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Soccer as a Wartime Prism

Author Simon Kuper uses soccer to show how, as Dutch Jews were killed, life went on for everyone else

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Captain Wim Anderiesen, of Ajax, leads the Dutch team onto the field for a Netherlands-Hungary match (3-2), played on Feb. 26, 1939, in the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam. (Nationaal Archief)

Growing up in the Netherlands, Simon Kuper was raised on soccer and on stories of the Dutch resistance during World War II. It was only as an adult that Kuper, a columnist for the Financial Times, began to understand the level of complicity on the part of the Dutch: more than 75 percent of the Jews in the country were killed during the war. And yet ordinary life—including soccer playing and viewing—continued with little disruption.

In his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour (just out in the United States), Kuper looks at soccer culture during the war and offers fresh insight into the treatment of Dutch Jews. In particular, he digs into the archives and institutional memory of Ajax Amsterdam, the country’s premier club and one that has long been associated with the city’s Jews.

Kuper, who has written three other books about soccer, spoke from Paris with Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry about what he uncovered in his research and about how echoes of wartime anti-Jewish attitudes still reverberate in the Netherlands today. [Running time: 20:54.] 

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Fantastic book – the original Dutch version is even more compelling and granular.

“Little disruption”? Only the first six months after occupation. Even jews were left
unhindered. That was the German strategy, the tactic of the velvet glove. Dutch
civil service was placed under Geman supervision according to international
law. Anyone who resigned was replaced by a collaborator. The first anti-jewish
measures were implemented in the fall of ’40. It was in ’41 when the deportation
lists were drawn by the Jewish Council and the compulsory star of David was
distributed. The Jewish Council had resigned itself, like the Dutch, to a German
victory. It’s easy for a lout like Kuper to judge them in hindsight. German
repression was ruthless, the town of Putten was burned to the ground after a
resistance operation. Most Dutch resistance heroes died in concentration camps
(Bernard IJzerdraat, Professor K. Schilder, Tante Riek, Arie Kop). German
pressure on the Dutch population was relentless by way of Arbeidseinsatz
(compulsory employment in the German war industry), thousands of arrests and executions by way of summary justice. To make a long story short, 250.000 Dutch were either killed, died of starvation during the Hongerwinter of ’44-’45, or were
physically and mentally affected. Material damage: 15 billion guilders. How is
that for “little disruption”?

“Little disruption”? Only the first six months after occupation. Even jews were left
unhindered. That was the German strategy, the tactic of the velvet glove. Dutch
civil service was placed under Geman supervision according to international
law. Anyone who resigned was replaced by a collaborator. The first anti-jewish
measures were implemented in the fall of ’40. It was in ’41 when the deportation
lists were drawn by the Jewish Council and the compulsory star of David was
distributed. The Jewish Council had resigned itself, like the Dutch, to a German
victory. It’s easy for a lout like Kuper to judge them in hindsight. German
repression was ruthless, the town of Putten was burned to the ground after a
resistance operation. Most Dutch resistance heroes died in concentration camps
(Bernard IJzerdraat, Professor K. Schilder, Tante Riek, Arie Kop). German
pressure on the Dutch population was relentless by way of Arbeidseinsatz
(compulsory employment in the German war industry), thousands of arrests and executions by way of summary justice. To make a long story short, 250.000 Dutch were either killed, died of starvation during the Hongerwinter of ’44-’45, or were
physically and mentally affected. Material damage: 15 billion guilders. How is
that for “little disruption”?

I don’t think Kuper would disagree with you and I don’t think he means the Dutch breezed through the war – and he’s not a ‘lout’. If you read the original and absolutely brilliant ‘Ajax, De Joden, Nederland’ (Hard Gras 2003) in Dutch you will see that the exclusion of the Jews from society was rapid, complete and virtually unopposed. In comparison, much of Dutch society escaped unscathed. Even the South ended their war significantly earlier.

To address your points:

First of all there were approx. 205,000 fatalities in the Netherlands proper – of those,100,000 were Jews right? So, not to minimise the suffering of the general population, the actual war, the flattening of Rotterdam (in which my great-uncle perished) and other atrocities, it has to be acknowledged that the Jews bore the brunt of the Nazi slaughter in Holland. Right? The main point that Kuper is making (which is more pointed in the book btw), which is 100% correct, is that (especially amongst Israeli Jews who confuse Holland with Denmark) there is a perception that the Dutch were fundamentally ‘Goed’. This is patently false. And that is his perspective – Jewish rights were removed and they were incinerated, man woman and child and there was relatively little resistance to this socially. His book outlines both the cowardice and bravery of Dutch society. It is critical of the former and honourable to the brave few and resistance.

I say this as a proud Dutch Jew of 13 generations for whom the war still resonates strongly.

on a recent stopover in Amsterdam i visited the Anne Frank Huis Museum. one of the exhibits pointed out that it was Dutch police and Austrians who rounded up and deported Dutch Jews to their death.

2000

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Soccer as a Wartime Prism

Author Simon Kuper uses soccer to show how, as Dutch Jews were killed, life went on for everyone else

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