Historical story

Shadows of the liberation

75 years ago, the Netherlands was finally free, after five years of German occupation. Recent research shows that it was not a celebration for all liberated citizens. With the passage of time, more and more attention is being paid to their suffering and thus to the downside of liberation.

Books about the Second World War are still in great demand. The fact that historians are not writing about it is partly due to the changing view of this war. No longer good against evil, but with more eye for the great gray in the middle. This results in new topics and the emphasis is increasingly shifting to the ups and downs of ordinary citizens.

The other side of the liberation for civilians has long been neglected in historiography. Two recently published books on this subject are 'Occupied, liberated &plundered' about marauding Allied soldiers and 'A wry party' about the victims during the festive liberation. In their work, the authors look beyond guilt and describe their observations without judgment. Both books provide a clear historical context and answer the question of why these victims fell or what drove the Allied soldiers. This provides important new insights, especially about the Allied soldiers. Over the years they had acquired a mythical hero status, but the authors thoroughly brush away this blind spot.

Systemically robbed

In 'Occupied, liberated &plundered', the authors take you to the front in the Nijmegen region, from September 1944 until the liberation in 1945. After four years of misery, the army of American, British, Canadian and Polish soldiers would take us out of the save the claws of the Nazis, huh! With Operation Market Garden, the Allies advanced from Limburg, but they stranded before Arnhem. As the American film title from 1977 says, this city on the Lower Rhine was 'A bridge too far'. Nijmegen and the surrounding region turned into a combat zone and the inhabitants of the villages in this area had to seek refuge elsewhere for months.

When they returned to their homes after the liberation, they found complete havoc. The Allied soldiers had robbed almost all the houses as well as shops, factories, banks and churches. They had actively and systematically searched for stored valuables and had blown up safes with dynamite, the authors show. They also reconstructed the fastest robbery in the region from the archive material:American paratroopers looted the municipal treasury of Overasselt within one hour of their landing.

The authors estimate the number of looted buildings in the evacuated region at 85 to 95 percent, but it is less clear what percentage of the soldiers participated. In American literature, a commander would have admitted (the book unfortunately does not have a note machine) that 80 percent of his men had looted in Europe where it was possible. That Americans were the biggest looters among the Allies is in any case certain.

Sand over it?

Reading this book regularly raised my eyebrows in indignation. Why were those soldiers allowed to go about their business and why don't you read more about that? These war crimes are covered with the cloak of love for our liberators and then forgotten. Or as the authors summarize:'It was terrible but the country had to be built. Sand over it.”

This forgiveness is logically less apparent in 'A wry feast' because it is not about material loss, but about the loss of loved ones and family members. Author Marjolein Bax sheds light on the chaotic days surrounding the liberation of the west of the Netherlands, more than six months after Market Garden. Her research shows that about 220 people died between 4 and 8 May 1945, and that list is not yet complete. Liberation Day has never been a holiday for the relatives of these victims.

Get out of control

We already knew that there were a few fatal incidents around Liberation Day, of which the firefight on Dam Square is a well-known example. This shooting on 7 May 1945 cost at least 34 people, including many partying Amsterdammers, their lives. But Bax's extensive research in local archives showed that there were many more victims in the Randstad. She has listed the 160 Dutch victims and chronologically described the deadly events of these days. The other 60 victims were German soldiers and much less information is known about them.

Bax also found a pattern in the incidents:they all arose from a lack of clarity about instructions regarding the disarmament of the Germans after the capitulation. The victims were innocent civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, resistance fighters who had merged into the Interior Forces (BS) and German soldiers. There was no preconceived plan, unlike the structural raids by the allied soldiers.

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Major communication problem

The common denominator of these books about the dark sides of liberation is chaos. Who was in charge of what? Which rules and orders had to be followed? The communication between the various parties was rather chaotic from Market Garden until the signing of the surrender. Around Nijmegen, the Dutch mayors and the police did not know whether and how they could act against the allied looters in their municipality. Looting was punishable by death within the army, but it was difficult to prove who the perpetrators were, especially in evacuated areas. As far as the authors have been able to ascertain, no soldier has received this punishment.

When residents did catch soldiers in the act, they gave a false name or made up an excuse – often on the advice of their commanders. Later it was impossible to find out who the perpetrators had been and people were sent off with the promise that the damage would be compensated later. This was also the case after the liberation, but again it was unclear who the citizens could turn to and what they had to give up in terms of evidence. Anyone who made an attempt was regularly sent from pillar to post for years. In the end, claims were paid out, but never the full amount.

Eisenhower shocked

Complaints about marauding soldiers were not always brushed aside with the prospect of compensation or dismissed as a by-product of military actions, such as breaking garden gates to allow tanks to pass. In November 1944, a damning report landed on the desk of American General Eisenhower. The main conclusion was that American soldiers in particular were systematically looting around Nijmegen. Eisenhower was shocked, according to the authors, and sent the inspector general of American troops in Western Europe to Nijmegen to check whether this was correct.

