IN HOLLAND, the 31st of August has an importance all its own: it is the Queen's birthday, a national holiday for everyone. Flags fly from every house, Government buildings are decorated and illuminated at night, the streets and squares, where the bands play, are thronged with happy, good-natured, jostling crowds. The fountains in the beautiful Vijverberg in the center of The Hague play in the sunshine--in the rays of the "Orange sun"--which hardly ever fails to fulfil its promise of turning this day into a radiant festival for the whole nation.
Never had the Queen's birthday been celebrated with more general and genuine joy than in 1938, when it coincided with the fortieth anniversary of her reign. It was as if all her subjects wanted to pay their tribute to her wisdom and restraint, to her deep understanding of the country's needs which she, the longest reigning monarch in the world, has always shown. The celebrations on the 31st of August, 1938, and the following days gave the outside world a picture of a nation united in the common love of its independence and its free institutions, in the continuation of its ancient liberties of which the House of Orange has always been the faithful and unselfish custodian.
Striking was the contrast of the Queen's birthday in 1939 with the happy days of the year before. Instead of jubilation, political gloom cast its shadows on the festivities. Holiday spirit was quite lacking. The atmosphere seemed loaded with electricity. The people in this island of peace had the feeling of being surrounded by high-explosive material. Would the spark be struck which was to set the world around ablaze? The absence from their homes of so many husbands and sons who had been called to the colors and were now guarding the coast, the land frontiers, or vital points in the interior was enough in itself to take away all real gaiety from this saddest birthday the Queen had ever known.
During the last few days of August, 1939, Holland, together with all the world, was being swayed between hope and fear. That the Western democracies did not want war was everybody's firm conviction. That Germany did not want war was equally certain, with this all-important difference, that Germany's leaders were ready to go to extremes even if, thereby, war might prove unavoidable. Some of the German people backed their Fuehrer with fanaticism, some were terrorized into submission and silence, and a third category lived in a strange state of apathy. Yet it was certain that the nation would follow its Nazi masters wherever they might lead them.
On Friday evening, September 1st, we heard an important radio announcement from Berlin with regard to the strained relations between Germany and Poland. The
announcement was so worded that it seemed to justify hopes that even such thorny questions as those of Danzig, the Polish Corridor, and the treatment of minorities might yet be settled by negotiation. Early next morning, however, these last hopes were dashed by the news that German troops had invaded Poland, and that the Polish army was resisting. Once again, war seemed about to sow its horrors over Europe. And indeed, next day brought the news that first England and then France, in execution of their guarantee to Poland, had declared that a state of war existed between themselves and Germany.
In anticipation of this development, I had gone to my office, that beautiful Sunday morning, at an early hour. My faithful staff at the Ministry, all men of tried experience and devotion to the public cause, few in number but unsurpassed in value, were there to carry out all measures which had been prepared for some time past. Assuming that in the beginning of the conflict at any rate, we were not to be involved in it, we went for the last time over the Proclamation of Neutrality which was to be issued immediately on learning that war had broken out. This document had been very carefully drafted by some of the best legal minds of the country; in the event of war between third powers, it was to define the status of the Netherlands, and to lay down regulations basing its neutral position on carefully stated rules of international law. The Dutch have never adhered to the opinion that international law is too ill defined to serve as a basis for
international conduct. On the contrary, they have found that the rules of the law of nations can be stated with sufficient precision to be accepted by any government which is not bent on disregarding them. In the World War, the neutral status of the Netherlands had been based on international law and nothing else. In that difficult period, against the encroachments inspired by the interests of the belligerents, Holland had always fallen back on the dictates of law as the only impartial and objective means of ascertaining what her rights and her duties were, and what were those of the belligerents. We meant once again to follow this course of action by making law, and not some opportunistic conception, our guiding principle--and we did it.
