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051 Kick Schröder and his sense of independence

Kick Schröder

Kick Schröder

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

043 Anthony Fokker and the nightmare of aeronautics

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker

The airplane breaks through as air weapon 

It is Sunday 18 April 1915. It is the 43rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The war produces a technological tour de force: two Brits hang above the Dardanelles in a hot air balloon. They are observing a Turkish camp, pass on its position by telephone to the ship they are attached to with a cable. The ship telegraphs the information to a cruiser that in its turn bombards the Turkish camp from behind the horizon with grenades.

Meanwhile on both sides of the Dardanelles the Turkish troops under the command of the German general Liman von Sanders prepare for an allied invasion.

On his way to Gallipoli the English poet Rubert Brooke dies of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship as a result of a mosquito bite.

At Zillebeke in Flanders the Germans make frantic attempts to recapture Hill 60.

The German government apologizes to the neutral Netherlands for sinking cargoship SS Katwijk.

In the Second Battle of Ypres the Germans fail to make optimal use of the chaos they caused with chlorine gas on the side of the allies.

And the French aviator Roland Garros reveals his secret to the Germans, after which there is a lot of work to be done for Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker.

Plagiarism is not the biggest crime of the First World War, but it was certainly widespread. Eagle-eyed they stared at each other’s war activities. What is the enemy capable of? Or rather, are we capable of that, too? Can we possibly do even better.

Take the story of the French pilot Roland Garros, after whom in later years a tennis tournament in Paris will be named. On 19 April 1915 he crashes near Ingelmunster, occupied territory in Flanders. Garros survives the crash, also sets fire to his plane, but cannot prevent that the Germans secure the wreck. Now they are going to figure out how that darn Frenchman succeeded in taking down five German planes in three weeks’ time.

Well, Roland Garros was the first fighter pilot who literally went straight for his target. Thanks to a technical gimmick he could fire a machine gun through his propellers. If a bullet struck the blade of a propeller, it would ricochet on a wedge-shaped metal plate. It was far from ideal, as the propeller could become unbalanced.

The Germans immediately started to copy the mechanism which they had got their hands on. However, it appeared that it was quite suitable for the French copper bullets but not for the German steel ones. Now it was time to contact a 25-year-old Dutchman, Anthony Fokker. In no time flat Fokker succeeded in reconciling a machine gun with a propeller. Via a cam, pushrods and rocker arms the machine gun stopped firing at the exact moment when one of the propeller blades passed. Fokker had done it: safe firing through the arc of the spinning propellers.

The synchronized machine gun with which Fokker started equipping his E.III planes, was the beginning of German superiority in the air. In the summer of 1915 the English newspapers started to write moody stories about the Fokker Scourge. Fokker Fodder, they sneered about their own planes.

Anthony Fokker can be called a controversial figure. Some consider him a war criminal, who shamelessly made money from the horrors of the war. For others he is a genius, who combined the entrepreneur, the inventor and the adventurer.

Soon it appeared that young Fokker was not born for teaching. Tinkering with model trains and fiddling with paper airplanes he got a grip on engineering. Tony was a do-it-yourselfer. When he was seventeen he produced a solid tyre as the solution for flat tyres that haunted motorists. Alas, apparently the patent for that had been granted earlier in France.

In 1911, on Queen’s Day, he made a name for himself by going around in circles a few times over the Dutch city of Haarlem in a plane which he had designed himself. It was called The Fokker Spin (Spin being Dutch for Spider). As a member of the local Orange committee, which organized all sorts of festivities for Queen’s Day, his father had inspired him. Fokker junior had every reason to please his dad. After all, he ivested huge sums of money in his son’s aeronautics, money he had earned as a coffee grower in the Dutch East Indies. For a long time there had been no immediate prospect of a return on the investments in the passion of his son, but for the time being dad Fokker could strut around the streets of Haarlem like a peacock.

Aeronautics in the first decade of the twentieth century is a phenomenon which only few people take seriously. That had also been the experience of bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright, when they tried to get the American army interested in their flying machines. It is all very well, was the army’s answer to the two brothers, as long as it does not cost us any money.

