Holland's War Policy

By Hendrik Willem van Loon

[The Yale Review, July 1918]

The position of Holland and the attitude of the Dutch people in regard to the war have often been misunderstood. Many people who read of the murder done by German U-boats upon the peaceful Dutch fisherfolk and sailors have asked in surprise, "Why is not the country in this war?"

Situated in the heart of the conflict, Holland has, indeed, suffered a great deal, and from both sides. But there has been a difference. One can still write about the legal relations which exist between the Allies and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Even during the most distressing period of the war, "there were judges in London," and an appeal to reason was always possible. On the other, hand, Germany's submarine policy made such an attitude untenable. The Dutch government has never been willing to make ruthless submarine warfare a matter of academic discussion. It does not recognize it any more than we recognize highway robbery or murder. And the Dutch people have shown their appreciation of Germany's methods by remaining faithful to the ideals of the Allies even when circumstances seemed to drive them in a very different direction. I shall, therefore, refrain from dealing with the pirate submarine in this discussion of Holland's war policy as it has been determined by international law.

In the somnolent little town of Delft, there stands in front of the ancient church the statue of Grotius. An exile from the land of his birth, he has at last come back into his own. For nearly four years the spirit of the man who laid the foundations of our international ethics has guided the distracted Kingdom of the Netherlands through her ever increasing difficulties.

Holland, thus far, has survived the raging conflict, not through the power of her armed forces on land and sea, but through a steady and faithful application of the tenets of international law and the stipulations of international treaties and compacts. At the present moment when passion obscures the vision of so many million sufferers, the small kingdom along the banks of the North Sea does not enjoy the sympathy of many of the belligerents. Yet in the days to come she expects to have their respect and their admiration for the firm way in which she has maintained the position that, after due deliberation, she chose for herself.

One often hears it stated that international law is dead. The brutal violation of Belgium by the German military party is taken as an evidence of this fact. After such a flagrant breach of neighborly faith, what could the Allies do except play the game according to the German rules or confess themselves defeated? No doubt there is a certain element of truth in this assertion. It is not easy to fight a square battle when your opponent prides himself upon his disregard of all rules and defends his conduct by an appeal to the "all-highest" law of military necessity. At the same time, the man who does not play the game fairly is at a very distinct disadvantage. He knows that he is wrong. He may boast to the umpire and the onlookers (in this instance the neutral nations) that he is gaining a great victory. But down in his own heart he knows that he was defeated the moment he began to cheat. The great tragedy of this war will not be found among the hundreds of thousands of wounded and maimed who are to survive the ordeal; they will have done their duty and had their share of glory. The most pathetic victim of this terrible wrong will be the hale and hearty German of fifty years hence, a lonely figure, shunned by all because of the barbarities of his fathers—a lasting sacrifice to the injured decency of the human race.

To return to the facts in the case, when Holland found herself suddenly in the midst of the conflagration she was obliged to state, as concretely as possible, her own position. She then adopted this rule of conduct: unless directly attacked by a foreign enemy, the country would maintain the strictest neutrality and would not join in the war.

From this a few people drew the superficial deduction that the Hollander intended to assume the rôle of a Bryanesque non-resister, turning both cheeks to all those who cared to practise the strong muscle of the right arm—a mild creature of everlasting patience, praying for those who sinned against him. The ideal of non-resistance to evil has, however, never formed a part of the Dutch character. Like most races who hate discipline, the Dutch love to fight. Their firm decision to keep out of this particular war was based upon very different grounds. An anti-militaristic spirit had nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, every man and boy old enough to carry arms, has been at the frontier for the last four years. The country has been turned into a complex maze of defenses. The marshes around Amsterdam have been made ready for instant inundation. One large loan after another has been over-subscribed without undue pressure from the side of the government. The people know very well that their independence will last just as long as they can force their neighbors to respect the potential power of some six hundred thousand well-trained men. No, the reason for the persistent refusal of the Dutch people to join in the war is to be found in the past history of the country.

Like all small nations of the European Continent, Holland has suffered greatly at the hands of her mighty neighbors. The history of Sweden and Denmark and Norway and Holland shows only too clearly how during the past centuries might has always been the basis upon which the relationship between the small and the big powers was built. Hence from age-old habit,, the Swede and the Hollander and the Dane regard the European concert of nations as a cacophonous organization, the mighty instruments of which bode no good to the unsuspecting neutral.