Therefore, as soon as the news came of the outbreak of war, it needed little more than the pressing of a button for the Proclamation of Neutrality to be forthwith issued. This proclamation, addressed to all whom it might concern, began by stating that, in view of a state of war having arisen between a number of foreign powers, the Netherlands Government was resolved to observe complete neutrality, and then proceeded to enumerate in detail what that neutrality was to imply. These regulations have been scrupulously observed by the Netherlands Government; their contents, made known to all the world, have not been questioned by anyone as to their absolute conformity with accepted rules and principles of international law. Nor has any power, Germany not excepted, ever had justifiable reason to complain that these self-imposed/
neutrality regulations were not impartially and fairly put into effect. When Germany finally assaulted us, she felt herself obliged to offer reasonings of an entirely different order as justification for her outrage.
Parliament met almost at once. Both Houses fully endorsed the policy of the Government, and thereby made the meeting an impressive demonstration of national unity. Rarely had the country been more at one than on that occasion. This complete conformity of views with regard to foreign policy between the Government and Parliament prevailed throughout the period of Holland's neutrality; only the small but vociferous group of our National Socialists provided an occasional jarring note. When, in November, 1939, I had to defend the 1940 budget for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in the Lower House, the deputies cheered the declaration I made on that occasion, and the representatives of all parties sealed their adherence to the Government's line of action by coming up to shake hands at the end of my speech. The same took place when, two months later, I had to pilot the budget through the Upper House. As in any sane democracy, there was criticism regarding this or that point of Government policy, but in respect of the conduct of the country's foreign affairs there was practically none.
Scarcely had war begun with the German onslaught on Poland when our tribulations as a neutral state were under way. In a war between great powers in the immediate vicinity, the position of a neutral state is far from
being an enviable one. That had been our experience in 1914-18; it was once more revealed to us in those last months of 1939. Under such conditions, being neutral makes little appeal to the imagination. There is nothing romantic, let alone heroic, about it. Although maintaining and, if need be, enforcing neutrality calls for coolness, impartiality and courage, such a course is undramatic, uninspiring and, in general, thankless; and yet neutrality is the only possible course for a country in the geographical and political situation of the Netherlands. It cannot enter into any alliance with any one great power or group of powers without immediately bringing on its head the wrath of some other great power, to which any such alliance must needs be anathema. For a country in the position of the Netherlands, any policy other than neutrality would have been suicidal.
Once Germany had invaded Holland, voices in other countries were not lacking to contend that if only Holland had entered into some defensive arrangement with the Allies in time she would not have suffered the fate the German attack brought upon her. This argument seems altogether futile. There is not the slightest doubt that the moment Germany had learned (and heaven knows her intelligence service is ubiquitous) that the Dutch Government was plotting with the Allies she would have attacked at once, long before the Allies could have sent any troops to our assistance. I must admit that, on the part of responsible people in Britain, I have very rarely found any
lack of understanding on this point. No thoughtful person, taking into account all the facts of the situation, could reach any other conclusion.
On two occasions, once in November, 1939, and once in April, 1940, the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs published a collection of documents--a so-called Orange Book--giving a survey of the principal matters dealt with by the Ministry in connection with the war which were suitable for publication. It is a pity that publications of this kind receive so little attention and real publicity. They are funds of information, and most illuminating to those who really wish to understand foreign affairs. But it seems to be their sad fate in all countries to pass unnoticed by the public at large, and to come chiefly into the hands of specialists who dissect them much as a dead body is dissected by the anatomist. Our Orange Books received no better welcome. And yet they give an excellent impression of the painstaking efforts of the Netherlands Foreign Ministry to keep the balance even between the belligerents, and steer the ship of state safely between the Scylla and Charybdis of the two opposing camps. These Orange Books constitute irrefutable evidence of the fact that the spirit animating Netherlands neutrality was one of unbiased impartiality, on the basis of international law. There has been no deviation from that path, whatever German propaganda may have endeavored to make the world believe after she had thrown off the mask and assaulted Holland. If anything, we were overscrupulous in
affirming our will to be neutral, and so it was to the very last. On the fourth of May, 1940, less than a week before the German invasion began, the Minister at The Hague of one of the belligerent powers sent me a note with the request to be furnished with the silhouettes of our military aircraft and a few other details of the same order. Within an hour, he was in possession of my reply, in which I refused to give him any such information, although its military value, if any, could only have been slight. Principle had to come first. We could not entertain any suggestion of this kind, which subsequently might prove to be the thin end of the wedge to compromise neutrality.
