At the very end of the article by Michael Williams on the Dutch revolutionary Henk Sneevliet (nlr 123) there is a misleading remark which calls for rectification. It is of relatively little importance for the main argument of the article, but in my opinion it expresses a tendency common to much Marxist historiography, and for that reason too is worth commenting on. Besides, the episode involved is of great intrinsic interest, even if it does not concern the principal subject of the piece, namely Sneevliet’s work in Indonesia.
Williams writes that ‘with the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Sneevliet transformed the rsap (Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party) into the Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg Front (mll) and established the first resistance movement. In February 1941 the mll organized strikes in Amsterdam in protest against the persecution of the city’s Jewish population’ (p. 90).
I doubt that Sneevliet’s group may be credited with constituting the ‘first resistance movement’. In the first months following the occupation there was actually rather little active resistance activity. A former comrade of Sneevliet, Dirk Schilp, mentions as the first significant action of this kind the two ‘open letters’ spread by Henriëtte Roland Holst—to intellectuals and students—in October 1940. ‘Before that time there wasn’t very much done; everyone was looking around.’footnote1 On the other hand there was another kind of—passive—resistance. The background is the following.
The Netherlands capitulated on 15 May 1940, on the day following the massive aerial bombardment of Rotterdam. On 29 June fell, by accident, the birthday of Prince Bernhard, husband of the then Princess Juliana. Whatever may now be known about Bernhard, at that moment he functioned as a general rallying-point for the anti-Nazi Dutch. The birthday was publicly celebrated, against the explicit instructions of the German Generalkommissar Friedrich Wimmer; the action was blamed by the Nazis on ‘British propaganda’ (the Dutch Royal Family had left the country for Britain on May 13). This mass public flouting of an occupation command was no doubt a
In November 1940 Jews were excluded from public office and professions in the Netherlands. There followed, among other actions, a strike of students and professors at Leiden University, which was as a consequence effectively closed. This movement spread to other higher education institutions.
Meanwhile, the various groups and parties of the socialist and labour movement were—slowly—organizing themselves into resistance forces, parallel with the Organgists. I would not know how to judge claims of ‘priority’ in this respect, from supporters of Sneevliet or of any of the many other groups, large and small, which made up the Dutch left at that time. But in any case the first and greatest success of the labour opposition was the ‘February Strike’, which so far eclipsed everything that had gone before that it must by considered the real beginning of the Left Resistance.
The story of the strike—very nearly a unique event in Nazi-occupied lands—is briefly the following. According to the report of the Amsterdam ss and Police Chief, Hans Albin Rauter, a German Sicherheitspolizei patrol entered a cafe in a Jewish district of Amsterdam in which it was suspected that a meeting of a secret self-defence group was being held. The patrol was—again according to the report—attacked. To this day, however, the precise course of events remains obscure. But we do know that in retribution the Nazis ordered the arrest of 425 Jews, an order carried out on 22–23 February. Of these, 379 were finally transported to Mauthausen concentration camp. There were two survivors.footnote2