“I looked into the workshop and saw all those girls and the boss. I wasn’t at all accustomed to speaking before a group. I said: ‘Ladies, all of Amsterdam has come to a standstill because they’ve been rounding up Jews and taking them away. We’ve got to join in.’ To my surprise, everyone took to the streets.”
“In the morning somebody from the communists came to the place where I worked and said: ‘We’re going on strike against the persecution of the Jews. Will you join us?’ So we did.”
“The whole city was on strike! On the way to the rally in the Noordermarkt we gave out leaflets calling on people to strike. As we walked, we shouted ‘Noordermarkt! Noordermarkt!’ and everyone followed us.”
“On the day we went on strike everyone’s eyes were shining again after ten months of occupation and oppression. When you take part in a strike like that, it restores your faith in human nature. We openly expressed our solidarity with our Jewish fellow citizens, and that’s something I’m still proud of.”
These are eye-witness accounts from participants in the Dutch general strike of February 1941, staged in opposition to the Nazi persecution of the country’s Jewish community.
The Nazis had needed only four days to conquer the Netherlands in May of 1940. The first anti-Jewish measures were implemented in July when kosher slaughter was outlawed and Jews were banned from the air raid defence services.
These were quickly followed by a ban on the recruitment of Jews to the civil service in August, and then the dismissal of all Jews from the civil service two months later. In January of 1941 all Jews and “half-Jews” were required to register with the authorities or face a five-year prison sentence. All Dutch Jews were ordered to move to Amsterdam, and all Jews who had fled to the Netherlands from other countries were sent to Westerbork transit camp.
Jews also faced a rising level of intimidation and physical attack from members of the Dutch fascist party, the NSB, and its paramilitary wing, the WA.
NSB members hung placards saying “No Jews Allowed” outside of shops, restaurants, theatres, pubs, night clubs and public parks. WA members rampaged through the Jewish district of Amsterdam, vandalizing buildings and attacking passers-by.
This escalating discrimination did not go without opposition. Students in Leiden and Delft students went on strike in November of 1940 in protest at the dismissal of Jewish teaching staff. Academics spoke out against the dismissals and were imprisoned for up to eight months for doing so. Staff in one of the biggest hospitals in Amsterdam staged a one-day strike.
The Truth, the underground paper of the banned Dutch Communist Party (CPN), condemned the anti-Jewish laws. An article published in January 1941 declared:
“The people of the Netherlands do not tolerate anti-Jewish pogroms. They hate anti-semitism. The Jews are, and must remain, full citizens with equal rights. The students have already provided an example of how this barbarism must be fought.”
“...In response to these shameless measures what is needed is powerful and united action by the entire population!”
Youth in the Jewish district of Amsterdam organised self-defence squads to beat off attacks by the WA and the “Green Police” (German military police). Dockworkers from Kattenburg, Wittenburg and Oostenburg fought alongside the Jewish self-defence squads, as too did youth from other districts in Amsterdam.
After a WA member had been killed in clashes on 11 February, the Nazi authorities cordoned off the Jewish district with barbed wire, closed the bridges across the surrounding canals, put up placards declaring it to be the “Jewish Quarter”, and installed police checkpoints.
After this segregation there followed more attacks by the WA and the Green Police. But the resistance from the Jewish self-defence squads was unbroken.
On 19 February, the Green Police attempted to raid an ice cream parlour in the Jewish district run by Jewish refugees from Germany. The parlour had its own defence squad. The police were driven off after ammonium gas used in the manufacture of ice cream had been sprayed in their faces.
As a reprisal, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler ordered that raids be carried out on the Jewish district and that those arrested be deported to the Buchenwald and Mauthausen concentration camps.
Over the weekend of 22-23 February, 425 Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 35 were arbitrarily rounded up by the Green Police for deportation. The police raids provoked widespread popular revulsion.
In response, a meeting of the national and Amsterdam leaders of the CPN agreed to call a general strike.
The CPN was loyal to the Stalinist regime in Moscow. At that time Stalin was still denouncing the war as one between rival imperialisms (albeit one in which he showed more sympathy with Nazi Germany). This was to change abruptly four months later, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
But, to its credit, the CPN’s loyalty to Moscow did not prevent it from organising against the Nazi occupation and the attacks on Jews.
During the daytime of 24 February, CP members toured city council workplaces encouraging workers to attend an open-air meeting that evening in the Noordermarkt.
The evening meeting, which numbered around 250, heard a succession of speakers denounce the mass arrest of Jews and backed the call for a general strike. Some workforces, especially on the docks, had already walked out on strike.
