The dedication of De Dokwerker in Amsterdam, 1951.
There stands in Amsterdam a heroic monument. No mere general or king bestrides a noble steed, no soldiers charge or plant a flag, no allegorical goddess, no supine fallen hero, no triumphal arch, no soaring obelisk, no bronze cannons. Just a squat, paunchy, balding man in shirtsleeves, rough trousers, and thick boots, his hands rising from his sides just half way to being clenched into fists. He has no name. Unseen thousands surround him. He stands today in frigid February in memory of ordinary working people who defied an evil empire. The Dutch call him simply De Dokwerker—The Dockworker. This is his story.
It goes without saying that the Nazis were bad dudes. If you are tempted to forget just how bad, fresh evidence pops up all the time. When the Germans took over a country, they took it over with plenty of tanks, troops, and usually a loyal gang of local Nazis and collaborators to do their dirty work. Open dissent and open resistance were savagely crushed. Which is why, across Europe, there was so little of it. Resistance was usually forced underground.
In 1941, however, the stolid Dutch rose up in a general strike to protest attacks on Jews. It was the first and almost the last such mass act of civil defiance. Later workers in Luxembourg and Denmark would also stage brief protest strikes.
The action, which began on February 25, 1941 is remembered and celebrated in the Netherlands as the February Strike. It is commemorated with a monument in Amsterdam—a statue of a portly dock worker, his sleeves rolled up and his hands curling into fists standing defiant. Although a source of national pride, the story of this epic resistance is little known outside the Low Countries.
With few natural defenses and a tiny army, the Netherlands had little choice but to surrender to the invading Germans in May of 1940. The Nazis settled to occupy the country with the enthusiastic assistance of local fascists, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland (NSB), and their force of street thugs the Weerbaarheidsafdeling (WA.) It didn’t take them long to start putting he screws to Holland’s well assimilated Jewish community.
Almost immediately the petty harassment of Jews began and an escalating series of edicts began restricting their options. By November the Nazis decreed that Jews must be removed from all public employment and institutions, including as both faculty and students at universities. Student in Leiden rose in protests that spread to other universities.
Tensions were also growing among workers, particularly ship yard workers in Amsterdam. Rumors—well founded—were circulating that many of the highly skilled workers would be sent to Germany and impressed as virtual slave labor in Nazi ship yards. Communist led unions began organizing protests.
In response to unrest on campuses and in the dock yards the Dutch WA began Storm Trooper style raids into Jewish and working class neighborhoods. Street assaults and vandalism of shops was common. Both Jews and unionists formed self-defense groups and began resisting the WA in escalating street brawls.
On February 11, the most intense street battles yet resulted in the critical injury of a WA member. The next day German troops and Dutch police intervened. They encircled the main Jewish Neighborhood of Amsterdam not letting anyone in or out. When the Dutch Nazi died on February 14 Dutch and German police began forays and raids into the Jewish neighborhood.
On the 19th a body of German Grüne Polizei (green police), the uniformed civil police now under SS command, attacked an ice cream parlor. Defense units sprang to action and several police officers were injured.
The response was a full scale organized pogrom the following weekend, February 22 and 23. Over 400 young male Jews were arrested and ultimately deported to concentration camps in Germany where all but 2 of them died. Jewish business were sacked and burned. Those not arrested were beaten in the streets.
All of this was following a familiar pattern witnessed in other conquered cities.
A large open air protest was organized on February 24 at the Noordermarkt, the city’s main open air market square. Most Jews were staying off the street. The meeting was largely made up of Dutch Gentiles, mainly unionists and students. They protested the attacks on Jews and demanded the release of the arrested men.
Over night the Communist Party and the labor unions it influenced printed and circulated a flyer calling for a General Strike against the repression.
Around 8 am on the 25th the strike began with tram drivers. Roving bands of picketers called out more and more workers. Others lay down tools and walked out when they heard about the action. By noon the shipyards were shut down and word of the strike was reaching other Dutch cities.
Response by German and cooperative Dutch authorities was massive and predictable. The last hold outs were forced back to work on the 27th. Scores of Communist and union leaders were arrested.
Despite the repression, there continued to be public protests. There were student strikes that November. And in 1943 mass strikes were launched in tandem with the rise of national armed resistance. The Dutch had one of the largest and most successful of all Resistance armed forces in occupied countries.
Ordinary Dutch citizens from every walk of life continued to come to the aid of the beleaguered Jewish community, which by 1943 was facing mass deportation to the death camps. Ann Frank and her family were just some of thousands harbored by their Dutch neighbors who saved many.
Infuriated by the knowledge, Nazi authorities slashed rations to Amsterdam and other cities as punishment for feeding and harboring Jews as well as for the regular assassinations of Dutch Nazis, police, and collaborators. Starvation was endemic in many cities as a result.
After the war, surviving Jews and resisters alike began commemorations of the February Strike. In 1951 there was the dedication of De Dokwerker, the monument to the strike. During the 1950’s, however, the Communists were dis-invited to the public commemorations and their central role obscured.
They are celebrating again today in Amsterdam. Leftists of all stripes are back. The Dutch have much to be proud of.