Mussert, Dutch fascist leader, by Tessel Pollmann
At Mussert, the Fascist Leader in the Netherlands (1931–1945)
Anton Adriaan Mussert, the leader of the Dutch Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging [NSB; National Socialist Movement] has in historiography and in the public image the reputation of a successful civil engineer and a decent man, but politically a childish, slightly ridiculous, naïve, benevolent fascist (or a Nazi; he did not distinguish). That is the way he presented himself to the Dutch, and historians have believed him and called him even a patriot, a liberal nationalist, now and then an authoritarian fascist, or simply a nationalist. Chauvinism – Nazism is a German phenomenon, not a Dutch one – played a role. Many foreign historians, depending on the few sources by Dutch scholars in foreign languages, have followed the Dutch example. ‘New’ (never used) archival material however shines a different line on Mussert. And chauvinism is not as fashionable as it was.
Writing a biography of Mussert is difficult: at the end of WW II he had his whole archive walled in an as-yet undiscovered quarry in Germany. He had the archives of his Nazi-movement, the NSB, stored in a nursing home in Germany, where it burned. So Professor Loe de Jong had no easy job portraying Anton Adriaan Mussert. The nestor of historiography of WWII in the Netherlands, de Jong was the historian who strongly reinforced and validated the public image of Mussert. De Jong was a Jew who had fled into exile in London in 1940; his relatives stayed behind and were murdered. He was the first director of the excellent Dutch centre for the study of WWII studies, the Rijks Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie [RIOD (nowadays NIOD), Institute for War, Genocide and Holocaust studies]. De Jong was a prolific writer, with an accessible style. In the 1960s he also made a series of TV documentaries on the war, and he is still considered by many Dutchmen, but not by all professional historians, the absolute authority on the history of the war. From 1969 to 1988 he published a 27-volume history of WWII. Of all volumes together two and half million copies were printed.
De Jong considered Mussert ‘in many of his characteristics and in his relative moderateness a typical Dutch petit bourgeois’, who did not understand the ‘essence of Nazism’. According to de Jong, Mussert was more a follower than a leader, ‘carried away by his NSB and the events’. The majority of the Dutch and foreign scholars – many of whom did their research in the collections at de Jong‘s institute in Amsterdam – have shared his opinion. An exception is Dietrich Orlow, who stresses the willingness of Mussert to accept the radical ideas of the Austro-Nazi Rost van Tonningen, a fierce anti-Semite. Rost was the editor of the daily Het Nationale Dagblad, property of Mussert.
I intend to contest this historiography, arguing that it tends to portray Mussert in too flattering a way. My recent research – published in my 2012 monograph Mussert & Co – shows that Mussert was a shrewd, racist, corrupt, and greedy politician, who at the same time was a master of self-presentation. I also argue that his behavior was not only characteristic for his personality, but also typical for the fascist and Nazi leaders of his time.
When in this article I write about de Jong, I also mean the Dutch and foreign scholars inspired by this learned and erudite historian. For those scholars who do not read Dutch, information about Mussert and the NSB has been scarce. Only a few articles in foreign languages, written by Dutch scholars on the basis of the original material, were available. They are now out of date, and did not present the NSB as a dangerous Nazi organization. No wonder renowned scholars like Zara Steiner and Robert O. Paxton have played down the NSB, terming it a ‘fling’ (Steiner) that ‘never developed beyond founding a newspaper, staging some demonstrations, speaking on street corners’ (Paxton). Mussert, according to Hans Fredrik Dahl, was ‘a nonentity whose function was simply to give advice to the Reichskommissariat through his political secretariat’. (The Reichskommisariat was the German government of the Netherlands, 1940–1945.)
My article intends to present a re-interpretation of the biography of Mussert, the man whom his followers devotedly called ‘the Leader’.
‘At’ Mussert was the son of teachers; his father (‘my best friend’, said At later) was headmaster of the municipal primary school in Werkendam, a village in the province of Brabant. Johannes Leonardus Mussert was a beloved teacher, a good organizer of village activities, a popular orator at jubilees and memorial days, a nationalist and royalist. ‘My nationalism was learned at an early age’, the son said in prison, in 1946, shortly before he was executed. The father was active in liberal-conservative politics, and the son inherited some of his father’s positions. Universal suffrage, for example, was not popular in this circle, and later his son planned to abolish it.
