Friday, 26 July 2013

GUEST POST: Long way back to citizenship

(Second blog on the history of 'Dutch statelessness' after the Spanish civil war)

In my first blog I described the recruitment of Dutch volunteers for the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), how the Dutch state reacted to this recruitment and how it actively sought the names of those volunteers to revoke their citizenship. At the end of my last blog, I described how a group of some 120 volunteers returned to the Netherlands by train and were declared stateless from now on.

Meanwhile I looked into the question of why this group came back in such an official manner. In a biography about the first Dutch volunteer in this war, Fanny Schoonheyt, also called the ‘queen of the machine gun’, the author offers an answer. It was due to an agreement in the Non-Intervention Committee, a committee which was set up by France and England and also joined by Germany, Italy and the USSR. The Committee had the goal of preventing this war from spreading to become an international conflict. In this committee, it was decided that the repatriation of the volunteers would be the task for the states where they came from. The Netherlands agreed to this. Furthermore it was decided that the volunteers would not be punished for their participation in the war. From the Dutch point of view, the loss of citizenship was to be considered a measure, not a punishment.

This point of view was debatable. In the Nederlandsch Juristenblad (Dutch Advocacy Review) of June 1937, lawyer I. Kisch anticipates the homecoming of the volunteers and writes an essay on the question of whether they should lose their citizenship or not. This essay is not only an interesting interpretation of the (French) history of this law and how it should be implemented, but also a confession of somebody who has seen, as he writes, ‘the misery of statelessness’: avoid as much as reasonable any case of statelessness, is his advice.

Prisoners of war

The misery of statelessness was very real for those volunteers who became prisoners of war. At least 25 Dutch volunteers were held in camps in Spain, and their situation became more complicated as Germany occupied the Netherlands and pressured Spain not to release any men between 18 and 40 years old: they might join the allied forces. Also, being repatriated to a country occupied by Nazi Germany was not a good option for those Dutch anti-fascists, and they were dependent on the good will and assistance from the Dutch authorities to find a country willing to accept them. Unfortunately, the Dutch authorities did not always make a big effort to help them, and for some time did not even feel responsible at all, as those prisoners were no longer considered to be Dutch citizens. This point of view was eventually revised.

One option was to absorb them into the Dutch brigades in England, whereto the Dutch government had fled in 1940. But the Dutch minister of defense refused to accept communists, although, as he admitted, they were probably experienced fighters. Finally, in august 1942, some eleven Dutch POWs were released to Curacao. Upon arrival there, it was disclosed that two of them were actually Germans pretending to be Dutch citizens in order to avoid deportation to Germany.

The last prisoners were released only in 1943, this time directly to England. They wanted to join the armed forces there, but were only offered the status of volunteers in the Dutch army, as they were considered stateless and thus not regular soldiers. Confusingly enough, those prisoners were given Dutch passports before their shipment to England due to differing opinions on whether they had lost their nationality or not between Dutch ministries. The business of enrolling in the army was settled in 1944, when it was concluded that somebody who had lost his citizenship might still be called up for army service. Other former volunteers in Spain, who had lost their citizenship and lived in the Netherlands, had received their draft card in 1939, just like everybody else. It seems that the consequences of losing one’s nationality with regard to the army draft were not clear.

German occupation (1940-1945)

So, some volunteers back in the Netherlands received a draft card, and many joined the resistance after the capitulation of the Netherlands. How did their statelessness affect their lives?

Before and after the occupation, there were certain consequences that affected the life of a stateless person. One was not allowed to vote or to be a candidate in any elections. Now considerd an alien, one was even not allowed to be politically active at all. Also, one was considered an alien and had to register as such and apply for a residence permit, which had to be renewed on a regular basis. To travel to other countries, one needed a special passport that was more expensive and had a shorter validity than a regular one. Working as a civil servant, or any job that required a certain nationality, was not possible. Work was only possible with a work permit, which was necessary for every new job again, and this permit had a price - also for the employer. One former volunteer who worked as a painter described how the alien police would inform the employer about his past in Spain, and that if he had work, he would always be the first who was kicked out. At that time, it had a stigmatizing effect, as one’s political affiliation was revealed.

How the status of being stateless affected the life of the former volunteers during the German occupation is not clear. It is known that the Germans were interested in the Dutch files about those volunteers, and also that after the February strike in 1941, a strike in solidarity with the Jewish population of Amsterdam, those files were studied once more by the Germans. Maybe a study of the different biographies of those volunteers would give a better idea, but I suppose that the statelessness, and thus the fact that someone had fought in Spain, already made those people some kind of outlaw and the decision to go underground might have been almost a necessity for many of them.