In 1903 the Wright brothers had succeeded in keeping a plane in the air for the first time. Six years later the Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the Channel. And another year later Anthony Fokker built his Spin in Germany. Its pilot seemed caught in a web of metal wires that held cockpit and wings together.

‘When I was a boy of sixteen and heard about flying machines for the first time, my only goal was to become an airman. They were the new heroes in those days. Perhaps that was what attracted me: to become a hero’, Fokker said in his autobiography, which he entitled ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

On the eve of the Great War Fokker leaves for Germany and starts building airplanes and giving flying lessons at the same time. In 1913 he is the first to imitate Frenchman Adolphe Pegoud’s looping. During the war he will also give demonstrations behind the front of new types of airplanes. ‘Fokker surprised us by his skill’, writes Max Immelmann, one of Germany’s flying aces, after Fokker showed in June 1915 how his new Eindecker should be flown. Immelmann will, incidentally, lose his life when his Fokker E.III breaks apart. It must have been a technical defect.

Fokker was on good working terms with the airmen. Not only Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, but also Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and Hermann Goering belonged to his circle of close friends. Behind these friendly relations also lay an economic incentive, as was often the case with Fokker. As a born Dutchman he could not rely on contacts in the highest German circles. With special thanks to the pilots on the ‘shop floor’ he kept the order books of his Fokker Flugzeugwerke filled. Between 1914 and 1918 over 7,600 Fokker airplanes left the factory.

Initially in the Great War pilots take over the role which for centuries had been assigned to the cavalry: finding and exploring hostile troop concentrations. In 1911 the Italians were the first to do so over Tripoli during their war with the Ottomans. That took some getting used to. ‘The noise those damned things make frightens our horses’, grumbles a British cavalry officer in an official protest during the First World War.

It soon became apparent that planes could also shed bombs and attack ground targets. The sky then turns into the backdrop for spectacular aerial combats, which are observed by Private Snuffy from his trench with amazement. In 1917 Orville Wright writes: ‘We thought we gave the world an invention that made war imposssible. What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.’

It will not have troubled Fokker during the war. The Fokker D-VII is his latest masterpiece in 1918. The German pilots love it. Its reputation is so great that a special clause for the Fokker D-VII is laid down in the armistice agreement later that year: all planes of this type should be handed over to the allies. Fokker will, however, deceive his way out of this. He succeeds in transporting hundreds of engines and dismantled parts of his D-VII to Holland, where he begins the Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek. This is followed in the United States by the Fokker Aircraft Corporation. It will be clear that Anthony Fokker is a man of the world.

His Dutch biographer Marc Dierikx has revealed how Fokker managed to change nationality three times. In 1914 he becomes a naturalized German for obvious reasons. After the war he succeeds in again acquiring Dutch citizenship with the help of his friend Prince Hendrik, husband of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. And in 1922 he reports to the Immigration Office in order to become an American.

Faithfulness is also in his love life not a key principle for Anthony Fokker. In 1919 he gets married for the first time, but this marriage already runs aground after four years. In 1927 Violet Austman is the bride. Her death, two years later, shows a grim side of the man behind the entrepreneur Anthony Fokker. When she is allowed to go home after a long hospitalisation because of a nervous breakdown, Fokker is nowhere to be found. He has sent a driver to pick up his wife. When he finally arrives home at night, he does not even give her a glance. Violet recognizes her sad fate and steps out of the window on the fifteenth floor of her New York apartment. She is stone dead.

Also as an employer Fokker repeatedly shows his relentless side. He gives employees the sack before Christmas and takes them on again after the end of the year in order to economize on their days off. In 1931 he even disposes of Reinhold Platz, the man who put Fokker’s revolutionary ideas in practice even before the war. Platz turned the rough sketch Fokker made into an airplane, after which Fokker himself corrected the flaws of the design during trial flights. They were a golden duo, but not for eternity.