As a teacher at a public school, the father was involved in the ‘schoolstrijd’ [education battle] concerning equal financial state support for public and ‘confessional’ (religious) schools. A confessional triumph would threaten the job of J. L. Mussert. This struggle was about more than schools. The confessionals won, and their victory gave an important impulse to confessional politics, and new strength to two of the principal segments (‘pillars’) of Dutch society, the Roman Catholics and the orthodox Calvinists. The churches then created their own politics, educational and recreational institutions, hospitals and labor unions. The other segments of society, including mainstream Protestants and liberals, had no choice but to do the same, and society became ‘pillarized’.
At Mussert was not an orthodox Protestant, and not even mainstream: at the end of his life, in 1946, he wondered whether Jesus Christ was written about in the Old Testament. His conservative liberal upbringing, which was opposed to pillarization, was in that respect compatible with the fascist strong state. The considerable power of the churches should be broken; confessional politics should be forbidden. The resistance of the Roman Catholics and the orthodox Calvinists in particular created a well-defended fortress against the NSB. Sixty percent of the votes in 1937 were for confessional parties. Four percent were for the NSB, which recruited its members from not-so-young middle-class non-religious people.
At Mussert’s father, the conservative liberal, and his mother were not poor. After primary school At went to the HBS (Higher Burgher School), the secondary school for the middle class, where the main subjects were languages and science, economics and national economy. Greek and Latin were only taught at the classical gymnasium, and without Greek and Latin it was impossible to study law, theology, languages, mathematics and physics, to get a Ph.D. in medicine, or to be considered a real academic. But after graduation from the HBS, admittance to the Polytechnic in Delft was possible. Mussert was a gifted student and became in Delft a civil engineer cum laude. He married while still a student, which was uncommon. Even more uncommon: his bride, Maria (Rie) Witlam was eighteen years older, and his aunt. She was the youngest sister of his mother, who disapproved of the marriage and broke temporarily with her sister and her son. The bride was by profession a housekeeper, and she provided for At when he was a student – also unusual. The marriage showed how eccentric and obstinate the behavior of At Mussert and his wife could be. Enemies would later make fun of his marriage, rhyming:
The man who wants to build a new state,
Shouldn’t choose his aunt for his mate.
Neither a marriage like that of At and Rie, nor the status of civil engineer made it easy for an ambitious man to fit into the (haute) bourgeoisie of the twenties. Writing in 1937, the Marxist historian Jan Romein classified civil engineers as petit bourgeois. In the same vein ‘real’ academics called civil engineers bicycle menders. Nevertheless, there were famous and respected Dutch civil engineers of petit bourgeois background. An important example is the doctor honoris causa J. A. Ringers (1885–1965), the son of a carpenter, who became director-general of the Rijkswaterstaat [Governmental Water Management Authority]. He designed the biggest sluices in the world, located in the harbor of Ijmuiden, near Amsterdam, and built the monumental Afsluitdijk. The Dutch, living below sea level, depend on the Rijkswaterstaat, which still today ensures the safety of the inhabitants.
Young Mussert also applied to the Rijkswaterstaat. Nobody there cared whether he knew Latin and Greek. His mentor in Delft, the highly respected professor Jan Klopper, whose father owned a simple nursery, recommended him, and he got the job. It didn’t pay well and promotion was slow – it took sixteen years to become head civil engineer. Yet it was often a path to brilliant careers. On the governmental level, water management offered gifted civil engineers fascinating projects. Mussert was stationed in IJmuiden, where the new sluices were being designed. He quit the job in two years. He hopped to the province of Utrecht, where a civil engineer was needed. (Each of the eleven Dutch provinces had its own water management service.)
Utrecht, 900 square miles in size, didn’t have the glamor of the powerful Governmental Authority. It also had no challenging problems connected with water, but it paid well. And the head civil engineer, Herman Ram esq., was to retire in ten years. Mussert, reckoned to succeed him. In the meantime he started a dissertation, which he didn’t finish.
Mussert became, the legend says, a civil engineer with an admirable track record. Historians in general know not much about civil engineering. The legend relies on a book of the time, Mussert als ingenieur [Mussert the Civil Engineer, 1944], written by the Leader’s adoring follower J. Homan van der Heide, MSc. According to Homan, the Leader was a genius and a renowned creator of important public works. In fact, a provincial civil engineer like Mussert, with a staff of only ten people, had few opportunities to create anything. Moreover, Mussert’s planned projects were stopped because the building of the forthcoming Afsluitdijk could provide unexpected hydrodynamic consequences in Utrecht. Mussert got irritated and looked for compensations. He started writing, calling himself, and why not, an intellectual. He attacked the gymnasium: what had the European elite, in general educated at the gymnasium, done to prevent WW1? The elite had learned Latin and Greek, earned money in all kinds of prestigious functions and at universities, not showing much of a social conscience, let alone preventing the world war. But civil engineers had created economic improvements for the masses. The bicycle mender was taking revenge.
