Germanje: Dutch Empire-Building in Nazi-Occupied Europe

Geraldien von Frijtag Drabbe Künzel. Journal of Genocide Research. Volume 19, Issue 2, 2017.


On 22 November 1941, the railway station of the small provincial town of Oldenzaal in the Netherlands was the stage of much excitement. Hundreds of people had gathered here to wave goodbye to the first trainload of Dutch farmers, heading to Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe to work the land recently conquered by the German Wehrmacht. The evening before, they had been listening to the words of Cees Staf, president of the Heidemij, a central institution for relief works and the development of agricultural land in their home country. Staf had been in charge of the organization for a few months, coordinating their recruitment and employment in the occupied East. Whereas Staf was telling his audience of the national importance of their work, another speaker, Dutch Nazi and peasant leader Evert Jan Roskam, lamented about the hardships of the Dutch peasantry and elaborated on the history of their ancestors, who had also migrated eastwards—centuries ago—to find new land and build a new life. The last of the three speakers was a German senior official in agricultural affairs. In his speech, he emphasized the ‘solidarity between people of Germanic blood’ and their joint search for land.

This group of Dutch volunteers would be the first of some six thousand Dutch men and women who left their homeland and offered their services to the Nazi regime and its programme of cultivation and colonization of the occupied East. Literature on the subject is scarce, yet the Dutch contribution to the so-called Germanization policy was substantial. Between the summers of 1941 and 1944—and particularly in the twelve months between September 1942 and September 1943—the Dutch state invested over twelve million Dutch guilders in economic initiatives in die besetzten Ostgebiete, an area encompassing the Baltic countries, the larger part of nowadays Belarus and western Ukraine. Dutch farmers and vegetable growers came to the area to take over expropriated collective Soviet farms or farms previously owned by Jews or—in Lithuania—Poles. Dutch businessmen travelled eastwards to be appointed to managerial positions in expropriated companies. Dutch firms expanded their business to the east. In June 1942, in agreement with the German authorities, a Dutch organization was set up to coordinate all these initiatives. Attempts were made to establish similar partnerships in occupied Belgium, Denmark, France and Norway, but they met with little success. Whereas Danish officials in agricultural affairs had been dismissive from the start, Vidkun Quisling’s Ostweg had started not before November 1943 and was soon aborted due to the advance of the Red Army in the target area. In Belgium, recruitment for work in the occupied East hardly took off, and still in October 1942 not a single Belgian volunteer had left for the occupied East.

Since the turn of the century, scholarly interest in Nazi empire-building has been booming. The rediscovery of Hannah Arendt’s ‘colonial paradigm’ has led to a broad range of research on analogies and continuities between overseas European imperialism and Nazi expansionism. In various studies, the genocidal quality of settler colonialism has been presented as the common denominator. Although this ‘colonial turn’ has proven to be highly inspiring and rewarding, scholars of name and fame are also venting criticism. In his eloquently written article, published in this journal in 2013, Thomas Kühne criticizes the high level of abstraction and generalization in most comparative analyses. According to Kühne, both European overseas imperial rule and Nazi rule in continental Europe were dynamic and hybrid; specification and differentiation are needed in order to obtain a better grasp of similarities and causalities.

Two other blind spots in recent historiography on the colonial paradigm can be observed. First, bottom-up studies, centring on settler colonialism put into practice or the daily life in settler communities, are scarce. Top-down analyses, focusing on ‘Berlin’, i.e. Nazi high politics and top leaders, are still highly favoured. Second, most research concentrates on Germans and ‘ethnic Germans’ (Volksdeutsche) and their colonizing efforts in Eastern and Central Europe, side-lining or overlooking other players in the field, such as ‘fellow Germanic’ people from occupied Western Europe.

This case study focuses on one specific group of ‘fellow Germanic’ supporters and aims to present a perspective from within the project of Nazi empire-building. Because of the country’s rich tradition of colonial conquest, the Dutch case appears to be particularly interesting. What kind of continuities and similarities can be detected, in both official propaganda and individual mindsets and behaviour? What kind of empire (or colony) were the Dutch men and women (and their overarching organizations) seeking to establish in the occupied East? Which colonial models and fantasies did they employ to understand and legitimize their presence and actions on this stage of ethnic violence? In this article, I analyse the Dutch support for the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’, their understanding of notions like Volksgemeinschaft and Lebensraum, and engage with the question of whether the Dutch were moved and motivated by similar political ideals to their German partners. I will show that, although the Dutch partners supported the Nazi utopia of a transnational community of ethnically kindred people on the European continent, they were at the same time following existing trends in Dutch history and pursuing longstanding national goals: what they also aimed for was the strengthening of the Dutch national community. Thus, the conquest and colonization of this part of continental Europe should not only create a ‘Germanic’ empire, exceeding national borders, but also bolster the Dutch nation by enlarging the Dutch empire, offering additional ‘living space’ to Dutch farmers and, more generally, contributing to national splendour. My main argument is that the incompatibility of these colonial designs was a cause of frustration and confusion, and also greatly disturbed relations with German partners on the spot.