Renaturalization after occupation

The fact that the volunteers were in an especially dangerous position with regard to the German occupier, was mentioned as an explanation regarding the re-naturalization of twenty former volunteers in the end of 1945. However, the renaturalization of the former volunteers in Spain would become a long story. In the beginning, after the liberation of the Netherlands, it did not seem so. As mentioned, many volunteers were part of the resistance, and there was more recognition for the fact that they had already fought against fascism in Spain. The Dutch Prime Minister Schemerhorn was in favour of granting permission retroactively, thus reversing the act of revoking citizenship. Unfortunately, the (Catholic) minister of Justice, Kolfschoten, was against this, and he was granted the time to come with another solution. Furthermore, the former volunteers were not the only group asking for Dutch citizenship: in 1946/1947, there were some 8000 applicants for Dutch citizenship. A big group of those applicants were mostly German, but also Polish or Russian wives of Dutch forced labourers returning from Germany. Between 1945 an 1947, nationality was not granted automatically to these foreign wives and some 1000 couples waited in a camp in Bocholt, Germany, close to the Dutch border, until the ‘Committee for marriages with women of enemy or other foreign nationalities’ decided about their case.

Finally, Kolfschoten orderd  to renaturalize as it was done before the occupation . So in 1946, twenty former volunteers were presented in a bill to parliament. Members of parliament had to agree with their renaturalization all in one. If one person was refused, the other nineteen would have to wait to be presented again in another group. As the explanatory memorandum, appended to the bill, was insufficiently informative, members of parliament made a specific request to the minister concerning the principle to be applied: the positive system, implying that the naturalization must be in the interest of the Dutch State, or the negative system, in which the interest of the applicant would be of primary consideration. The minister answered that the positive system would be applied, as it was before the German occupation.

Until 1948, some 62 former volunteers were given their citizenship back. The slow procedure was to the disadvantage of the applicants, as the tension between the East and the West was growing, and communists in the Netherlands were considered more and more to be an internal enemy. One incident especially stirred up anti-communists feelings: in February 1949, the French communist leader Maurice Thorez hinted at helping the Soviets against the imperialist West in the event of war. The Dutch leader of the communist party (CPN), Paul de Groot, agreed with Thorez, although he emphasized the importance of avoiding war altogether.

The strongest reaction to this statement came from the chairman of the catholic political party KVP, Romme. He asked (among a list of other things) to revoke the citizenship of all communists, as they potentially intended to take military service for another country (the USSR). Indeed, being a lawyer himself, he probably knew that this proposal stood no ground legally speaking. It exhibits, however, that the communists were more and more considered to be ‘fifth column’, traitors and bad patriots. This must be understood against the backdrop of the fear of a Russian invasion.

From now on it became official policy to exclude communists from re-naturalization. Not against whom one had fought was now of interest, but against whom one was willing to fight in case of war. According to this new standard, former SS-soldiers who had fought in the East stood a better chance.

In 1951, the next step by the government was the introduction of a bill that would re-naturalize all stateless people in the Netherlands at once – except for those too much aligned with communism. This was a big group: some estimated 15.000 men and their spouses and offspring had lost their citizenship due to collaboration with the Germans, mostly by joining the Waffen-SS. And there were still a dozen former volunteers who had fought in Spain.

Almost the whole parliament was against this proposal: against the mixing up of the two groups, and against the re-naturalization of the former collaborators with one stroke of the pen. The bill was amended and made law. Now it was only applicable to those who had served in an enemy state, thus excluding the former volunteers in Spain. The mixing up of the two groups was avoided, but to the disadvantage of the Spanish volunteers.

Between 1950 and 1955, only 22 volunteers were renaturalized. In an official document of 1964 the reasons for the refusal of renaturalization of 45 former volunteers are listed: 16% were accused of having collaborated with the Germans, 17% of a criminal past, one person of living together out of wedlock, and 65% had an ‘extreme left orientation’ (being present at communist meetings was enough evidence). The first reason, collaboration, is rather curious, as at the same time thousands of former Waffen-SS soldiers were renaturalized.

Finally, thanks to a particular individual case, the exclusion of people with unwanted political ideas was dropped. Former volunteer Siep Adema had applied for renaturalization twice and was refused both times because of his communist background. He applied again in 1963, this time with added motivation: West-Germany had finally come up with financial compensation for those who had been prisoners in concentration camps. Adema was imprisoned for four full years in different camps and would get the highest amount possible – but he had to be a Dutch citizen. It was a bilateral agreement, probably referring to ‚Dutch citizens’. It was considered too much of an injustice if he could not touch the money, and the minister granted citizenship retroactively, as this was the only way of being able to apply. Three more volunteers benefited from this procedure for the same reason.

From this point on, political convictions were left out of consideration regarding applicants. By the end of the 1960s, all applications were dealt with. Whether there were still stateless volunteers who never filed an application is unknown to me, but it seems quite possible, as some volunteers refused to apply for renaturalization.


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.



Hans Dankaart e.a., De oorlog begon in Spanje, 1985, Van Gennep, Amsterdam

M.D. Bogaarts and C.M.J. Ruijters, De periode van het kabinet Beel, 1989, SDU-uitgeverij, ’s-Gravenhage

Yvonne Scholten, Fanny Schoonheyt, 2011, J.M. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam

Julia Mattern, ‚...Verzoek ik U beleefd mij weer als Nederlander op te nehmen...’, 2006, RUN, Nijmegen

I. Kisch, Vreemde Krijgsdienst in: Nederlandsch Juristenblad 1937, p. 719ff

Benjamin Kaplan et al.,Boundaries and their meanings in the history of the Netherlands, 2009, Brill, Leiden/Boston, p. 217

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