Let us just say openly that Fokker was a moron. His biographer Dierikx has explained his ruthlessness as follows: ‘In his early childhood he was the little coffee-grower’s boy who was superior to the kampong children with whom he played. This is reflected in the way he treats his nearest staff, in the fact that he does not succeed in shaping his personal life, his relation to women. The little boy in the kampong becomes the creative kid in the attic in Haarlem, but with only a handful of friends.’

1929 is the year that Fokker sees his wife seeking escape in death. It is also the year when he suffered as a merchant. The crisis hits him hard. He no longer appears to be the innovative business man of old. He is not bold enough to change to completely metal planes. However, Fokker gets back on his feet when he can buy the licence rights of American planes for Europe for next to nothing.

His life story ends prematurely. In 1939 he needs an operation on his sinuses. This rather mild intervention has fatal consequences. Anthony Fokker dies at the age of 49, an age that most pilots in the First World War have not reached.

Next week: Mustafa Kemal.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

036 Anton Kröller and the lover’s trick

Anton Kröller

Anton Kröller

Trust company keeps the Netherlands going

It is Sunday 28 February 1915. It is the 36th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Soissons and Reims cathedral are bombed by the Germans.

 At Perthes in the Champagne district the battle goes back and forth.

 The French attack German positions on the Hartmannsweilerkopf in the Vosges.

 In the Dardanelles British ships bombard the Turkish fortresses on the coast and further to the south the Ottoman coastal town of Smyrna also comes under fire.

 Winston Churchill optimistically starts giving an outline of the conditions for an armistice after capitulation of the Turks.

 At the Neman river the Germans have to flee from the Russians, who also put great pressure on the Austrians in the Carpathians.

 In Greece King Constantine dismisses his prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, because the latter is willing to help the British and the French in their Dardanelles Campaign.

 The British Admiralty dictates that crew members of German submarines who were taken prisoner can be denied ‘honourable treatment’.

 And as a reaction to the blockade of Great Britain by German U-boats, the British government will even more tightly control the merchant navy, which further increases the importance of the Netherlands Oversea Trust, a creation of entrepreneur Anton Kröller.

While the world around them was set alight, the Dutch also had to keep their fires burning, preferably in such a way that they were not drawn into either of the war camps. For this purpose they needed tricks and the cleverest trick was the Netherlands Oversea Trust. Its abbreviation is NOT. Freely adapted from Shakespeare, for the Dutch economy in the Great War it was a matter of ‘not to be or to be not’.

In fact the bottom line of it was to import as much as possible without getting into trouble with the English. It would mean mayhem, if Dutch companies started exporting their import goods again to Germany. The Dutch government of course could forbid this export, but then this would be a hostile act in the eyes of the Germans. So the Netherlands and their economic interests were caught between the warring parties.

‘Holland cannot make love’ is the title of a song. ‘Holland cannot help but preserve its decency – It cannot make love in these days’ (literal translation of the original Dutch words). However, there was a lovers’ trick. Ships delivered their merchandise to a private enterprise, which was of course the NOT. And the NOT could warrant that a warring country, Germany in particular, would not be the final destination of the goods. In 1916 the English periodical The Economist called the NOT ‘a stroke of genius’.

In a short period of time the NOT grew from an organisation with a few staff members into a bureaucracy in fifteen buildings scattered over The Hague. They were not allowed to make a profit. Shipping companies that were committed to the NOT promised only to sell their goods for domestic use. Their ships carried the striped black-and-white NOT cone.

It was the Rotterdam industrialist Anton Kröller who set up the NOT at the end of 1914, though rumour has it that a British trade commisioner had whispered the idea into the ears of the Dutch. Time over again the British had stopped Dutch ships in the first months of the war. This was not only an irritating but also a costly affair.

The British were looking for contraband, goods which were put on a black list. Initially this only meant war stuff such as weapons and ammunition. International law allowed  control of this. But the British started to stretch the definition of contraband further and further. Soon also food was considered contraband. Not only the Netherlands, but also the United States complained about these far-reaching trade restrictions. However, President Woodrow Wilson was not very strict to the British with their minefields that marked the narrow shipping channel for the merchant ships which had to be inspected. He was much stricter to the Germans who turned the economy into a war with their U-boats.

