[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ost and near-freezing on his first night at the front, without shelter in a Russian December in 1941, Hendrik C. Verton saw what he thought would be his salvation: a German military bus slanted to one side of the road ahead. He and a fellow soldier approached and, unable to force the door open, scratched at the frost on the bus windows. What they saw inside left Verton “shaken to the core”: dozens of motionless German soldiers, frozen solid as they sat upright in their seats. For the 18-year-old Dutch SS recruit, it was a chilling welcome to the icy horrors of the Eastern Front.
The thought of a Dutch Nazi collaborator might leave present-day students of the war unnerved. The Netherlands’ role in World War II generally evokes images of Anne Frank and family; of Operation Market Garden, celebrated in the book and movie A Bridge Too Far; of the liberation battles of 1945; and of the Dutch Resistance, of which much has been written. In the wartime Netherlands, however, collaboration was far from uncommon: far more Hollanders fought on behalf of the Nazis than in the armed resistance to the German occupation of their country.
Verton and his compatriots were among the 22,000 to 25,000 Dutch who served in the Waffen-SS, the elite armed wing of the SS—the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel or “Protective Echelon”—infused with the doctrines of National Socialism and loyalty to Adolf Hitler. The armed resistance, in contrast, numbered only between 5,000 to 12,000, most joining in the last year of the war.
THE NETHERLANDS HAD SUFFERED greatly from the global economic collapse in the prewar years, and its residents viewed Germany’s financial recovery under National Socialism with envy and suspicion. The Netherlands’ own National Socialist party, the NSB, had strengthened throughout the 1930s. “National Socialism promised a better life,” explained Gerardus Mooyman, son of a dairy farmer from the Netherlands’ heartland, who joined the Waffen-SS at just 17. In Holland’s underfunded military, the rifles and artillery pieces dated to the nineteenth century, the ranks were thin, and morale at rock-bottom. With military spending at a minimum, Holland hoped to fend off German expansionism with a policy of strict neutrality. But in May 1940, German airborne troops easily leapfrogged Holland’s defenses, triggering the country’s surrender just six days later. The disciplined enthusiasm of the well-equipped German troops left impressionable Dutchmen like Hendrik Verton in awe.
Young Hendrik had the fresh face and healthy physique of one who grew up outdoors. His father, a small-scale industrialist, admired what he saw as Germany’s superior technology and work ethic, and passed those views on to his children. With little exposure to the world beyond his conservative Christian family and his island home of Schouwen-Duiveland, near the Belgian border, Verton absorbed these values. For young men like him, the SS motto, “My honor is my loyalty,” were words to be taken seriously. Despite constant anti-German propaganda in the Netherlands, Verton and his comrades were envious when they saw photos of Hitler Youth riding motorcycles or flying gliders. Verton and friends shared a growing view that the Netherlands was a European backwater, while Nazi Germany represented the future.
The SS took advantage of such sentiment. With the Wehrmacht dominating military recruitment in Germany, the SS looked beyond German borders for suitable recruits, initially focusing on the Germanic nations of Europe—those with “Aryan” credentials, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Belgium. As the war progressed and the male Aryan population bled out on Europe’s battlefields, the SS and the German regular army began recruiting from France, Croatia, Bosnia, Latvia, Estonia, Spain, Finland, India, Central Asia, and the millions of Volksdeutsche—ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe for centuries, many of whom spoke little or no German.
IN THE EARLY DAYS of the war, the Waffen-SS had a reputation as an elite unit of intelligent, athletic, and fearless young men. Hendrik’s older brother Evert was the first in his family to join. When a uniformed Evert returned home for Christmas 1940 with the Death’s Head badge on his cap and radiating enthusiasm for the “New Europe,” Hendrik was full of resolve: “I decided to follow him and nothing would deter me.”
