The Dutch minister of Justice is currently researching the possibility of revoking Dutch passports or even the citizenship of those currently fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. According to the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, Dick Schoof, some one hundred, mostly young people have made the journey from the Netherlands to Syria. While the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats propose to revoke only passports to prevent people travelling to Syria, Geert Wilders’ PVV party asked explicitly to consider revoking Dutch citizenship in the case of double nationality and to deport those former Dutch citizens to the country of citizenship according to their other passport. Liberal Dijkshoorn (VVD) wonders, if those fighters might lose their citizenship in analogy to what was once considered ‘foreign military service’ and asks the minister, if it is possible to revoke as many Dutch citizenships as possible.
In light of the current affairs, it is worth looking at the history of Dutch volunteer fighters in foreign wars. One of these wars was the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Some 600 Dutch volunteers joined the communist International Brigades to fight against Franco and the Nationalists. Another dozen joined the anarchist forces. According to one publication there was also one Dutchman fighting on the side of Franco. The Dutch state chose a politics of non-intervention concerning the civil war in Spain, and a politics of intervention concerning the domestic groups, mostly communist, in support of the Spanish Republic. The Dutch government was aware of groups that started the recruitment of volunteers for the war in Spain. People who had fought in Spain but regretted their choice were helped to return to the Netherlands in exchange for information. Secret agents were used to collect names of Dutch citizens in Spain and helped to collect information pertaining to the manner in which these citizens arrived in Spain.
The problem was that there were no legal means to stop people from leaving the country (as is the case today). What could be done, however, was putting a stamp in new passports that made them invalid for Spain. This probably did not have much effect, as those involved in recruiting and helping volunteers had prior experience in helping German communists who fled persecution in Germany since 1933, sometimes helping them to get to Belgium or France: they had experience in secretly helping people cross the border illegally. Once a volunteer reached the French-Spanish border, the republicans couldn’t care less about their passports, with or without a stamp. They openly welcomed the help offered by the foreign volunteers, especially in the early phase of the conflict.
Another measure by the Dutch state was a communiqué by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1937, stating that those who joined the armed forces in Spain would lose their Dutch citizenship. This was not a new law: according to the Dutch Nationality Law of 1892 article 7, section 4: ‘one loses his or her citizenship by joining foreign military or civil service without Our permission.’ From a legal standpoint, this loss was automatic and not to be considered a punishment. This communiqué must be seen as a measure to restrict travel for future volunteers. It seems, however, as if it didn’t have much of an effect, as most volunteers left the Netherlands after this communiqué.
At the same time, as stated above, the state actively researched the names of those who went to Spain (by, for instance, interviewing family members of those suspected). While revoking their citizenship might have been automatic, acquiring the names of the concerned individuals was anything but. In June 1937, a new royal order was implemented, stating that all acts promoting and assisting participation in one of the forces in Spain are forbidden, thus criminalizing all recruitment activity. All political parties were in favour of this order, except for the communist party (CPN). Despite a few arrests in enforcing this order, recruitment was secretly conducted from the very start and thus hardly affected. Meanwhile, some deserters returned to the Low Countries, stating they were promised work in Spain. Interviews with some of these deserters in the newspaper de Telegraaf draw a picture of poor workless people being press-ganged with false promises. It is most likely the case that these deserters created a story that would ultimately help them in not having their citizenship revoked, e.g.: it was work they were looking for in Spain, not war, and they were forced to fight.
It is estimated that some 250 volunteers lost their citizenship upon returning to the Netherlands, and about 200 volunteers managed to avoid it. As Toon van de Berg stated: ‘It didn’t happen to me, I left in silence, and I came back in even more silence.’ In 1938 the Spanish Republic decided to withdraw all foreign volunteers. This measure was done in the hope to gain more sympathy and help from Western States, especially France and England who were neutral in the conflict. While Germany and Italy officially also were neutral, they supported Franco. The biggest support for the republicans came from the U.S.S.R., and their help was on the decline. At the same time, the political situation in Europe was becoming ever more tense, as Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia with an armed conflict in order to annex the Sudentenland.
In October 1938 a big parade was organized in Barcelona as to see off the foreign volunteers- some 200.000 people gathered to celebrate their departure. The welcome in the Netherlands was a different one. A group of 117 Dutch volunteers entered the country by train in Roosendaal and were welcomed by the Marechaussee and official investigators. The singing of battle songs was forbidden, but as it was 5 December, the day of St Nicholas, the group decided to sing the well-known Dutch St Nicholas song: ‘See over there, the steamboat from Spain is arriving again’, a song that could hardly be forbidden. After all luggage was inspected by the Marechaussee, who were searching for weapons and propaganda material, an official told the group that they had lost their Dutch citizenship. They were served a meal of sauerkraut and bacon, which led afterwards to a discussion in the Dutch parliament: was this meal, paid for by the State, indeed necessary? It is unclear why those volunteers didn’t try to reach the Netherlands without being noticed by the authorities – maybe the group was just too big to do it otherwise. Some 62 volunteers followed later on.
What is striking in the literature about the Dutch volunteers in Spain is that, on the one hand, people were aware of the possibility of losing one’s citizenship by joining the armed forces in the civil war, and, on the other hand, that the fact of losing this citizenship also gets a prominent place in the literature. In my research for my Master’s thesis about loss of citizenship after the German occupation, it felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially with regard to other groups than the SS. The fact that the statelessness of the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War receives such a prominent place in the literature is not only due to the indignation of this measure, as the volunteers felt they were fighting the first and just battle against the upcoming fascism in Europe, but also because this statelessness put them in a vulnerable position as soon as the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940. In addition, the process of regaining the Dutch citizenship after the German occupation would become a theatre play with many acts, with the latest known re-naturalisation in 1969.
More on the consequences of statelessness for the Dutch volunteers after the Spanish Civil War and the long way to become a Dutch citizen again in my next blog…
Julia Mattern wrote her master thesis about the loss of citizenship of Dutch volunteers working for the Nazi construction organisation “Organisation Todt” during German occupation (1940-1945). This organisation built e.g. the Atlantic Wall.