Towards a Greater Community

In early December 1900, a few months after the onset of new hostilities between British troops and armed Boers in Southern Africa, Paul Kruger, the president of the Boer republic Transvaal, was picked up by the Dutch navy to escape British captivity. He was taken to the Netherlands, where he was welcomed as a lost son. For many in the Netherlands, the Boers were indeed family. They were the last Dutch outpost in Africa, protagonists of Dutch colonial conquest and members of ‘the Germanic tribe’, who shared the Dutch culture, spoke the Dutch language and held onto Dutch (rural and religious) life and customs.

Although the Boers moved out of the Dutch public eye after the British annexation was completed in 1902, the episode is illustrative of the growth of interest in the Netherlands for issues of national identity and ‘Germanic’ heritage. Dutch nationalism found expression in the glorification of the nation’s cultural and colonizing achievements and the rediscovery of a supposedly ‘Germanic’ past. The Dutch masters of the Golden Age were honoured with statues, and military expeditions in the Dutch colonies, organized to subject local chiefs to Dutch rule, were highly celebrated at home. Germanic ancient history was appreciated again: the roots of the Dutch people were said to lie here, in the era before Roman civilization. Proponents of this view believed that ‘Germanic’ customs, ‘culture’ and ‘character’ (volksaard) were best preserved in Dutch peasantry and, thus, the reassessment of ‘Germanic’ ancestry was often coupled with an idolization of rural life. Jan de Vries, a well-known professor of ancient Germanic language and literature at Leiden University, for example, asserted that Dutch customs, culture and character were essentially ‘Germanic’. De Vries understood the kinship with fellow ‘Germanic’ people merely in terms of language and culture, but he also saw resemblances in appearance and character: a true Germanic man was ‘of large and heavy posture, with blue twinkling eyes and blond wavy hair’; he was loyal to the clan, his family and his leader.

After World War I, the growing attachment to the nation’s colonial prestige and the rising appreciation of a transnational ‘Germanic’ heritage and of Dutch peasantry impacted on the Dutch political arena and the general public, across the pillars of Dutch society. In the 1920s, the idea of unifying the Netherlands and Flanders into one nation called ‘Dietsland’ was widely popular. Pieter Geyl, a highly celebrated Dutch historian, was one of the advocates of this idea. In his numerous talks and writings, he championed the so-called ‘Greater Dutch Thought’ (Groot Dietse gedachte) and the merger of the Netherlands and Flanders.

In the 1930s, the newly established Dutch National Socialist Movement (NSB) increasingly claimed the ‘Greater Dutch Thought’. Its leader, Anton Mussert, considered the unification of the people of the ‘Greater Dutch tribe’ (Groot Dietse stam) as a central objective of the NSB. ‘Race’, ‘culture’, ‘Volk’ had always been notions that were used interchangeably, yet in the NSB propaganda biologist interpretations became more dominant in the course of the 1930s. In ‘The Sources of Dutch National-Socialism’ (‘De bronnen van het Nederlandsche Nationaal-Socialisme’), a pamphlet Mussert wrote in 1937, the ‘Diets’ were considered almost exclusively in terms of ethnicity. According to Mussert, they belonged to the ‘Nordic race’ (Noordras), ‘the race that up to today rules the world by its creative power, its audacity, its perseverance and its willpower’. The programme of the NSB was also designed to support the Dutch peasantry. In Dutch Nazi ideology, farmers were the backbone of Dutch society and their economic misery after World War I worried Mussert tremendously. Like so many, he considered the lack of arable land within the national borders one of the main problems. He passionately supported the idea of colonizing New Guinea and peopling this huge island with Dutch farmers.

During the first phase of the occupation, supporters of the ‘Greater Dutch Thought’ had reason to be optimistic. Their programme was being embraced by ever larger numbers of Dutch citizens. Many believed that the new political constellation asked for new directions; many also thought that a new ‘community’ was needed—a politically and ethnically homogenous community of ‘Diets’ men and women, that would surpass the Dutch nation-state. In the autumn of 1940, a new Dutch political party, ‘The Dutch Union’ (De Nederlandsche Unie), gained immense popularity for making an appeal to ‘unite all Dutch citizens in order to strengthen the fatherland and the Dutch “ethnic community”’ (volksgemeenschap): as ‘children of the same people, one of us, by descent, language, history and culture’, the Flemish and the Boers belonged to this community, too.

As the Union at its peak counted over six hundred thousand members and was much more accepted and integrated in Dutch society than the NSB, the German authorities in the occupied Netherlands initially tolerated its existence. Indeed, the Union was considered to be an excellent vehicle to propagate the idea of a German-Dutch political and economic alliance. A year after its founding, when it had dawned upon the German authorities that the Union was less than lukewarm to this idea, the party was dissolved and its leaders imprisoned on German orders.

