In recent days, Dutch media reported about a document found in the private archive of Prince Bernhard, the husband of former Queen Juliana. This document – a membership certificate – shows that the prince was a member of the NSDAP, Adolf Hitler’s party. Today the current king responded to this discovery. He said: “We have to face the past, even the less beautiful aspects of it.”
I completely agree with him on that. Of course, as a genealogist I think we all should look at our past: what happened in our family and what can we learn from it? We must also dare to admit that we make mistakes and that the people who came before us did the same. Even if those mistakes have had major consequences for others.
I have conducted such a research myself. I knew that some family members were in organizations during World War II that were part of, or strongly sympathized with, the Nazi regime. To find out more about their actions, I visited the National Archives in ‘s-Gravenhage (The Hague) some time ago. The files that were drawn up after the war against more than 300,000 people who were suspected are kept here. A large group of the persons involved was convicted, but many of them were acquitted.
Image: Opening of the War Tribunal in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch) in July 1945. (Credits: National Archives, Netherlands)
This archive – the Centraal Archief Bijzondere Rechtspleging (CABR) – is not yet public. The documents will be available to everyone from 2025, but at this time one still needs permission. Among other things, a proof of death of the person whose file one wants to see is mandatory. This is to protect the suspect’s privacy. However, the National Archives are currently digitizing all files, so that consultation will be much more convenient in the future.
I consulted CABR files of four family members. Despite the fact that the files contain very extensive reports in which the facts are well presented, it often remains difficult to assess whether the actions of that person can really be qualified as ‘wrong’. There are situations in which it is very clear, and this will also be reflected in the conviction and sentence. And sometimes the choices family members made may not have been smart, but were understandable considering the circumstances.
Image: Young women who were ‘friends’ with German soldiers are arrested in April 1945. (Credits: National Archives, Netherlands)
Let me briefly summarize what I discovered about two of my relatives. Because I do not want to hurt the feelings of other family members, I will not mention names or other personal details. Their identity is not important for this story.
A 20-year-old girl was suspected of being engaged to a German soldier. Later she would have been close friends with someone else. There were even rumors that she became pregnant and had an abortion. Rumors also said that she worked for a pro-German health organization and had a short vacation in a German holiday resort. The girl herself said that she was ‘dating’ with the soldiers (not engaged), and that there was a miscarriage (not an abortion). She was never a member of a Nazi organization and had never been to a holiday resort.
In 1946 the authorities decided to stop prosecuting her further, but to place her under supervision. She had to demonstrate in the next three years that she was able to improve her lifestyle. This supervision lasted until 1948.
An uncle lured his 19-year-old nephew to join NSB, a pro-German organizations. The uncle was also a member and would later join police-like or even paramilitary groups. The boy lived alone with his mother, he was an only child and his father had died young. The uncle fulfilled a fatherly role. That influence brought the boy to enlist with the Schutzstaffel (SS). He soon understood that this group was violent. He decided to leave and work for the railroad. But the SS forced him to re-enlist, facing prosecution if he did not. Much against his wishes, he served in a police force until 1944. He was arrested and imprisoned in the former (German) concentration camp in Vught. In 1946 he was released from further prosecution.
Image: Prisoners – possibly former members of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – in Camp Vught. (Credits: National Archives, Netherlands)
These examples show how young people joined pro-German organizations or behaved friendly towards the German occupiers. The question is always whether we can blame them. Some people will say yes, they were old enough to realize that they should not be friends with Germans or side with them. Others will say no, we need to understand the circumstances they were in.
Many people around me have asked me why I want to know all these facts. I can give the same answer as our king: I knew that family members had in some way sided with the occupiers during the war. Based on facts from original documents, I wanted to see for myself what they had or had not done and in what circumstances. I do not judge, I research and document.
Once the CABR files are public and accessible to everyone via the internet, many will look to see whether a file also exists for one of their own family members. They will then encounter acts of heroism, but also morally reprehensible actions. They must – just like me, just like the king – face the past and accept what happened at that time.
(Note: This article does not show copies of the original CABR files. As long as these files are not public, researchers cannot take images or make any other copies of the documents.)