The entire nation comes to a complete and silent halt for two minutes.
By John Richardson
May 4 and May 5 are two very important days in The Netherlands: Remembrance Day and Liberation Day. Below you will find information regarding these two days. Those of you who are new to the Netherlands should take a moment to read this information.
The entire nation participates in a two-minute period of silence this Saturday evening at 20:00 in remembrance of all Dutch citizens and members of the armed forces who lost their lives in World War II and in remembrance of all Dutch nationals who have lost their lives since that time in others wars and peacekeeping missions. The entire nation comes to a complete and silent halt for those two minutes.
Please do take the time to read and think about the information below on these two very important days.
The Netherlands has its own way of commemorating the Second World War and celebrating the country’s liberation from five years of occupation. Unlike most countries, the Netherlands sets aside two days to mark these events. The first is a day of solemn commemoration; the second a day of public rejoicing with the young at the centre of attention. After a day of looking back at the past, the nation turns its hopes to the future. On 4 and 5 May the Netherlands affirms its pledge to provide a haven for all its citizens.
The Second World War left an indelible mark on the Dutch, who had remained neutral in the 1914-1918 war. Though memories of the Second World War are gradually fading, the Second World War still represents a watershed in our history. It continues to occupy our thoughts and conversations, and remains a constant reminder of the fragility of civilisation and democracy.
Germany occupied the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. The number of people still alive who lived through the war has obviously declined. By 2000, they formed no more than 20 percent of the population. Yet memories of that darkest period of our history live on. Most people are deeply aware of the years of Occupation, the persecution of Jews, Roma, Sinti and other minority communities in our society, and the destruction of Dutch towns and villages. And we are also aware of the liberation.
It took almost a year for Allied forces to liberate all the territories of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, from September 1944 until 15 August 1945, the date on which Japan capitulated and freedom was restored to the Dutch East Indies (now the Republic of Indonesia). Hence, different parts of the country celebrate their liberation at different times of the year. But on 4 and 5 May, the entire country unites to observe a day of remembrance followed by a day of celebration.
Almost everyone in the Netherlands attaches importance to marking these events, a day to honour the victims of the Second World War, and a day to celebrate freedom and democracy.* They give us a chance to pause and reflect on our values and ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights. We observe 4 May as a day of commemoration and contemplation, and 5 May as a celebration of freedom. The two are inextricable linked.
Remembrance Day (4 May)
Since the end of the Second World War, the Dutch have observed 4 May as a day of reflection, a day to honour the victims of war. At eight o’clock in the evening the country unites in commemorating the civilians and members of the armed forces who lost their lives in the Second World War. Unlike most countries, the Netherlands does not mark the occasion with large military parades. People all over the country gather at war memorials in their own communities, and at the stroke of eight the entire country observes a two-minute silence. All these events are broadcast live on television and radio.
A national ceremony is held in Amsterdam, with a memorial service in the historic Nieuwe Kerk in Dam Square, followed by the laying of wreaths at the foot of the national war memorial. The ceremony is attended by His Majesty the King, members of parliament and people from more than 100 organisations representing the different groups in society who were affected by the war. After the two-minute silence wreaths are laid at the foot of the national monument in Dam Square. The ceremony is broadcast live on television so that millions of people all over the country can take part in the solemnities.
Remembrance Day is a tribute to all Dutch victims of war. Special honour is paid to civilians and to members of the armed forces who fell in the Second World War, and to all Dutch nationals who have lost their lives since, in other wars or in peacekeeping operations. Three special wreaths are placed for civilians who died in Europe in 1940-1945: one for members of the Resistance, one for victims of persecution, and one for civilian casualties. A separate wreath is laid for those who fell in Asia, and another for the servicemen and merchant marine crews who gave their lives in the line of duty.
Liberation Day (5 May)
The close of the Remembrance Day ceremony signals the start of Liberation Day festivities commemorating Germany’s capitulation on 5 May 1945. War veterans gather in Wageningen, where the historic documents were signed, and parade through the city in celebration of the anniversary of liberty regained. 5 May is a national holiday. The solemnity of Remembrance Day gives way to joyful celebration.
Special Liberation Day events are organised all over the country. Two highlights of the day are the official launch of the celebrations – held in a different part of the country each year – and the open-air concert to mark their conclusion. Traditionally held on the Amstel River in Amsterdam and broadcast live on television, the concert takes place in the presence of His Majesty the King and members of the government.
Many local authorities organise special events for their own communities, and thirteen liberation festivals are held in different regions of the country. These liberation festivals feature both Dutch and international artists, and are especially popular with the young. The Liberation Day events centre on a different theme each year. Civil rights was an important theme at the beginning of the 1990s. In the second half of the decade, emphasis was placed on the precept that freedom cannot be taken for granted: it must be cherished and guarded with vigilance. All those involved in the festivals – organisers and performers alike – highlight these themes, while Amnesty International, War Child and similar organisations carry out special projects for the public.
The Dutch government established the National 4 and 5 May Committee, in which four government ministries are represented. The committee is responsible for organising the Remembrance Day memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony, and the events marking the official beginning and end of Liberation Day. It also coordinates the 13 liberation festivals and runs projects to inform youngsters about the significance of these two occasions and encourage them to take part in the activities.
One such project is the distribution of a book for 11-year-olds about the war and the liberation of the Netherlands. There is also an annual poetry competition for secondary school students. The winner receives the honour of reciting his or her poem at the wreath-laying ceremony in Dam Square. Similar projects highlighting the themes of war and peace are carried out all over the country. The committee campaigns to ensure that all activities to mark 4 and 5 May focus on a single theme.
Looking to the future
Different generations obviously have different perceptions of the Second World War and the remembrance and liberation ceremonies. People who lived through the war have personal memories of their experience, whereas later generations can only rely on history books and other accounts. The events organised to commemorate the war centre on themes which are relevant today to people of all ages and backgrounds. Over the past few years, Liberation Day has become a day on which the country unites to reflect on freedom and democracy. In marking the country’s liberation from oppression more than half a century ago, we celebrate the freedoms we enjoy today. Unlike most other countries, the Netherlands draws inspiration from this dark period in history to focus on the present and the future. That’s what makes these two days so important.