Thus, the German occupier did not support the wish to bring all Diets men together into one ethnic community, but it did offer an alternative. Two weeks after the German assault in May 1940, Hitler appointed his fellow countryman Arthur Seyss-Inquart Reich Commissioner of the occupied Netherlands. It would be Seyss-Inquart’s prime task to lead the Dutch ‘by soft hand’ into the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’. No force would be needed: through propaganda and education, the Dutch would come to realize that absorption was both profitable and inevitable. The Austrian statesman Seyss-Inquart appeared to be the right man for this assignment for he was known as a passionate supporter of the idea of a ‘Greater Germanic Reich’. Europe, he asserted still in 1944, was the homeland of all people of ‘Nordic descent’. The ‘Greater Germanic Reich’ would wipe out the ‘unnatural’ nation-states of pre-war times and replace these with a new and large political constellation largely populated and ruled by men of ‘Germanic blood’.

Within the Dutch Nazi movement, advocates of the ‘Greater Dutch Thought’ were in due course outflanked. This was largely the result of German policy. The Reich Commissioner and his close collaborators were relentlessly campaigning for the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’, which was incompatible with the ‘Greater Dutch Thought’. They could build on structures that had been laid by German academics before the war. Already in the 1930s, Westforschung, the study at German universities of Germany’s western borderlands, received some major funding from Berlin. In the years leading to the war, German interest in the people of the small neighbouring country grew steadily. The SS agency Ahnenerbe, for instance, turned to the Netherlands in the late 1930s. One of its employees, Hans Ernst Schneider, travelled regularly to the Netherlands to strengthen the ties between Ahnenerbe and Dutch scholars.

Within three months of the Dutch capitulation, Schneider opened his office in The Hague and continued to do what he had done before the war. Jan de Vries became one of his close collaborators. To a Better Future (Naar een betere toekomst) was the title of the first work he published after the German occupation of May 1940. In this writing, the Dutch academic gave vent to his feeling of optimism and hope: a new era was commencing in which Volk and Volksgemeenschap would be the central notions. Two years later, De Vries made a plea for the colonization of territories in Eastern Europe that were at that time being occupied by German troops. For De Vries, this was the soil that historically belonged to ‘Germanic tribes’ who had settled here as early as the sixth century, he claimed. After their migration to western parts of Europe, Slavic people had taken their place. It was time to revise this historical error and to reclaim the land that was rightfully theirs: ‘This is a task that concerns all Germanic people, so that a superior Germanic force will come into existence in Europe, a force that will protect our continent against the threatening Asian chaos.’

In reality, Nazi colonization policy towards the occupied parts of Central and Eastern Europe was far from fixed and uniform. Long before the war, Hitler had uttered the desire to conquer land in this part of Europe and to decimate the indigenous population in order to make room for ‘Germanic’ settlers, yet even after the outbreak of the war, the area targeted for ‘Germanization’ and settlement schemes was subjected to change. In June 1941, after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the scope of German colonization plans widened significantly. The notorious Generalplan Ost branded Ukraine, larger parts of Russia and Belorussia and the Baltic countries as the target area of ‘Germanic’ settler colonialism. Yet again, it was unclear when this large design would be turned into policy. As numerous Nazi dignitaries claimed authority over the settlement policy and developed their own plans, Nazi colonization policy was to remain blurred.

What was clear, however, was that millions of ‘Germanic’ settlers would be needed. This was also understood by Seyss-Inquart. Six days after the assault on the Soviet Union, he spoke in Amsterdam to a large Dutch public. He asked them to help in fighting ‘the Bolshevist threat’—not only by taking up arms, but also by colonizing the conquered land. Probably around the same time, another Nazi top-ranking official presented himself to Seyss-Inquart: State Secretary of Food and Agriculture Herbert Backe. In June 1941, Hitler had put this man in charge of the exploitation of the conquered arable land of the Soviet Union. In his plan, Backe divided the so-called German occupied eastern territories, consisting of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine and the Reichskommissariat Ostland, into ‘surplus areas’ (mainly Ukraine) and ‘deficit areas’ (most of Belorussia and the northern parts of Russia proper). In order to feed the German army and the German people back home, production in the surplus areas was to be improved and expanded. This would be at the expense of people living in the deficit areas, who would consequently be hit by starvation. For the execution of this macabre plan, Backe needed men: he turned to Seyss-Inquart to see to the recruitment of Dutch farmers.

In the following months, a joint Dutch-German enterprise began to recruit and employ Dutch farmers for work in the occupied eastern territories. Campaigns started as early as July 1941, and by the end of the year some four hundred Dutch volunteers were selected for work on farms and in the fields of the occupied East. Assisted by Jan Hartland, a senior civil servant who had been heading the Dutch Emigration Office before the war, Staf saw to their recruitment and employment. The two men were not sympathetic to the NSB. Presumably, they did not support the Nazi idea of creating a ‘Greater Germanic Reich’. What they hoped for was additional food supplies for the Dutch population and additional land for Dutch farmers. Already in the years before the war, they had been concerned with that specific problem of Dutch agriculture: the lack of land. Hartland had been stimulating the emigration of Dutch peasants, Staf the cultivation of waste land. They now wished to see their collaboration in this historical context, as a strictly economic affair, not as a part of the Germanization programme. At the same time, their longer-term goal was the creation of a Dutch zone of settlement in a region that was taken by force by the German army. ‘For now’, Hartland argued, colonization was still too premature: the situation in this military hinterland was still precarious, yet, ‘at a later stage’, Dutch settlement would be ‘highly probable’.

