the contrary considered it one of the grave crimes the German occupier committed against the Dutch nation.
2. Jews and gentiles did not possess any certainty on the fate that awaited the deported; they had only suspicions and fears. These suspicions were very serious, namely heavy labor under harsh conditions, leading to many deaths in the long run. What contemporaries did not suspect, what many in fact did not even consider, was that the large majority of deportees was killed upon arrival. People understood the Nazi’s genocidal goal, but not the genocidal means.
3. This matters, because it resulted in an incorrect estimation of the danger of deportation. Going on the widespread assumption that the war would be over soon, it was imaginable that one could survive the labor and hardship that deportation seemed to entail. Thus it was unclear if trying to evade deportation by hiding or fleeing was worth the risk of punishment, which was assumed to be certain and quick death in a concentration camp. To some, perhaps many, deportation thus seemed the lesser evil. This helps explain the obedience of both victims and bystanders.
A more extensive summary of findings can be found here.

The reception

To say that the reception of my book has been mixed would be an understatement; schizophrenic is probably a better word. On the one hand it has been praised profusely: the two major Dutch dailies, de Volkskrant and NRC/Handelsblad gave it their highest mark, namely five stars. The leading academic journal in Dutch history, the BMGN, called it ‘an important book in the best tradition of historical verstehen’ and ‘a milestone in te historiography of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands’. The jury of the prestigious Libris History Award, consisting of both journalists and professional historians, declared it the best history book of 2012.

On the other hand it has been criticized equally profusely. Professional historians have called it ‘an irresponsible rewriting of the history of the persecution of the Jews’, and an ‘indefensible form of history’, have called my method ‘na├»ve’ and ‘almost unbelievable’, and have said that my book explains very little if anything, that it does not build on any existing insights, nor can it be built upon, and that it in fact exists in ‘a historiographical vacuum’.

Now this is quite strange. A book cannot be both a milestone in historiography and floating in a historiographical vacuum; it cannot be both an irresponsible rewriting of history and the best history book of the year. Someone is being unreasonable here.
The debate

Unsurprisingly, I think the critics are. It seems to me most of the criticism is thin and far-fetched, as I argued in a talk held at the German Institute of the University of Amsterdam in November 2013. The vehemence and sheer volume of the criticism cannot be explained by academic objections, but reflect, I think, moral objections. Many seem to read the book as an attempt to whitewash Dutch gentile guilt. Even if it were, that of course does not prove that I am wrong. Only a rational discussion of the evidence can do that. But in spite of the dozens of contributions to the debate, such discussion has remained rare (though not entirely absent).

Two English language reactions to the book illustrate this somewhat sad state of affairs. In the summer of 2014 Christina Morina published a long and very critical review in German History. In spite of my appreciation for the author, I think her objections make little sense, as is explained here. In December of 2014 Evelien Gans and Remco Ensel, two Dutch historians specializing in contemporary antisemitism who had already published four withering articles on my book in Dutch, put a translation of passages from these articles online. I think my response shows that Gans and Ensel, too, are not entirely open to reason.

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