On May 5, 1945, the Germans signed a treaty of defeat in Hotel De Wereld (“The World”) in Wageningen, The Netherlands. Earlier that day, the last German troops had been driven across the Dutch-German border by the Allied Forces and the Dutch army. A five year siege ended. People rushed out into the streets and squares of our country, and celebrated their regained freedom, together with the soldiers that drove the enemy away. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was an independant state again.
This evening, at 7:58 pm local time, life stopped in the Netherlands, like it does every year on May 4. Everyone observes two minutes of silence to remember that freedom is not something to take for granted. To remember that people died to regain our freedom: compatriots, but also complete strangers, rushed in by their respective governments to help out a country in need - to combat the evil that had Western Europe in its grip. To remember those who have fallen: Dodenherdenking, the remembrance of the dead.
At the Dam Square in Amsterdam, a ceremony is held every year. The Royal family attends it - they place a commemorative flowerpiece at the National Monument, after which the two minutes of silence are announced by a military trumpet anthem. Usually, some 100,000 people are assembled at the square. There is complete silence for two full minutes. It is a very sad, yet serene moment.
A few years ago, we started inviting German politicians and military leaders to commemorate the dead alongside us. This was a controversial issue at first: however, everyone sees now it is the right thing to do. After all, would it not be shortsighted to assume that no German civilians suffered during WWII? Would it not be idiotic to think that no German soldier was reluctant to carry out Hitler’s evil policies?
The German people have suffered every bit as much as we did. The liberation of Europe was their liberation as well: no longer would they have to exist in a country where dogma and tyranny were the norm.
But mostly, I tend to think about all those British, American and Canadian soldiers that were shipped to Europe. They had nothing to do with this war. I’m sure most of them were terrified when faced with the knowledge they were to be put in a war zone to fight the Germans. But for better or worse, they realised that liberating Europe was indeed in everybody’s interest. From D-Day onward, they slowly but surely forced back the German troops and finally made their way to Berlin. The rest, as they say, is history.
Many young men lost their lives, leaving many more family members and friends behind back home. They paid with their lives for something that wasn’t even going to be theirs: my freedom.
This may, and never will be, forgotten.
Five years ago, I was a student at the University of Maastricht. Maastricht, being in the utter south of the Netherlands, was the first city to be liberated. In 1995, the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation was celebrated. For this occasion, many WWII veterans from the US, Canada and England came over to parade through our streets once more. In full army uniforms, in their original vehiculs. As I was watching the parade, it halted for some reason. A Canadian Jeep stopped in front of me, an old war veteran on the passenger seat. He was visibly touched by the mass attention the parade drew: a mixture of amazement, joy and sadness was written over his face. I stepped up to the Jeep and extended my hand. So did he. As we shook hands, I told him my feelings. I could only use the simplest of words, as there are no words in any language to express my (our, really) gratitude towards these heroes: “Thank you Sir, for liberating my country and giving us back our freedom”.
We looked each other in the eye for a few moments more, and then the parade got moving again. But we both knew that some things span generations. Some sentiments, because of their traumatic and historical nature, are embedded in each of our cultures. World War II, and the consequent Liberation, are among those.
I was born in 1973. Yet, the celebration of our Liberation always has a great impact on me. I will make sure, that my kids will learn to be thankful for their freedom too. And I will also make sure they know who to be thankful to.
If any of you have a father or grandfather that fought for the liberation of Europe: do me a favour and tell them one thing. Tell them, that they are nor forgotten. Nor will they ever be. We will remember, so that this will never happen again.