Geert Wilders, the headline said, the Donald Trump of the Netherlands who wants to lead his country of the European Union and shut the borders to Muslims. You see this a lot lately, countries have their own Donald Trumps. Yet Geert Wilders has been a player on the Dutch political stage for years, and the Netherlands has a political history that most European nations share but the United States doesn’t. We’ve had the KKK. But the KKK, even at its most vast in the 1920’s, was never a political movement in the sense of wanting to take over the reins of government. There has never been a hard right fascist movement in the US that amounted to more than a few hundred to a few thousand scattered weirdos in jack boots. But there is scarcely a nation in Europe that did not in the 1930’s have a militant movement of hardened fascists whose goal, whether through elections (as in Germany) or military coup (as in Spain) or revolution (as in Italy), was the fascist control and re-engineering of society. Most of them became willing participants in the Nazi regime once the Germans conquered or assimilated their countries. Other fascist movements–as in England and Switzerland–never got the chance before their leaders were imprisoned or interned by their government for the duration of the war. And still others–Spain, mainly, but also the fascist elements in Portugal–eschewed the Germans almost completely and survived fascism’s collapse in 1945. (However, Spain sent fifty thousand volunteers, the Blue Division, to the Russian front where nearly all fought to the death, paragons of the fascist warrior ideal, if about as un-Aryan as a European could be). The Dutch had a home grown nazi/fascist/national socialist movement before the war, a movement that was both well developed and well known by the late thirties, so well known, in fact, that Dutch nazis were the evil conspirators in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.
But things were moving so fast and on such a scale that all their dreams of a Dutch fascist empire seemed like schoolboy fantasies. Holland was too small. It hadn’t fought a war since the Battle of Waterloo. Twentieth century history was vast and sweeping and full of revolution and war and transformation. What was Holland but shopkeepers and chocolate and memories of greatness gone by? So man did those Dutch national socialists get excited when Hitler invaded Holland without warning in the spring of 1940. Yes, the Luftwaffe leveled Rotterdam, just to show that the Luftwaffe could level Rotterdam. But look at the upside. Now at last Dutch fascists could have their Greater Dutch Empire, including Belgium, the Belgian Congo, the Dutch East Indies, South Africa (they assumed Hitler would take it from the defeated English and give it to back the Dutch) and a few places in the western hemisphere even–Suriname, Curacao, Aruba and a smattering of other islands acquired in the sugar and slaves days. Even the Frisian Islands. It would be a global empire, with domains on four continents and hundreds of millions of subjects. No one would laugh at the Dutch then, with their wooden shoes and tulips and Bergen Op Zoom. They would be the rulers of a mighty fascist empire. Not even Germany, which in the mid thirties was still just a rump state of what had been Imperial Germany–had anything even remotely possible (it seemed at the time) on the scale of such a Dutch fascist empire. And who would lead this realm? Who was the mighty leader of which there were problems only he could fix?
It was to be Anton Mussert, the leader and co-founder of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (National Socialist Movement) of Holland since 1931. Virtually every country in Europe had their little führer to be, Mussert was the Dutch version. But it was a fleeting fantasy. By 1939 it was obvious that Hitler’s Germany was no longer a rump state of anything, and Dutch fascists, if they wanted to avoid being a boil on Germany’s Nazi ass, better join with the Third Reich. The Nazi invasion was their deliverance, their moment, the end of history and beginning of the new era. Hitler, as he did with the local Nazis everywhere he conquered, put Mussert in charge and expected him to serve his new masters. He did, too. He was quite helpful when it came to rounding up Holland’s hundred thousand Jews, and even more helpful when the Nazis began plucking Dutch men off the streets to work in German war industries. He must have been annoying, though, as the Germans eventually stopped bothering with him, and by the time the Nazis were deliberately starving the Dutch in 1944 no one paid attention to Mussert at all. He said virtually nothing as his people starved–the Nazis kept him well fed–and one can only imagine the dread filling him as he watched the Allies advance. It all ended so fast. In 1940 Germany was the crest of the future of mankind, the Dutch included. By 1945 Nazi Germany was a leveled wasteland, destroyed, and the Nazis themselves on the run. The restored government Dutch government shot Mussert after the war, an afterthought, a footnote at best. They gave him a two day trial. I have no idea what he said in his own defense. I was just following orders wouldn’t have worked. Pride utterly gone, he begged the queen for clemency. She refused. He was executed by firing squad in 1946, in the same plaza where hundreds if Dutch had been executed (who knows how many by his direct order) during the war for violating some Nazi edict or another. If he had any last words, I couldn’t find them.
I have no idea if Anton Mussert is a hero to his new spawn. He certainly doesn’t look like a hero. He’s a balding, pudgy nebbish–pardon the Yiddish–in a silly uniform. Then again, people who look like complete schmucks can get elected president. It’s all a matter of perception. Perhaps people who think Geert Wilders is the most charismatic thing since Gouda cheese would be knocked off their feet by a shot of Anton Mussert giving the straight armed salute. I have no idea. It is very difficult to get into the mindset of these atavistic Nazi nostalgists.
