Dick Woudenberg was the son of a leading member of the wartime Dutch national socialist party (NSB). He was educated for several years at Dutch NSB and then German Nazi schools where he imbued lessons that emphasised the superiority of the “Germanic’ peoples over others, especially Jews and Slavs.
In the last weeks of the war, when Dick was just sixteen years old, he and his class mates were assigned to help defend Germany from Allied and Russian troops. Fortunately for him, his group’s commanding officer kept him and his comrades away from trouble and they ended up being captured uninjured and by British troops (rather than the feared Russian soldiers).
After a while Dick was sent to a ‘re-education’ centre and there he began to learn from Jewish teachers about what had happened to Jewish people during the war and Dick slowly began to realise that he had been taught lies and hatred.
Dick’s story is told in a compelling new book, sadly only available in Dutch, written by journalist Mischa Cohen. Called the Nazi-leerling: de schuldige jeugd van Dick Woudenberg (The Nazi Pupil: the guilty youth of Dick Woudenberg), was published in April this year and was already into its third print run by May.
Dick’s older brother, Jan, whom Dick always looked up to, was not so lucky. He had also been a keen fascist and had willingly joined the Waffen-SS and was sent to the Eastern Front, where he died aged twenty-five.
What worried Dick, gradually as a minor note of doubt even before his capture, but increasingly with time, was whether Jan would have been involved in the murder of Jews and others behind the front. He knew that it was the Waffen-SS that carried out mass executions in the rear of the fighting troops and thus it was likely that Jan would indeed have taken part in such activities.
In his re-evaluation of his own thoughts and beliefs after the war Dick began to appreciate that the most inhuman behaviour could be the work of quite ordinary people. Asking himself, if he had been older or the war had dragged on for longer, would he have taken part in violence, he accepted that he would have obeyed orders. As Cohen writes, ‘the group pressure would have been too great to refuse.’
In other words, Dick realised that it was just an accident of his age that, while his brother probably became an agent of racial violence, he did not.
Dick in fact came from a politically sharply divided family that lived amongst the poverty of the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.
While Dick’s father was a leading NSB’er, the oldest of Dick’s uncles was a leading social democrat (who survived the war to become a key member of the Dutch Labour Party). Two of Dick’s uncles married Jews (who did not survive the war) and plenty of the two generations had Jewish friends from the local area where they grew up.
Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, were on one side of the family political divide or the other. At a one family funeral they all gathered to send off a deceased relative but did not communicate across the schism. Dick, the young teenager, proffered his hand to a social democrat uncle but he refused to shake hands with the boy, so deep was did the political differences cut into the family.
A few tens of thousands of Dutch people fought for and/or collaborated with the German occupiers of their country and after the war those who had been on the wrong side were socially and economically shunned. Dick actually had to adopt a different surname to get his first job, so toxic was the atmosphere towards those who had become ‘traitors’ to their country.
This is a searing story but one of great relevance to today as we ask how do today’s terrorists get radicalised and how the radical cultures of violence and hatred of others can be countered.
Dick’s transformation was not abrupt, but some troubling little doubts – that had existed even during his period of going along with what he was taught – slowly festered and were encouraged when he encountered other people and other ideas post-1945. This tells us it is important that we engage in debate with far right wing ideas today. Every time you put a question on twitter, say, to a fascist supporter that he or she cannot answer, you sow a seed of doubt though one that may well not blossom for some time.
Dick’s moving story is about how he sloughed off the shell that his Nazi education had encased him in. It is indeed a pity that it is not available in English to win a wider audience for its timely insights.