Germans and liberation day

Always the bad guy

On Liberation Day everyone should feel welcome. But for German students, celebrating the victorious liberation from the big, bad Nazi occupiers can feel rather uncomfortable. ‘Nobody really thinks about how it feels to be the offender.’
By Emily Howard / Photo by ANP Robin van Lonkhuijsen

Muddy shoes and techno beats overwhelm the Stadspark every year on Liberation day. Revelling students and locals drink beer and enjoy music at the Bevrijdingsfestival to celebrate the liberation of the Netherlands from their German occupiers. But not everyone is having a good time.

German psychology student Leonore Kriegel has been to the festival twice. Both visits have felt more like penance than a party. ‘It’s a bit like when I first went to Auschwitz’, she says. ‘It’s easy to know how to feel as a victim, but nobody really thinks about how it feels to be the offender.’

It might sound weird to compare a music festival to a concentration camp. But in both situations, Kriegel was faced with the same uncomfortable reality: her people are known worldwide for the oppression and murder of millions of people. She feels like Germans aren’t allowed to be sad about what happened during the war, because it was their nation that waged it. She inherited an infamous national history, but she does not want to be defined by it: it has nothing to do with her. All the same, how should she behave, as a de facto representative of that history – as a German?

On Liberation Day you’re even more aware than usual that you’re German

‘You have mixed emotions: you know it’s right to feel responsible, but it also feels bad because you didn’t do anything’, says Kriegel.

Bicycles

Kriegal had never been called a Nazi until she came to the Netherlands. A Nazi – really? In Groningen, she says, she is never really allowed to forget that she’s German. And that’s not a good thing. That is especially true on Liberation Day, when ‘you’re even more aware than usual that you’re German -and that can be weird’, says Kriegel.

On Liberation day, she doesn’t have to go far to overhear jokes about Germans: ‘Where did all the bicycles go? Oh, the Germans took them.’ Of all the crimes committed by their German occupiers, Groningers will never forget that the German soldiers confiscated everyone’s bicycles during the war.

To mask her discomfort and annoyance, Kriegel usually just responds with jokes of her own. But it was a world war, she says; everyone should realise that they played a part – and not always the part of the hero. ‘Sometimes I’m really disappointed with the message people take out of history,’ she says. ‘They should also learn from it: the world was involved.’

Unaware

Former RUG student Georgina Hillebrand-Perry put off experiencing Liberation Day celebrations for years. ‘Being German is the reason I didn’t go to the festival the first two times, because it feels weird,’ she says. She only went to the festival last year because it was her final year in Groningen.

But some German students aren’t even aware of what Liberation Day is. Psychology student Helin Sahin was at the festival, speaking to a friend in German, when a drunk Dutch man approached her. He declared, rudely, that she must have some guts to speak German in public. ‘I didn’t even know what Bevrijdingsdag was’, says Sahin. ‘I went home and Googled it.’

Afterwards, Sahin felt really uncomfortable. German students might not think about their national histories anymore, she says. And maybe they should. ‘Sometimes we don’t see our own footsteps.’

Yardstick

Dutch History and International Relations professor Carel Horstmeier (Dutch himself) understands why the Dutch might make comments about Germans on Liberation Day. First, he says, it’s a way to process the trauma of occupation. But also, ever since the 1960s, the war has become a yardstick for measuring Dutch actions. ‘The Dutch were rooted in this process of making their own identity by inventing a counter-identity’, he says.

Within this invented identity, the Dutch view themselves as the righteous victims who resisted the evil Germans. But nothing is ever that black and white. In fact, there were roughly as many Dutch Nazi collaborators as there were members of the Dutch resistance.

‘The Germans didn’t do it all by themselves’, says Horstmeier. ‘That is something that is known, but it doesn’t reflect back on our self-consciousness.’

History lessons

German children are taught early on about their nation’s painful, tyrannical role in the Second World War. And Germans still shy away from any display of national pride or patriotism, often unwilling even to wave a German flag. History has left a residue of shame.

But Horstmeier explains that the Dutch aren’t taught to do the same kind of historical self-reflection.

The message today shouldn’t be that the Germans should feel bad, it’s that there should be no more war in general

He points out that the one synagogue in Groningen was transformed into a common laundromat soon after the war. Local Jews had been deported to death camps in astonishing numbers, and folks were washing their socks in the last sacred Jewish space in town. No one talks about that. ‘But I could imagine that if a Dutch person would see a synagogue in Germany being used as a laundry, we would say “oh these Germans never learn!”‘, says Horstmeier.

This sanitised self-image is what Kriegel finds worrying about the Dutch celebrations of Liberation Day. ‘I am scared that they could turn it into something nationalistic. It’s not bad to say: we did something wrong as well’, she says. How can we avoid repeating history if we won’t take an honest look at it? ‘The message today shouldn’t be that the Germans should feel bad, it’s that there should be no more war in general.’

But that is the very message that Liberation Day strives for, says Alejandra Broersma, Bevrijdingsfestival organiser. The festival is a celebration of freedom in general, she says – so she is surprised to hear that some Germans have bad experiences. ‘We want everyone to feel welcome, because freedom is something everyone should live in, after all.’

Normalisation

The perception of Germans has gradually shifted in recent years. The 2006 football World Cup was a major turning point: for the first time since the war, Germans could display their national flags with pride. Being German became something you were allowed to be proud of, if in a restricted context.

‘Until well into the nineties, Germany was not only seen as dominant and mean, but it was also seen as the definition of uncool: boring, dull, with fat people eating sausages,’ says Horstmeier. But increasingly, German cities are becoming cultural destinations, he says. ‘Berlin is seen as the place to be.’

German exchange student Lina Lange went to the Bevrijdingsfestival last year. She says it wasn’t a big deal. Her Dutch flatmates encouraged her to go; it never occurred to them that her nationality might make it weird. ‘Everyone was just excited for this free concert; I didn’t really spend much time thinking about it,’ she says. ‘I was like, ok, they just made this day an excuse to have a party, I am onboard with that.’

The comments or jokes about Germans don’t bother Lange. ‘As a German, I think there are bigger things in history to worry about than the Dutch liberation’, she says with a shrug.

Groningen in the Second World War

Groningen overthrew German occupation a few weeks before the Dutch liberation, on 16th April 1945. The Battle of Groningen lasted for 3 days of intense fighting. The fiercest part of the battle played out in the heart of the city, the Grote Markt, where buildings were destroyed by tanks and German machine guns.

7,000 German, Dutch, and Belgian SS troops fought against the Canadian allied forces. After the Canadians liberated the East and North of the city, the Germans realised resistance was futile. They surrendered to the Canadians, and Groningen was finally free after five long years of German control.

Before the liberation, Jews were deported to concentration camps from Kamp Westerbork, which is around 40 kilometres south of the city. Anne Frank passed through Westerbork transit camp before being sent on to her death in Bergen-Belsen, a common destination. She was one of 107,000 Jews, as well as 245 Sinti and Roma, to be transported from Westerbork to concentration camps around Germany.

Now, Kamp Westerbork Museum stands at the original transit location and contains a permanent exhibition of photographs, documents, paintings, maps and objects.

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