The Netherlands owed peace to its commercial potential. Old Von Schlieffen had drawn an outline of a swing of his troops both through Belgium and the Netherlands in his plan of the attack on France. But in later years the Germans had started to realize the importance of the neutrality of the Netherlands as a ‘Luftrohr’ (windpipe) for their own economy. At the same time this was what the British feared. How could they turn Germany into a terminal patient as long as it was drip-fed by a neutral country? The Germans could hardly do without iron ore from Sweden, nickel and copper from Norway and agricultural imports from the Netherlands but also from Denmark. During the war Germany’s trade deficit was an average 5.6 per cent of the net national income.

In the first years of the war the Dutch economy survived only just after pure panic had broken out. After the attack at Sarajevo shares dropped considerably and exactly a month later, on 28 July 1914, it even proved necessary to close the stock exchange. During the financial crisis that broke out people started stockpiling and only spent paper money. At the banks long queues of customers were forming who wanted to cash in their banknotes.

On 3 August, the day before the German invasion of Belgium, the Dutch government made a firm decision. Emergency money had to regain consumer trust. And even though counterfeiters regularly undermined the system, the so-called zilverbons (silver coupons) continued to prove their value throughout the war. In 1918 about 71.6 million guilders worth of silver coupons were in circulation.

The firm approach of the threatening war crisis concealed a golden duo. Willem Treub, a radical liberal, proved to be a strong Minister of Finance for the Netherlands. Historian Paul Moeyes describes him as ‘a brilliant organizer and instigator’. Treub’s trademark was the blue-and-white dot printed bowtie, the so-called ‘Treub tie’. Perhaps less flamboyant but just as decisive was the strong man from the business world, president C.J.K. van Aalst of the Netherlands Trading Society. Van Aalst was made chairman of the board of directors of the NOT.

Treub and Van Aalst were literally sitting next to Queen Wilhelmina when she launched the National Support Committee. Poverty was also lurking in the haven of calm which was called the Netherlands. Especially families of mobilized soldiers needed support. Many had to beg the Support Committee for life. A writer of occasional verse made a Dutch version of the Tipperary march: ‘It’s a long way to the committee…’.

Nevertheless the Netherlands managed to survive the war relatively unscathed. The year 1916 economically even proved to be a peak year. After that it became a lot less, which was mainly the result of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans. In 1917 and 1918 only half of the number of seaships of 1916 entered the Dutch ports, despite the efforts of the NOT.

Frankly speaking the NOT had to manoeuvre through a minefield. The British were quite annoyed by the export of Dutch pigs to Germany. The NOT had promised not to channel any products to Germany that had been compiled of imported goods. The Dutch pigs had been fattened with imported maize. Therefore the British demanded the NOT to forbid the exportation of the so-called ‘maize on legs’.

The British thought they could keep Dutch trade under control with the help of the NOT, but in the end the Trust did not prove to be very compliant. And if an export embargo was announced at all, hordes of smugglers showed up who were willing to sell Dutch merchandise on the other side of the border.  All in all the British saw enough reason to tighten the screws of the Dutch freight trade some more. Dutch ships were no longer allowed to bunker in Port Said, before the Suez Canal, from January 1916 onwards. As of now the navigation route to the Dutch East Indies went via the Cape of Good Hope, which was a detour of over 4,000 miles.

In the eyes of the British also the fish appeared questionable. In June 1916 the Royal Navy was ordered to phase out the entire Dutch fishing fleet. The indignation about this in the Netherlands was so big that the British in their turn restrained themselves again. Yet a certain degree of friction remained. And if it weren’t the British that seized a merchant ship for examination, a Dutch vessel would always run the risk of encountering a German U-boat. SS Katwijk for example was hit by a German torpedo on 14 April 1915. Its cargo was indeed maize.