I know very well that this attitude has puzzled many an honest visitor from the belligerent countries. "Is there," he asks, "a soul so knavish that it cannot feel the wrong done to the world by the German conception of both war and peace?" To which we answer: "No, our souls are not particularly knavish. We are entirely on the side of the right. What is more, we can prove it." A country—not a few isolated towns and villages, but an entire country—which has given everything it had to a stricken neighbor, which has offered food and shelter to refugees to the number of one-fifth of its own population, which in the face of imminent starvation has shared its meagre supplies with all those who asked for assistance—such a country does not keep away from the conflict either because it is dead or because it is indifferent to the suffering of its fellow creatures. It is actuated by a nobler motive. It intends to keep high those old standards for the re-establishment and maintenance of which the Allies are fighting—the rallying faith, bestowed upon their cause by President Wilson, of a new and equitable society of nations.

As for the different crises—the rapidly succeeding difficulties which the War has engendered in Holland—these began as soon as the Germans crossed the Meuse. As is well known, Belgium retained the rights of a neutral nation a little over twenty-four hours. Then she was presented with the German ultimatum, and when this was curtly refused the stream of German invaders descended into the valley of Liège. These were anxious days for Holland also. The only coal-mines that the country boasts—their product is poor enough and none too plentiful-—are in a queer geographical appendix, a narrow strip of territory situated along both banks of the Meuse, The wisdom of ancient peace negotiators had decreed that this stretch of land, only a few miles wide, should lie between Germany and Belgium, Although the central part of Holland can be easily defended on account of its low and watery soil, this rolling territory is at the mercy of any powerful invader.

When Germany marched across the Belgian line, her troops passed within sight of the Dutch frontier guards. Indeed, the right flank of the Prussian regiments had to be shooed off from Dutch territory like pigs who are about to uproot the flowers in your private garden. In some instances, they actually wandered upon Dutch soil. They were at once disarmed and taken to a concentration camp. It was a moment of intense excitement. Wild horses galloped through the streets of Maastricht, the capital of the province. An endless procession of wounded and refugees hastened towards the safe protection of the red, white, and blue flags. Dead German soldiers floated down upon the muddy waves of the Meuse.

In the midst of this chaos, German soldiers marched towards the north surrounded by their Dutch guards. The Belgian refugees dazed with fright did not notice that these enemies were unarmed. They recognized the Prussian uniform. Forthwith the rumor was circulated that Holland had allowed the Germans to march through her territory. This false report speedily found its way to the utmost corners of the civilized world. The famous French magazine, "L'lllustration," appeared with an explanatory map, on which was indicated the exact spot where Holland had opened her frontier to the German neighbor. Very likely some good patriots still believe in the accusation. To counteract this dangerous story, the Dutch government scattered photographic reproductions of the Germans and their Dutch captors broadcast over a skeptical world. But the harm was done.

A few weeks later the Germans, in their turn, voiced a complaint. When the English cruisers "Hogue," "Aboukir," and "Cressy" were torpedoed by a German submarine, the survivors were brought to Ymuiden on the Dutch coast. As they had been rescued by commercial ships and not by naval vessels, it was decided that they must be allowed to return to their native country. Germany protested against this ruling. She wanted the men interned. But the law, as understood by Holland; made a sharp distinction between sailors rescued by merchantmen and those picked up by the vessels of a navy, and up to the present moment, the Dutch government has stuck to this principle. Many are the airmen of the Allies and the Central Powers who, forced to descend to the unruly waves of the North Sea, have clung to their machines for hours, while a Dutch torpedo boat stood by, like a waiting taxi-cab, to rescue them when cold and hunger and seasickness and misery in general had exhausted them to the point of surrender.

But all these early incidents in Holland's relations to the war were mere trifles compared to the difficulties which arose when Antwerp was attacked by the Germans, The town of Antwerp is situated along the banks of the Scheldt. For the last part of her ever widening course, the Scheldt runs through Dutch, territory. The problem of this famous old river opens up vast vistas of ancient diplomatic sagacity. When, in the year 1648, peace was concluded between Holland and Spain, the latter country, then in possession of the Belgian state, was forced to accept the closure of the Scheldt. There had always been great commercial rivalry between Amsterdam and Antwerp. When the rebellious northern provinces won the war, the southern provinces, which had remained loyal to Spain, were obliged to-pay the cost, and Antwerp, cut off from the sea, was doomed and was soon reduced to the importance of a small country village. The French revolution, two centuries later, set this matter straight. Antwerp regained her old and proud position; and the Scheldt was opened to Belgian commerce; but upon one condition—Holland was to take care that no foreign war-craft should ever sail this broad river. Belgian merchantmen were given access to Antwerp, and the Belgian state was allowed to maintain her own pilot service; but war vessels were excluded under this agreement.