The Netherlands Government--and I think I may say the whole nation--fully realized that so strict a policy of neutrality was far from presenting only advantages. If either of the two belligerent sides should disregard it and attack us swiftly, there could hardly be any question of concerted action with the other side, so that in any case assistance would be doubtful. But, as has already been pointed out, it was far too dangerous for a country in Holland's position to undertake even staff talks, to say nothing of pacts and conventions, with either of the belligerents; and since it was obvious that we could not enter into military arrangements with both parties at once, the only course left was to abide by our attitude of aloofness.
This necessarily rigid attitude gave rise to continuous trouble with both belligerent parties. In the World War
it had not been otherwise, and those who remember the correspondence, often of an unpleasant nature, which was then exchanged between neutral powers (including the United States before its entry into the war) and the two contending sides, can easily realize how it was this time. The Orange Books issued by the Government furnish much material illustrating this point. A cartoonist of Punch was inspired to depict a small boy with a puzzled look asking his father if a neutral is a country both sides are at war with. There is a good deal of truth in this somewhat exaggerated picture of the joys of neutrality.
In the previous war, neutrality had one side which, through force of circumstance and not by any inherent rapacity, brought the neutral some gain. It will be recalled that many people in neutral countries made profits, ranging anywhere from modest to huge, by manufacturing and selling commodities the belligerents needed. This profitable side of the picture, unedifying though it may be, has been singularly absent in the early stages of the present war, for the belligerents had learned their lesson and through collective buying, and by fixing maximum prices and other means reduced the possibilities for would-be war profiteers. Thus, in the economic field, the fate of the smaller neutral in Europe became more unenviable than ever. Finding himself between the devil and the deep sea, he had to face huge expenditure in order to keep his armed forces on a war footing. Those who, like Norway, neglected this aspect of their neutral status,
subsequently paid a heavy price for their easygoingness. World trade, as a consequence of the war, decreased in volume at an alarming rate, and it can be readily imagined what this meant for a seafaring country like Holland, whose adverse balance of trade had largely to be compensated by services rendered to other countries in the field of transport. While taxation increased to meet the Treasury's growing demands, the sources whence it had to come dried up like a spring in a droughty summer. Prices tended to rise sharply, the stock market fell, unemployment was rife: against less than 200,000 unemployed in the summer of 1939, there were 275,000 early in 1940, an increase which--even when due allowance is made for seasonal influences--is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that the mobilization of the army had absorbed a great number of unemployed. Unprofitable investment in war material prevented the formation of new capital which, in a country like the Netherlands with an ever-increasing population, is of vital importance. Such were the economic adversities of war for the smaller European neutral, a subject which might well have inspired a modern Duerer to do an etching of new apocalyptic visions to misery and ruin.
Why? was a question often asked those days. Why all this suffering, why this waste, why this halt in the nation's progress? Here was a country which had always earnestly endeavored to assist in improving international relations, in placing the international community on foundations of
law and order, in short, in improving human intercourse the world over. Now it was made to suffer, even before the Germans invaded it overnight, through no fault of its own.