The Netherlands, and the NOT in particular, were bouncing back and forth throughout the war. In the NOT a man like Anton Kröller appeared on various occasions to be especially open to the German side of the story. Whoever leafs through the family album will not be surprised. Kröller’s grandfather settled in Rotterdam as a German immigrant. Kröller himself started as a trainee in Düsseldorf at a trading firm in iron ore, called Wm. H.Müller & Co. Not only did he gain the trust of the management, but he also seduced Helene Müller, the daughter of the founder.

Anton Kröller expanded the firm into an empire, while Helene Kröller-Müller compiled an imposing art collection. Millions were withdrawn from the firm’s capital to satisfy the aesthetic self-indulgence of Helene. In the thirties all her works of art were to find a home in a museum on the Hoge Veluwe, though as a result of financial problems this place never reached the size Helene had dreamed of.

The famous architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage spent the entire Great War building an imposing hunting lodge for the couple on their estate on the Hoge Veluwe. The First World War certainly paid off to Anton Kröller and his wife. Müller & Co acquired the monopoly on cereal and ore. In order to nuance his reputation of Deutschfreundlichkeit (sympathy for Germany), Kröller bought the indigent daily newspaper Het Vaderland. During the war he also became advisor for a Rotterdam Bank and he was involved with the foundation of the Koninklijke Nederlandsche Hoogovens en Staalfabrieken (Royal Dutch Furnace and Steel Works). In the first year after the war Kröller interfered in the launch of KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines).

But in the thirties he loses grip of his own empire, Müller & Co. When Kröller is already in his seventies, the shareholders force him to resign. In 1941 he dies on the Hoge Veluwe at the age of 79. Two years earlier he had responded to the request of the Foreign Ministry to join the Swedish industrialist Birger Dahlerus in encouraging the German neighbours to peace. Without any chance of success of course.

In an official biography he is given a send-off as follows: ‘Contemporaries praised his sharp financial understanding, which unfortunately at Müller & Co had to give way to passion of collecting and lust for power, with disastrous consequences. The splendour of the fantastic heritage of the couple is greatly affected by the knowledge that this was achieved by inappropriate business management.’

Anton Kröller has also been called Oweeër, in Dutch short for war usurer. ‘No doubt Kröller has had a ‘good’ war’, Paul Moeyes writes, with the word ‘good’ in inverted commas. ‘As a cereal buyer he is said to have pocketed millions in commissions and freight costs. Already during the war it had been pointed out to Minister Treub that Kröller charged the government a personal commission of fifteen per cent for the cereal he bought. Kröller was also supposed to have mediated, traded and spied for the Germans.’

Dutch top industrialist Anton Kröller took advantage of the war, while his wife feasted her eyes on her Van Goghs. In the meantime a whole generation of young men perished in the trenches. According to the biography Eva Rovers wrote about Helene Kröller-Müller’s life, this caricature is of course not entirely fair. During the war she was a nurse for a while and as such she looked after the wounded in a lazaret in Liège. After the war she offered two of her houses on the Veluwe for the recovery of German children.

Next week: H.H. Asquith

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

023 August de Block and the last bit of hope of escape

August de Block  (photo amsab)

August de Block (photo amsab)


The Netherlands puts away Belgian soldiers 

It is Sunday 29 November 1914. It is the 23rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Austrian army first occupies Belgrade, but already within days has to accept heavy losses during the Battle of the Ridges.

 King George V visits the front in Flanders.

 A German attempt to raft across the river Yser below Diksmuide fails.

A heavy battle for the Polish town of Łodz blazes away.

In South Africa the Boer general Christiaan de Wet and his rebels surrender.

After the Battle of Lowicz-Sanniki the Russians put up a line of defence behind the Polish rivers Rawka and Bzura. 

In France the Yellow Book is published, a collection of diplomatic documents about the July crisis which preceded the declarations of war.

The Russians take the Armenian towns of Sarai and Bashkal.

In the German Reichstag Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg categorically puts the blame for the war on the British.

And Belgian soldiers revolt in a Dutch internment camp, where one of the prisoners is called August de Block.

