Constructing the Homeland: Dutch Americans and the Netherlands Information Bureau during the 1940s

By Zwart, David | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Constructing the Homeland: Dutch Americans and the Netherlands Information Bureau during the 1940s


Zwart, David, Michigan Historical Review


As Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands and the Japanese military threatened the Netherlands East Indies in the summer of 1941, the Netherlands government in exile in London and the government of the Netherlands East Indies officially established the Netherlands Information Bureau (NIB) in New York City to keep news about both locations in front of the American public. Under the direction of N. A. C. Slotemaker de Bruine, the office in New York City grew and within a year included a library and departments devoted to research, the press, photos and film, and broadcasting. (1) In order to extend its reach across the United States, the NIB established two divisional offices by the summer of 1942: in San Francisco, California, to cover the western United States, and in Holland, Michigan, to serve the Midwest. (2) Holland, Michigan, seems out of place on a list that includes New York and San Francisco, but the town was chosen to host an NIB office for at least two reasons. First, this small city, which had a population of about fourteen thousand people in 1940, had an unmistakable Dutch heritage. Founded under the leadership of Dutch Calvinist Seceder pastor Albertus C. Van Raalte in 1847, Holland continued to welcome Dutch immigrants. (3) In the 1930 census, 42 percent of the population of Holland had either been born in the Netherlands or had parents who were born there. (4) Second, Holland was the home of Willard Wichers. Wichers grew up in the Holland area, and he had an intimate knowledge of Dutch America and was committed to promoting the community. He had served as a district supervisor of the Survey of Historical Records as part of the Works Progress Administration, and in 1942 he actively sought to locate the NIB's Midwest office in Holland in the belief that his hometown's Dutch heritage would help amplify the message of the NIB as well as publicize the small city. (5)

Although the NIB did not seek connections primarily with Dutch immigrants, by placing a division office in Holland it intentionally entered a Dutch-American community that had constructed an image of the Netherlands as its homeland, which was at odds with the NIB's message. The NIB wanted Americans to view the Netherlands as an up-to-date country with important colonial powers and responsibilities. This construction was meant to reinforce the image of the Netherlands as a faithful ally during and after World War II. The Dutch-American community in Holland, Michigan, however, constructed and clung to an image of the land they had left as an antiquated and repressive society. In events such as the yearly Tulip Time Festival, tulips, windmills, and wooden shoes represented the Netherlands as the quaint homeland of yesteryear. Alongside this pleasant image, however, lay the darker memory of a religiously repressive Netherlands, which Van Raalte and his followers fled in the mid-nineteenth century. The ensuing one hundred years had brought many changes to the Netherlands, but regular ecclesiastical and personal contact with the homeland did little to alter Dutch-Americans' view of their homeland. The Dutch-American community in Holland perpetuated images of the Netherlands as both quaint and repressive. (6) This article examines a Dutch-American community's reaction to the image of the Netherlands favored by the NIB. It illustrates that the Dutch-American identity was not just the result of a blend of Dutch and American characteristics; instead, it was shaped by specific transnational contacts. Thus, this case study adds to scholarly understanding of the relations between American ethnic communities and their homelands.

In recent years scholarship on immigration and homelands has proliferated, developing in several directions. Some scholars of European immigration examined the homeland as it functioned in the process of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, especially investigating chain migration. Beginning in the 1980s these scholars produced free-grained studies that traced small numbers of immigrants who migrated sequentially, like links in a chain, from well-defined locales in Europe to settle in specific places in the United States. …

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