The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965

By Pieter Lagrou | Go to book overview

12
National martyrdom

Victors of military conflicts often retroactively legitimise their war effort by denouncing the particular atrocities committed by the defeated enemy. After the First World War charges of the use of poison gas, the destruction of the library of Leuven in Belgium or the brutal murder of civilians in Dinant singled out the German enemy as much more than an ordinary military enemy. Extraordinary deaths and destruction weighed heavier in post-war representations of the enemy than the millions of casualties and victims of conventional warfare, particularly in Belgium and in neutral countries. Since after the Second World War the liberated countries of Western Europe had few of the latter to mourn, it could be expected that the weight given to extraordinary, civilian victims would be even greater. Yet reactions to the experience of persecution of tens of thousands of their citizens expressed much more than the predictable level of moral indignation and victor's justice. France, Belgium and the Netherlands had a tradition of individual liberties, rule of law and habeas corpus that was even older than the progressive adoption of political democracy. Despite national collaboration and complicity, the persecutions were a brutal import by the Nazi occupier that wounded the moral sensibilities of the indigenous populations much more than, for example, the progressive establishment of persecution and terror in Nazi Germany itself since 1933, in a country with, moreover, an illiberal tradition even before that date compared to its western neighbours. This accounts for the very different reactions of these populations to the persecution when they were actually confronted with it, from the Dutch strike of February 1941 to official protests by national moral authorities, to the large-scale assistance to persons in hiding. It also accounts for reactions to the persecutions afterwards, to the legacy of what had been a profoundly traumatic experience for the whole of society.

During the war, the local population had been the direct witness of persecution, mostly in the form of deportation, the point of departure of a long trajectory. Public executions — mostly by firing squads in inacces

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