Russia, the Dutch Far Right, and the Politics of World War II Remembrance

Image courtesy of the Nationaal Comité 4 en 5 mei, Jasper Juinen.
In the days and weeks following Russia’s February 2022 invasion and military occupation of Ukraine, scholars with expertise on the region weighed in on the ongoing crisis. Their meditations, insights, and professional experiences are collected here as the “Ukrainian Dispatches.”

 

Since the most recent phase of Russia’s eight-year-long conquest of Ukraine began in late February 2022, much of Europe has mobilized politically against the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his government. Even if dependence on Russian oil and gas has limited Europe’s economic response, most notably in Germany, and the risk of escalation has restricted direct military involvement on the side of Ukraine, ruling governments and politicians across the spectrum have spoken forcefully against Russia’s destructive campaign and very likely war crimes against Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

In the Netherlands, however, Putin has found a notable ally in the far-right Member of Parliament (MP), Thierry Baudet, and his party Forum for Democracy (FvD). In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Baudet praised Putin as “the leader of conservative Europe” and urged European Union (EU) leaders to make peace with Russia, rather than continuing to threaten Russia’s sovereignty by expanding NATO. At the beginning of the war, Baudet described Russia’s attack as “extremely mild,” and his fellow MP, Pepijn van Houwelingen, argued that since the Ukrainian President, Vladimir Zelenskyy, had been invited to address the Dutch Parliament, Putin should have been invited to do the same. Baudet, for his part, had refused to be present in Parliament for Zelenskyy’s address.

What drives Baudet’s admiration for Putin and FvD’s support for Russia? And what can we learn from their political statements on the war in Ukraine about the far right in the Netherlands and western Europe today? In this article, we situate the controversy over Baudet’s support for Russia in the broader context of Baudet’s politics, which we have both watched with grave concern over the past few years. Focusing on Baudet’s Twitter remarks surrounding the May 4th and May 5th events in the Netherlands (Remembrance Day and Liberation Day, respectively), we show how debates over national memory of World War II (WWII), the Holocaust, and the decolonization of Indonesia figure centrally into far-right politics in the Netherlands and FvD’s fascist vision for Europe—including its relations with Russia.

 

Mainstreaming the Far Right in the Netherlands

Significantly, Baudet launched his political movement in 2016 by holding a national referendum that opposed a pending trade deal between the Netherlands and Ukraine. With only 32.2% voter turnout, the referendum succeeded, but the Dutch Parliament decided to approve the deal anyway. This action led Baudet to transform FvD from a think tank to a political party, and Baudet entered Parliament the following year. In the young party’s turbulent history thus far, its political fortunes have waxed and waned, but it has managed to establish itself as a formidable opposition party, drawing significant political and media attention away from the Islamophobic populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom. FvD’s success is an insidious development, for its ideology is at once more palatable and more politically radical.

Whereas Wilders’s almost singular obsession with vilifying Dutch Muslims has turned off many educated voters who do not wish to be seen as openly racist, Baudet’s polished, intellectual image and media savviness have given racist and fascist currents of political thought in the Netherlands a new respectability. Alongside FvD’s anti-Blackness and Islamophobia—which, frankly, do not distinguish it from many mainstream Dutch political parties, even at times on the left—Baudet’s and his colleagues’ antisemitism pervades its ideology and conspiratorial worldview. Usually, this antisemitism is coded with dog-whistles that are common across the global far right: most centrally, the claim that “cosmopolitan elites” and “globalists,” led by figures such as George Soros, are orchestrating a “great replacement” of white, Christian populations through immigration, the destruction of national sovereignty, and—most recently—the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Baudet’s conspiratorial hostility to the COVID vaccine has undermined his more respectable image among mainstream voters, among his followers it has catalyzed FvD as a radical movement that dares to break taboos, including antisemitism. Repeatedly, Baudet’s and the party’s explicit antisemitism has been exposed publicly; to cite one of many examples, a former party leader, Nicki Pouw-Verweij, reports that Baudet responded to her concerns about his increasing radicalization at a party event in November 2020: “Where does your crusade against antisemitism come from? Almost everyone I know is an antisemite.”

