The Dutch guard neutrality
It is Sunday 13 June 1915. It is the 51st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
Army Group Mackensen crushes General Nikolai Ivanov’s men in Galicia, while also at Lviv, Lemberg in German, the Russians are put under pressure by the Austrians.
In Artois a French bombardment of the troops of Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, lacks precision, but a Moroccan division of General Philippe Pétain will succeed in reaching the top of Vimy Ridge after all.
Two days later General Ferdinand Foch realizes that his armies cannot get through at Artois, which he largely blames on the failure of the British at Aubers and Festubert.
The Germans transfer troops from the east to the west because of the successes in Galicia.
At the Isonzo Front a huge effort of the Italians to conquer Hill 383 is not rewarded.
Lloyd George takes the oath as Minister of Munitions and with his French colleague Albert Thomas he immediately synchronizes the clocks at a conference in Boulogne.
In the Alsatian Vosges Mountains the Germans leave the village of Metzeral after setting fire to the houses.
And in the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf a flaming article is published against the Germans, signed by editor-in-chief Kick Schröder.
‘There is a group of unscrupulous villains in the centre of Europe, who have caused this war. In the interest of humankind, to which our country belongs, if we are not mistaken, it is essential that these criminals are eliminated. It is the honourable job of the Allies to do this, so that they, too, wage war directly in the interest of the Netherlands ‘par excellence’, our autonomy, which will be over, if German militarism wins. Our battle is against these criminals. It is against them that our sense of independence has to be mobilised.’
What the editor-in-chief of De Telegraaf wrote in his own columns is by no means very mild. It is 16 June 1915 and Mr Kick Schröder is putting a cat among the Dutch pigeons, which the government indeed wants to keep as far away from each other as possible. Even the tabloid press is expected to respect neutrality. But Schröder will not accept ‘fear’ and ‘pettiness’ and ‘Prussian censorship’, which applies to the Dutch newspapers according to him. Schröder will not accept neutrality either. He thinks independence should be the goal of Dutch politics. He mainly targets the companies that secretly continue exporting goods to Germany.
It is usually taken to be true that Dutch journalism prefered the secure middle way in the war. In ‘De Donkere Poort’ (The Dark Gate), a 1931 study of the Netherlands in 1914-1918, author P.H.Ritter quotes the example of De Limburger Koerier. This regional newspaper one day received a letter from the Comité Catholique de Propagande Française. The idea is to place articles that were positive towards the French cause in exchange for well-paid advertisements. Ritter then writes: ‘De Limburger Koerier was one of the ‘beneficiaries’, but the newspaper dismissed these practices with contempt, as did the entire Dutch press, which appeared not to be susceptible to such bribery.’
Then there is the writer Paul Moeyes who states in his much more recent study ‘Buiten Schot’ (‘Out of harm’s way’) that the position of the Dutch newspapers has been ‘exemplary neutrality’. De Telegraaf could be considered the exception to the rule, which was also to be said for De Toekomst (The Future) at the other end of the spectrum. But this strongly anti-English newspaper counted a much smaller number of readers.
It is Joan Hemels, professor of communication sciences, who knocked the image of the immaculate national press off its pedestal. In his farewell lecture, which he gave in March 2009, Hemels argued that ‘the picture of the neutral position of Dutch journalism urgently needed correcting’. According to Hemels Austria-Hungary bribed quite a few Dutch journalists, which is remarkable. The dual monarchy is said to have sent numerous biased press releases into the world via the Hollands Nieuwsbureau (Dutch News Agency). Propaganda under the cover of objectivity. Cheque book journalism with a view to creating an enemy.
But the British greased their propaganda machine best. The Germans did their utmost, too, but completely lost the battle for public opinion worldwide. In September 1914 it could be read in the Kölnische Volkszeitung how the Belgian citizens had rampaged: ‘They tore out the eyes of German soldiers, they cut off their ears, noses, fingers, genitals or ripped open their bodies.’
The word itself is not enough. The injustice should also be depicted. A Belgian girl, her chopped off hands stretched out to heaven, becomes an icon of German barbarism. Satirical newspaper cartoons get vicious traits. The Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers becomes world famous with his drawings in which he presents the Hun as a pig, devil or butcher. The Germans are so enraged that in 1915 they put a prize on the head of the Dutchman. But Raemaekers received generous praise from former American president Theodore Roosevelt. He said in April 1917: ‘The cartoons of Louis Raemaekers constitute the most powerful of the honourable contributions made by neutrals to the cause of civilisation in the World War.’ In that particular year Raemaekers happens to be in the United States. With his pictures he wants to prepare the country for participation in the war. At the end of 1917 over two thousand papers worldwide publish his cartoons on a regular basis.
