Words to live by at the Dutch Resistance Museum
The museum's displays include a book that was turned into
a secret hiding place for a resistance fighter's pistol
The museum also shows how prams were used to hide
resistance fighters' weapons
Given Amsterdam's reputation as a hedonistic city where recreational drugs can be easily procured and prostitution is legal, I can understand why people tend to react with disbelief when I tell them that the city's main attractions for me were its museums. But that really was the case -- and thus it was that on my first full day in Amsterdam, I actually went and visited not just one but two of its more than 40 museological establishments!
Some folks may find it strange that I chose the Verzetsmuseum (AKA the Dutch Resistance Museum) to be the first museum I visited in the Netherlands but I thought it'd be a good place to go get contexualizing information prior to visiting the much more well known Anne Frank House (which my German friend and I had prebooked visits to for the day after). And so it proved, with the Verzetsmuseum offering up a plethora of stories and facts about life in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation from May 1940 to May 1945.
Although its name might get one suspecting that it's going to be full of propaganda and tales of Dutch heroics, the Dutch Resistance Museum actually goes all out to give a more balanced picture of events -- and is all the better for this being so. From the outset, it makes clear that after they found themselves under Nazi rule, people had the options of adapting or collaborating as well as resisting -- and that, in fact, resistance was actually the least popular option for many for the most part; with reasons being given for this ranging from it being by far the most difficult and dangerous option to many of the Nazis' directives and drives (such as the issuing of identity cards), at least initially, having appeared to be rather innocuous rather than obviously evil and wrong.
Something else that I greatly appreciate about this history museum was how it strives to put its visitors into the shoes of the people who lived under Nazi rule more than 70 years ago now. One way it achieves this is by posing questions which come across as relevant today. Another way it does so is to show how various individuals came to make the decisions they did (to adapt, collaborate or resist) using a combination of rational thought and emotion while thinking about themselves and/or others.
At the same time, even while making it understandable why some people opted to not actively resist against and oppose the Nazis, the museum's curators also have shown the societal results of people not having done so as much and earlier than would have been ideal. The sending of some 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands to concentration camps and their deaths, the sending of around 20,000 (other) Dutch nationals to labor camps in Germany, and the execution of some 2,000 members of the Dutch resistance are among the horrific statistics of the Second World War.
Still, what truly elevated the Dutch Resistance Museum for me is that its coverage actually extends beyond the Netherlands during World War II to also include the Dutch colonies -- and, in the case of what was known as the Dutch East Indies and now is Indonesia, through to 1949. More specifically, as a special exhibition (which runs through to April 3rd) shows, after experiencing what it was like to be under foreign rule, the Dutch got to realizing that they were viewed as foreign oppressors by some people -- and that their own nationals were capable of atrocities and war crimes too.
Hailing as I do from neighboring Malaysia and having had more than one anthropology professor whose specialist area was in Indonesia, I had been acquainted with the dark side of Dutch colonialism before my visit to this museum. But while I was not surprised to learn that Dutch colonialism was problematic, I did find it refreshing to see a Dutch museum openly acknowledge this and, along the way, deliver the universalist message that often we are all too fallibly human even when we'd prefer to be looked up to as righteous heroes, but that wrongs can be made right if we actively work to make it so.