Mussert also wrote in the leading professional periodical De Ingenieur [The Civil Engineer], proposing new solutions to old technical problems. Recent research (2003) is critical of these articles. Didn’t Mussert know that at least some of these ‘new’ solutions had been presented before by others, and if he didn’t, why not? Meanwhile, Mussert derived satisfaction not only from his professional publications; he also became a successful political activist, organising the campaign against the Belgian-Dutch Treaty in 1925–1927.
The Rhine and the Meuse and the connecting canals had long been a problematic issue in the Dutch-Belgian relationship. In 1925 the two countries signed a draft treaty which promised the Belgians that two canals would be dug from Antwerp through the Netherlands to hinterland of the Rhine, and gave them co-control over the Dutch river Scheldt. The Scheldt was and is of great importance for the harbor of Antwerp and for the defense of both countries.
The treaty was more advantageous to the Belgians than to the Dutch. Opposition rose. Mussert published in the local newspaper intelligent and well-written articles against it. The treaty was, he argued, not only pro-Belgian, but also pro-France, and France was, for various reasons (Versailles!), seen by Mussert as the enemy. The Netherlands would become a victim of ‘imperialism from the south’.
A national anti-treaty action committee was installed; Mussert became the secretary. He wrote, organized and made speeches. It took a lot of his time and was a politically sensitive project, so his ultimate superior, the Commissioner of the Queen in Utrecht, whose political party was against the treaty, must have approved. And indeed, the treaty was not ratified. The cabinet minister of Foreign Affairs had to resign in 1927. And Mussert had learned how things work: remaining silent (he was not talkative, except on a platform) in the background, he had created a massive protest against the government. De Jong concludes that this success led to Mussert’s denigrating the ‘weak’ Dutch government and overestimating himself. Why overestimating? Mussert had assessed the situation properly and achieved his objective. It made him realize he was a gifted orator who could get things done. Here was a politician in the making.
But for the time being, he still remained a civil servant.
In the office, Mussert the civil servant was still subordinate to his boss, Ram. Ram didn’t give Mussert enough to do; they quarreled. ‘Mussert can’t tolerate anyone superior to him’, said Ram. It came to a crisis. Mussert denounced his superior in a brilliantly written attack with some lies about his own past at the governmental service and his relation with Ram, and a lot of bragging about his own importance. He won. Ram retired, Mussert replaced him in 1927, against the wish of the Royal Commissioner, who warned the Staten (the provincial parliament) that the applicant was self-seeking and without tact. And tact was needed, he said. Water management in the Netherlands was – and is – an extremely complex matter. Government and provinces have to deal with the powerful local water management boards, of which there were many in Mussert’s time (145 in the province of Utrecht). Landowners, most of them farmers, were the members. To work with them one needed tact. The Royal Commissioner foresaw that Mussert would confront people with decisions instead of consulting them with respect, as was the custom.
The Commissioner’s warning was ignored for the first and last time in his career. Mussert became in 1927 provincial Head Civil Engineer. He took on an important governmental project: the Amsterdam-Rhine canal to connect the harbor of Amsterdam with Germany. Formally he only had to do with the canal within the boundaries of the province of Utrecht. But informally he made a new and successful design for the canal, solving the problem of the many sluices which were an obstacle for the skippers. It showed what a great civil engineer he could have become if he had not quit his governmental job and if he had learned to behave. In the civil service of the province of Utrecht he became arrogant with his colleagues and authoritarian toward some of the local water management boards. Mussert provoked even larger problems when he refused to advise the Commissioner on issues Mussert considered unimportant. The Commissioner cut off all communication till Mussert had apologized. Mussert had refused to play the democratic game: the politicians give the command, the civil servant is loyal and obeys.
In the Netherlands, as everywhere in Europe, it was the time of the emergence of fascism. Mussert connected with a member of various fascist splinter parties, Kees van Geelkerken, a young civil servant who like Mussert worked at the Provincial Board. Van Geelkerken was much lower in rank, and a convinced fascist. They became allies, not friends. Mussert was the Leader; only a very few, mostly in-laws, could call him At – van Geelkerken could not.
Mussert and van Geelkerken started the NSB in 1931. Mussert copied as his agenda 17 items of Der Katechismus der Bewegung, Hitler’s political programme edited by the anti-Semite Gottfried Feder, who contributed himself only a little to it.