We and others have written at length about Baudet’s intellectual background and ideology—his idolization of Jean-Marie Le Pen, his racist and antisemitic claims decrying Europe’s supposed (white) demographic omvolking (population replacement) and “homeopathic dilution,” and, more recently, his troubling use of distorted Holocaust analogies to criticize the Dutch pandemic response. In what follows, we limit our focus to Baudet’s recent remarks on the May 4th and 5th celebrations, his troubling mobilization of national WWII memory, and their implications for FvD’s response to Russia’s war.

 

World War II Remembrance and Dutch National Identity

WWII continues to serve as a formative historical moment for conceptions of Dutch identity. Popular memory of the five-year Nazi occupation shapes understandings of who the Dutch are and what they stand for. Despite the government and Crown’s admission of wrongdoing during the Holocaust and recent discussions on the Dutch military’s crimes during the Indonesian War of Independence and the country’s role in the Slave Trade, many people still insist on a patriotic conception of Dutch identity and defend traditional readings of the Dutch past. The yearly May 4th Dodenherdenking (Remembrance Day) ceremony is one of the most significant and hotly contested commemorations because it both communicates and reflects evolving perceptions of Dutch history and identity. The memorandum guiding the character of the commemoration, considered to be a living document, has evolved since its drafting in 1946 to reflect changing attitudes towards victims of both WWII and Holocaust and postwar military operations. The focus of the commemoration in the immediate postwar period communicated a narrative of the five-year German occupation as one of wholesale Dutch victimhood and resistance. There was little room to accommodate a more complex understanding of occupation and the systematic destruction of the Jewish community. The 1961 inclusion of victims of postwar conflicts, such as Dutch soldiers killed during the Indonesian War of Independence, broadened the commemoration as a whole and cemented May 4th as the country’s most significant day of remembrance. In 2011, the memorandum was altered once again to include the word “murdered” in direct reference to Jewish victims killed during the Holocaust. The word “Dutch” was removed from the text in 2019 due to criticism about the exclusion of stateless Jews who sought refuge from Nazi Germany before the country’s occupation. These changes were the result of  activism from the Jewish community and petitions to the National Committee for 4 and 5 May, the organization tasked with carrying out the Remembrance Day and Bevrijdingsdag (or Liberation Day) events, to acknowledge the specific victimhood of Jews.

The last change to the Remembrance Day memorandum occurred this year in response to the report of the government funded research project “Independence, Decolonization, Violence, and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950.” The researchers, a mix of Dutch and Indonesian scholars, concluded that contrary to the 1969 government report on select “excesses” during this period, the violence carried out by the Dutch military against armed and unarmed Indonesians was systematic and perpetrated with the knowledge of the Dutch government. The memorandum now reads:

During the National Commemoration we commemorate all—civilians and soldiers—who were killed or murdered in the Kingdom of the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world; both during the Second World War and the colonial war in Indonesia, as well as in war situations and in peace operations afterwards.

The ever-broadening character of the memorandum makes the text and the ceremony itself a prime site of negotiation for interest groups, survivors, veterans, and their families, and those stakeholders who are invested in a specific image of Dutch identity and history.

 

Politicizing World War II and Holocaust Memory

Given the centrality of these overlapping and still-contested historical memories, it is not surprising that the far right has addressed the May 4th and 5th commemorations as part of its political messaging. Still, Baudet’s incendiary approach has provoked widespread ire, which is likely its intended effect. Compared to the solemn tone of Remembrance Day, Liberation Day on May 5th celebrates the end of the Nazi occupation and the Allied forces who made it possible. Although Liberation Day is usually less politicized than Remembrance Day, Baudet has used both of the intertwined events to polemical effect. In May 2021, FvD scandalized the country by issuing a poster on social media that analogized the government’s Coronavirus policies to the Nazi occupation. In place of the verb vieren—to celebrate—in reference to Liberation Day, the poster used herdenken—to remember, the verb associated with the May 4th Remembrance Day (the Dodenherdenking)—thus supposedly commemorating the “death” of 75 years of freedom (1945-2020). In other words, the government had allegedly taken advantage of the pandemic to impose a new kind of authoritarianism, undermining the freedom that had been won with the end of Nazi occupation in 1945.