Why, indeed, do such afflictions beset an innocent country? It is a cry to which the human mind has no answer, it is the same cry that is raised in the presence of all human suffering which is, according to our standards, undeserved. Yet in spite of the difficulty of the situation in which Holland found itself placed, the whole country felt truly thankful for being spared the horrors of actual warfare. Thanks to the farsighted policy of the Minister for Economic Affairs, care had been taken that there should be considerable stocks of those overseas commodities which the country needed: there was enough to eat for everybody, enough petrol for transport, fuel for heating and industry, fodder for our livestock, fertilizers for our soil. In spite of the restrictions placed on shipping, the country's supplies of raw materials were satisfactory. Holland did as best it could, accepting the inevitable without complaining, thanks to a complete understanding of the situation. In spite of everything, and although the country was growing poorer at an alarming rate through war expenditure and all other adverse circumstances, the condition of the average citizen was, for the time being not unsatisfactory.
Many were the questions that arose between Holland and the belligerents during this period of its neutrality.
First of all, there were several cases in which the inviolability of Dutch territory or the air space above it was not respected by the belligerents. In every case which came to their knowledge the Dutch Government took appropriate action. They had the satisfaction, in many instances, of admission by the British and German Governments that mistakes had been made and that an apology was due. In other cases however, these Governments remained obdurate and it was all the more difficult to obtain satisfaction from them since they proved not to be prepared to accept a recourse to arbitration or other methods of impartial pacific settlement.
Many complaints were made concerning belligerent aircraft flying over our territory. The shortest distance between Britain and Germany leads across Dutch and Belgian territory; in making the shortest possible detour to avoid Holland and Belgium, belligerent aircraft nevertheless frequently flew over those two countries. It is/' difficult to say which of the two, Britain or Germany, was the worse offender..Suffice it to say that in many a case there was no evidence of intentional violation. The fact, however, of British planes having an apparent preference for nocturnal offenses whereas the Germans often came in broad daylight, flying at great altitude and hovering above Dutch territory, gave rise to the uncomfortable suspicion that what the Germans were really interested in was a thorough reconnaissance of our defenses from the air.
The Germans submitted to us several cases of British planes having flown over Dutch territory, of which we had no knowledge whatsoever, and which in many instances seemed to us pure inventions. The persistence with which such cases were submitted to us--based, as the Germans said, on their allegedly very superior acoustic instruments--gave us some misgivings. It seemed at times as if they were endeavoring to draft a brief against Holland for allowing such alleged violations.
Like other neutrals or nonbelligerents, the Dutch suffered damage, in addition to much annoyance, because of the Allied blockade. Germany's more sanguinary efforts to prevent supplies reaching Allied countries caused us great losses in ships and trade.
As soon as the war began, vessels on their way to Holland were taken to British control bases for examination. In the beginning, this examination of ships and cargoes took a very long time. Vessels were detained for days and weeks on end, with all the loss resulting therefrom to the interested parties even if in the end the ships and cargoes were released and allowed to proceed to Holland. Later on, the machinery dealing with such cases was improved, and worked with greater despatch. But even so it created a certain amount of ill feeling in Holland against the Allies, especially against Great Britain. This applies also to the extensive nature of the lists of commodities proclaimed by the Allies as contraband. The Dutch Government was obliged to enter into negotiations with the
Allies in order to reach some workable basis in order to obtain from overseas the goods the national economy stood in need of. The Allies saw that some concessions would have to be made to neutrals in order to prevent their economic life from being stifled, in spite of the fact that this implied that Germany would derive some benefits therefrom in the shape of exports to Germany from neutral countries. For these countries, especially those bordering on Germany, as do the Netherlands and Belgium, simply cannot live without considerable economic intercourse with the Reich. Negotiations to reach a settlement giving some mutual satisfaction lasted for months, and were only concluded a short time before the German invasion.
Germany's attitude regarding economic intercourse with the neutrals was a very curious one. She proclaimed the principle that the neutrals were to supply Germany with all they supplied in normal times. If they did so, Germany would raise no objections to their normal trade with the Allies. This clearly was a purely theoretical conception, devised to bring pressure to bear on the neutrals, for the duty thus held up before their eyes to keep up normal economic intercourse with Germany could only be fulfilled if that country, or the neutrals, or both, overcame the British Navy, which enforced the blockade of Germany. Finally, the Reich seemed to acquiesce tacitly in the result of the negotiations which had taken place between the neutrals and the Allies. Whether this was
because Germany admitted that the result obtained was the best she could hope for, or whether the German leaders, having decided upon invading neutral countries, were no longer greatly interested in the matter, is a question to which Germany alone could give the answer.
