On the first week of May, the Dutch pay homage to the victims of all wars and celebrate the end of Nazi occupation on two separate days: Remembrance Day (Dodenherdenking) on May 4th, and Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag) on May 5 th.
What is the story behind the celebration?
May 4th, Remembrance Day
Remembrance Day originally was created to honour all victims, civilians and soldiers, of World War II, but since 1961 it includes people who perished in any conflict since. Dutch authorities chose to keep Remembrance Day and Liberation Day separate to be able to have a more somber day to remember the victim without spoiling the happier celebrations of the liberation from Nazi occupation.
Every May 4th, the Royal Family as well as veterans and military leaders, attend official ceremonies where they lay flowers on monuments that remember victims of the wars. The main ceremonies are always broadcasted, for example, the one that takes place on Dam square in Amsterdam.
Other notable ceremonies are those that take place at the Waalsdorpervlakte near The Hague, where numerous members of the Dutch resistance were executed in World War II, and at the war cemetery in Grebberg.
Each municipality holds similar events to honor local victims of war. This year in Groningen for example, the University of Groningen will unveil thirteen Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) to commemorate the students and staff members who lost their lives in the Second World War.
On May 4th, everyone in the Netherlands observes a minute of silence at 20:00, during which even public transport and traffic stop.
May 5th, Liberation Day
On May 5th 1945, at Canadian Commander Charles Foulkes the German commander-in-chief Johannes Blaskowitz signed in Wageningen an agreement on the capitulation of all German forces in the Netherlands. Since then, Liberation Day has been a time for celebrating the end of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.
Originally, Liberation Day was celebrated only every five years, but it became a yearly occurrence in 1990. While celebrations now happen every year, the Dutch can officially take the day off only every five years, next time will be in 2025.
The History of Liberation Day
The Netherlands had managed to stay neutral during World War I and the Dutch government planned on repeating the same strategy once the Second World conflict started in 1939. When the war was officially declared between allies Britain and France and Germany in October 1939, Nazi leadership pledged neutrality towards the Netherlands. So, when did things start to go wrong?
Regardless of promises of neutrality, Hitler soon had his eyes on the Netherlands. First, the Dutch had numerous airfields along the coast which could be used to great effect by the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, to attack Britain. In addition, Nazi leadership feared that France and Britain would occupy the Netherlands first and exploit its strategic location advantages.
On May 10th 1940, German forces entered the Netherlands, without formally declaring war beforehand. They encountered some resistance from the under-equipped Dutch army but made their way through the country fast. While Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government managed to escape, the Nazis already controlled most of Eastern Netherlands by May 14th.
When the city of Rotterdam refused to give in to German forces, it was heavily bombed, killing 800 to 900 people and severely damaging and destroying homes, warehouses, and even churches. After the “Rotterdam blitz” of May 14th and threats of a similar fate for Utrecht, the Netherlands officially surrendered to Germany on May 15th 1940.
From that moment, the Dutch lived under German occupation until 1945, a time that was particularly tragic for Jewish citizens. By the end of the war, three-quarters of Dutch Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, the highest number of Jewish victims of any Western European country.
In 1945, finally, the Allied forces started advancing through Europe, inflicting severe blows on Hitler. At the beginning of May, Canadian, British, Polish, American, Belgian, Dutch, and Czech forces entered the Netherlands from the East, and first liberated the eastern and northern provinces. At the same time, the South-East areas of the country were being freed by British, Polish, American, and French airborne troops.
Allied efforts culminated on May 5th, when the opposing sides co-signed the German surrender document, finally liberating the areas still under Nazi rule in West Netherlands. On May 7th 1945, German leadership signed the German Instrument of Surrender, marking the unconditional capitulation of all German troops.
Did you know?
When the Allies liberated the Netherlands, Dutch people filled the streets for days and weeks, celebrating the end of Nazi occupation and of the war.
During this time, former member of the Dutch resistance Mies Boissevain-Van Lennep came up with the idea of a nationale feestrok (national party skirt), also called liberation skirt, made from different pieces of fabric preserved during the war, often embroidered, sewn together.
The idea came from Boissevain-Van Lennep experience as a prisoner in Amsterdam during the war. While she was kept in the concentration camp of Vught, she was sent a tie made of small patches of fabric. She recognized bits of cloth from coats, pants and other clothing belonging to friends and acquaintances, and she told her fellow prisoners the story of each piece. This brought the prisoners together, which is why Boissevain-Van Lennep proposed Dutch women do something similar with their skirts on the first Liberation Day in 1945, as a sign of unity, collective mourning, and female emancipation.
The colorful patchwork skirts eventually came to symbolize the reconstruction and renewal of the Netherlands by combining old pieces of fabric into one new item.
A few months ago, the Frisian Resistance Museum embarked on a search for the remaining Frisian Liberation skirts. The skirts and the stories behind them will be presented in a special, free of charge exhibition starting from May 5th.
What to do on Liberation Day?
All over the Netherlands, there are music festivals to celebrate Liberation Day, including in Groningen, Leeuwarden and Assen. The so-called Bevrijdings Festival is usually free, but this year the Groningen one will charge 5 euros for attendance, a move that has sparked some controversy.