The Dutch government made no plans with other nations, not even with neutral Belgium, for a concerted defense. The Dutch defensive strategy, known as Fortress Holland, called for blowing up bridges and dikes in the hope of stopping a German invasion, but it failed to take into account the realities of modern warfare. On paper, the Dutch army appeared impressive. General H. G. Winkelman commanded 400,000 men in 8 divisions and 4 brigades plus several smaller units. The army was, however, poorly armed and trained. It had not a single tank and only 26 armored cars and 656 obsolete artillery pieces. Its Military Aviation Division possessed only 175 aircraft, of which 132 were serviceable and only 72 were modern. The navy was modern but small. It consisted of 4 cruisers (another was almost complete), 8 destroyers, 16 minesweepers, 24 submarines, and several torpedo boats and auxiliary craft. Most of it, however, was in the Pacific to defend the Netherlands East Indies.
Beginning at 3:00 a.m. on 10 May 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands. Queen Wilhelmina proclaimed the invasion a flagrant violation of international law. The Germans used 1,000 aircraft to attack Dutch airfields and military installations, and most Dutch aircraft were destroyed the first day. The Germans also used parachute and airborne forces effectively, as well the Eighteenth Army. Nonetheless, the Dutch put up stout resistance, especially along major rivers. Hitler ordered the capture of the Dutch Royal Family, but they escaped from the Hague to Britain aboard two British destroyers. With negotiations already in progress, but as an inducement to bring about a speedy Dutch surrender so that their forces could be released for the fighting in France, on 14 May the Germans bombed Rotterdam, destroying much of the city center and causing considerable civilian casualties. Later that same day, Winkelman ordered Dutch forces to lay down their arms.
Also on 14 May, Wilhelmina established a government-in-exile and announced in a radio broadcast to the Dutch people her determination to continue the fight. The government-in-exile secured most of the ships of the important Dutch merchant marine. Its 640 ships, not counting 200 smaller vessels, was of immense help to the Allies. Several participated in the Dunkerque (Dunkirk) evacuation, and the merchant marine played a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Ultimately, half of the ships were lost in the war, and some 3,000 Dutch seamen were killed. In early 1942, the Japanese occupied the East Indies, leaving only Suriname in South America and such islands as Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao in the Netherlands West Indies under the free Dutch government in London.
The Nazis held the Dutch to be fellow Aryans, and Hitler intended to incorporate the Netherlands into a greater Germany. To win the support of the Dutch, Hitler ordered that German occupying forces be on their best behavior. He also released Dutch prisoners of war as a conciliatory gesture. At the same time, the Germans worked to tie the economy of the Netherlands to that of Germany.
On 26 May, Hitler established a government in the Netherlands with Arthur Seyss-Inquart (1892–1946) as Reichskommissar. Hitler deliberately ignored Dutchman Anton Mussert, head of the small National Socialist Movement (Dutch Nazi party) in the Netherlands, although he did grant him the honorific title of De Leider (leader) of Holland. Seyss-Inquart had full administrative authority. In October 1941, Seyss-Inquart abolished the Dutch Parliament and instituted the German judicial system. Labor unions lost their autonomy, and remaining political parties (the Communist and Socialist Parties had been immediately banned) were forced into one political entity, the National Unity Party, although it, too, was disbanded within a year. Censorship was complete; Germany maintained control over the mass media and issued fines for municipal authorities that violated German rules. Education was reorganized along German lines with the promotion of Nazi racial theories and the rewriting of textbooks.
The British naval blockade during the war cut off traditional markets and access to the Dutch colonies overseas; factories had difficulty securing materials for production; and there was rampant inflation. Rationing was enforced, but food and consumer goods became scarce. The Germans sought to exploit the Netherlands economically, and this agriculturally rich country was forced to deliver most of its produce to Germany. The economic situation worsened after 1943, as the Germans expropriated whatever they deemed useful to their war effort, including personal property. As early as 1941, skilled Dutch workers were transported against their will to the Reich to work in German factories. This practice intensified as the war continued.
Jews were a special target. Legislation deprived 140,000 Dutch Jews from participation in Dutch society and then deprived them of their livelihoods. By 1944, some 110,000 Dutch Jews had been removed from the Netherlands altogether and sent to concentration camps; only 5,000 returned after the war. The other 30,000 survived by going into hiding. Jewish losses in the Netherlands were the highest, in terms of percentage, in western Europe.
Resistance was negligible during the first two years of the German occupation and was mostly passive. But Nazi methods were abhorrent to the Dutch, and by 1943 resistance became active. Resistance groups robbed banks, conducted sabotage, and even assassinated Germans. Not until September 1944, however, were the resistance groups unified.
Some Dutch collaborated with the Nazis, revealing the location of Jewish hiding places, for example. After the war, more than 100,000 people were arrested for collaboration, and approximately half of them were brought to trial.
On 17 September 1944, when the Allies initiated Operation market-garden to secure a crossing over the Rhine River at Arnhem, P. J. Gerbrandy, prime minister of the Dutch government-in-exile, called on Dutch railroad workers to strike, and they heeded the call. In response, Seyss-Inquart shut down shipments of food by rail and canal that were essential to feed much of the population. The winter of 1944–1945 is remembered as the Hunger Winter, and some 20,000 Dutch died of starvation. Misery was compounded by the immense cold. There was no access to coal, electricity, wood, or running water.
During the latter stages of the fighting, defensive flooding inundated large areas, with resultant damage from sea water. Many homes were also destroyed in the fighting. Trade was at a standstill, and the economy was in a shambles. German occupation costs alone had robbed the economy of 8 billion guilders. The Netherlands was by far the worst affected by the war of any western European state.
After the war, the Dutch temporarily brought back the death penalty and executed the most blatant Nazi collaborators. Seyss-Inquart was tried at Nuremberg, found guilty, and executed. The war also caused the Netherlands to abandon its policy of neutrality in favor of a defensive pact with Belgium and Luxembourg and later membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Annette Richardson and Spencer C. Tucker
Fuykschot, Cornelia. Hunger in Holland: Life during the Nazi Occupation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995.; Hirschfeld, Gerhard. Nazi Rule and Dutch Collaboration. The Netherlands under German Occupation 1940–1945. Trans. Louise Willmot. New York: Berg, 1988.; Pearson, Frederic S. The Weak State in International Crisis: The Case of the Netherlands in the German Crisis of 1939–40. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981.; Posthumus, N. W., ed. The Netherlands During German Occupation. Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1946.; Van der Zee, Henry A. The Hunger Winter: Occupied Holland 1944–5. London: Jill Norman and Hobhouse, 1982.; Warbrunn, Werner. The Dutch under German Occupation, 1940–1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.
Annette Richardson and Spencer C. Tucker