From time to time, menacing articles appeared in the German press, addressed to the neutrals, for not taking stern enough measures against the restrictions placed on their shipping by the Allies. Criticism of this kind was as illogical as it was unjustified--for if Germany could not beat the Allied fleets, how could the smaller neutrals? But this fact did not seem to disturb the Germans in the least. It merely was part of the "war of nerves," which the Germans have made into a fine art, waging it on all the world. It is more than probable that they grossly overrated the effect of these tactics. In Holland, at any rate, we never allowed ourselves to be impressed with them, and never has this peculiar form of bullying made us deviate from what, as a sovereign state, we thought to be our true course.
The attempts Germany on her part made to prevent supplies from reaching the Allies, although far less effective than the British blockade of Germany and much less harmful to Dutch economic life as a whole, were particularly odious because they took considerable toll of human life. It had been anticipated that the Germans would try to make as much use of the submarine as they could. The previous war had made this obvious. But this
anticipation did not lessen the indignation felt in the Netherlands when U-boats sank valuable ships of our mercantile marine in cases which, according to accepted rules of international law, afforded no justification for such extreme measures. One instance adduced fresh evidence of the slight store the Germans set by international conventions and of the brutality they do not shrink from using in warfare. It was the sinking of the oil tanker Sliedrecht in the open ocean no less than 150 miles west of Ireland. The German submarine commander, having sunk the vessel, left the crew to their fate in open boats on the high seas in the stormy November season. Twenty-six perished; only five of the crew succeeded after a full week in reaching the coast of Scotland in a pitiful condition. By the terms of the Protocol of London of April 24,1930, to which Germany still adhered, submarines may destroy vessels only if adequate measures can be taken for the safety of their crew. The German Government contended that all requisite measures for that purpose had been taken--the death-toll is an irrefutable witness to the contrary.
Another similar case was the sinking of the Dutch vessel Burgerdijk, which was on its way from the United States to Rotterdam with a cargo consigned in its entirety to the Netherlands Government. It was sunk after the submarine commander had stated that he was not even interested in the ship's papers. Fortunately on this occasion no lives were lost, but the Government of Holland
asked for full reparation of the material damage and for punishment of the offending commander, reminding the Nazi Government that, in 1916, their Imperial predecessors had indemnified Holland in a similar case. But Nazi Germany is not Imperial Germany: the Dutch demands were ignored. No other course was open to the Germans, for they were determined not to make good their mistake and the case of the Dutch Government was unanswerable. In the end, however, it seemed to dawn on the Germans that destruction of neutral vessels by submarines cut into their own flesh. They knew full well that the Allies did not seize cargoes genuinely destined for neutral consumption, and realized that, the better neutral economic life was maintained, the more chances there were for Germany to derive some benefit from it. In the spring of 1940, therefore, feelers were put out by the German Government to find some means of reducing their alleged need to destroy neutral ships and cargoes, but it was too late: by that time so many U-boats had been sunk that for the time being they ceased to be a serious menace to neutral and Allied shipping.
Submarine warfare has been since the World War a traditional element in naval operations. A new element was introduced by the Germans in the use of the magnetic mine which, dropped into the sea from vessels or seaplanes, sinks to the bottom, rising to the surface through the magnetic influence of a vessel of sufficient size passing over it, and exploding against its keel. It was
the sad fate of a large Dutch passenger steamer, the Simon Bolivar, to be the first victim of this new implement of war. At dawn, on a grey Sunday morning in November, a sudden explosion not far from a British lightship caused this vessel to sink rapidly. Hundreds of people, who the day before had left the shores of their homeland with the thought of taking up their work on the peaceful shores of the Caribbean Sea, suddenly found themselves struggling in the icy, oil-covered waters of the North Sea. Heart-rending scenes occurred. Parents were torn from their children, wives saw their husbands drown before their eyes. Their fear, their anguish, their lasting sorrow justify the question whether such weapons as the magnetic mine should be allowed in warfare, or whether they should be banned as was, in days of old, the poisoning of wells, and, in our own time, the use of gas. That question remaining unanswered for the time being, it was fortunate indeed that soon effective means were discovered to cope with this new menace at sea.