The ‘national-socialist movement’, wrote Mussert in his explanation ‘wants in the first place spiritual renewal in the field of politics and economy’. Mussert complained, as fascists in general did, about the degeneration of the country – people were split up in parties, indifferent and quarrelsome, and did not believe in God, let alone in the nation. Also typically fascist in Mussert’s programme was the inequality of human beings as a leading principle. A pension, for example, would in the future be granted only to those who were worthy of it. And only people who earned money with real work would get the suffrage.
Parliamentary democracy came also under fire – which was no news, as many people had their doubts about it. But Mussert was aggressive: democratic politicians were manipulators of the common men; ‘we national-socialists will build our state of the future on the solid foundation of labor, not on rotten principles of know-it-alls who talk a lot’. Labor unions were to be abolished; they embodied the class struggle that had to be replaced by the corporate state and ‘the logical and realistic unity’ of human beings: ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’. Political parties would be forbidden.
Mussert added three items of his own. The Flemish part of Belgium that belonged to the same ‘tribe’ as the Dutch, would get a special status. The Dutch had a right to be there; ‘our only natural allies are our tribal kin’, and ‘we claim our rightful place there’. It is interesting that in 1931 Mussert wrote about ‘tribes’ – a few years later he would change ‘tribe’ to ‘race’. His second point was about immediate rearmament in the Netherlands and the colonies. Colonial policy was his own third issue: Mussert considered in particular the Netherlands Indies the basis for the welfare of Dutch workers. Loosening the ties between motherland and colonies was unacceptable; it would support tendencies to independence. The colony was there to ‘assure’ the white laborers in the Netherlands a decent life. The tropics provided the raw materials; Dutch laborers manufactured goods from them.
According to de Jong, Mussert’s agenda was an ‘authoritarian fascist’ one, but also quite silly. De Jong’s selection of quotes from Mussert’s agenda makes the Leader seem more ridiculous than fascist. Mussert, in de Jong’s excerpts, wanted a ‘forceful, but not aggressive foreign policy’. Independence from ‘plutocrats, ecclesiastical authorities and popular opinion’. Abolition of election campaigns, ‘which are becoming more and more indecent’. State intervention in badly managed enterprises was an issue, and of course the corporate state. A pension for all citizens who had served the community. And the NSB had an aversion to ‘brawling peace maniacs’. ‘Why quote more?” wrote de Jong, who suggested Mussert owed his knowledge of fascism in large part to van Geelkerken. That made Mussert look even more ridiculous than the summary of his political agenda did. The Leader was the political nitwit, and van Geelkerken, much lower in rank and with less education, the evil genius. It was a suggestion Mussert had inspired himself, as we’ll see.
The nineteen thirties brought the NSB its first taste of success. (For an excellent brief account of the NSB, see Damsma.) Nearly from the beginning there was the suggestion of Jewish conspiracy and intrigues. In 1934 Mussert wrote about the ‘hidden power’ of Jews and freemasons supporting Canada and the United States. In 1935 8% of the Dutch population voted for Mussert. The NSB counted 50.000 members; the Netherlands 8 million inhabitants. But at the end of 1935, after Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia, Mussert – as his right-hand man van Geelkerken later phrased it – ‘confessed to the racial point of view’. Referring to the Abyssinians, Mussert said: ‘Must we help negroes and Arabs to humiliate a white people?’ The majority of the Dutch, including Queen Wilhelmina and her daughter Princess Juliana, disapproved of the Italian invasion.
In 1936 Mussert secretly visited Hitler, whose demonic character was ‘strange and unsympathetic’ to him, according to de Jong. But Mussert himself wrote in 1936 that he considered Hitler to be ‘the first man I ever met who was superior to me, and who was a Godsend as rare as the world received only once in thousands of years’. In 1943 Hitler was still ‘the one sent by God’. Yet Mussert was ‘a bit afraid’ of Germany, as he said in 1936, in the meantime bragging that the NSB would be a mass movement in about four years.
In 1937 the NSB had a setback: Mussert’s applause for Mussolini was not forgotten. In the elections the NSB got a poor 4% of the votes. In that year Mussert wrote about the ‘Dutch section of international Jewry’. Together with the thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany this ‘section’ was dominating trade, industry, the upbringing of Dutch youth, the judicial apparatus, and Dutch mentality and behavior. ‘This is unbearable: we don’t tolerate it, not now and never, and it is our duty to make an end to all this’.
In 1938 after the German violence against the Jews during the Reichskristallnacht (8–10 November), Mussert officially presented his ‘solution’ to the so-called ‘Jewish question’. All Jews who had migrated to Europe since August 1914 should be deported to the Guyanas in South America, where they could be accommodated by the countries that had colonies there. Jews who had lived in the Netherlands from before 1914 and had really taken root in the Netherlands could stay.
