May 4 & 5: Whose deaths do we remember, and whose freedom do we celebrate?

May 4 & 5: Whose deaths do we remember, and whose freedom do we celebrate?

Today, it is 72 years ago that the Second World War ended in the Netherlands. As the country prepares to commemorate its dead and to celebrate its liberation, there is also debate.

A memorial wall was unveiled at the Cobbenhagen building today, in memory of the 22 students of Tilburg University who were killed during World War II. These students, who died in concentration camps, during acts of resistance, in air raids or as a result of forced labor, did not live to see the liberation of the Netherlands on May 5th 1945. Each year, we collectively come to a standstill on the evening of May 4 to commemorate their deaths, along with the deaths of all other Dutch civilians and soldiers who lost their lives in defense of our freedom. The following day, on May 5, we celebrate that freedom. Every year on those two consecutive days, we honor our war victims, we pledge to never forget their sacrifices, and we come together in celebration of our freedom.

Rector magnificus Emile Aarts reveals the university's new memorial wall

Rector magnificus Emile Aarts reveals the university’s new memorial wall

But who do we mourn? Are tonight’s two minutes of silence just for commemorating Dutch war victims? And how can we celebrate freedom when so many people are not living in freedom at all? It seems that debating these questions has become as much as a tradition as the two-minute silence on the evening of May 4.

400,000 deaths

According to the National Committee of 4 and 5 May, Remembrance Day is for commemorating all Dutch victims, both civilian and military, who were killed in the Netherlands or in any other part of the world during the Second World War, or in war situations or peace missions thereafter. According to a calculation made by Dutch columnist Jan Kuitenbrouwer in de Volkskrant, that comes down to 400,000 deaths. Officially, we commemorate the 7,900 Dutch soldiers who died between 1940 and 1945, 2,000 resistance fighters, 102,000 Dutch Jewish civilians, 89,000 non-Jewish civilians, the 5,000 soldiers and 150,000 civilians who died in the former Dutch East Indies between 1946 and 1950, and the deaths of 161 Dutch military men and women who were killed during peacekeeping missions throughout the world.

Kuitenbrouwer points out that not all of those 400,000 people died in defense of freedom. In fact, it is debatable whether they all qualify as ‘victims’. Is a professional soldier who perished on the battlefield as much as a victim of war as a Jew who was murdered in a concentration camp? And what about the Dutch soldiers who fought in the country’s former colony, the Dutch East Indies? Should we call them victims of war, or perpetrators of war?


Last year, activist Christa Noella called for a boycot of Remembrance Day with the hashtag #geen4meivoormij. On social media, Christa Noella wrote that “Remembrance Day lost its value due to the hypocrisy of society”, and that the day of national mourning “is meaningless if we just let the rise of fascism and islamophobia in the Netherlands take its course”. She voiced her criticism of the Netherlands’ focus on white history, and the neglect of non-white tragedies that are also part of the country’s past.

This year, theologist Rikko Voorberg was heavily criticized for his proposal to include the deaths of refugees in our 4 May commemoration. The Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) warned that remembering the deaths of victims of the refugee crisis could lead to a ‘dilution’ of our national remembrance. The National Committee of 4 and 5 May agreed, arguing that “if you commemorate everything, you risk commemorating nothing”.

“Never again”

Remembrance Day and Liberation Day have never been homogeneous events. They change. And they force us to reflect on important issues. However loudly we recite the lesson of the Second World War – “never again” – it seems that many more lessons are to be learned before we can stop erecting war monuments. One day, perhaps, there will be no need to add new names to our memorial walls.


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