Was this another cowardly attempt by ‘wake’ to cancel an artist, some wondered NRC published Nazi drawings and letters from Lucebert last week. “It is very unfortunate”, retired publisher Joost Nijsen called it on his Facebook page, that “a distasteful young man’s chapter” from his “long, great artistic life” was “brought up”. The first call to change the name of the Lucebert School had already been placed in the letters section of the newspaper.
Poetry cannot be reconciled with the statement that ‘all white Jews and Negroes’ must believe in ‘Pax Germana’. But in the meantime, the letters provide a picture of a world that once existed in Holland.
Reference is made to ‘fascists’ regularly, but this rarely goes beyond their smell (‘unhealthy’) or their color (‘brown’). This is understandable, since there has been almost no research into fascist culture in the Netherlands. Reluctance and inability to consider the past in isolation, a mass murder and a rather exaggerated self-image rooted in a razor-sharp line between good and evil, have hindered the study and understanding of who, where and why became fascist in the Netherlands.
As Germany went down on its knees throughout the twentieth century, heaven and earth were moved at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) in the 1990s to prevent the disclosure of who also reported as a member of the NSDAP in 1933: Prins Bernard.
Also read: What the anti-Semitic poet Lucebert was like now appears from letters
With a keen judgment of others, the Dutch have mainly sought moral solace in their own war history. Dominance of a collective, sin-infused right-wrong morality fueled the tendency to hide and obfuscate. Thanks to the trinity of judgement, shame and cover-up, little is known about the role the Netherlands played in colonialism and slavery, and it took more than a century before anyone knew the lives of King Willem I, II and II. III integral dare to describe.
The national tendency to prioritize high moral self-awareness over history has recently resurfaced in the tendency to apologize for history, the way to rise above the moral diversity and complexity of the past and thereby distance oneself from staying in hellfire.
Given the deep wound left by the occupation and the Holocaust, it is understandable that research into the motives of the supporters of fascism in the Netherlands was not a priority in the first decades after the war. But almost a century later, wouldn’t it be time to put aside the sacred consensus about who we ourselves like to be and try to understand what may seem unthinkable in retrospect? To look the beast in the mouth, instead of turning one’s back on the so-called proud but actually fearful, to dig instead of preach.
Also read: Lucebert deserves better
Deep religious enchantment
Historian Robin Te Slaa argued earlier de Volkskrant that the pamphlet by Menno Ter Braak, introduced by Bas Heijne, in which fascism is reduced to ‘complaints’, does not do justice to the deeply religious enchantment it appeared to some from the 1930s. Fortunately, more and more writers and historians are trying to understand the phenomenon in the Netherlands; a number of biographies of Dutch fascist leaders were published, the role of women in Dutch fascism was examined, and Te Slaa and his colleague Edwin Klijn published the first two parts of an astonishingly detailed, three-part study of the NSB’s history.
Last week, Paul Van de Water received his doctorate for his research on violent collaborators in the Netherlands. In this he draws the remarkable conclusion that what drove them was not ideology but opportunism and spiritual indifference.
If the violence perpetrated in the Netherlands in the name of fascism was not inspired by fascist ideas, should not the ideas also be studied separately from the violence? Many millions of people have been murdered worldwide under the banner of Marxism and Communism, but their national variants have been studied and described without taboo.
Wanting to understand and forgive are closely related, and the danger of tolerating injustices lurks through historicization. But a teleological approach, where known outcomes and contemporary morality are the only perspective, hinders a proper understanding of historical events and only results in facts disappearing underground.
Every year, around Remembrance Day, pious words are spoken about what must never happen again, but perhaps it is time to give substance to that spell by digging up the Pompeii of Dutch fascism and with an open mind to examine where it took root, what it entailed and why it was attractive to whom. Only when that terrain is cleared can one relate to it and give meaning to the concept of fascist.
Let the acknowledged Lucebert get carried away with fascism be another encouragement.
Investigate what drove him, instead of sending him sternly and haughtily into the wings of history, let alone reproach the messenger that historical reality is often “unpalatable” and never simple.