In this early phase of Dutch-German cooperation, colonial rhetoric was largely absent from the Dutch discourse. Settler colonialism was at the heart of Staf’s and Hartland’s longer-term plans—yet they did not refer to Dutch colonial traditions to legitimize their collaboration. Their support fitted in another continuum. Before as well as after the war, both men were concerned with the future of the Dutch peasantry. Stimulating farmers to leave their densely populated country had been an important aim for Hartland before the war. After the war, he and Staf would be two main forces behind the state-sponsored mass emigration from the Netherlands, first and foremost of Dutch peasants.

Eventually, political commitment would colour the Dutch contribution, and colonial rhetoric—although far from coherent—would become omnipresent. This was connected with the manifestation of new players in the field. From the start, Hartland and Staf had been irritated by the interference of Dutch Nazis, for whom the Dutch contribution to the exploitation and colonization of the area was a highly ideologically charged affair. As in this period of time the German Nazification policy towards the Dutch peasantry accelerated and traditional Dutch farmers’ organizations were ordered to merge into one single farmers’ organization (Agrarisch Front, or Agrarian Front), most candidates were found and selected by Dutch Nazis. In their recruitment campaigns, work in the occupied East was presented as a clear manifestation of consent to Nazi ideals. Inevitably, and contrary to the intentions of Staf and Hartland, the enterprise politicized.

Simultaneously, devotees of the ‘Greater Germanic Thought’ within the NSB had been growing in number and in strength. The German attack on the Soviet Union, the increasing friction between the Dutch Union and the German authorities, Seyss-Inquart’s public confession to the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’ and his appeal to Dutch citizens to make their contribution—all these factors appeared to seriously narrow down the likelihood of creating a ‘Diets’ empire. The establishment of a ‘Greater Germanic Reich’, on the other hand, seemed closer than ever.

Within the NSB, Meinoud Rost van Tonningen was one of the early advocates of the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’. Rost van Tonningen had been a personal friend of Himmler for years and shared the Reichsführer’s political views. Being one of the first Dutch supporters of National Socialism, this man was rewarded for his loyalty in the first year of the German occupation. By the spring of 1941, Rost van Tonningen was appointed president of the Dutch National Bank, general secretary of the Department of Finances and general secretary ‘for special economic affairs’.

Before the German assault on the Soviet Union, Rost van Tonningen had already attempted to enthuse Dutch businesses to engage in the Central and Eastern European economy. After the onset of Barbarossa, he proclaimed ‘the space in the East’ (Ostraum) to be historically ‘Germanic’. Consolidation of ‘Germanic’ rule in the area was needed and could only be achieved by peopling the area. Ideas about a probable Dutch contribution were shared with Backe in August 1941, and with a close friend of Seyss-Inquart in October 1941. In these writings, Rost van Tonningen emphasized that because of their colonial experience the Dutch would be an excellent partner for the Germans.

German politicians and executives soon picked up these signals of political commitment. Aware of the shortage of German volunteers for the annexed Polish regions, the newly appointed minister for the occupied eastern territories Alfred Rosenberg was strongly in favour of the employment of men from Flanders, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Towards the end of 1941, Rosenberg succeeded in gaining control of the employment of these groups of ‘foreign’ volunteers in the two German administrative zones of the occupied eastern territories. These volunteers would be the first batches of ‘Germanic’ pioneers.

In the early spring of 1942, Rosenberg’s men directly turned to the Netherlands for manpower and investments. Their ambitions were not restricted to agriculture as they expected that Dutch business- and tradesmen duped by the war would also be interested in investigating their possibilities in the occupied East. In particular, Dutch colonial business was thought to be eager to look for new markets now that Japan was on the rise in south-east Asia and the road to the Dutch East Indies was blocked. In a private meeting with Rosenberg in early 1942, Mussert showed his willingness to contribute to Rosenberg’s plans. He suggested that his German partner allow the Dutch a chunk of land in the occupied area, preferably with access to the sea, exclusively for Dutch settlement. This suggestion was met with some reluctance. Rosenberg told his partner that for larger settlement projects it was still too early.

Rosenberg’s soft rejection did not cool the enthusiasm within the NSB. In the following months, Rost van Tonningen staged himself as the movement’s spokesman. To Seyss-Inquart and his inner circle and to Rosenberg and his deputies he unfolded his plans. For a successful contribution of Dutch manpower and business to the ‘cultivation’ of the occupied eastern territories, it would be essential to leave the coordination of all Dutch economic initiatives in the hands of one single supervisory organization of experienced and politically reliable Dutch businessmen. As its main shareholders, the Dutch state, the National Bank and the cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam would stand surety for any costs or debts incurred by the organization. In return for its services, the organization would be granted one or several pieces of land (concessions). These concessions would become exclusive zones of Dutch colonial settlement.