Hendrik explained that his brother had chosen to don “the uniform of the enemy” because he was “willing to make a sacrifice for this fatherland, in the Europe of the future.” Dutch recruits had various motivations for joining the Waffen-SS beyond its stated goal of destroying Russian Bolshevism to create a “New Europe.” Some wanted to avoid forced labor or legal problems; others sought adventure or—as their homeland starved in 1944—the prospect of eating three meals a day. In later stages of the war, recruitment even offered release from prison. Some with no NSB background joined simply to rebel against their non-Fascist parents. Anti-Semitism may have played a part for some, but there was ample opportunity to engage in anti-Semitic activities in the local Dutch police services with little risk to life and limb. Few recruits hailed from the defeated Dutch army, though at least one would-be professional soldier volunteered because he was unhappy with the training he had received there.
All senior officers, most of their subordinates, and nearly all the NCOs in the Dutch Waffen-SS units were German. Training was a grueling physical process that, one recruit said, “left my tongue hanging like a red tie.” The motto of the training camps was “Praise be to all that toughens.” Verton observed that “our typical Dutch liberal mentality” was not always in sync with SS expectations. Dutch recruits quickly learned that religious rituals such as saying grace before dinner were unwelcome in the SS training camps. On graduation, the volunteers took a loyalty oath to Hitler and each had his blood type tattooed under his left arm. The tattoo, given only to members of the SS, was intended to speed medical treatment on the battlefield. The confident Nazis never considered the tattoos’ implications in the case of defeat.
HENDRIK VERTON WAS ASSIGNED to the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, which, by May 1941, had more than 600 Dutch troops under the command of General Felix Steiner. Steiner, 45, was a veteran Prussian officer and early Nazi Party member. With fellow Prussian general Paul Hausser, Steiner shaped the foreign volunteers of the Waffen-SS into an aggressive fighting force.
Verton served in the division’s Westland regiment alongside Danes, Norwegians, Flemings, and Germans, assisting in the invasion of Russia in the summer 1941 as part of Operation Barbarossa. They quickly discovered that reality in Russia bore no similarity to the boldly colored SS recruiting posters showing Dutchmen in pressed German uniforms trampling the Bolshevik “barbarians” with ease. “We had not found ‘adventure,’ nor the ‘laurel-leaves of victory,’” Verton later wrote, “but mud, lice, polar conditions and death.” The Dutch soon began to encounter the remains of comrades whom the Russians had taken prisoner and tortured or mutilated. “We kept a finger on the trigger and had the smell of burning villages in our nostrils,” Verton recalled.
At the front, death lurked behind every shadow and spread across the landscape in the howling winds of the night. Sentries disappeared in the darkness; patrols came to a bloody end from well-hidden mines; and, as winter cold advanced, peaceful blankets of snow concealed Siberians tunneling up to German positions. Moments of astounding carnage at times shattered the daily routine of fear and attrition.
In the early hours of November 19, 1941, Verton’s unit watched as 1,000 Russian cavalrymen, sabers shining in the rising sun, galloped toward the regiment’s modern German machine guns. Many years later Verton described how the “snow-covered low land was turned into a bloodstained battlefield between volleys from the machine-guns and mortars, splintering, catapulting everything in its path eight meters into the air. It was suicide by slaughter.”
WHILE GERMAN ARMIES STORMED their way through the Russian steppes, the SS began recruiting European “Legions” based on national origin, unlike the mixed unit to which Verton belonged. Wearing the orange, white, and blue crest of Holland’s historic “Prince’s Flag,” a Dutch SS Legion arrived in the swamps and forests of the Eastern Front in the midst of the 1941-42 winter—the coldest in 140 years, with -52 degrees Fahrenheit recorded.
Hobnailed leather boots conducted the cold, leading to frostbite and amputations; Finnish allies, accustomed to the Arctic chill, said the Dutch might as well run around in the snow in their socks. Steel helmets did the same, causing soldiers to suddenly drop dead when their cerebral fluids froze. Men wore every piece of clothing they possessed. Yet in the firestorm of combat, the volunteers sweated so much they had to fight the urge to tear off their coats, an impulse that would lead to certain death. The men were forced to use hand grenades to excavate the frozen soil for graves for fallen comrades.
Mail from home was infrequent—Dutch postal officials choosing to dump rather than deliver letters to the Eastern Front as an act of resistance. Later in the war, the Dutch Resistance took to killing close relatives of Waffen-SS volunteers. In early 1943 the father of Verton’s best friend in the SS was murdered in northern Holland while riding home on a bicycle. The friend himself had died from a mortar shell attack a year earlier.