Later the same evening CPN member Jacoba Veltman, subsequently deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp, co-wrote, typed up, and duplicated the leaflet used to publicise the call for a general strike:
“Last Saturday, Sunday and Monday the Nazis behaved like beasts in neighbourhoods with Jewish inhabitants. Hundreds of Jewish youngsters were seized in the streets, thrown into police vans, and taken to an unknown place of horror...
“These riots against the Jews represent an attack on all the labouring masses! They constitute the beginning of harsher enslavement and terrorism! Proletarian residents of Amsterdam, will you put up with this? No! A thousand times — no!”
Citing the example of the previous week’s strike by 2,000 shipyard workers which had forced the Nazis to drop plans to deport 128 skilled metalworkers to work in Germany, the leaflet called for strike action to stop the Nazi attacks on Jews:
“Organise protest strikes in all factories! Join ranks to fight against this terrorism! Demand the immediate liberation of the interned Jews! Demand the disbanding of the Dutch fascist terror groups! Organise self-defence in factories and neighbourhoods! …
“Show your solidarity with the Jewish section of the proletariat... Spare the Jewish children from the terror of the Nazi atrocities – take them into your homes! …
“Shut down all of Amsterdam for one day – shipyards, factories, shops, offices, banks, the local council and enterprises!”
“STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!”
In the early hours of 25 February CPN members organised meetings of tramworkers in all the depots in Amsterdam, resulting in the shutdown of the entire network. Other city services quickly followed, along with teachers and school students.
Department stores did not open for business. The shipyards and the docks were silent. Demonstrations and rallies were staged in different districts of Amsterdam.
The strike continued into the next day, initially apparently ebbing away only to resurge with additional force. Rauter, the SS officer in charge of security in the Netherlands, described events in his report on the strike:
“On 26th about 80% of workplaces were back at work. Nearly all the trams were running again. At ten o’clock in the morning the strike appeared to be ebbing away. Suddenly it began again with a new intensity.”
“Countless illegal leaflets were distributed in all the workplaces of Amsterdam. In the early afternoon almost all local authority workplaces, shipyards and ironworks joined the strike.”
“At the same time the strike spread to the Fokker aircraft works, the Werkspoor factory and the railway goods depot, and all newspapers stopped work. In Amsterdam all shops and restaurants closed and trams came to a standstill. In the suburbs strikers overturned trams which were still running.”
The second day of the strike saw it spread well beyond Amsterdam. Workers in Zaanstreek, Kennemerland, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht joined the strike. So too did workers in Hilversum, Haarlem, Zaandam, Buusum and Groningen.
Overall, 300,000 workers were estimated to have taken part. It was the biggest strike in the history of the Netherlands, and the first mass strike in Nazi-occupied Europe.
But even as the strike spread outwards the Nazis stepped up the level of repression which was to end the strike.
Around 150 strikers had been arrested on the first day of the strike. An SS battalion was despatched to Amsterdam the same day and made arrests throughout the night. Although most of them were eventually released, the remainder were executed in the following months.
On the second day of the strike nine strikers were shot dead by the Green Police and the SS and another 45 wounded. Small businesses which had closed in support of the strike were threatened with permanent closure and confiscation of their assets.
Police were stationed on every tram to ensure that the service was kept running. Factories and newspapers were also occupied by troops in order to prevent further strike action. 60 of the strikers were deported to concentration camps.
After the end of the strike the Nazis imposed fines on three Dutch cities as penalties for their “misconduct”: Amsterdam (15 million guilders), Hilversum (2.5 million guilders) and Zaandam (0.5 million guilders).
The strike failed to achieve its goals. The victims of the mass arrest of 22 and 23 February were not released. Only two of them survived the concentration camps. An attempt by the CPN to stage another general strike in March was an abject failure.
And the Nazi persecution of Jews in the Netherlands did not cease but intensified.
Further restrictions were imposed on Jews in the months following the general strike. Jews were banned from owning radios, going to theatres and cinemas, using trams and trains, and even from cycling. All bank accounts for Jews were transferred to one bank, as a prelude to confiscation.
Mass deportations of Jews began in July of 1942. Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands in 1940 – many of them refugees from other European countries rather than indigenous Jews – over 100,000 perished in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.
This amounted to 75% of the total Jewish population – far higher than the figures for France (25%) and Belgium (40%). This reflected the extent to which the regime imposed by the Nazis on the Netherlands was even more ruthless in its anti-semitism than its counterparts in other Nazi-occupied countries.
But even though it went down to defeat, the general strike of February 1941 must count as one of the most outstanding chapters in the history of the Dutch working class.