In 1993 I completed my PhD research on the writings of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), which was later published in an British and American trade edition: Siegfried Sassoon: Scorched Glory (Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, 1997). In true Sassoon-fashion I had ‘stumbled’ (‘stumbling’ and ‘blundering’ are recurring words in Sassoon’s war writings) across his Sherston-trilogy in my first year at Amsterdam University. It led me to his war poetry, to other war poets, and to that whole historical & socio-cultural phenomenon: the Great War and its impact on British society.
It made me wonder what had happened in my own native country, the Netherlands, at the time. I knew it had remained neutral, but at school we had never been told anything about the period, and it seemed to me that in a country that was so near the battlefields of the Western Front and so close to two of the main warring nations, Britain and Germany, the war could hardly have passed unnoticed. I don’t have the illusion that this idea was either profound or brilliantly original, but at least it was correct. The years 1914-1918 had been an exciting period in Holland too, although of course a sense of proportion is required: there had been no fighting, no significant casualties (the Dutch army and navy suffered 58 fatalities in this four year period) and no national traumas or myths resulted from the war years.
But Dutch neutrality had been threatened repeatedly, the army had been mobilized for more than four years, there had been around a million (!) Belgian refugees (in a country with a population of around 6 million), there had been internment camps for German, British, Belgian and French soldiers, Holland had suffered under the British economic blockade, smuggling was rife in the border areas, the Dutch overseas trade had been curtailed, contact with the colonies was all but lost, Dutch merchant ships and fishing boats had been sunk by German U-boats, and stopped, searched and later confiscated by the allied nations. All this had been largely (and understandably) forgotten during and after the Second World War, whose five-year German occupation left deep scars and lasting myths and traumas. I tried to tell the story of the Netherlands during the First World War in Buiten Schot (a Dutch expression which combines the meanings of ‘out of the firing line’ and ‘getting off scot-free’), which was published in 2001. By that time I had become intrigued by the position of a small, sovereign nation in a time of total, large scale warfare. What was the point of a small nation maintaining a small, relatively insignificant army? How successful was the Dutch policy of strict neutrality, which was maintained for nearly a hundred years and what exactly did it entail?
These questions I tries to answer in De Sterke Arm, de Zachte Hand: het Nederlandse Leger en de Neutraliteitspolitiek 1839-1939 (The Strong Arm, the Soft Touch: the Dutch Army and the Neutrality Policy 1839-1939), which appeared in 2006. Since then I have tried to extend my fascination for the small neutral states during the Great War. I have compared Dutch and Swiss neutrality concepts and cultures in ‘Neutral Tones’ and am currently working out plans for a full-scale study on Belgium, Holland and Switzerland, three small neutral states in 1914: what determined their fate? How did they experience the war years, what are the similarities and contrasts?
This website provides an overview of my activities and in addition it gives me the opportunity to offer those interested in the Netherlands during the First World War some miscellaneous bits and pieces which I haven’t been able to use elsewhere.