The most famous Dutch Waffen-SS soldier emerged in the bitter fighting outside Leningrad, as Russian troops and armor struggled to break the German stranglehold on the city. Gerardus Mooyman, the dairy farmer’s son, had already been at the front for over a year, earning the Iron Cross First and Second Class. At just 19—looking more like a member of the Hitler Youth than an SS combat veteran—he performed a spectacular feat at Lake Ladoga, 25 miles east of Leningrad. In February 1943 Mooyman destroyed 13 Russian tanks in a single day with a Pak-40 antitank gun—part of his wartime total of 23 tanks put out of action. His commanders and comrades believed him fearless, but in truth he was scared of dying and even more frightened of becoming a prisoner of the Russians.
The young volunteer went on to become the first non-German to be awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Knight’s Cross. The Waffen-SS removed Mooyman from the frontlines to send him on a seemingly endless round of propaganda events intended to inspire other young Dutchmen to feats of courage. Photos show Mooyman looking bewildered and a bit overwhelmed. “It irritated me when the Nazis used me as some sort of publicity object,” he told a Dutch magazine 26 years later. “When [they] wished to name a square after me, I refused because other warriors, who had died in battle, were just as brave as me. Battle fascinated me many times more than all the trimming that came with it.”
AS THE WAR GROUND ON, new Dutch Waffen-SS units arose to replace those lost in combat. After suffering more than 80 percent casualties in Russia, the Dutch Legion was disbanded in April 1943; survivors merged with Norwegian and Latvian units to form a new battle group. In October, other veteran Legionnaires, fresh Dutch recruits, and Romanian Volksdeutsche formed an SS Nederland Panzergrenadier Brigade. Following the German practice of manipulating nationalist sentiment when it was in their favor, the brigade’s two regiments bore the names of prominent Dutch figures.
The Nederland Brigade carried out operations against partisans in Croatia, routinely hanging its prisoners. The unit then moved north to Leningrad as part of Felix Steiner’s III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps to face overwhelming numbers of Russians. Steiner praised the brigade’s performance against a January 1944 Soviet offensive launched from the Oranienbaum pocket, a Soviet stronghold west of Leningrad that German forces had failed to take in 1941. In a week-long struggle the Dutch helped prevent the Soviets from collapsing the German flank. Steiner declared he was “proud to have such troops in the Germanic Corps.”
The brigade again proved its worth in the defense of the German line along Estonia’s Narva River beginning in February 1944, where the large number of foreign SS fighters there led to survivors calling it “the Battle of the European SS.” The Dutch once more won praise from Steiner—but by the end of March, the horrific fighting there had cost the brigade one- to two-thirds of its strength. In July 1944, Soviet air force attacks obliterated the remnants of one of the brigade’s regiments.
With Allied troops entering the Netherlands in early September, and the Dutch Resistance promising an imminent day of retribution for collaborators they termed “Hatchet Day,” the NSB collapsed in a frenzied panic. On September 5, 1944, 65,000 NSB members took to the trains and roads in a flight to Germany. Though some later drifted back after the Allied liberation of the Netherlands was delayed, their authority had vanished in the spectacle that became known as “Mad Tuesday.”
As 1945 began, Soviet forces trapped the Nederland Brigade’s remaining regiment on Latvia’s Courland Peninsula, reducing it to 80 men. The survivors withdrew by sea, and the unit was reconstituted with Dutch, German, and Romanian Volksdeutsche reinforcements in West Prussia, only to be shattered again by the Russian offensive in Pomerania beginning in February 1945. In Hungary, other Dutch SS troops in the Wiking Division engaged in a vain attempt to hold off advancing Russian armies before the Soviet forces drove them into Austria and American internment.
In the Netherlands the SS raised a new, understrength Waffen-SS division in February 1945. Much of that unit died at the start of the Battle of Berlin. The Red Army shot members that it took prisoner; others surrendered to advancing Americans. That March a new SS Home Guard division, organized under a veteran Nazi, fought Canadian and British troops on the lower Rhine, even clashing with members of a unit attached to the British Second Army of Dutch troops who had escaped the German invasion.
