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Dutch release dossier of alleged Nazi collaborator

AMSTERDAM — More than 300,000 Dutch nationals were investigated as collaborators after World War II, ranging from those who volunteered for the German army to those accused of betraying resistance and Jews, who were often arrested or executed.

More than 65,000 of the alleged collaborators ended up on trial in a special court system that stripped some civil rights, sent some to prison and sentenced others to death.

Most of the cases were resolved in 1950, and the special court’s files – including police reports, witness statements, exhibits and photographs – were packaged into an archive, with restricted access for 75 years.

After two years, those restrictions will be lifted, and some 32 million documents — about people on trial and many others who have only been vetted — will become available to the public. That prospect has some braced for potentially disturbing revelations.

“It’s a sensitive archive,” said Edwin Klijn, project director at The War in Court, a group of Dutch research institutions that focuses on history and supports wider access.

Currently, only researchers and relatives of alleged collaborators can access the archive, and only after the alleged perpetrators are certified dead and explain why they are asking.

Some archivists and historians expect public interest to grow as more access to the documents becomes available. Tom de Smet, director of archives, services and innovation, said the archive receives between 5,000 and 6,000 requests for information a year because of restrictions on who is allowed to visit, making it the largest of the national archives. A treasure trove of welcome.

These documents are also digitized to allow searching by keyword or name.

“You’ll be able to type in the names of the victims and find out who was accused of betraying them,” Klijn said.

Most of those listed in files as Nazi perpetrators or accused collaborators are dead, but often their children and grandchildren are alive, some of whom may have no knowledge of their relatives’ wartime past. Likewise, victims’ descendants may seek clarification about who betrayed them and how.

All of this has to do with Dutch writer Sytze van der Zee, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Het Parool. He explored his family’s wartime history in a 1997 book, “Potgieterlaan 7,” in which he described the pain of learning his father had been a Dutch Nazi.

“It just opens a Pandora’s box,” he said, explaining why he opposed expanding access to the archives. “Something in these documents is so horrific and disgusting – things people do to survive, things you don’t want to know about your grandmother.”

By opening the files, “we’re going back to the days of infamy,” he said. “I would say wait another 50 years or so.”

But Klijn believes it’s time for the public to learn more. “The whole topic of collaborating has been kind of taboo for years,” he said. “We don’t talk much about cooperation, but we’re now another 80 years on and it’s time for us to face the dark part of the war.”

The question of Nazi cooperation has plagued many of the countries that were once occupied by the German Empire. Access to archives held by the Dutch has been restricted to varying degrees for decades under European and national privacy laws.

But the Dutch archives are not the first to be made public, said Paul Shapiro, director of international affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Vatican opened 2,700 archives related to its history of the Holocaust in 2020. The dossiers shed new light on Pope Pius XII’s ties to Nazi Germany after years of debate over the appropriate rules for public disclosure.

In 2015, France released a large archive of documents related to the prosecution of war criminals in military and admiralty courts. Publicly accessible approximately 200,000 documents illuminating aspects of the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis.

What is unusual about the Dutch scheme, according to Shapiro, is the level of access afforded by online searchable records.

Expanding access to the public is a critical step toward understanding how and why ordinary people and institutions participated in the Holocaust, Shapiro said.

“The crime of genocide left a long legacy behind them,” he said. “For better or worse, the only way to address some of these issues is to open our eyes, look openly at the past, and accept the truth of history. One way to see it is through the written record in the archives.”

Expanding access to the archives will help understand the various factors that influenced individual decision-making during the war, Klijn said. “People may have made a choice at some point to join a fascist party for an ideology that they thought made sense but turned out to be murderous,” he said. “Why do people make these decisions?”

The Netherlands, despite its reputation for heroic resistance to the Germans, has recently begun to accept evidence of the extent to which individuals and institutions collaborated with the Nazis.

Dutch historian Ad van Liempt’s landmark book, Hitler’s Bounty Hunters, reveals a network of Dutch privateers “Jew hunters” who paid “head money” for each person delivered to the police. The archives are critical to his research, he said in an interview.

“It’s a treasure trove,” he said. “There were hundreds of pages of testimony; sometimes people were interviewed four or five times for one arrest. I was impressed by the depth of those investigations.”

Jaïr Stranders, a Jewish organizer of memorials honoring resisters and Holocaust victims, said opening the archives would help national reconciliation. “It’s always better to dig where it hurts,” he said. “When we want to heal together, we must confront history.”

Raymund Schutz, a World War II researcher who advocates for open archives, is concerned because, he said, “there are still a lot of false allegations.”

“Without any contextual information and expertise, the public won’t be able to really understand what’s in these documents,” he said. “They may not understand that some of the information in these documents is not corroborated.”

De Smet, of the National Archives, explained that some people go to prison on baseless charges, while others commit offenses deemed too minor to go to trial. Nevertheless, the documents were preserved.

That’s what sets it apart from other European postwar collaborators’ investigative archives, he said. “The entire file was preserved, including those who were not convicted, just charged,” De Smet said.

According to Belgian sociologist Luc Huyse, around 51,000 Dutch citizens have been jailed while being tried in special jurisdictions and courts. Dutch historian Peter Romijn wrote that about 1,800 of these cases were considered serious enough to warrant sentences of more than 10 years. According to Romijn, a total of 152 perpetrators were sentenced to death — 40 of them.

Jeroen Saris, chairman of the Identification Task Force, which includes about 230 descendants of Nazi collaborators, said his members were concerned about opening the files. “There are people on our team who are concerned about this, and they have reason to be concerned,” he said. “Past battles will be reignited.”

When Saris was 18, he discovered that his father, a physics professor, had been a student informant for the Dutch Nazi Party. It caused a rupture in a family that never healed. “I found that I still had to respect him, but the love was over,” he said.

Saris is part of a designated group that will guide the digitization and opening of the archives to address privacy and other concerns. “If it’s made public,” he said, “we can better understand what happened and verify the facts.”

Another panelist, Dik de Boef, president of 14 Dutch resistance and victims’ organisations, felt similarly.

“If there’s really egregious material in those files, you have to handle them with care and caution,” he said. “Children are not responsible for their parents’ crimes. But it’s important to know what’s in these files to prevent it from happening again.”

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