From May 3 to 9, 2015, an official delegation from the Canadian government will participate in a series of commemorative events in the Netherlands, together marking 70 years since Liberation. On May 6, 1945, the German forces that had been occupying the Netherlands since May 10, 1940 surrendered. Oddly enough, they didn’t surrender to the army that had done most of the fighting – the Canadians – but to the commander of the 21st Army Group, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who ultimately commanded the First Canadian Corps. And the surrender didn’t take place in Holland itself, but just east of Hamburg, Germany.
The surrender was a bit of a formality. The previous day, Canadian General Charles Foulkes and the German Commander-in-Chief Johannes Blaskowitz had already reached an agreement on the capitulation of German forces in the Netherlands in Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen. As far as the world was concerned, the liberation of the Netherlands happened on May 6. But as far as the Dutch themselves were concerned, Liberation Day was May 5 – and that’s the day it continues to be celebrated.
For the Dutch, who had endured five years of occupation, the arrival of the Canadians was like popping the cork on a shaken bottle of champagne. In every town Canadians liberated, people poured into the streets, unfurled orange banners and greeted the soldiers with hugs and dancing and kisses. Every Dutch person who was alive at that time has a favourite anecdote about the first time they saw a Canadian soldier. For my mom, it was being given a pair of stockings for the first time in years. For my dad, it was seeing a Canadian soldier eat a banana – something he hadn’t seen since he was a kid – and being invited to share it.
In occupied land
It’s almost impossible for people who didn’t live through the war to understand it. One woman from Leeuwarden, Mrs. van Heulen, wrote to the family of a Canadian soldier billeted at her home to try to explain:
“In 1942 they started sending all our young fellows to Germany to work as slaves for them. Those who could escape were hidden by friends or family. Often the Germans entered the houses and searched for young men, but then they were put under the floor, so that in most cases the Germans could not find any. When a German was killed, they picked out a number of civilians, 10, 25, and in one case even 400, and shot them. You will understand how glad we were when at the end it was all up with them, and when the Canadians arrived here we gave them a cheery welcome wherever they came.”
Van Heulen went on to describe how the retreating Germans had blown up the dykes and flooded large parts of the country, and touches on the horrible hunger of the winter of 1944 – which Dutch people still refer to as “The Hunger Winter” – in which nearly 22,000 Dutch people died of starvation after the Nazis blocked food shipments.
Today, 70 years later, time has erased many of the more painful memories of the last year of the war. People remember the outpouring of jubilation but sometimes forget the similar outpouring of vengeance. How the crowds mobbed young women who had dated Nazi soldiers and poured tar swastikas on their heads. How they rounded up collaborators and shot them without trial.
The desire for vengeance had a political side, too. In October 1945, the Dutch government drew up plans to annex parts of Western Germany – which would have increased the size of the Netherlands by 50 percent – as compensation for damages. In the end, the Dutch only took an area of 69 square kilometers, which was returned in 1957.
After the Japanese left the Dutch East Indies, the former colony revolted. The Dutch were convinced that fascists were behind the rebellion and mobilized troops to put down the rebellion. The Indonesian war of Independence lasted from 1946-1949 and saw 2,300 Dutch soldiers, 1,200 British soldiers and some 100,000 Indonesians killed. After 1949, 300,000 former colonists returned to the Netherlands, many of whom had been imprisoned by the Japanese during the war.
These days, the anger still shows through in small ways. German tourists receive inhospitable treatment in the Netherlands, and are often given wrong directions by locals. At soccer games Dutch fans mock German teams with the chant: “Ik wil mijn fiets terug” (I want my bike back) – a reference to the theft of Dutch bicycles during the German retreat in 1945.
But of all the legacies of Liberation, the longest-lasting and most positive has been the relationship that has formed between Canada and the Netherlands. The Dutch have never forgotten the sacrifices made by Canadians, and continue to honour them every May 5. But there’s a deeper, material connection between the two countries as well.
Canadian soldiers married Dutch girls and brought them back to Canada. Soon after, the Canadian and Dutch governments struck a deal to bring farm-workers from the Netherlands to Canada to replace the young men from Canadian farming communities who had lost their lives in the war. Many of these were recruited through the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church), which had created an extensive network of field agents in Canada who could help settle newcomers. Hundreds of thousands of Dutch people made their way to Canada in the years following the Liberation. The Reformed immediately began building churches, schools, labour associations, farm interest groups and even an upstart little independent paper known as Calvinist Contact. Later, it would become Christian Courier – just one of the untold number of legacies of Liberation.
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