While it is tempting to write the incident off as yet another (successful) ploy for media attention, it is worth considering Baudet’s defense of the poster in order to understand how memorialization of the war and the Holocaust fit into FvD’s ideology and political mobilization. According to Baudet, it was not his party that had politically manipulated historical memory, but rather the political and cultural establishment, which he inaccurately refers to as “the left.” In a blog post on FvD’s website, Baudet doubled down on the poster by arguing that it was in fact the left that, for decades, had moralized the lessons of the Holocaust in order to impose its conformist vision on others. As a recent example, he referred to the May 4th commemoration speech delivered by the Jewish-Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg in 2020, which had generated considerable controversy for allegedly equating racism against Moroccan-Dutch people with the persecution of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust. Grunberg had made no such equivalence in his speech; he said, “if they are talking about [Dutch] Moroccans, then they are talking about me,” pointing out that racism against other minoritized people runs parallel to his experience of antisemitism, including the blatantly antisemitic messages he received as a newspaper columnist. His point was about the dangerous effects of stereotyping and everyday racism in public discourse, not creating a direct equivalence to the Nazi genocide.

Baudet is not wrong that Grunberg and others draw lessons from the past that bear on social injustice in the present, including the contemporary forms of racism that pervade Dutch politics and society. For Baudet, the necessary response for the right is to countermobilize and overtake the “cynical” monopolization of WWII memory by “the left,” by which he means, again, anyone to the left of the radical right, up to and including Mark Rutte’s center-right coalition:

We no longer recognize their [“the left’s”] authority. We are going to remove them from the throne. And if they are allowed to keep riding their hobbyhorse with an appeal to what happened then [during WWII] – then we are too. This moment is of essential importance. This conflict, this commotion has to do with the essence: whoever budges loses, throws the towel in the ring – recognizes the moral power of the establishment. Whoever holds their ground is the one who pursues the fight where it truly lies.

It is the emancipation of our movement. It is the coming of age [English in original] of the right.

In language reminiscent of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s critique of political liberalism, Baudet locates the essence of “the political” in the fundamental antagonism between enemies, beyond the mealy-mouthed compromises of parliamentary politics. Here, the space in which the antagonism is fought is the memory of the Holocaust itself: beyond differences in specific political policies, what ultimately matters here, at the deeper level of “the political,” is to stand in vocal, visible opposition to the claims of moral superiority of the mainstream. To withstand “spurious” accusations of Nazism and racism and remain committed to the higher cause, even to the point of appropriating Jewish victimhood: this act of political will, for Baudet, is the galvanizing force of consciousness-raising that is to be harnessed in opposing the moralizing authoritarianism of “the elite.”

Baudet launched a similar attack in response to the 2022 commemorations, which also provided the opportunity to castigate Dutch support for Ukraine. During this year’s Remembrance Day speech, historian and television host Hans Goedkoop discussed the lessons on morality and justice he learned from Dutch Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor, Abel Herzberg. Towards the end of his speech, he urged everyone to remember that a moral compass “for good and evil” existed among resistance members, people who gave shelter, and so many others in the small decisions they made. “It’s what we tell each other on May 4th every year, that it existed,” he explained. Goedkoop also cautioned the audience, “For generations we’ve hoped to drift away from it into a new future, never again, but we’re falling through time, it’s like 1939, and now it’s down to us—our compass for good and evil.” Cognizant of the stage May 4th has become and the power of the commemoration to reflect the lessons of WWII and the Holocaust back onto contemporary events, as Grunberg was doing in his 2020 speech, Goedkoop concluded with a plea, aimed at the Dutch government and audience, to not let the past repeat itself and to take action in support of Ukraine.

With Goedkoop’s speech and the government’s general support for Ukraine, which also extends to much of the population, Baudet took to Twitter to make clear his disdain for the so-called exploitation of Remembrance Day. In critiquing the government for using the commemoration to make a political point, Baudet himself took the opportunity to make broad claims about memory of WWII and corruption in the West and in Ukraine.  In a calculated move, Baudet retweeted a post by Joost Niemoller, a right-wing journalist and David Irving supporter, who protested that WWII “has become the absolute moral standard of good and evil.” Baudet took up this narrative in his own thread to accuse Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government, or what he refers to as the “ruling clique,” of pushing a so-called political agenda of increasing immigration, strengthening the European Union, and demonizing critics by labeling them as Nazis. He decried the supposed use of the “new Jews” trope to create sympathy for Muslims, and by extension refugees, despite the fact that Baudet himself has routinely likened COVID-19 prevention policies to Nazi terror during the Holocaust and wielded the “new Jews” label when he found it useful to the FvD’s claims of victimhood. On the topic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Baudet argued that memory of the “War” is mobilized to support the “CIA regime in Ukraine” and reframed the Russian occupation of the Donbas as violence perpetrated by Kyiv on civilians in the region. Interspersed within his diatribe were references to the character of Dutch memory culture and politics.