Many of the new Dutch fascists (or however one says Alt-Right in Dutch) certainly do lionize the few ten thousand Dutch who joined the Waffen SS to wear groovy black uniforms with skulls and crossbones and swastikas to fight hard against Bolshevism and Jewry and commit inexplicable war crimes. Some of the surviving Dutch SS members were hanged or shot later too. Probably not enough, but some. Most of them were killed on the Russian front. Things were never easy at home either those five long years, 1940-45. I read somewhere that the Netherlands had more dead and killed residents per capita than any other country in Western Europe. War, Holocaust, famine and bombing took their toll. Denmark, another flat, small peace loving democratic monarchy, had skated though the Nazi occupation relatively unscathed, even after saving almost every one of its Jewish residents from the Holocaust. But Holland was not Denmark. Holland was trashed, starved, bombed, and fought over. Thousands of its citizens were slaves in the German foreign workers program. It certainly was unable to save its Jewish population. Yet the Danes avoided all that horror without the need of a quisling like Mussert. His being on a first name basis with Hitler did The Netherlands no good at all. He made a lot of those dead Dutch possible. That was brought up in his trial. I wish we knew what he uttered in is own defense.
Neither could The Dutch, unlike the equally humiliated French, take solace that their overseas empire was still in the fight. Because for the duration of the war in the Pacific (1942 to 1945) in the vast Dutch colonial domain known as the East Indies, the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers and sailors and civilians and colonial administrators captured or interned by the Japanese died at a prodigious rate in Japanese camps. And millions of subject Indonesians were killed or worked or starved to death (about four million is the usual figure). The Asian Holocaust that took place within the Japanese Empire from 1937-45 was nearly as brutal as anything the Third Reich came up with, and sometimes more so, and only China saw more violence, murder and brutality under Japanese fascist occupation than did the Dutch East Indies. (The Philippines came in a close third). The Dutch were just as helpless in preventing any of it as they were back home in Holland. Afterward, the Indonesians learned that no matter how much they hated the Japanese, the Japanese had at least shown that Asians can defeat Europeans. Japanese arms had beat the Russians in 1905. Then even more stunningly, Japanese armies, navies and air forces in 1941 and 1942 routed the Americans in the Philippines, the English at Singapore, the French in Indochina (they just walked in and took the place, and the French let them) and most importantly from the Indonesian nationalist point of view, they easily routed the Dutch the length and breadth of the Dutch East Indies. So the Indonesians rose up and booted out the Netherlands colonial administration and the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers sent to put down the rebellion. Japanese prisoners even pitched in (as they did in Indochina as well). Somehow the whole story has slipped from the public historical consciousness, but it was one of the great anti-colonial revolutions, and the Battle of Surabaya, even though the Dutch army (and navy and air force) won it tactically, it is one of the most decisive battles since World War Two, leading to the end of a great colonial empire. An army raised by small, brown skinned, colonial subjects, armed with as many modern weapons as they could get their hands on, nearly beat a modern European army. It did not go unnoticed throughout Asia. Indeed, perhaps the Indonesian Revolution will prove a key moment in world history, though we don’t know it yet.
Yet it is certainly a key moment of colonial liberation that is impossible to imagine without the context of the rise of fascism–a German fascism corrupting and conquering the Netherlands, and Japanese fascism seizing the East Indies. Holland as a colonial power was mortally wounded by the Japanese, as was Britain’s hold on India after the abject humiliation of their loss of Singapore. Fascism, though it failed, inflicted wounds on European colonial powers that bled their colonial empire to death within a few years. The Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Belgium were booted from Asia inside of a decade, and from Africa wiithin two. (Only Portugal, protected from the storm of Nazi revolution and total war by the neutrality of Spain, found its overseas empire unfazed.) That was the power of fascism, the lasting result of its nihilism and destruction. From 1931 to 1945 it was an existential threat to the world on a scale not seen since the Mongol invasions. It lost, totally, completely, nearly annihilated. But it left little fascist seeds scattered about, blown by the winds, and they seem to be germinating at last. Like Geert Wilders, for instance, the 21st century Anton Mussert, sans jackboots.
When you come down to it, weighing the good (shiny uniforms, getting to hang with Hitler) against the bad (murder, starvation, genocide, loss of empire and dignity), Dutch fascism turned out to be a complete disaster and abject humiliation for the Dutch people and Dutch state. And now a reborn Dutch fascism, a kinder, gentler fascism, seems to be returning, following the distinctly non-German playbook that Anton Mussert and his pals were so effective with for a while in the 1930’s. There is that musty haven’t-we-been-here-before feel in the sights and sounds and ideology of Geert Wilders. Nostalgia. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.