His conclusions were a lot less firm. He especially emphasized the fact that it could not be conclusively proven that American soldiers were the culprits. According to the soldiers, the civilians blamed them in the hope of compensation, which was very frustrating for the Dutch army command and mayors who knew better. With that, the stocking was largely over. Only after the war would the Allied leaders admit that nowhere in Western Europe had been so much looted as in the Nijmegen region. Unfortunately, why exactly here is not discussed in the book.

Deadly Combat

After the Nazis surrendered in Germany on May 4, 1945, chaos continued in the Netherlands. The resistance groups within the BS had been doing their own thing for years and now they had to follow orders from unknown leaders. Bax shows how bad communication was between the Allies, the Dutch leadership of the BS and the local units. The consequences were disastrous. Orders were constantly changing but didn't get through everywhere or too late. The BS was eager to intervene, but at the capitulation it was agreed that it could only arrest collaborators. The Allies would take the German soldiers prisoners of war upon arrival. It was waiting for accidents when these kinds of orders did not reach BS men and German soldiers. And that's exactly what happened.

After the capitulation, it took a few days in many places in the west of the Netherlands before the Allies would enter. All the while, the German soldiers were still walking around armed, while the BS also took to the streets with dropped sten guns. And that's where it went wrong. BS men thought they had to disarm German soldiers or refused to leave it to the Allies and ended up in deadly battles. The bad sten guns did not go off or went off at the wrong time, resulting in innocent victims. Or Germans shot at partying Dutchmen, who ignored German orders because they thought they had already been liberated.

The examples that Bax gives are countless and poignant. Take dike guard Toon van Weerdenburg from Loenersloot. He was mortally wounded on May 5 during a fight between BS men and Germans that he had nothing to do with himself. Van Weerdenburg left behind a widow and five children, but his family was not recognized as a war victim. As a result, the widow received no state aid and she remarried two years later. Not out of love this time, but out of need, she would say later.

No right

It was often impossible to tell from the stories of eyewitnesses who had started the fighting, Germans or BS men. Emotions had run high on both sides and the tension had been great among BS members from the very beginning. They had been waiting for retaliation for years and it seemed to slip through their fingers. In addition, after Market Garden, the BS had expanded from 45,000 to a minimum of 150,000 members, and not all of these new "September artists" had noble motives. Bravery with weapons and publicly humiliating people, such as shaving women, instead of maintaining order were common.

Their undisciplined behavior has cost lives, but the book does not discuss whether this had criminal consequences. There are fewer sources about German soldiers who were responsible for deaths around the liberation. If their names were known, they would be tried later, the Allies promised, but nothing came of it. After the May days, the perpetrators of deadly battles have largely disappeared from sight.

This also applies to the plundering Allies in the Nijmegen region (and elsewhere, because they plundered from the landing at Normandy, according to the authors). They got away with it for the most part, but that's not to say it hasn't left them all cold. From the few who have admitted it, it becomes clear how much trouble they had with it later on. For example, an American veteran gave stolen antique coins to a Dutch tourist to return to their rightful owner in Groesbeek. But anonymously, because his shame was too great.

No control

Why did those soldiers go wild? The authors not only show in detail what was looted and by whom (Americans the most, then Canadians and the British the least), but also what the underlying motives were. First, it involved young boys, far from home, who regularly looked death in the eye. Civil norms disappeared, even among the normally good and honest boys. In order to cope with the fear of death, alcohol was a popular loot object. Wine merchant Harry Vermeulen from Nijmegen lost 11 thousand bottles of French wine, 225 bottles of port, 142 bottles of champagne and 77 bottles of cognac. The value was almost eighty thousand guilders. After the war he would be reimbursed ten thousand guilders.

When drunk, the boundaries of the permissible became even more blurred and looting became an outlet. Soldiers stole cows from farmers, from which they only cut the steaks, they left the rest. Or they dressed up a goat to shoot for prize. But the main cause was the evacuation:opportunity makes the thief. The chance of being caught and thus severely punished was small in an area with no inhabitants. Many soldiers turned out to be unable to resist that call.


Both books are shocking, in their own way. 'A bitter feast' because of the hitherto unknown number of deaths and the fact that the suffering of the relatives is so little acknowledged. They received no satisfaction by punishing the perpetrators, often no material support and every year at the liberation celebrations they are confronted with this black day. With 'Occupied, Liberated &Plundered' the shocking thing for me was the sheer scale of the looting, not by the Germans but to a much greater extent by the Allies. Apparently I too had a blind spot for our liberators, who were able to go about their business surprisingly undisturbed.

It is becoming increasingly clear that allied soldiers and resistance fighters were not just heroes. They have made mistakes and that has caused damage and even cost human lives. Those who talked about it often had a hard time with it all their lives. Or as the authors of 'Occupied, liberated &plundered' put it nicely:'One of the hallmarks of the crumbling taboo is the recognition of regret.' Until now, hardly any research has been done into regrets of looters, but the time seems to be right. now ripe for it. Before it's too late.