AMSTERDAM — In the aftermath of World War II, more than 300,000 Dutch people were investigated as collaborators, from men who volunteered for the German army to suspects of treason against opponents and Jews, who were often arrested or sent to death.
More than 65,000 accused collaborators eventually ended up in a special justice system that stripped some civil rights, sent some to prison and sentenced others to death.
Most of the cases were resolved by 1950, and the special court’s files—including police reports, witness statements, material evidence, and photographs—were encased in a restricted access archive for a period of 75 years.
In two years, those restrictions will be lifted and a vast trove of some 32 million documents — files on both people on trial and the many others just under scrutiny — will be opened to the public. It’s a prospect that has some people bracing for potentially uncomfortable revelations.
“It is a sensitive archive,” says Edwin Klijn, project leader of The War in Court, a consortium of Dutch institutions that focus on history and support expanded access.
Currently, only investigators and relatives of people accused of collaboration have access to this archive, and only after proving that an accused perpetrator is dead and explaining the reasons for their investigation.
Some archivists and historians expect that as more access is given to the files, public interest will also increase. Already, with restrictions on allowed visitors, the archive receives 5,000 to 6,000 requests for information per year, making it the most popular place within the National Archives, said Tom de Smet, Director of Archives, Services and Innovation.
The files are also digitized to enable searches by keywords or names.
“You can type in a victim’s name and find out who is accused of betraying them,” Klijn said.
Most of those named in the files as Nazi perpetrators or accused collaborators are dead, but their children are often alive, as are their grandchildren, some of whom may have had no idea of a relative’s war record. Likewise, descendants of victims can seek clarity on who betrayed them and how.
It’s all about the Dutch author Sytze van der Zee, the former editor-in-chief of Het Parool. He explored his family’s wartime past in a 1997 book, ‘Potgieterlaan 7’, in which he described the pain of learning that his father had been a Dutch Nazi.
“This is just opening a Pandora’s box,” he said, explaining why he objects to broadening access to the archive. “There are things in these files that are so horrific and repulsive — things people did to survive, things you don’t want to know about your grandmother.”
Opening the files, he said, “We’re going back to the years of shame,” he said. “I’d say wait another 50 years or so.”
But according to Klijn, it is time for the public to learn more. “For many years, the whole theme of collaboration was kind of taboo,” he said. “We don’t talk about cooperation that much, but we are now 80 years on and it’s time for us to face this dark part of the war.”
The question of Nazi collaboration has haunted many countries once occupied by the German Reich. Access to archives such as those of the Dutch has been restricted for decades and to varying degrees, based on both European and national privacy legislation.
But the Dutch archive is not the first to be made public, says Paul Shapiro, director of the Office of International Affairs at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.
The Vatican opened archives of 2,700 files related to its Holocaust history in 2020. They shed new light on Pope Pius XII’s relationship with Nazi Germany, after years of debate over appropriate disclosure rules.
In 2015, France opened a large archive of documents related to the prosecution of war criminals before military and maritime tribunals. Public access to about 200,000 documents shed light on aspects of the Vichy government’s Nazi collaboration.
What makes the Dutch plan unusual, according to Shapiro, is the level of access afforded by searchable documents available online.
Expanded access to the general public, Shapiro said, is a critical step toward understanding how and why ordinary people and institutions participated in the Holocaust.
“Genocidal crimes leave a very long legacy,” he said. “For better or worse, the only way to solve some of those problems is to keep your eyes wide open and look openly at the past and accept what history really was. One way to look at that is through the paper trail in the archives.”
Klijn said expanding access to the archive would help understand the wide range of factors that played a role in personal decision-making during the war. “People may have made the choice at some point to join a fascist political party for an ideology that they thought meant one thing, but it later turned out to be murderous,” he said. “Why did people make these kinds of decisions?”
Despite a reputation as a country that heroically resisted the Germans, the Netherlands has recently gained more evidence of the extent to which individuals and institutions collaborated with the Nazis.
Dutch historian Ad van Liempt’s seminal book, “Hitler’s Bounty Hunters”, revealed a network of Dutch hijacker “Jew hunters” who were paid “head money” for every person they turned over to the police. He said in an interview that the archives were essential to his research.
“It’s a treasure trove,” he said. “There are hundreds of pages of statements; sometimes people were questioned four or five times over a single arrest. I was impressed with how deep these investigations went.”
Jaïr Stranders, a Jewish organizer of memorial activities honoring Holocaust opponents and victims, said opening the archive will aid national reconciliation. “It’s always better to dig where it hurts,” he said. “If we want to heal together, we have to face history.”
Raymund Schutz, a World War II researcher who generally advocates opening up archives, is concerned about this because, he says, “there are also a lot of false accusations.”
“Without some contextual information and expertise, the general public won’t be able to really understand what’s in those files,” he said. “They may not understand that some of the information in those files is unproven.”
Some people were imprisoned on baseless charges, others committed offenses deemed too minor to warrant a trial, the National Archives’ de Blemish explained. Those files have been preserved.
This is what sets it apart from other European archives of post-war collaborative research, he said. “The entire archive has been preserved, including people who have not been convicted, but have only been charged,” says De Smet.
According to the Belgian sociologist Luc Huyse, about 51,000 Dutch people who stood before the courts of the Special Judiciary and tribunals received prison sentences. About 1,800 of those cases were deemed serious enough to merit sentences of more than 10 years, wrote Dutch historian Peter Romijn. A total of 152 perpetrators were sentenced to death – a sentence that, according to Romijn, was carried out in 40 cases.
Jeroen Saris, chairman of a group of about 230 descendants of Nazi collaborators, the Recognition Working Group, said his members are concerned about opening the archive. “There are people in our group who are concerned, and they have reason to be concerned,” he said. “Battles of the past will flare up again.”
Saris was 18 when he discovered that his father, a physics professor, had been a student informant for the Dutch Nazi party. It caused a rift in the family that has never healed. “I found I still had to respect him, but the love was over,” he said.
Saris is a member of an appointed panel that will guide the digitization and opening of the archive to address privacy and other concerns. “If it’s open,” he said, “we can better understand what happened and check the facts.”
Another panel member, Dik de Boef, chairman of a group of 14 Dutch resistance and victim groups, feels the same way.
“If there is very shocking material in these files, you have to approach them with caution and caution,” he said. “Children are not responsible for their parents’ crimes. But it is important to know what is in these archives to prevent it from happening again.”