Ups and downs between Germany and the Netherlands | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.05.2012
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Ups and downs between Germany and the Netherlands

German-Dutch relations are a minefield, a journalist wrote during the 1950s. Nowadays, they're nearly normal. As German President Gauck heads to the Netherlands on May 5, here's a look back at the ups and downs.

As a neutral country, the Netherlands thought it might just be spared. But on March 10, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded its small northwestern neighbor. Around 230,000 people from a population of some nine million Dutch died during World War II. Those who survived suffered from hunger, poverty and a lack of shelter.

Two women pull a cart in April 1945

The postwar Netherlands faced famine and extreme cold

Three-fourths of Dutch Jews - some 110,000 people - were murdered during the war. The Dutch were relatively passive when it came to fighting the persecution of Jews, says Friso Wielenga, director of the Center for Dutch Studies at the University of Münster in Germany. Research suggests that more than 20,000 Dutch joined the SS, and up to 100,000 were members of the NSB, the Dutch Nazi movement. Other collaborators faced prosecution after the war.

A long road to normal relations

During and after the Second World War, the Dutch disparagingly called Germans "Moffen" - the "musty" or "stale" ones. The Dutch generally remained anti-German in the 1950s, but not entirely, said Wielenga - with some of the population in both countries making attempts at better relations even before that. He pointed to the Coordinating Committee for Cultural Relations with Germany, which was established in 1947.

Dutch distribution of emergency rations supplied by the British Royal Air Force

The Dutch relied on emergency rations after the war

There were also regional differences in how open the Dutch were to Germans. Hostility towards Germans could be felt for a long time in Amsterdam, where a great number of Jews were murdered or deported during the war. On the other hand, Rotterdam - which cooperated closely in business with Germany's industrial Ruhr - was "more open toward Germans than Amsterdam," German ambassador Hans Mühlenfeld reported to Germany's Foreign Office in 1953.

It was a slow road to normal relations between the Dutch and Germans into the 1960s, with the wedding in 1966 between Princess Beatrix - now queen - and German Claus von Amsberg received unenthusiastically.

The Eichmann trial of 1961 - which saw Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann convicted of crimes against humanity and ultimately executed - also revived memories of the Second World War, especially as the Dutch closely watched how Germany came to terms with the war. The Dutch expected a moral gesture from Germany - one which showed that Germans also regretted the Holocaust and the war, Wielenga said.

Gustav Heinemann's gesture

President Gustav Heinemann at the Hollandse Schouwburg memorial

The 1969 visit of German President Gustav Heinemann was a turning point

That gesture came in November 1969 from German President Gustav Heinemann, the first German head of state to visit the Netherlands after World War II. Among other places, he visited the Hollandse Schouwburg memorial site - a former theater that served as a collection station for Jews before they were ultimately sent to the extermination camps during the Holocaust. Heinemann took into account the needs of the Dutch and visited several historically significant locations in the country. "It was comparable to [Chancellor] Willy Brandt's much more famous genuflection in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, but tailored to the Netherlands," said Wielenga. "It demonstrated a different, conscience-stricken Germany, and that's what the Dutch wanted."

Willy Brandt's term as chancellor also helped to ease relations between Germany and the Netherlands. His genuflection was a convincing symbol - for the Netherlands, as with other countries - of the transformation Germany had undergone.

Troubled times in the 1990s

Lothar Matthaeus gets ready to kick a penalty, giving Germany a 1-0 lead.

The Netherlands beat West Germany 2-1 in the semifinals of the 1988 European Soccer Championships

Another dent to Dutch-German relations occurred at the beginning of the 1990s: Like many other countries, the Netherlands were wondering what the bigger, newly reunited Germany had in mind for the future.

These were troubled times. In response to the 1993 arson attack in Solingen in which five foreigners were killed, 1.2 million Dutch people sent a protest postcard to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The inscription read: "I'm angry."

Relations between the two countries hit a setback when in 1994 Kohl prevented long-serving Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers from taking the post as head of the European Commission. And there was also economic enmity: Germany's DASA took over the Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker. Wielenga explains the strength of feeling across the border: "The great pride of the Netherlands, its own Fokker aircraft factory, bought up by Germans! Was that some kind of harbinger of an economically strong Germany in Europe?"

Finally, the publication of the Clingendael study, which showed a large proportion of young Dutch held negative opinions of Germans - even if the study's methodology is today treated with skepticism. "There were more and more points of contention for the Netherlands, so you can really talk of a worsening of the political and psychological climate at that time," Wielenga said.

It was time to respond: At the highest political level, joint projects, conferences and convergence programs were set in motion. This included the revision of history books: until the mid-1990s, in Dutch school books German history ended in 1945. Now, the post-war development of democracy in Germany is pat of the course.

"In football, even the little ones can win"

Nowadays, there are no stumbling blocks in the relationship between the Netherlands and Germany, even if the smaller country is keen to preserve its own identity in relation to the big neighbor. Wielenga summarizes the feelings of many Dutch: "We're not Germany's 17th state."

But football matches between Germany and the Netherlands are still always special events, albeit not as loaded with tension as in the 1980s. When the Netherlands, defeated Germany in 1988 in the semi-final of the European championships, it was more important than the final. "Football is war," said then-Dutch coach Rinus Michels. For some time, the games were plagued by a series of insults on the pitch and between fans.

"The idea of big and small can be clearly balanced out in football. Because it's no longer 80 million against 16 million, but eleven against eleven. And sometimes the little one can win," Wielenga said, adding that soccer can be a fine tool to differentiate and emphasize one's own identity.

Author: Daphne Grathwohl / ls
Editor: Simon Bone

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