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Knitting & Jew Bashing: Interview With Historian Josje Damsma

Knitting & Jew Bashing: Interview With Historian Josje Damsma

At its peak the Dutch National Socialist Movement (NSB) had approximately 100,000 members. The party, founded by Anton Mussert and Cornelis van Geelkerken, was particularly popular in Amsterdam where it had over 10,000 members. In their book ‘Hier woont een NSB’er. Nationaalsocialisten in bezet Amsterdam’, Josje Damsma & Erik Schumacher focus on ‘ordinary’ NSB members in the Dutch capital during the German occupation (1940-1945). Rather than discussing key figures in the NSB, the authors choose to write a so called history-from-below. The result is a fascinating historical narrative which describes the social and mental world of NSB members.

The book, which is based on diaries, memoirs as well as archival sources, draws some interesting conclusions. First of all, the authors show that in Amsterdam, NSB members were much more active and loyal than previously assumed. Even in the spring of 1944, when the chances of a German victory had become extremely unlikely, there were still a significant number of loyal NSB members. The latter proves that the movement was not only made up of opportunists, who only joined because they wanted to profit from the special status enjoyed by members, but also by true believers. Secondly, the authors conclude that whereas the NSB as a movement was vilified and politically isolated, on an individual level, its members weren’t necessarily isolated or marginalized. The NSB encouraged its members to remain friendly with ‘the world outside of the movement’ and there are numerous examples of relationships forged between members and non-members. Therefore, according to the authors, the NSB was never completely isolated as previously suggested.

Furthermore this research shows that the movement not only offered ideology and politics but also a social system During its existence the NSB organised many activities for the whole family and generally looked after members who were needy, such as the families of East-Front volunteers. Without denying or ignoring any of the atrocities committed by the NSB and its members, Damsma and Schumacher reveal that there was much more to the movement than previous studies have shown. As such, ‘Hier woont een NSB’er’ is a significant contribution to the existing national socialist historiography.

Q & A With Author Josje Damsma

Twenty years ago, Jolande Withuis – also affiliated with the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) – published her book on communist mentality (Opoffering en heroiek. De mentale wereld van een communistische vrouwenorganisatie in naoorlogs Nederland, 1946-1976) in which she portrays the lives of ‘ordinary’ communist women. ‘Hier woont een NSB’er’ has a lot in common with Withuis’ research; both books apply a similar methodology and describe besides political, predominantly the social and cultural aspects of the NSB and the Dutch Communist Party. Why did we have to wait so long for a similar book on the NSB?

“The fact that compared to the communist movement, a social history of the NSB has been published relatively late has among other things to do with the subject; it has only been since recently that there is a renewed interest in studies of Dutch National Socialism. Most political histories are being written by people who are, one way or another, affiliated to the subject of their research. Since the NSB was discontinued in 1945, there aren’t many people who have this affiliation. One of the reasons for the aforementioned revival is the availability of new sources. NSB members’ personal files have become accessible at the Central Archives of the Special Criminal Court. Although access to these files is limited, we are now able to study a bigger group of ‘ordinary’ NSB members than 20 years ago. Lastly I think that the current political climate has a significant influence. The rise of first Pim Fortuyn and now Geert Wilders has shown that a moderate Dutch political culture is no longer a given. These developments have enabled a growing interest in research into Dutch National Socialism.”

How does your book fit into the international historiography of fascism?

“The recent revival of studies into international fascism has contributed to a new interest in the NSB. In preparation for our own research Erik (Schumacher, red.) and I read the few available studies about the NSB, before moving on to international studies, like that of Paxton and Mann. They were clearly interested in fascists’ movements’ rank-and-file. Paxton finds it very important to study both the ideology of a political party’s leadership as well as the political practices of its ‘ordinary members. Furthermore he argues that it is vital to study the period when fascists exercised power, because it is precisely in this period that they have to make choices which clarify their core beliefs. This moved Erik and I to focus on ‘ordinary members’ during the German occupation rather than during the 1930s.” G.A. Kooy studied NSB members in Winterswijk; his project focuses on the question why people joined or left the movement, rather than researching the impact a NSB membership had on a person’s life and surroundings.

Kooy is an exception; most studies focus on the NSB’s leadership and its propaganda, which is a shame because like with the communist movement, it is very important to look at a fascist organisation’s membership and activities. Within these kind of movements, there is no clear divide between ideas and deeds. Therefore besides looking topdown, a bottom-up approach is essential. Rather than taking the isolated position of the NSB as a given, in ‘Hier woont een NSB’er’ we explore the extent of social and political isolation of collaborating fascists. Internationally we don’t see many scholars who ask the same question. Again we see a cross-fertilization between research into fascism and communism. The authors of ‘Communists in British society’ (2009) for example, question the notion of ‘a closed society’ and point out that there are several ties between individuals and the party. This point of departure is also relevant for research into the NSB. It is very important that membership be viewed as dynamic rather than static.

Recently a group of ex-NSB members in the town of Wedde revealed that they, 65 years after the war, are finally ready to open up about their past. You’ve based your research on diaries, NSB-members’ personal files and memoirs. Have you considered interviewing ex-members to create a more complete picture of what it was like to be part of the National-Socialist movement?

“We have indeed considered the idea of interviewing people, but were faced with quite a few practical problems. People who were active in the NSB during the war are now around 90 years old. That makes the research population very small, which makes it impossible to interview a varied group of people. Furthermore, the use oforal testimonies provokes many questions and difficulties; we feel that recollections only reveal the respondents’ self-image at the time of the interview. These difficulties made us decide to focus on archival sources instead. The personal files in combination with diaries, memoirs, local party rags, internal and police reports, are all great sources to discuss the meaning of a person’s NSB membership.”

You’ve applied a popular scientific approach. Why?

“We wanted to reach a wider public. Our research results were presented in an academic journal; Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden/ The Low Countries Historical Review (2009). We decided to publish a popular scientific book because the subject is very suitable for such an approach and because we had fantastic visual material. Our results were not only an important contribution to the fascist historiography, but they also have a social value. For this reason we presented our research not only to fellow historians but also to a wider public.”

Hier woont een NSB’er’ is a prime example of an interdisciplinary study. Do you think that this is the future of historical research?

“Subjects related to the history of war are particularly suitable for an interdisciplinary approach. Recently, there has been a growing interest in social history and history from below; within this context it is good to apply social theories. For political histories it is obvious that there is much common ground with political sciences. I think that cross-fertilization between disciplines is vital, we need to cross the borders of our discipline to discover new insights or to give research a whole new perspective. It would a shame and a waste to only look for new insights within your own field of expertise and ignore other scholars from other disciplines who work on the same subject.

Nevertheless, ‘interdisciplinarity’ is not a magic term and scholars need to explain clearly which disciplines they want to combine. I do feel that many research projects will benefit from an interdisciplinary approach. When it comes to research into the NSB it is very clear how and why an interdisciplinary approach is suitable. The way the NSB functioned has much in common with sociological theories about social movements, and subjects like political participation and mobilization techniques overlap with political sciences.”

Josje Damsma studied Political Science and History at the University of Amsterdam. In September 2008 she started her PhD at the University of Amsterdam and NIOD (Dutch institute for war, holocaust and genocide studies). Her PhD project is ‘A social history of Dutch National Socialists during the German occupation. Tensions between political commitment and social interaction.’

Recommended Reading: Hier woont een NSB’er (Dutch)

Elke Weesjes

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