Baudet’s remark about facing backlash for nuancing the “goed/fout (right/wrong) frame of politics and journalism” signals an ideological stance well known to a Dutch audience. The “goed/fout” paradigm emerged in the immediate aftermath of WWII to explain decision-making and behavior during the occupation. The overly simplistic concepts of “goed” and “fout” separated individuals into clearly defined roles of victim and perpetrator, a familiar exercise in the postwar European landscape, and added a layer of moral judgment which made it difficult to understand the complexity of wartime experiences which evaded simple categorization. A shift away from “goed/fout,” led by Hans Blom, occurred in the 1980s and coincided with greater emphasis on Jewish experience and trauma. But interrogations of “goed/fout” also resulted in analyses which removed morality entirely from the equation. Chris van der Heijden’s “gray thesis” ignored individual agency to argue that a majority of people responded to evolving circumstances in terms of their own survival. His argument placed resistance members, Jews, and perpetrators on the same moral plane, effectively excusing those who made the decision to collaborate with Nazi occupiers. Van der Heijden’s argument, featured in his 2001 monograph, Gray Past: The Netherlands and the Second World War, appealed to Dutch audiences because it absolved the public of guilt and shame. The danger of the “grey thesis” lies in its easy appropriation by far-right political parties such as FvD, who see the Dutch government’s admission of responsibility and complicity during the Holocaust as distorting history in service of weakening Dutch sovereignty and enforcing a liberal political agenda.

While placed within the context of May 4th and the war in Ukraine, these tweets serve as his rebuttal to his December 2021 court case which forced him to remove social media posts which drew parallels between the Dutch government’s COVID-19 regulations and the Holocaust. One of those tweets, from September 17th, 2021, began with: “Dear Jewish organizations, 1) The War is not yours but all of ours.” In his May 4th tweets, Baudet wrote:

Everyone and everything who has views other than those prescribed by the established power, did not learn the ‘lessons of ‘40- ‘45’. And ‘the lessons’ are ‘their lessons.’ The cartel and the media claim absolute control over the deployment of that carefully created and maintained ‘moral benchmark’ through films, textbooks, exhibitions, monuments, etc. In short, WW2 is 1) omnipresent and 2) THEIRS. From the system. It is the state religion, as it were.

Baudet used strategically placed dog whistles to accuse Jews of dictating the memory of WWII and forcing Dutch society to adhere to a “goed/fout” (victim-perpetrator) reading of the Nazi occupation period. His comment about a “carefully created and maintained ‘moral benchmark’” acts as a denunciation of the greater societal awareness of Jewish experiences during the Holocaust and the Dutch government’s control over interpretations of the period. Baudet and the FvD are not arguing that WWII should cease to function as a frame with which to understand the contemporary moment; rather, Baudet wants control over the narrative. His tweets repackage the FvD’s perceived crusade against the “establishment” in order to fit the context of May 4th, but the message is the same. Baudet and the FvD believe themselves to be the heirs of a mythologized white, patriarchal Christian “civilization” and therefore those most deserving of setting the agenda and imposing cultural and political norms. By arguing that the true resistors during WWII were individuals such as Baudet’s own grandmother, who he claims gave her passport to a Jewish classmate, he endeavors to reclaim the mantle of moral superiority and shift the focus back onto the non-Jewish Dutch saviors.