After the loss of the Dutch East Indies to Japan in March 1942, Rost van Tonningen urged his German partners to agree to his plans as Dutch colonial grandeur was at stake and substitute markets were needed. Asked for their opinion on this start of the ‘Germanic trek’ to the occupied eastern territories, most German local authorities in the area were in favour: they understood the transfer of Dutch men as ‘a political and biological task of prime importance’ (‘eine politische und biologische Aufgabe erster Ordnung’); ‘an incoming wave of Germanic blood’ (‘eine germanische Blutzustrom’) was warmly welcomed.

Brothers and Rivals

In the early summer of 1942, the Ostministerium had agreed to Rost van Tonningen’s four conditions: the new organization would be the only Dutch employment agency in the occupied East; the employment of Dutch workers in the occupied eastern territories would be completely under Dutch supervision (a first step on the way to exclusively Dutch zones of settlement); no force would be used to recruit or employ Dutch workers; and, finally, the Dutch and Germans in the area would be treated equally. Next, on 9 June 1942, Rost van Tonningen announced the founding of the Dutch East Company (Nederlandse Oost Compagnie, or NOC). Just by the choice of name, Rost van Tonningen had shown that he saw (and wished others to see) the Dutch enterprise as a continuation of Dutch colonial endeavours that had peaked two centuries ago, in the years of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC).

In early June, Rost van Tonningen travelled to Berlin to meet Rosenberg. Accompanied by some of his Dutch business friends and a senior official of Rosenberg’s Ostministerium, he continued his journey from Berlin to Riga to discuss future plans with German local authorities. Back home, he boasted about the ‘huge possibilities for our pioneers’ in the German occupied eastern territories. The Baltic Sea and the lakes in the Baltic area would provide work for Dutch dockworkers, fishers and shipping companies. Above all, Dutch farmers were needed here, as well as Dutch experts in the production of peat and vegetable growers. Beyond the Baltic area awaited ‘the enormous, partly still virgin land, from Belarus via Ukraine to the Sea of Azov’. Several fact-finding missions were organized in the summer and early autumn of 1942 to explore the Dutch possibilities in the area in detail.

Within one year, the NOC had indeed turned into a huge organization with its head office in The Hague and various branches in Berlin and on the spot: in Riga, Kaunas, Vilnius and Rivne. Although the Dutch public at large rejected the work of the NOC as collaboration and the NOC was hardly successful in winning Dutch companies over to invest in the occupied eastern territories, it did succeed in recruiting over five thousand Dutch volunteers for employment in the area. More than three thousand volunteers joined the SS Frontier Workers Enterprise (SS Frontarbeiter Unternehmen). They were employed as construction workers just behind the frontline. In Ukraine, hundreds of Dutch recruits performed similar work for Labour Service Holland (Werkdienst Holland). This organization also coordinated the establishment of Dutch artisans. In May 1943, a first group of eleven Dutch artisans opened their businesses in Rivne. Dutch managers took over expropriated firms and factories, while others supervised peat excavation or tobacco production. A few dozen Dutch vegetable growers found work, mostly in Lithuania. In the harbours of Nikolayev and Kiev, groups of Dutch dockworkers were employed; on the river Dnepr, Dutch suction dredgers were operating. Pivotal to the Dutch enterprise was the stimulation of Dutch agrarian activities and the cultivation of colonial cultures. Hundreds of Dutch volunteers were working the land, on expropriated smaller farms or larger collective rural estates, mainly in Lithuania, Ukraine and Belorussia. Two agricultural centres were set up by the NOC in the area, one near Vilnius in Lithuania and one near Baranivka in Ukraine. In the late spring of 1943, two larger rural estates in the vicinity of Kiev were leased.

After the war, many of the volunteers were investigated by the Dutch police and prosecutor. Asked about their reasons for applying for work in this part of Nazi-occupied Europe, most former Dutch settlers and workers in retrospect stated that they had been led by economic motives. Statements in judicial files are generally not unproblematic, but in many of the investigated files evidence for other motives is overwhelming. Without any doubt, employment in the occupied East was financially attractive: wages were fixed and generally higher than in the Netherlands. But it appears that for hardly any of the investigated recruits was work in the occupied East needed to come out of poverty. Some had been switching jobs before their departure, yet most volunteers were in a job when they applied for work in the occupied East. Among the recruits were successful farmers, retailers, entrepreneurs and civil servants. Before their departure, all recruits were screened, physically and professionally, but also politically: membership of the NSB was checked, as well as subscriptions to Nazi newspapers; in some cases, local authorities of the NSB were asked for their opinion. Most recruits were members of the NSB and quite a few had joined the NSB long before the war, in a period of time in which membership did not yet help to gain material advantages and lucrative jobs.

