My wife and I are visiting Amsterdam, and today we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s really excellent, with very creative displays and lots of information delivered in easily-digested-yet-substantial bites. For us, it also provided a lot of lessons that are all too relevant to our situation in the United States today.

The first is that resistance is messy: morally messy. The actions people took to hurt the occupiers, such as a railroad strike, also hurt the people (hunger increased) and the resistance itself (since members depended on the trains for transport). Few moral choices were perfectly clear or afforded an option that resulted in entirely clean hands. Forcibly called up to work in Germany, men could either go, thus unwillingly helping the German war effort; refuse, and be shot or sent to concentration camps; or hide, endangering their families. Those who weighed the options and went to Germany were castigated by many compatriots afterwards–“Why didn’t you hide?”–but they had not necessarily chosen the worst of three bad options. And then there were the many civil servants and officials who faced the unenviable decision: do I stay in my position and try to intercede for my people, soften the effect of the Nazi takeover, or do I resist and, at best, be replaced by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party? Some were outright collaborators, but many others were simply trying to walk an impossibly thin wire.

It’s the nature of violent regimes to set up such impossible choices. Divide and conquer was a common and effective strategy of the Third Reich. In the Netherlands as elsewhere, they instituted Jewish councils that were charged with carrying out Nazi requirements. Even those leaders who did their best to mitigate the decrees were set up to be perceived as collaborators by their own people; that was one of the occupiers’ intentions.

Another effective strategy was the frog-in-the-pot approach. The Nazis didn’t lower the hammer right away. People were devastated by the invasion, but it soon appeared that life remained pretty normal, even for Jews. Bit by bit, more repressions were added: a registry system, labels on passports, requirements that schoolchildren learn a Nazi-approved curriculum . . . Different people drew the line in different places, and some just kept their heads down and put up with all of it; some, no doubt, were even sympathetic to the German aims. But again, those who genuinely opposed fascism and anti-Semitism were still that frog in the pot, noticing a growing discomfort and wondering when to say “too hot.”

Is this sounding familiar?

Those who resisted did not always agree on how to do it, when to do it, or how much was too much or not enough. In fact, the impression one gets from the museum’s displays is that internal conflict was at least as common as unity. For example, people criticized even the bravest actions for coming too late. One heroic act of resistance was planned in intricate detail and attempted three times before modest success and devastating punishment (execution, imprisonment, exile). The German occupation required everyone to have papers; for many, forgeries were the only option since genuine ones would be marked with a “J” and thus be a sentence of internment or death; the forgeries, naturally, did not match what the Registry Office held. So, going to the source, the conspirators plotted to blow up the Registry Office. In the end, they succeeded in starting a fire that destroyed 15% of the records. (Today, someone wanting to carry out equivalent sabotage would have to be a hacker.) There was much rejoicing, but since most Jews had already been deported, many people also pointed out that if the bombing had been carried out earlier, many more lives would have been saved.

If this kind of sniping doesn’t sound familiar, you can’t have read any liberal or leftist responses to the news over the past year and a half.

I wonder how people responded when it was not the liberals, nor the socialists–both pillars of Dutch life, according to the museum–who rushed to the defense of Dutch Jews, but the fringe, mistrusted Communists. I wonder if, when this defense of the Jews was seized by the Germans as a pretext for vicious crackdowns that shed some of the first blood of the occupation, there was a wave of recrimination: “If we’d just stayed quiet, those people would still be alive.” I don’t know, but there are hints in the displays that some at the time were uneasy with the Communist-Jewish alliance, and that the protests gave the regime the excuse it was waiting for. If so, we’ve heard those arguments more recently and closer to home.

Also familiar was the way that some people were treated as heroes while their partners in resistance were virtually ignored. For example, Gerrit van der Veen, one of the conspirators in the Registry Office bombing, has numerous streets named after him across the country, while another, who was gay, gets little recognition. See?: I have already forgotten his name, while van der Veen’s sticks because it’s a major street and a tram stop. We enact unfairness like this constantly, giving white women credit for #MeToo without acknowledging the black woman who initiated it, or allowing our prejudices to influence which resisters of Trumpism get more attention and praise. Then these injustices prevent our unifying to fight our common enemy: sexual harassment or the administration’s policies.

Even resisters were prejudiced and entitled. When Jews who survived the camps returned to Holland, many of their neighbors downplayed the Jews’ suffering, didn’t want to hear about it, or drew facile, false equivalents. A young girl who survived Bergen-Belsen heard all about the rationing of food and confiscation of bicycles that her neighbors endured, though they didn’t want to hear about the camp.

Do that failure to hear each others’ experience, and a defensiveness about others’ greater suffering, sound familiar?

Most Dutch, inheritors and upholders of a global empire, were slow to acknowledge their hypocrisy, and the people they colonized made deals that also sit uneasily on the conscience. Many Indonesians took up arms against Dutch and Dutch-East-Indian residents of Indonesia, some of whom had lived there for generations. The Indonesians wanted to be a free republic, and saw the Japanese fight against the Dutch as an opportunity to free themselves from colonial rule. So, despite Japan’s own imperialism and the repressiveness of the Japanese army, they joined forces with Japan to drive out the Dutch. Many Dutch East Indians and Dutch were bitter about this and didn’t understand for years, if ever, that the struggle for Indonesian independence was much like their own struggle against German occupation. Resistance to oppression created uncomfortable parallels and unsavory coalitions, then as now.

And there was the passionate support of the Dutch royal family, which had fled to England, which might seem an odd rallying cry for a pro-democratic movement but also inspired and unified the people; and the almost comically bourgeois forms of resistance, such as the woman who, when compelled by the Nazi officers to darn their socks, claimed ignorance and sewed them shut. Gasp!–but, laughably minor though it seems, it got her into trouble.

It seems as if we have been here before. Here’s the thing to remember, then: the Dutch resisters were victorious. They needed the Allies to liberate the country, ultimately, but they hung in there through starvation and repression and outright murder, until they won and the Nazis lost. This, even though their resistance movement was filled with infighting and compromise and sniping.

Maybe that’s just what successful resistance looks like. Maybe even when your efforts are messy and you get a hundred things wrong, it can be enough. Maybe we should stop worrying about being such a flawed, frustrating resistance movement, and just keep on keeping on. They also serve who only sabotage the officers’ socks. And if enough serve in enough ways, we will win.

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