Raemaekers’ paper in the Netherlands is De Telegraaf, which is owned by Hak Holdert, a true press mogul. Just as Schröder Holdert hated the Germans, though he was still alive when De Telegraaf made its columns available in fact for the German occupier in the Second World War.
As editor-in-chief of De Telegraaf Kick Schröder is a man with a flaming pen and a fiery beard. One of his pseudonyms is Barbarossa. Via sports he found his way to journalism. Schröder played cricket and soccer at a high level. How British can you get. In 1894 he was captain of a Dutch soccer team, which has entered into the annals as the first still unofficial Orange.
Schröder was the son of a German baker, who in the middle of the nineteenth century had moved to the Netherlands. ‘At home they spoke German’, explains his grandson, also called Kick Schröder. ‘As an Amsterdam boy he was ashamed of this. His hatred against anything German and despotic dates from his youth.’
Already in the beginning of 1915 Schröder got in trouble with a soldier who had trumpeted in a bar that De Telegraaf was paid by the English government to rouse public feelings for the allies. Schröder successfully took the man to court. The soldier withdrew the allegation.
And yet Schröders strong anti-German tone eventually gets him in trouble with the law. Prime Minister Cort van der Linden could not survive the German pressure to end the slander of De Telegraaf. German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gottlieb von Jagow, indirectly informed The Hague in April 1915 that public opinion in Germany ‘would eventually not tolerate such excesses to remain unanswered.’
On the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in December 1915, it should be noted, Schröder is arrested and taken to prison. ‘There was quite a crowd of people in front of his parental home,’ his grandson recalls. ‘Hundreds of people who cheered and demonstrated that he had to be set free. Grandmother visited him in prison with sandwiches.’ Schröder himself writes a letter from prison in which he says that his only conversational partner is a bucket of faeces that only answers ‘with a somewhat soft smell’.
De Telegraaf cries blue murder and appeals to the reasonable part of the Dutch population to defend the freedom of press. The paper subtly adds that the arrest of its editor-in-chief had led to a considerable increase in subscribers. Meanwhile Schröder gets the support of professors and journalists, even though he has thrown the book at them. But the riot becomes international. In the allied countries people wonder whether the Dutch government happens to be committed to the German cause. Justice will restrain itself under all this pressure and have Schröder released before Christmas. Louis Raemaekers draws a cartoon depicting Barbarossa kicking open the door of the prison cell, while frightened politicians flee away. It is not until October 1917 that the blunder of the Dutch government is a legal fact. Schröder is acquitted on appeal of the allegation of having endangered Dutch neutrality.
From the end of 1915 Hak Holdert starts to fight the illegal trade with Germany with his Anti-Smuggle Bureau and the French award Kick Schröder the Légion d’Honneur. At the end of 1917 he gets permission to visit the French front. He writes about that experience in the book Een dagje poilu (‘A day in the life of a soldier’). ‘Embedded journalism’ is what we call it now. Incidentally, Paul Moeyes also mentions examples of Dutch war correspondents – there were not many – who had to bear the harness of German censorship.
After the war Schröder comes into conflict with Hak Holdert. Because of this he is sidetracked as a journalist. He dies at his desk of a cardiac arrest, pen in hand, at the age of 68.
How should we assess his robust writings during the First World War? Was Barbarossa an advocate of both the free word and civilisation? Or did he thunder like a bull in a china shop, putting the fragile peace for the Netherlands on the line?
We could leave it to P.H. Ritter, a contemporary, to answer this question. Ritter wrote: ‘I cannot conceal my judgement that the allegations, made by Schröder to the Dutch government, were completely incorrect. For whatever the Dutch government may be accused of when they were in office between 1914 and 1918, nobody who has studied the history of the Netherlands during the crisis years can doubt the sincerity and painfully accurate enforcement of neutrality. I am convinced that the conduct of De Telegraaf was highly dangerous and on top of that inappropriate for a leading institution of a neutral country. But I am equally convinced of the dangerous and inappropriate attitude of the government. One may wonder what endangered the neutrality more, the one-sided indignation of a single press medium or government pressure on the judiciary.’
Well said by Ritter. No government should be afraid of just a newspaper.
Next week: Walther Rathenau