As Canadian forces closed in, a former Dutch Legion soldier wounded on the Eastern Front, Andries Jan Pieters, organized an anti-Resistance group that indulged in rape and torture to such a disturbing degree that an SS commander ordered their arrest. (The Dutch government would execute Pieters in 1952.)
Hendrik Verton finished the war in the German city of Breslau (today Wrocław, Poland) as part of the ad-hoc Waffen-SS Regiment Besslein. By April 1, 1945, artillery, bombers, and rockets had turned Breslau into a black, mushroom cloud-capped inferno. Damaged sewers and decomposing bodies made the air unbreathable. Conditions were so intolerable that 100 to 120 citizens and soldiers killed themselves each day. In the midst of this cauldron, Verton and each of his comrades received a bottle of wine from a Nazi Party propaganda officer to celebrate the Führer’s April 20 birthday. The Russians intensified their bombardment to mark the occasion. Eight days later, a sniper’s bullet tore into Verton’s arm. On May 6, 1945—two days before the German surrender—the 82-day siege came to an end.
Of the 25,000-some Dutch who served in the Waffen-SS, one quarter to one-third were killed. Four Dutch volunteers received the Knight’s Cross.
Many of their countrymen who had suffered under Nazi rule back home called for executing returning Dutch Waffen-SS men after the war. The government stripped them of their citizenship, but most of the volunteers received relatively light sentences of four to five years. Those who fought against the Western Allies received longer sentences.
Reintegrating these young men back into Dutch society was a challenge—most had been thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi precepts. It was doubted whether some could ever be cured of the anti-Semitism they had absorbed in the SS. Some Dutch Waffen-SS veterans apparently regained their citizenship by fighting in Indonesia in 1945-49 against independence fighters seeking to overthrow the Dutch colonial regime.
SS General Paul Hausser led a postwar movement to sanitize the Waffen-SS’s record by shifting the blame for atrocities. As a professional Prussian soldier with no desire to go down in posterity as the leader of a gang of war criminals, Hausser emphasized the broad European makeup of the SS and identified anti-Communism as its motivation, claiming “The SS was really the NATO army in prototype.” That assertion forms the core of most revisionist accounts of the Waffen-SS, although few historians take it seriously.
After his homefront tour, Gerardus Mooyman returned to combat at the Narva Front in 1944 as an SS-Untersturmführer, or second lieutenant. In May 1945 American troops captured him in Germany; he escaped twice before a Dutch court in 1946 sentenced him to six years in prison. He served three of those years and moved to northern Holland where, unlike many of his comrades, his countrymen forgave his SS service as a youthful indiscretion. Mooyman claimed to have been “devastated” when he learned of the extent of Nazi crimes and read books about these events, which made him “wake up at night screaming.” He died in a car crash in 1987.
The Soviets took Hendrik Verton prisoner at Breslau on May 9, 1945. He tried to remove his blood-type tattoo, but his captors, who separated the SS from other prisoners for “special treatment,” regarded the resulting scar as proof of his SS membership. Much to his surprise, though, the sniper’s bullet wound to his arm got him released, even as his sick and injured comrades were bundled off to Siberian Gulags. Verton thought a young female Russian doctor may have had sympathy for him, but admitted he didn’t know why he had been spared harsher treatment.
To avoid reprisals at home Verton remained in Germany, not returning to the Netherlands until 1954, when the Dutch government offered amnesty to remaining Waffen-SS members. He died there in March 2006, three years after composing his memoir, In the Fire of the Eastern Front. Like so many of its type, his account diminished the influence of National Socialism on Waffen-SS volunteers while emphasizing the importance of the anti-Communist crusade.
Verton, unlike Mooyman, was largely unapologetic. “Sacrifice was the fate of the ‘volunteers.’” Verton said. “The harvest of sowing their anti-Communist seeds was defamation, and persecution was the tragedy of their honor.” For Hendrik Verton, enduring the horrors that began his first night at the front when he peered through a bus window at his frozen comrades was simply the price demanded of “idealists” such as himself. ✯