Belgian soldiers are heard to call out ‘chocolate soldiers, chocolate soldiers’ to pester their Dutch guards. It is 3 December 1914 and the tension in internment camp Amersfoort-Zeist is so great that you could cut it with a knife. A day earlier three Belgian inmates were arrested. Female relatives had smuggled civilian clothing inside, which was sufficient proof for the Dutch authorities that the three Belgians were planning to escape.

Now the fat is in the fire. The frustration about the poor facilities in the camp comes to a release. This has been built up for weeks on end. The food is like reinforced concrete. Behind the barbed wire lice and rats flourish. The canteen, where the price of one glass of beer was equal to a day’s pay, has already been demolished. The Belgians now shift their attention to the exit of the camp. A threefold warning in Dutch and French has little effect. Then the camp commander decides it is time for his men to take aim. They open fire and kill five men on site. Later another three of the twenty-one Belgians that were hit will die.

How did these Belgians end up behind bars in neutral Holland? Well, this was a result of the declaration of neutrality of 4 August 1914 which the Dutch government strictly observed throughout the war. Soldiers who were with the warring parties and entered Dutch territory were mercilessly disarmed and robbed of their freedom. So it was stipulated at the Second Hague Convention of 1907.

A considerable group of Germans, among whom quite a few deserters, suffered the fate of internment. But also British soldiers who had not been able to prevent the fall of Antwerp found themselves again in a Dutch encampment. By far the biggest group of inmates, however, were the Belgians. Over 33,000 spent the war in a Dutch internment camp. Seven thousand succeeded in escaping, mostly with the aim to stand guard with the rest of the Belgian army at the river Yser.

Amersfoort-Zeist and Harderwijk were the biggest. But also Gaasterland, Oldebroek, Kampen, Assen, Loosduinen, Nunspeet and Zwolle, all of them far away from the border, had these camps of Belgians. In the four years of the war a camp like Harderwijk developed into a complete village, with its own school, church, hospital and washing and bathing facilities. With the support of King Albert in free Belgium the Central Administrative Commission introduced a system, which enabled learned Belgians to teach their illiterate fellow countrymen in the camps. Many inmates started to fill the places in the Dutch firms which mobilized workers had left vacant. Equal pay was not at all obvious.

In 1917 there were 43 sports clubs in the camp of Harderwijk. Lots of Dutchmen came to watch races on the biggest cycling track in the Netherlands, constructed in the camp of Belgians. In due time many women and children of the interned soldiers settled in the immediate surroundings. In the beginning of 1916 villages for women arose near the three biggest internment camps.

Most Belgian inmates fared like August de Block, a workman’s son from Sint-Niklaas, who experienced the bloodbath of december 1914 in Amersfoort-Zeist at first hand. ‘This ‘fusillade’ made a deep impression on De Block’, his biographer Joris De Coninck writes. ‘It deprived him of the last bit of hope of escape.’

At the outbreak of the war August de Block’s military service has not finished yet. As Private first class he has to help defend the fort of Sint-Katelijne-Waver. But the line of defences around Antwerp cannot withstand the German howitzers. ‘When the fort was shelled, our boys realized that they were wasting their gunpowder because their artillery only carried fifteen kilometers, whereas the Germans bombarded us from a distance of twenty kilometers’, De Block has recorded.

He is facing a dilemma. Should he let himself fall into the hands of the Germans or should he flee across the Dutch border? The big group who chooses the second option just like De Block, will have to defend themselves after the war against the reproach of desertion. ‘However, as he was directly involved, August de Block interpreted the escape to the Netherlands completely differently’, his biographer writes. ‘He admitted that the commander-in-chief of the Antwerp stronghold, general Deguise, wanted to defend this bastion to his dying day. Yet on their own initiative several other officers gave their troops the order to flee to the Netherlands. A third group of military commanders abandoned the troops that were subordinate to them just like that. Each soldier from these units had to choose for himself between captivity in Germany and internment in the Netherlands. De Block chose internment, hoping to flee the Netherlands and join the Belgian army.’