It must be assumed, therefore, that the majority of recruits agreed to the ideology behind the programme of Germanization and understood their temporary employment as a first step on the way to a ‘Germanic’ mass migration to the area. Together with other ‘Germanic’ people, they would wipe out the illegitimate (Slavic and Jewish) rulers and reclaim the land that was historically theirs. Brochures and radio broadcasts gave ample expression of these aspirations. In their struggle ‘against the enemies’, the Dutch and Germans would stand shoulder to shoulder. The Dutch would help their German brothers by consolidating German rule over an area that was historically (and therefore legitimately) ‘Germanic’. ‘To colonize is to transplant people’, one of the main propagandists of the NOC stated, and colonization of this specific part of Europe was needed to prevent a ‘numerical Slavic superiority’ on the continent. ‘The Germanic sword’ would bring culture and order. ‘So, let’s go eastwards’, another propagandist agreed, ‘where the black earth is waiting for professional, vital, Germanic farmers.’ What the area and its population needed, another Dutch official thought, were the ‘strong hands and strong hearts’ of ‘Germanic’ men.

These words were echoed in letters of men in the field. According to the NOC’s representative in Rivne (Ukraine), Dutch supervisors in agriculture were ‘representing the Germanic race in the East’ and should therefore be the epitome of integrity and discipline. In Gdov near Lake Peipus, the Dutch official responsible for the NOC’s fishing enterprise expected his fishers to behave ‘as sons of a civilized and cultivated people’. Recruits wrote to their loved ones back home that with their work and presence in the occupied eastern territories they were helping to build a new European order. They sang about ‘Germanje’, referring to Magna Germania of the time of the Roman Empire. ‘In Russian barren field we stand guard’, the song went, ‘to make Germanje big, strong and free.’

Yet the colonial repertoire of the NOC and its supporters was much wider: a transnational ‘Germanic’ community was only one of the utopias cherished by the Dutch partners. Another goal was the acquisition of concessions, i.e. the appropriation of land, to create exclusive zones of Dutch settlement. As Rosenberg had been dismissive of this idea in early 1942, Rost van Tonningen made another attempt in the summer of that year when he was visiting Berlin. Again, the Ostministerium’s reaction was negative. A large-scale ‘migration of peoples from the West to the East’ had to wait until the war was won and therefore no concessions could be granted. To soften the blow, Rost van Tonningen was told that all Dutch volunteers were nonetheless highly appreciated ‘economic soldiers of the war’ (Wirtschaftssoldaten des Weltkrieges).

Although the matter of concessions was unambiguously postponed, the idyll of exclusively Dutch colonial settlements stayed at the heart of the campaigns. The NOC’s propaganda machine often portrayed the enterprise as another success in Dutch colonial and national history. Volunteers were assured that as sons of a nation celebrated for its colonial achievements, they would intuitively know how to rule the conquered land, how to generate wealth for the motherland and how to relate to ‘natives’. In their interpretation of life in the occupied eastern territories, Dutch men ‘on the spot’ also made use of colonial frameworks known to them. In the description of the local population, stereotypes of ‘the colonial other’ resonated: they were lazy, backward, primitive and ‘lagging decades behind Western civilization’. Physical violence was widely accepted among the Dutch and their German fellow workers supervising the work of locals. Some of the Dutch did not shy away from using violence themselves.

For many, the Dutch overseas colonies, and the Dutch East Indies in particular, were the frame of reference. To Rost van Tonningen, for example, Estonians or Latvians were just the same as Malayans and both could only be brought into obedience ‘by brutal means’. Others asserted that volunteers like ‘the kind of the former Indian planter’ would be most wanted. A small number of NOC advisers, members of the board and volunteers had in fact been in Dutch overseas colonies before the war.

At the same time, it was recognized that the Dutch East Indies had never been a genuine settlers’ colony and could therefore hardly be taken as a blueprint. Similarities with the emigration of Dutch peasants to the Cape of Africa and to the eastern part of continental Europe were larger. In publications, the NOC recruits were admired as ‘descendants of those Dutch men, who went as pioneers to the east and south and held up the good name of our descent’. ‘We, the Dutch’, Rost van Tonningen proclaimed, ‘shall continue along the same lines as our ancestors in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when 67 per cent of the sea trade through the Danish straits travelled under Dutch flag, when settlements of Dutch craftsmen penetrated to the outskirts of Moscow and those of Dutch farmers to the Sea of Azov.’

Exclusive Dutch settlements appeared also to be a goal of a number of volunteers. At least some of the Dutch craftsmen selected by Werkdienst Holland, Dutch farmers and vegetable growers were anticipating a massive colonization programme and were envisioning Dutch rural colonies scattered across the occupied eastern territories. Healthy rural settler communities could not do without women and offspring, and some openly advertised the transfer of families, ‘preferably blessed with many children’. In fact, according to the registers of the NOC, some eighty to one hundred Dutch women migrated to the occupied eastern territories. Some of them simply followed their husbands, while others had been recruited for their own professional skills. Most of these women were young and unmarried. Some longed for adventure and freedom, yet ideological and financial considerations also mattered. Hundreds of miles away from home, parental and other sorts of social control were absent. Jantje S., for example, who lived in an open marriage with a man almost twice her age, described life in Lithuania as a personal liberation: ‘It is just a relief to not live in the suffocating atmosphere of a Dutch village’.