Nowadays, historians still tend to regard Mussert’s proposal slightly benevolently – more as unrealistic as dangerous – owing to the fact that he had criticized the ‘vandalism and injustice’ of the Reichskristallnacht. But in fact Mussert’s Guyanas plan was based on one of Hitler’s ‘twenty-five points’. The prime minister H. Colijn and the German Auswärtige Amt, for various reasons, did not accept Mussert’s deportation plan.
Radicalization of anti-Semitism was very much in the air in 1938. In the circle of future collaborators, Vidkun Quisling in Norway made a plan similar to Mussert’s, and 1938 was also the year Mussolini made his public volte face with regard to anti-Semitism.
In summer 1938 and spring 1939 Mussert visited the German department of Foreign Affairs in Berlin. He promised the Germans to be on their side in the – as he prophesied – unavoidable war between Germany and England. He was still a bit frightened of the big neighbor. And though a fan of Hitler, he wondered in 1939 whether the Netherlands would not become a vassal state. In that case he planned to adjourn the NSB. According to Gerhard Hirschfeld, Mussert showed here a ‘continuing uncertainty of the intentions of Germany’s policy’ and a ‘complete political naïveté and a limitless self-overestimation’. But wasn’t it sensible to be afraid? And wasn’t everybody, including the German generals, uncertain about what Hitler would decide? Even Stalin, hardly naïve, could not believe in 1941 that Hitler had attacked him.
And what about the vassal state? After the German invasion in May 1940 the Netherlands were treated as a vassal state. Mussert’s dream of course was not to become a vassal. He wanted to become a head of state, and what a state he had in mind! He spoke of a Dutch empire – from the Belgian Congo (when Flanders had become part of the envisioned Greater Netherlands State) to the Antilles and Surinam (both Dutch colonies), and the Netherlands Indies – of which he expected to be the ruler. Had the delusion of the Thousand Year Empire inspired him? He dreamt also of partaking in the liberation of South Africa from the British; were not the South African Boers of the same tribe as the Dutch? He dreamt of the superior Nordic race. He rejoiced in Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Hitler’s liquidation of Czechoslovakia would make people understand that ‘this genius’ fulfilled a ‘divine mission’ for his ‘People’. Mussert’s megalomania, delusions, dreams, arrogance and promises were of course part of his own personality as a politician, but they were also inspired by Nazi ideology and style.
In 1940 when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, Mussert was ready for collaboration. And he was not alone in this attitude.
Just before WWII the NSB had 27.000 members; during the war some people cancelled their membership, but new members came in. In July 1944 there were 75.000 members in the Netherlands and 10.000 members elsewhere.
In the first two months of the occupation, Mussert met fifty times with one or another of the occupiers. He was aware that the Nazis didn’t want to repeat their Norwegian mistake. The leader of the Norwegian Nazis had replaced the government by a coup d’état without support of the population – only to be ‘corrected’ by the newly appointed German Reichskommissar for Norway, Josef Terboven. Mussert had to prepare his ‘coup’ with more care: he proposed that the occupier make him Regent of the Netherlands and hand over the properties of the Royal Family to him. He wanted to represent himself properly after becoming head of state, he said. The occupier refused. But Mussert had made his point: he didn’t want the Netherlands to be annexed – he opted for autonomy, which could only be a very limited one. This may have given him in the public life of his time and in much of the subsequent historiography the image of being a ‘fascist-light’, in particular in comparison to his contender for the leadership in the NSB, Marinus M. Rost van Tonningen. This Rost, a protégé of Himmler, promoted a straightaway annexation by Germany and was pro-SS. These were two issues that fitted with each other, and thus Rost was, until he fell out of favor, considered by the Germans an obedient and ideologically pure national socialist. Mussert from time to time made his advances to the SS as well – going too far in this respect would actually hamper his dream of becoming the head of a quasi-autonomous Dutch state.
Mussert knew quite well that the Germans considered him politically ‘impure’. On December 5th 1940 he described the German image of himself and the NSB:
The NSB had in fact no idea what National Socialism was. Jews and freemasons were the boss. The Leader was a goody-goody nitwit; his staff members formed all together a gang in the Headquarters. Among the members were some good people who craved redemption and had a burning desire to be annexed by Germany. Thank God there was one man who had the right outlook and had an enormous propagandistic force; he would “with his friends of the SS” take over the movement.