Considerable resentment was felt in Holland when German seaplanes started to machine-gun and bomb small craft navigating or fishing in the North Sea. No form of warfare is more cowardly: the bombers have nothing to fear in the way of retaliation as they are completely invulnerable against small, unarmed neutral craft carrying out their lawful pursuits. Nevertheless, when a Dutch newspaper of considerable standing took the liberty of calling such bombings gruesome, the German press
retorted by saying that the German airmen had a "high code of honor," and that any criticism of their acts could not be tolerated. In order to be quite fair, mention should be made of the fact that in most cases, the bombing and machine-gunning of Dutch vessels by German planes in the North Sea took place by night, often not far from the British coast, and sometimes in the neighborhood of British convoys. Even so, care should have been taken to avoid making innocent victims, the more so as quite a number of cases of these cruel shootings of neutrals took place in broad daylight.
Despite the feeling aroused in Holland by these various German deeds, it should not for a moment be supposed that the Dutch condoned acts of the Allies which they considered unjust in point of law or of fact. Mention has already been made of the attitude taken by the Dutch Government towards certain aspects of the Allied blockade. Another point of considerable general interest in this connection is the reprisals taken by the Allied Governments when they had found that the Germans were laying mines without due warning. The Allies retaliated by announcing their decision, put into effect shortly afterwards, to intercept merchandise of German origin or belonging to German citizens in neutral vessels, even on the high seas. The Netherlands Government strongly protested against reprisals of this kind. They did not for a moment question the right of the Allies to take measures of retaliation when they had occasion to do so. But they
held that the choice of reprisals should not be such that third parties, who were in no way responsible for the measures against which reprisals were to be taken, should be the victims of these measures no less than those against whom they were directed. The choice of measures of reprisal is large. Why choose a form of retaliation by which neutrals would be hit no less hard than the enemy? This simple statement of common sense was of no avail in preventing the Allies from carrying out their plan. They were too much absorbed in stopping German exports to drop the matter, even if it were prejudicial to the neutrals. Embarrassed as the Allied replies to the contentions of the Dutch Government sounded, they made it clear that neither France nor Great Britain was to be deflected from its purpose. Once more belligerent interest had silenced the voice of law.
All this will have made it clear that, although during the period of their neutrality the Netherlands was an island of peace amidst the turbulent currents of the European war, the path of the Government was not strewn with roses. Nor was the position of the nation in any way pleasant. Neutrality calls for considerable restraint in showing likes and dislikes for any one belligerent. In this respect, the Dutch press was admirable. Our newspapermen, always ready to assert the rights of the country and thereby lending invaluable help to the Government, showed that they had a clear understanding of the delicate position we held. This does not mean that
newspapers as well as citizens did not have their sympathies; for when it is remembered how greatly the Dutch are attached to free institutions, it is easy to guess where the sympathy of the great majority of the population lay. Spiritual neutrality, whatever the Germans may vociferously claim to the contrary, is an impossibility. But in their public utterances, the Netherlands press was a model of self-control and impartiality which never degenerated into betraying its own convictions. The Germans, always on the alert to discover something that would give them the slightest pretext for claiming that the Netherlands had given up their neutrality and thereby justifying some German act of violence against them, had to admit, and in private conversation were ready to admit, that they had no grounds for complaint. Hence, in accordance with their habit of dropping their curtsey to justice and decency, they then tried to justify their attack on Holland by gross misrepresentations and pure inventions put forward as their list of grievances.