Thus, it must be clear that among its supporters, officials and volunteers, in the Netherlands and on the spot, the enterprise was perceived as a colonial enterprise. Yet, just as the colonial histories that were used as a frame of reference varied widely, so did the models of colonialism that were strived for. In the utopian view of the supporters of the NOC’s work, the occupied eastern territories were the new homeland of ‘Germanic’ men, the provider of new colonial markets for Dutch companies and entrepreneurs and the target area of exclusively Dutch settler colonialism.

Ideals and Realities

For most of the Dutch volunteers, men and women, life in the occupied eastern territories would turn out to be far from utopian. The area did not resemble the romanticized image of Nazi propaganda of empty and wide, fertile and rich lands. The region just behind the German eastern front had been (and still was) the stage of an extraordinarily harsh and murderous occupation policy. Dutch volunteers did not keep aloof from violence. In various places where Dutch men were stationed, locals were coerced to work and to hand in a part of their belongings or harvest. Sometimes force was used—also by Dutch men—to attain the set goals. Dutch volunteers appropriated houses and commodities to make life more comfortable. The death of millions of Jews created economic opportunities for Dutch craftsmen and businessmen. Others took advantage of the vacated Jewish houses and institutions: two Dutch mechanics, for example, equipped two adjacent synagogues as a workplace. In some places, Jews were used by Dutch men for forced labour. In the peat moors of Lithuania, for example, the NOC used Jews from nearby ghettos for its peat production.

All the same, in their letters home, volunteers complained about their own living conditions and the absence of modern luxuries like telephones, electricity, running water and central heating. Their life only seemed to deteriorate with time, as German local authorities in the area were steadily moving in the direction of instant exploitation to obtain the resources needed to continue the war. Plunder as such was hard to reconcile with long-term plans of cultivation and colonization, yet it also led to more disobedience and resistance among the local population. For Dutch volunteers who had to rely on the helping hands of locals, this development was unfavourable. As collaborators of the German occupier, they were also the target of partisan attacks. In early 1942, partisans for the first time killed Dutch volunteers, mostly in White Ruthenia. By March 1944, more than one hundred volunteers had fallen victim to partisan assaults—a very substantial percentage given the total of some six thousand.

There were more things adding to the general sense of disillusionment among Dutch volunteers. In particular, during the start-up phase, the payment of wages seemed to be conducted arbitrarily. Sometimes recruits had to wait for months before their wives back home could cash their salary (and family allowance). Among the men of Werkdienst Holland in Rivne, complaints piled up rapidly. Volunteers were frustrated about the chaotic administration, but also about the bad living conditions in Rivne. Personal hygiene was poor as the workers lacked proper food, clothes, housing and washing facilities. For most of the Dutch SS Frontier Workers, conditions were even worse. In the early summer of 1943, hundreds of them had been sent to the swamps near Pskov in northern Russia. They were accommodated in cotton tents, without basic facilities. Other Dutch SS Frontier Workers lived in equally bad conditions.

Not surprisingly, the number of volunteers who went back before their contract ended was invariably high. It should be noted, however, that many were sent back by German local officials because of bad conduct. German local officials had been complaining about Dutch behaviour from the start, and this did not change with time. The representatives of the German authorities regarded the Dutch men as heavy drinkers. In similar terms, a Dutch representative of the NOC noted that Christmas in Vilnius in 1943 had been pleasant, except for the handful of Dutch peasants who had been drinking for days and days. A few months later, German police arrested a Dutch farmer who had shot a woman when he was drunk. Dutch fishermen in Gdov were arrested for stealing cans of oil from the Wehrmacht. Most alarming were rumours concerning the Dutch volunteers of Werkdienst Holland. Theft and barter were rampant among them. The German police arrested several volunteers for black marketeering. These and similar incidents added to the German image of Dutch volunteers as a bunch of undisciplined, uncommitted and ‘not soldier-like’ (unsoldatisch) and ‘passive’ (kampflos) men. In the late summer of 1943, it was crystal clear that German patience for Dutch volunteers in general had worn thin. ‘I would rather have no Dutch men at all than have to tolerate their continuous dealing and trading, their undisciplined behaviour and their displays of laziness’, Erich Koch, the Reichskommissar of Ukraine, stated.

The defence of the NOC and its volunteers was remarkably identical: the attitude of local German authorities had triggered bad behaviour. According to the NOC, the Dutch had offered their help expecting to be considered as equals and to acquire a position of relative autonomy and authority. Instead, German officials were behaving superior, cool, sometimes even openly hostile towards their ‘Germanic’ Dutch brothers. In one report of the NOC, it was noted that the Germans were treating the Dutch as ‘a slightly better sort of natives’, producing frustration and resentment among the Dutch which, in turn, were the causes of misbehaviour.

