If the Dutch can confront their complex history, can we?

I think it a good practice to consider how other countries and cultures chose to display their history, and heritage, in public spaces.  For instance, from Goirle, Netherlands:

The helmet identifies the nationality and context of this figure very well – he is a German soldier.  A soldier serving in the German Army in World War II.  Why would the Dutch people chose to honor a soldier from an army which occupied their country – a brutal occupation I would add – with a statue? An article from War History Online offers some background for this statue memorializing Karl-Heinz Rosch:

October 6, 1944 – Three days after Rosch’s turned 18, the young German soldier, along with his platoon, was stationed in a farm in Goirle when Allied forces took fire on them. He was about to hide in the basement along with his comrades when he noticed that the two children of the farmer who owned the land seemed oblivious of the danger that was on them and continued to play in the courtyard. He quickly dashed to them, took each in his arms and brought them into the safety of the basement. He again ran outside to position himself on the other side of the courtyard when a grenade hit him right at the spot where the children were earlier.

The article goes on to say that Rosch was killed on the spot. Years pass and yet the villagers of Goirle remembered the incident.  It stood out large among many other, arguably more important, incidents during World War II.  Rosch’s story was a part of their shared history.  But it was not one that could be spoken of without reservation.  After all, Rosch was “...just a damn Kraut” in the eyes of some. Then after three-quarters of a century, the village decided something should be done.  Herman van Rouwendaal, a former city councilor of the area, determined in 2008 that it was time to bring Rosch’s story out into the light of day.  To explain and interpret this display, the statue has this plaque at the base:

I’m not going to fool you with my attempt to translate the whole.  It is the last line which stands out to me:

Dit beeld is een eerbetoon aan hem en allen die het goede doen in kwade tijden.

My Dutch is not even passing. But from about every other word I can translate, I get:

This is a tribute to him and all who do good in bad times.

The direct approach to the “good, bad, and ugly” of history. But this project was not necessarily a “feel good” story where everyone simply joined hands to agree. Those advocating for the memorial argued with others contending that no honors should be offered to soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany during World War II.  In the end, the memorial was placed on private space, without public funding.  But the display was allowed. The article provides another “gem” for us to consider.  Rouwendaal went on to say:

Some Dutch are caught in a black-and-white way of thinking. The Germans were all Nazis, the Dutch were all good. That there were also unsavory characters among us, who for example betrayed Jews and robbed them, one does not like to hear… We will not be honoring the Wehrmacht, but rather the humanity of a young German soldier.

At a time in our history where many loud calls are made towards extreme ends about memorials and unsavory aspects of our own history, we might paraphrase Rouwendaal’s to reflect that “some Americans” are caught up “in a black-and-white way of thinking.”  I don’t think that would be threading the eye of some needle.

3 thoughts on “If the Dutch can confront their complex history, can we?

  1. I’m always extremely leery of using Nazis in analogies, but your post makes a good point. This soldier risked his own life (and lost) for the children of his “enemies.” It would be hard to argue that this was not a heroic act, despite the evils of the soldier’s cause.

  2. Craig, there are important lessons to be “taken away” from this brief story, the most important of which you have focused upon. War–and its combatants–are just as nuanced as we witness in other complex human dynamics. And in this particular case, most of us “old soldiers” would concur with the decision to erect this fitting memorial to a courageous and heartfelt enemy. Good for Councilor Rouwendaal.

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