By continuing to frame himself and his supporters as victims of a “new totalitarianism,” Baudet’s rhetoric also appeals to those who see the broadening of the Dodenherdenking as proof of a concerted effort to disparage Dutch heritage and enforce collective guilt. For example, the Federation Indo-Dutch, an organization dedicated to preserving a pristine image of Dutch colonialism, tweeted out on May 5th that the broadening of the memorandum to include “Indonesians who fought for the enemy, including war criminals” acted as a “knife in the back of Dutch victims of Indonesian #Bersiap-violence.” Baudet retweeted the post adding: “Scandalous indeed. Terrible.” The Dutch term “Bersiap,” which is not used in Indonesian circles due to its racist caricature of Indonesian freedom fighters, refers to Indonesian violence against Dutch, Eurasian, and Chinese communities in the aftermath of Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta’s declaration of independence on August 17th, 1945. In the Rijksmuseum’s publication on the exhibit “Revolusi! Indonesia Independent,” the historian Remco Raben explains: “The main question under discussion in the Netherlands was how the end of the colonial empire in Indonesia could have led to such political chaos, soiling its reputation as a benevolent colonial power. The question of what the war had been like for Indonesians did not receive any attention then, and hardly does today.” Dutch nationalists, colonial apologists, and the far-right align on a positive retelling of Dutch colonialism because it reaffirms their curated self-image as a morally, racially, and politically superior people. These nostalgic readings of the past by Baudet and other far-right politicians in Europe are not simply a response to evolving cultural and societal norms; rather, these interpretations serve as a roadmap for their ideal future.

 

Imperial Pasts, Sovereign Futures

As we have shown, while Baudet adopts the historical mantle of Dutch victimhood and anti-Nazi resistance in seemingly contradictory ways, his ultimate aim is to bolster Dutch ethnonationalism in opposition to the pro-EU “elite.” Much like the way in which Putin harkens back to the Soviet Union’s role in WWII or the “Great Patriotic War” in mobilizing popular support for his regime’s war in Ukraine today, Baudet’s ideological approach to WWII, the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Holocaust, and the Indonesian War of Independence is to actively reinterpret history in a way that frames his radical-right movement as the true inheritor of the heroic spirit of the past—including the glories of imperialism, which apparently require no apology. And we would be wise to believe him when he says who he is, rather than writing him off as a cynical opportunist.

The ideological overlap between Baudet and Putin is more than coincidental: investigative reporting by Dutch public broadcaster Zembla has strongly suggested the possibility of hidden financial ties between Baudet and the Kremlin, dating back to his time as a political commentator, prior to his political entrance into Parliament in 2017. Although the original 2020 broadcast caused a stir, no significant political consequences followed; revelations about pervasive racism and antisemitism within the party drew more attention, nearly leading to Baudet’s ouster from his own party. Russia’s current invasion, however, has brought the issue back to the fore, leading Zembla to broadcast an update on their original reporting that raises further questions about Baudet’s links to the Kremlin. And whether or not the allegations of Russian financial involvement are true, the ideological connections are clear: Baudet and the influential Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin have expressed mutual admiration since meeting at a conference in Amsterdam in 2018, sharing their complementary visions of a post-liberal political order. For its part, the Russian government has strategic interests in Dutch affairs, not only because of the latter’s position in the EU, but also its role as the host of institutions like the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where Russia recently attempted to embed a spy.

Baudet’s potential Russian ties have implications far beyond his personal political vulnerabilities—against which he has, thus far, remained resilient. Even as an opposition party, FvD has demonstrated its capacity to wreak considerable havoc in Dutch politics and political culture. FvD’s opposition to supporting Ukraine also extends to Ukrainian refugees. In a video posted on April 21st, 2022, Baudet’s right-hand man, the MP Freek Jansen, warned that accepting Ukrainian refugees would be “super dangerous, as we saw earlier with the Syrians, with the Turks and Moroccans who came here as guest workers.” Jansen’s alarmist remarks speak to how the racialized treatment of refugees fleeing Ukraine serves as a way to police the borders of Europeanness and whiteness. Just as troublingly, it shows the full scope of the Dutch far right’s reactionary vision, domestically and regionally: the creation of a white, Christian ethnostate, allied with fellow authoritarian “democracies” from Amsterdam and Paris to Budapest and Moscow. While our attention is rightly centered on Putin’s war in Ukraine, we should not overlook the political actions of his allies elsewhere in Europe and how support for Russia aligns with their own racist visions of ethnonationalist sovereignty.

 

Jazmine Contreras is an Assistant Professor of European History at Goucher College

Nicolaas P. Barr teaches in the Comparative History of Ideas Department and Jewish Studies at the University of Washington

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