Competing Empires

In the harsh climate of the occupied eastern territories, tensions grew fast, and in the last phase of the war in this part of Europe, relations between German and Dutch ‘brothers’ were outright bad. Apparently, the German (who came here first) and the Dutch partners had a very different understanding of their relationship. In the transnational, ‘Greater Germanic’ dream, the Dutch expected to be regarded as equals; to them, ‘Germanic brotherhood’ implied equality. It seems, however, that for most local German officials this terrain was above all conquered by German blood and bullets. In their eyes, the presence of Dutch men in the area was not a ‘Germanic’ right, but a German favour.

Support for the endeavours of the NOC had been largely limited to the NSB during the war. Hence, after the war, the enterprise was simply discarded as a Nazi curiosity, a temporary aberration that had begun and ended with Nazi rule in Europe. In court cases against most former volunteers and NOC officials, their work for the NOC was rarely of importance. Yet, despite its clear Nazi stamp, the enterprise also fitted into a longer continuum of Dutch national history. Unlike in many other European countries, the Dutch parliamentary democracy and nation-state had not been in danger in the interwar years, but the popularity of the ‘Greater Dutch Thought’ could be understood as a light critique on the existing political constellation and as an indicator that, according to some people in the Netherlands, the nation’s borders were not respecting the ‘ethnic community’ the Dutch belonged to. The problems of Dutch agriculture had been high on the political agenda of the Dutch governments of the interwar years. Staf and Hartland, the pioneers of the enterprise in 1941, were men who had been highly involved in Dutch agricultural policy before the war. Already in those years, Hartland had been suggesting that Dutch farmers should leave the Netherlands in order to make Dutch agriculture healthy and profitable again. In 1941, he (and Staf) thought that the occupied eastern territories could release Dutch agriculture from population pressure. It should be noted here again that both men were also leading players in the policy of mass departure after the war, involving hundreds of thousands of Dutch emigrants. When these civil servants gave their support in the summer of 1941, they assumed that employment on a temporary contract would in due time lead to permanent emigration of Dutch peasants to the Nazi East. In sum, taking part in the cultivation of the Nazi East was also a Dutch quest for Dutch ‘living space’.

It is not hard to discern ‘colonial continuity’ in this short period of history. For Rost van Tonningen (and many with him), participating in the colonization of the occupied East was essential for the future of the Dutch nation. National identity was heavily leaning on empire, and the acquisition of new possessions was deemed essential, particularly after the loss of the Dutch East Indies to Japan. Not many Dutch citizens wished to associate themselves with the Nazi regime and be part of its violent ruling and peopling of Eastern Europe. They did, however, believe that without imperial power the Netherlands would shrink to the size of a third class country. The aggressive colonial policy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Dutch East Indies had largely been prompted by this firm belief. Arguably, the colonial war that was fought in the archipelago from 1945 until 1949 was based on the same fear of decline. Without colonies, there would be no empire; and without empire, the Dutch nation would lose its place on the world stage.

Both in the mindset of volunteers and in the propaganda of the NOC, the Dutch enterprise was pictured and understood as a colonial enterprise. Volunteers were portrayed—and some portrayed themselves—as colonial rulers; their often condescending, sometimes violent attitude towards the local population was inspired by familiar images of the (threatening) ‘colonial other’.

What this case study also lays bare is that ‘colonial’ can be a fuzzy, catch-all concept, and that for the Dutch people involved it could (and did) mean various things. The Dutch East Indies, the republics of the Boers in South Africa, the communities of German and Dutch Mennonites who had moved in the eighteenth century to Eastern Europe—very different societies, yet all were used as a model. The colonial ambitions also varied widely: finding new markets for colonial trade, cultivating colonial crops, establishing a ‘Greater Germanic’ empire and establishing exclusively Dutch (rural) settlements. The attempt by the NOC to have it all was bound for failure. Of the many utopias resonating in the discourse of the Dutch volunteers and their leadership, not one materialized. A transnational ethnic community of Germans and ‘Germanic’ brothers abroad did not come into existence; colonial markets and additional living space were only temporarily acquired.

Thus, the Dutch colonial project was not only ambitious, but also ambiguous. Men like Rost van Tonningen passionately believed in ‘Germanic’ brotherhood, yet the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’ was also highly instrumental. Within the prospective racially homogenous community of the ‘Greater Germanic Reich’, there would be areas of Dutch autonomy and projects under exclusive Dutch supervision. This paradox of the Dutch contribution—supporting the creation of a Greater Germanic Reich, in order to (also) fulfil national aspirations—draws attention to the broader question of competing expansionist ambitions and plans among collaborating partners in Nazi-occupied Europe. After all, the imaginary ‘Germanje’ of the Dutch was as much a transnational project of ‘Germanic’ solidarity as a national project, celebrated as a next glorious chapter in the national history of conquest and imperial rule. Needless to say, their leading German partner could not agree to these nationalist aspirations.