When Germany attacked Antwerp, there was a feeling in many of the Allied countries that the stipulations of the old treaty ought to have been stretched a bit. English guns and English supplies, many believed, should have been forwarded to help the Belgian ally. But it was made clear in the Hague that the Dutch government felt itself bound to abide by the treaty. When Winston Churchill's belated relief expedition proved to be a mob of brave but untrained mariners, when Antwerp fell after a few days' fighting, there was a tendency to place the blame for the failure, in part, upon Holland's obstinate refusal to allow ships to sail the Scheldt. Yet when the Dutch government proceeded to turn the tables upon the Germans and refused to German submarines and torpedo boats all access to the North Sea, it was understood and generally appreciated that this formal adherence to treaties and regulations carried certain advantages to all concerned. Since that time, Antwerp has remained landlocked. No German ship has left her ports.

Yet these incidents, also, were merely of an introductory nature. So were the thousand and one Orders in Council and warlike measures which the Allies issued against the trade and commerce of the neutrals, under which Holland shared annoying regulations with many other countries. Moreover, such measures never worried the Dutch government or the Dutch people. However irksome or irritating they were, the Dutch merchant knew that he could place full confidence in the British courts of law. He could take his case before a bewigged and begowned judge, and this dignitary would listen patiently and without prejudice of national pride. If the Hollander were right, his Honor would cheerfully decide against his own country. If he proved to be wrong, judgment would be given in a fair and impersonal fashion. As most of the commercial disputes between Holland and the Allies were fought out in British courts, the purely legal end of the matter never caused great discontent among the merchants of Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the German courts. Chicanery and bullying apparently form part of the German judicial mind. It is hardly worth the cost to send a lawyer to Hamburg or Bremen. You have lost your case beforehand.

But the situation for Holland did not become menacing until the German admiralty turned its submarines against the commerce of the Allies and the neutrals, and the Allied powers consequently decided to arm their vessels. Here was something new. The Dutch government was asked whether it would regard the armed vessels as men-of-war or as peaceful merchantmen. The letter of the law, as it was understood in the Hague, demanded that the former view be taken. A test case was made when a British steamer appeared before the Hook of Holland armed fore and aft. Not until the guns had been removed was the ship allowed to proceed to Rotterdam. As a result, a very acrimonious correspondence took place between his Majesty's representative in the Hague and the Dutch crown. But although England—and afterwards the United States—was "astonished" and "surprised," Holland flatly refused to surrender her position and stuck to the written regulations as she had understood them from the days "before the war." Finally, the case was dropped. No further armed ships have tried to enter Dutch harbors.

A short time afterward, even more complicated events threatened the good relations which thus far had existed between the Allied countries and Holland. There were a number of German ships in Dutch harbors. They wished to return to Hamburg, and as Holland was a neutral country they were at full liberty to sail away. For greater safety, they hugged the shore and stayed well within the three-mile limit. But halfway up the coast of the province of North Holland, a series of banks extending many miles towards the west forced the ships to leave the safety zone. Here they were attacked by English, torpedo-boats. The Germans tried to beach their vessels. The British followed. Fast and furiously the English shells rained down upon the German ships; and incidentally Dutch cattle, grazing a mile and half inland, were killed by the cannonade. Although this constituted a very direct and drastic breach of international law, nothing was, ever done about it.

Similar difficulties have been continually caused by the activities of the Allied airplanes. This branch of the service demands very young men, whose zeal is not offset by a corresponding knowledge of topography. One of the main points of attack is the port of Zeebrugge, only a few miles away from the Netherlands frontier. To show the exact limits of its territoriality, the Dutch government has stationed a warship just off the coast of Flanders. At night this ship is brilliantly illuminated, and together with the lights of Flushing and the village of Cadzand it ought to give the airmen excellent guidance upon their errands of destruction. But the gods have willed things otherwise. Almost every attack upon Zeebrugge has meant destruction to Dutch life and property. The adjoining Dutch province of Zeeland has been liberally sprinkled with bombs, and a score of women and children have been killed by pieces of bombs that had seen the light of day in some British factory. In only a very few instances has any redress been obtained for these unfortunate attacks.

Further towards the north, the Germans indulged in Zeppelin raids. A quick remedy for this trouble was discovered when the Dutch army received instructions to be less courteous, to omit further shots of warning, and to fire at sight upon anything afloat in the air or in the water. As a result of this order a score of young Allied and Teuton airmen now read their morning papers in the coffee-houses of the Hague.