This one man was Rost. But Seyss-Inquart, the Reichskommissar, the highest German authority in the Netherlands, didn’t accept Rost as a leader. He had to accept Mussert because the NSB-members were faithful only to him.
For Mussert the German image of the goody-goody nitwit was useful. He never tried to change it – on the contrary. At the end of his life he confessed: ‘I have no knowledge of human nature. My wife had to tell me: “Don’t you see that so and so is a villain; he is a quite unpleasant figure”’. And Mussert added: ‘My wife was a better judge of people than I am. My wife warned me several times against actions I undertook driven by others’. And: ‘Van Geelkerken was the man who made me do things against my own better judgment’. A nice piece of self-flattery also was: ‘It is better to be deceived a hundred times than to deceive one time. I’m a kind of naïve, but that is good. You don’t become a better human being if you observe deceit and so on so quickly’. He was believed, even by the clever de Jong.
Knowing that the Dutch population was hostile to the NSB and the Germans, in particular after the German invasion in May 1940, Mussert realized it was in the interest of his public image to advertise his nationalism and not to appear openly anti-Semitic.
But in fact racism controlled his nationalism. In 1940 he proposed to Hitler a Germanic League of Peoples, who were ‘of one race, one blood’, the ‘Nordic’ race, which was superior to all other races. Germans, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, the Dutch and (perhaps) the Swiss were Nordic, and they would be united by the League. Now all Jews – not only those who had arrived after August 1914 – should be deported to the new ‘national home’ in South America, and in the Netherlands Indies the ‘awakened consciousness’ about the purity of the race would help to prevent further mixing of white and brown.
As part of the League, the new, racially pure Netherlands would retain a bit of autonomy. Hitler would decide for all Nordics on questions of economy and the army (implying foreign relations, war and peace).
It was but one step, as one of Mussert’s judges stated in 1945, from this brand of nationalism to annexation. But Mussert handled his nationalism as a proof of independence from the occupier, and he rarely emphasized its racist character in public, particularly during the occupation. De Jong gives Mussert the credit of not believing in his own anti-Semitic statements. Mussert had from the point of view of the Germans ‘not understood the essence of Nazism (…) as in his heart he didn’t believe in anti-Semitism’. Yet de Jong admits that many of Mussert’s followers, the regular NSB-members, were actually delighted to deport the Jews or profit from their deportation. And, he added, Mussert was the leader who prepared them mentally for these tasks, to please the Germans.
Why is the question whether Mussert was responsible for the Jew-hunting of the NSB-members so rarely asked? Professor Belinfante, an important jurist, stated in his book on the administration of justice that, according to the Dutch judicial system, not Mussert’s responsibilities but his acts were judged. That is why Mussert was not thoroughly interrogated. Many scholars use the published documentation of his trial, in which he presents himself as naïve, but in which in particular the fate of the Jews plays a minor role.
And as Mussert had at the end of the occupation the whole of the NSB-archives transported to Germany where it, by accident, was burned and his own, still undiscovered archive walled in a German quarry, he had a lot of space in which to play the gullible man.
But we do know, as far as we know anything, that Mussert never protested against the anti-Semitism of the occupier, neither did he restrain his zealous members from arresting and plundering the Jews. His deputy, van Geelkerken, made anti-Semitic propaganda in the official memorial book for NSB’s tenth anniversary (1941). He praised the Nazi Blut und Boden [Blood and Earth] ideology, the ethnic ‘cleansing’ of the Netherlands by the Germans and rediscovery of ‘the values and purity of the race’. A great help in realizing this was ‘the Great-German Empire of Adolf Hitler’. One word from Mussert, to whom the book was dedicated, and the text would have been removed. But Mussert had sworn in December 1941 an oath to Hitler as ‘German Führer’ – he still defended the Führer at his trial: ‘I’m convinced he was a virtuous man, who was deceived by the people around him’.
Mussert’s movement delivered to the occupier thousands of men for Nazi
(para-)military organizations. On March 21 he said: ‘More than anyone else
I’m responsible for the sacrifices the Dutch made at the Eastern Front. Thousands of people went there because I encouraged them.… Many hundreds were killed in action’. Between 22.000 and 25.000 Dutchmen made the choice for the Waffen-SS, not all of them NSB-members. Mussert founded the Dutch (later called German) SS, with as its foreman Henk Feldmeijer, one of the few NSB-collaborators who were really trusted by the Germans. They soon took over the Dutch SS from Mussert. Mussert’s Volunteer Assisting Police (all NSB-members) helped the Germans to deport the Jews. About two hundred high-ranking NSB-members of the Dutch police force showed an extraordinary zeal in hunting down in a few months 9.000 hidden Jews, all of whom were deported. The Column Henneicke, which hunted Jews, consisted mainly of NSB-members. Mussert tried to protect a handful of Jews who had been NSB-members, but he didn’t oppose the deportation of the 100.000 other Jews. His Life Guard had made barracks in a Jewish villa and in a home for the homeless poor. His two newspapers (for one of which, the weekly, he wrote the leading articles) were fiercely anti-Semitic.