Locking up the Belgian soldiers was a small job compared to containing the enormous flood of civilians who were on the run from the violence in the first few months of the war. This exodus was a huge humanitarian disaster. The journalist of the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant noted down: ‘From Antwerp to our border it was one long and sad procession of people and animals. Herds of cattle were driven along by farmers from the surroundings who were running away in mortal fear. There were young people transporting an old grandmother on a wheelbarrow. One could see all sorts of vehicles. And all these people, fleeing, kept looking back at their town, that went up in smoke and flames.’

The Netherlands has to take in no fewer than a million Belgian civilians. The small towns of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal see most of them pass by. In the beginning there is considerable willingness among the Dutch population to take care of these poor Belgians. The Dutch Committee for Support of Belgian War Victims starts a collection which in November has already yielded 300,000 guilders. In his book ‘Buiten Schot’, which is about the Netherlands in 1914-1918, the author Paul Moeyes quotes a story of a Belgian who in gratitude wants to name his daughter, born in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, after the Dutch queen.

But there will also have been scenes such as Jos Wijnant described in 2008. As a 12-year-old boy from Antwerp he arrived at the railway station of Den Bosch, Bois-le-Duc, in 1914. As a 106-year-old he still heard them chant: ‘Down with the Belgians, they eat up everything’. Wijnant was to become deputy town clerk and, still in the possession of a Belgian passport, he would eventually be declared the oldest man of the Netherlands.

For fear of contagious diseases and out of necessity to keep the roads clear for the Dutch army, the Belgian refugees are dispersed over the country as quickly as possible. The Belgians are split into two groups, the needy and the workers on one side and the affluent without possessions on the other. A private individual who provides shelter for an adult refugee from the category of the needy gets a compensation from the Dutch State of 35 cents. For a well-to-do refugee twice this rate is reimbursed.

The number of one million refugees will soon decrease. Now that the battle has abated, the Germans promise the Belgian exiles a safe return. Through burgomasters and local committees the Dutch government, too, gives the Belgians the urgent advice to go back to their own homes. The Dutch state will also pay for the single train journey. Many Belgians accept this. In December 1914 only 124,000 Belgian refugees are left, in January 1916 this number is reduced to 80,000.

The ‘Belgian villages’ that were built in Nunspeet, Epe and Uden have never fully used their capacity. The memory of the neighbouring guests would quickly fade after the war. However, especially in the past few years initiatives have been taken to revive the history of the camps of Belgians. Plans were made to rebuild barracks such as from the Refugee Camp Uden.

August de Block spent four years of his early life in Dutch captivity. His first weeks stuck in his memory as follows: ‘The barracks were not heated, were badly insulated and rain came in. Many inmates died of the consequences of pneumonia and tuberculosis. They also suffered from rheumatism and bronchitis. […] Only once every ten days a shower could be taken, open barrels were used as toilets and waste was dumped in pits.’

These miserable circumstances and the exorbitant prices in the canteens drove the defeated front soldiers to despair. Many took to drinking or gambling. Some committed suicide. Others revolted. Eight of them died in the process. The outrage in the Netherlands about 3 december 1914 was big, but an official committee of inquiry was to judge that the authorities were not to blame.

It was not until 2 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, that De Block and the other Belgians are given back their freedom by the Dutch government. Apparently they wanted to make sure. The Dutch authorities will present ruined Belgium with a bill for the internment of their soldiers: 53 million guilders. This debt was not paid off by the Belgians until 1937. On the basis of international treaties the relief of Belgian civilians, which was a humanitarian feat, came at the expense of the Netherlands itself.

After the war De Block developed into an influential socialist politician. When in the camp he had already manifested himself as the local chairman of the Union of Belgian Workers in the Netherlands. In this capacity he had come into contact with Rachel Hamel, daughter of a jewish diamond merchant from Amsterdam. In the camp there was little opportunity to meet, but the relationship held out. They got married and in the Second World War took refuge to England in time.

August de Block died in 1979. According to his biographer he never showed any bitterness or resentment about the way he was treated in the Dutch camps. In his own country the government and army command have never granted August de Block the rehabilitation he so passionately longed for.

Next week: Christiaan de Wet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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