Meanwhile, all semblance of civilized warfare had been taken from the conflict by Germany's declaration of ruthless submarine war upon all those who sailed the seas. Even before this official announcement of wholesale piracy, a German U-boat commander had committed a most flagrant breach of decency by torpedoing the Dutch mail-steamer "Tubantia," bound directly from Amsterdam for Buenos Aires. The steamer, fully lighted and recognizable as a neutral vessel, was struck by a torpedo, pieces of which, afterwards found, told the story of Germany's guilt. Complaints were at once made in Berlin. The admiralty following an old precedent denied all guilt. An absurd story was invented to place the blame upon the English who, it was said, had picked up a stray German torpedo and had fired it at a Dutch ship to cause difficulties between Germany and Holland. Nobody in the Netherlands believed this lie; and since then it has been very difficult for the German Foreign Office to get a hearing with the Dutch people. When a little later, a German commander, whose wireless did not function, sank seven Dutch vessels off the coast of Cornwall, war seemed imminent between the two countries. This time, however, the imperial government knew that it had gone too far. It offered apologies and asked Holland to accept seven German ships, interned in the Dutch East Indies, in return for the vessels that had been sunk.

Thus before the war had lasted three years, there had been a number of cases in which the Dutch government had answered direct hostilities with an appeal to international law—on the whole with a fair amount of success. The supreme test, however, came during the ill-fated "sand and gravel question." Of this case certain rather hazy rumors must have reached American shores, for I have been asked repeatedly why Holland did not curb her greed for war profits and refuse to sell sand and gravel to the enemy.

Unfortunately, the question is not quite so simple as all that. Germany produces all the sand and gravel she ever will need and is not in the market for Dutch sand. The case is bound up with ancient and most complicated treaty rights. Both Holland and Belgium are covered with a complex system of canals. From time immemorial the three adjoining countries of Germany, Belgium, and Holland have enjoyed the right-of-way across each other's rivers and canals. Germany could transport her sand and gravel to Belgium by rail, but for the sake of convenience she preferred to ship it in barges.

What did she use this sand and gravel for? There is the rub. According to the German explanation, it was used for purely civilian purposes—to reconstruct the roads of Belgium. According to the view of the Allies, it was used for the building of the "pill-boxes" which defended the German front in Belgium. The Allies were probably right. At least, the vast majority of the Dutch people believed that they were right. They supported the demands of the Allies that the sand and gravel business be liquidated.

To make an end to all discussions, the Dutch government ordered that, after such and such a date, no further sand barges be allowed to pass through Holland. The Allies objected that the trade should be suspended immediately. Unfortunately, the case was handled in such a fashion as to undo much of the good which popular sympathy with the Allied cause had brought about. Suddenly and without a word of warning the Dutch merchants discovered an inexplicable delay in the transmission of their cable messages and foreign telegrams. The government found itself cut off from the colonies in Asia. Evidently something had gone wrong. After ten or eleven days the British legation in the Hague announced that the courtesy of the English cables could no longer be offered to Dutch business men unless the transportation of German sand and gravel were summarily stopped.

This sudden threat—for such it was—produced exactly the wrong effect. The Dutch people are obstinate. Like all races they are loyal to their leaders. They now found themselves placed in a position where they must repudiate their own government or suffer financial loss. Although they felt that the cabinet had been deceived by the German authorities, their loyalty forced them to support the seven men who thus far had borne the brunt of the battle for Dutch neutrality. When the Minister of Foreign Affairs explained his position in the Dutch House of Representatives he was assured of the absolute confidence of the people. Rather than submit to foreign dictation—even where she agreed with the foreign point of view—Holland chose to suffer the loss and the inconvenience of a cable embargo. The colonies were given a chance to practise self-government, and the Dutch business man took a vacation. Strong in its conviction of right, the country accepted this humiliation without a murmur. Two months later, quietly and without further explanation, the courtesy of the British cables was again granted to the Dutch merchants. Sand and gravel became an incident of the past.

And now the country is faced by new difficulties of an even more serious nature. I mean the seizure of the Dutch ships. Unless I am very much mistaken, a peaceful solution will be found, in spite of the fact that there are certain elements which would use this occasion to break off negotiations between the Allies and Holland. In any case, there will be no retaliations.

Holland will play a waiting game, keeping her powder dry and the works of Grotius opened at the right page. Fully aware of what is about to come, the country is making ready to withstand the shock of the final act of the great struggle. If it survives the ordeal—and of this we are by no means certain—the small Kingdom of the Netherlands will have contributed its share towards the cause for which the Allies are fighting—the emancipation of the human race and the substitution of law and justice for the brute argument of the sword.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —

THE HEADLONG FURY

A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury
448 FASCINATING PAGES
PURCHASE NOW