Remembering a Dutch Partisan
On Saturday, July 2, Truus Menger-Oversteegen, sculptress and member of the anti-Nazi Dutch armed resistance, died at the age of ninety-two. Her life reminds us of the crucial role communists and socialists played in the fight against fascism. Further, the fact that the Dutch state did not fully recognize her role in the resistance until 2014 tells us something important about the politics of World War II commemorations.
I knew Truus through my grandmother, Mirjam Ohringer, who died just three weeks before her at the age of ninety-one. They described themselves — and a third long-time friend and Communist Party member Els Schalker-Kastanje — as the “three musketeers.”
All three were militant left-wing women. Their “red families” instilled radical politics in them well before the outbreak of World War II.
Each suffered great personal losses as a result of Nazi occupation and persecution. In 1941, Mirjam’s first love — a Jewish-German Communist refugee — was swept up in the first wave of anti-Jewish arrests in Amsterdam. Shortly after, he was murdered in the concentration camp Mauthausen.
Almost all of Mirjam’s family in Germany and Eastern Europe were also killed as part of the Nazi persecution of Jews. Els’s father was murdered in Dachau. Truus lost three members of her resistance group, including Hannie Schaft — “the girl with red hair,” who became an icon of the Dutch antifascist resistance.
After World War II ended, they promoted an unapologetically political form of commemoration, under the slogan that became the title of Truus’s memoir — Not Then, Not Now, Never — to highlight the real history of radical Dutch resistance.
The Teenage Militants
Mainstream stories about anti-Nazi activities in occupied Western Europe tend to start with Germany’s 1940 conquest. But Truus emphasized that her antifascist resistance started much earlier.
She grew up in the Zaan’s “red belt,” the industrial zone north of Amsterdam. Like my grandmother’s parents, her family participated in the Communist-led International Red Aid, which helped Jewish and political refugees illegally cross the border between Germany and the Netherlands.
In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s Fortress Europe, the Dutch police routinely handed the refugees they caught directly over to the Gestapo. At an early age, both Truus and Mirjam learned to be silent about the strangers that were hidden in their bedrooms. They proudly recalled that they learned the ropes of illegal action in the 1930s, when the Dutch conservative party held power.
In the first year of the Nazi occupation, these young women from red families — Truus was sixteen in 1940, her sister Freddie fourteen, and Mirjam fifteen — handed out leaflets, distributed illegal newspapers, and helped procure aid for refugees. Their success depended on what they learned working with International Red Aid. Their activities at that point might still have had a hint of frivolity to them.
All this changed in February 1941 when Communists and radical socialists called for a general strike in Amsterdam and the Zaan region. The action quickly transformed into a spontaneous protest against the first deportations of young Jewish men. Mirjam’s father hid one of the printing presses producing the leaflets in his tailor shop, while Truus and her sister Freddie leafletted factories.
The strike was a success, unparalleled in Nazi-occupied Europe. Tens of thousands of workers walked out and demonstrated. But the repression that followed was brutal, fundamentally changing the nature of the movement.
It became much more dangerous for Jews to participate in the organized resistance. Most, like Mirjam, went into hiding. Deportations mounted, supported by the mostly compliant Dutch police and officials, and those who earned generous “head-sums” for reporting Jews.
At the time of this mounting repression, a local militant approached Truus and her sister — both still in their teens — to join the partisans. Their small cell, which grew to eight fighters, was connected to similar groups through their commander Frans van der Wiel and became one of the most famous Dutch resistance groups.
When the student Hannie Schaft joined them in 1943, they considered her the “intellectual” because all the initial members came from working-class backgrounds. Together, the three women and five men sabotaged railway lines, rescued Jewish children, and killed Nazi collaborators who had betrayed Jews.
When I interviewed Truus ten years ago, she described these events with the same directness and aversion to hero-worship that characterizes her memoir: “We were ordinary girls; we did not like aggression.”
But behind her matter-of-fact presentation, there were deep motivations. She grieved over a failed transport of Jewish children: caught in the searchlight in a remote area, all but one of the kids were mowed down by machine-guns. She courageously carried on after her comrades were arrested and shot, a fate that befell Hannie Schaft. And finally, she remembered the rising tensions within the resistance movement itself during the final phases of the war.
When the nationalist forces led by Prince Bernhard — a one-time Nazi sympathizer — finally joined the fight, they rolled back the Community Party’s influence in favor of a conservative-led “national front.”
There are still rumors that members of Truus’s fighting unit were deliberately turned over to the Nazis. Even though definitive proof of this has never been provided, the Menger-Oversteegen sisters experienced firsthand how Bernhard’s men would send Communist operatives on life-threatening missions that were actually smuggling operations that benefited the new resistance’s rich commanders.
These tensions were carefully washed away in the official postwar commemoration culture, which celebrates a unified struggle — led by the monarchy — against “the German invaders.” Communist Party leaders had their own, popular-front reasons to collude with the nationalists and smooth out these contradictions.
But for rank-and-file militants like Truus and her comrades, the struggle extended beyond national liberation. They hoped that the defeat of fascism would usher in a left-wing reconstruction of Europe.
The Cold War quickly dashed their hopes and further ratcheted up the tension between Communists and nationalists. In 1952, when the Communist Party organized the first commemoration for Hannie Schaft, the government banned the demonstration and a police force — backed by tanks — was sent in to disperse the crowd.
For years, the Dutch left organized its own World War II commemorations, separate from the official ones. It is no surprise that it took the Dutch state until 2014 to give Truus and her sister the highest distinction for participating in the resistance.
The Wrong Lessons
Even this long-overdue recognition is not void of irony. Welcoming old Communist fighters back into the nation’s fold is the final stage of a strategy designed to ritualize the European memory of World War II and depoliticize resistance movements.
In this official commemoration culture, the horrors of the Nazi occupation remind us to value completely abstract notions of freedom, justice, and democracy — ostensibly embodied in the holy trinity of liberal capitalism, the rule of law, and the peaceful process of European unification.
For veteran fighters like Truus or my grandmother, commemoration was never so vacuous and conformist: it carried a completely different political message. They insisted that fascism grew up within the folds of liberal capitalism, and warned that it could do so again. And they knew their willingness to go against the forces of law and order and defy the pre-fascist state taught them how to survive the dark years that followed.
As we lose the last of this generation of resistance fighters, we must not let official culture erase their revolutionary politics. In a period of officially sponsored nationalism, persecution of refugees along the borders of the European Union, and the growing threat of fascist movements, we need to fully remember this legacy.
Pepijn Brandon is a Dutch historian who currently works at the University of Pittsburgh.