The newspapers were published by Mussert’s own publishing house and printed on his own printing machines. One of his presses was bought before the war. During the occupation, Mussert bought two more big presses from two different firms. The Germans had put pressure on these firms – even threats of imprisonment – to sell to Mussert. And sell cheaply. Newer research (1994) has shown how Mussert got, through corruption, money from the Dutch treasury to pay for one of the presses and also for real estate for himself.
To his real estate holdings belonged a house sold to him after the elderly owner was threatened by one of Mussert’s men. Another house, a big villa with all the furniture, was ‘bought’ from the Germans, who took it from a Jewish owner who got ten minutes to leave it. Mussert regretted that the Germans kept confiscated Jewish property for themselves; the Netherlands, ‘host country’ of the Jews, was the rightful owner, he said.
In Mussert & Co I demonstrate that he was ready to exploit the situation. Using the profits of his publishing enterprises – much of which he pocketed for himself – he bought confiscated Jewish property at bargain prices: jewellery, paintings, precious objects from closed-down synagogues, as well as an antique and quite valuable dinner service of 170 pieces. He acquired shares, gold, and costly furniture. He, and probably his wife also, dealt on the black market in yarn and probably also in eggs. Only in 1996 was most of the material on Mussert’s finances put into one file. Much of it was maybe within easy reach of earlier historians, but new and devastating material came to light only in 2011 and was published in Mussert & Co. It changed Mussert’s image; till then the Dutch public had believed in Mussert’s petit bourgeois moderateness. But who had invented the notion that the petit bourgeois was so moderate?
This is not the place to delve into the relationship between the petite bourgeoisie and the radical ideology of Nazism. But if that relationship existed, as is so often assumed, why then was the Dutch petit bourgeois more moderate than those in other countries?
About the petite bourgeoisie much is written, but very influential was Marxism. Karl Marx (or, to be accurate, Friedrich Engels) invented around 1850 the petit bourgeois as a hybrid human being. Hybrid (or shall we say: moderate?) because the petit bourgeois didn’t choose the revolution and was ambivalent about everything; religion, social problems, money and politics, culture and decent behavior. Widerspruch ist seine Natur, ‘his nature is contradiction’, Engels wrote in his characteristic caustic style.
In the late nineteenth century, scolding the petite bourgeoisie became customary in circles of leftists, artists, intellectuals, the haute bourgeoisie, and in particular the labor unions. De Jong, who was a socialist and had studied at the ‘red’ University of Amsterdam, may have found inspiration in Engels and Marx, or just accepted the image of the petit bourgeois as true.
The concept of the hybrid petit bourgeois who never really makes a choice for anything, let alone radicalism, has suited the Dutch very well. It was comfortable to our self- image to state that Mussert as a (so-called) petit bourgeois could not be a convinced Nazi, because petit bourgeois were half-half in every respect, and never revolutionary. And as such slightly ridiculous. ‘If the war had not intervened, Mussert as a politician would have been treated by the people with a certain humorous mockery’, said Mussert’s prosecutor after the war.
This remark was characteristic of the post-war period. Tens of thousands of NSB-members, imprisoned after the liberation in May 1945, returned from internment camps and prisons into society. Cabinet ministers, probation officers, churches, and dignitaries wanted them to be integrated as soon as possible. De-stigmatization was necessary. The authorities emphasized that many of the less important ex-NSB-members were victims of pre-war unemployment, misunderstandings, broken families, neuroses, or a bad education. That they were normal Dutch middle-class people who had made a political choice for national-socialism had to be ‘forgotten’. To make people forget, it made sense to rely on ridicule – stirring up hate would obstruct the desired reintegration.
Denigrating remarks from Germans about Mussert helped to portray him as the half-half Nazi. Often cited by historians is the remark of the Reichskommissar, Seyss-Inquart, who considered Mussert a liberal nationalist, not a statesman, and just good enough to be a Gauleiter [provincial leader]. Gauleiter, by the way, were very mighty party-officials. It is striking in this connection that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of Propaganda, characterized Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian, as ‘not a real Nazi’, but an ‘Ostmarker’. Like Hitler – but that is another question. The implication is clear: to be a good Nazi you had to be a German.
It is good to keep this in mind when reading the highest SS-officer in the Netherlands, Hanns Albin Rauter, who judged Mussert a ‘Spiesser’ or Spitzbürger [petit bourgeois] and ‘not a Nazi in our sense of the word’. Heinrich Himmler on Mussert was quoted by the Dutch historian Jacques Presser. This very influential Jewish historian, as famous as de Jong, wrote in De Ondergang [The Destruction, 1965] about the Shoah in the Netherlands. Presser’s wife was murdered by the Germans, and like de Jong he had not a grain of sympathy for Mussert, let alone Himmler. Yet he quoted with acquiescence Himmler, who had called Mussert a man with ‘spirituality on the level of the lowest recruit’. Though Himmler was a self-proclaimed authority on spirituality, it is a bit surprising to see him quoted approvingly. Presser also quoted other dignitaries who labelled Mussert as ‘der kleine Mann ohne Schwung’ [the little man without style]. These kinds of remarks made Presser write about Mussert that ‘given all the misery it was the better of two evils that a man of this childish calibre was the head of the NSB. He did, everything considered, give little trouble and now and then could make you laugh’.
This way of treating the Leader was, probably, a way for these historians to feel safe in the Netherlands after the war: the Germans were cruel to the Jews, but the Dutch, even the Nazis among them, were moderate.
Rarely used are the more positive German remarks about Mussert. ‘A smart fellow’, said Himmler. Rauter, the highest SS-official in the Netherlands, called him ‘not stupid’ and ‘shrewd and very cunning’. Seyss-Inquart said: ‘Thanks to his nationalism he can now leave humanism, liberalism and ties with confessionals behind him’. In the end, he believed, Mussert will become a real Nazi ‘because the German Empire will attract him’. Yet after some time Mussert became a source of irritation to the Germans. He couldn’t tolerate anyone superior to him, as his boss in Utrecht had said. He criticized the German wish to annex the Netherlands often and openly, though in fact he supported a veiled annexation.
Goebbels had understood Mussert quite early. Sometimes he praised Mussert, as in 1936: ‘A very clever and energetic fellow. A bit dependent but full of enthusiasm’. And in 1937: ‘A good orator’. And in December 1940: ‘The Mussert movement has a tough time, Mussert really does his best. And he is in any case the only man on whom we can rely’. But Goebbels also saw very sharply the other side of Mussert’s coin: This ‘Dutch Nazi’ was ‘cold and arrogant’. Mussert had quarreled with Goebbels about the Netherlands Indies. Mussert didn’t want to hand them over to Germany when the time would come. It made Goebbels angry: ‘Without us he’ll never come to power’. And: ‘We have to do his dirty work and then get the hell out’. Usually Mussert is perceived as an instrument of the Germans, but wasn’t he trying to use the Germans as well?
Do the conflicts between Mussert and the occupier really tell us much about Mussert as a person? Or did the Germans behave toward Mussert as they did toward other leaders of local Nazi parties? I’ll restrict myself here to leaders of local Nazi parties in Norway (Vidkun Quisling), Denmark (Frits Clausen), the Flemish part of Belgium (Staf de Clercq and Hendrik Elias), and the Wallonian part of Belgium (Léon Degrelle). Of these six West-European leading collaborators, only two remained a leader till the end: Mussert and Quisling. Staf de Clerq died early without having been received by Hitler, while Mussert visited Hitler four times and Quisling made even more visits. Of course de Clerq did mind, just like his successor Hendrik Elias, whose fate was also unhappy. He fled his country in 1944 for the Allied Forces, and went to Germany where he became the ‘guest’ of Hitler’s Secret State Police (Gestapo), was confined in a hotel and put on ice. Clausen went to the front, became an alcoholic and was sent to rehab. Martin Conway writes that Degrelle was, like other leading collaborators, in ‘pursuit of German patronage’ and behaved like a courtier wanting to get favors from his lord. Degrelle ‘proved unable to win the support of the German authorities’ and went to the front.
Even Rost van Tonningen, Mussert’s Dutch competitor and for a time the occupier’s favorite, got so frustrated that he wanted to leave for the front. Mussert had the same impulse.
All the leading collaborators wanted – in vain – the same: to get from Hitler the promise that their country (or region) would have some degree of independence after the German victory over Europe. All were kept in the dark about Hitler’s final intentions – if there were any. Yet Mussert remained true to the Führer. Like other Nazis who also believed in Hitler till the bitter end.