Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soc­cer Dur­ing Europe’s Dark­est Hour

Simon Kuper
  • Review
By – December 19, 2012

For­eign­ers,” writes Simon Kuper, know lit­tle about the Nether­lands.” In this bold and com­pre­hen­sive book Kuper explains that a lit­tle coun­try like the Nether­lands, whose lan­guage is not spo­ken abroad, can tell all sorts of lies about itself in the world. Not many peo­ple can check them.” The son of South African Jew­ish par­ents who relo­cat­ed to Hol­land in 1976, Kuper was shaped by his child­hood and ear­ly ado­les­cence in that coun­try. After mov­ing to Lon­don in 1986, he decid­ed to return for a few months to research a short book about Dutch soc­cer dur­ing World War II

That book appeared in Dutch in March, 2000. Now, more than a decade lat­er, he has sought to deep­en his orig­i­nal insights with an expand­ed Eng­lish ver­sion of his research. Between these two pub­lish­ing moments, Kuper has become a not­ed colum­nist for The Finan­cial Times, and he is wide­ly rec­og­nized as an expert on the rela­tion between soc­cer and cul­tur­al pol­i­tics. So here is a mul­ti-lin­gual author well pre­pared to check the facts about mod­ern Dutch his­to­ry. Through exten­sive inter­views and care­ful review of rel­e­vant archives, Kuper aims to scru­ti­nize the often accept­ed myth” of Hol­land as a tol­er­ant coun­try” which behaved vir­tu­ous­ly dur­ing World War II. He enacts such de-mythol­o­giz­ing by com­bin­ing broad his­tor­i­cal facts about Holland’s war record with a very spe­cif­ic focus on Dutch and Euro­pean soc­cer. As he gath­ered evi­dence and moved between these two realms of soc­cer and social his­to­ry, Kuper grad­u­al­ly real­ized that a book about soc­cer and World War II would go to the heart of Hol­land. Soc­cer was a place where the Holo­caust met dai­ly life.” 

The usu­al incli­na­tion is to assert that Hol­land saved Anne Frank, or near­ly, so it must always have been good.” Kuper seeks to expose such deceiv­ing myth through the cru­cible of hard sta­tis­ti­cal fact. Of the 140,000 Jews in Hol­land before the war, over 100,000 per­ished by 1945. The record, as cit­ed by Kuper, also shows that a very great num­ber of Holland’s hid­den Jews” were betrayed like the Frank fam­i­ly — more than 11,000 out of approx­i­mate­ly 28,000 were exposed and turned over. Regard­ing the com­mon-place of Dutch brave resis­tance to the Nazis, Kuper presents an esti­mate that a mere 25,000 Dutch peo­ple were active in the Resis­tance, about 0.25 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.” In con­trast, the records about France indi­cate an esti­mat­ed 400,000 French peo­ple were active in the Resis­tance, or 1 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.” But back in Hol­land, in Kuper’s account, dai­ly life obliv­i­ous­ly con­tin­ued, and the ball rolled on” in its many well-attend­ed soc­cer sta­di­ums. Soc­cer in Hol­land had become a basic human need,” Kuper writes, and the Dutch weren’t about to give it up just because of a genocide.”

Kuper’s focus on Dutch dai­ly life” dur­ing the war extends to detailed his­to­ries of its most pop­u­lar soc­cer clubs. He pays spe­cial atten­tion to the ven­er­a­ble Ajax Club locat­ed near the once-vibrant Jew­ish Quar­ter of Ams­ter­dam. Due to this spa­tial prox­im­i­ty, Ajax grad­u­al­ly became asso­ci­at­ed with Jews though its mem­bers were over­whelm­ing­ly Gen­tiles. The author dis­cerns at best a grey” record regard­ing Ajax and Dutch Jews. As an infor­mal net­work,” some club mem­bers did help to save local Jews. How­ev­er, as events devel­oped, rel­e­vant records reveal a club stuffed with erst­while col­lab­o­ra­tors.” Trans­lat­ing the rec­ol­lec­tions of one for­mer Ajax chair­man, Kuper quotes its guid­ing war-time pol­i­cy: “…see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil…Hide it away, don’t talk about it.” To his great cred­it, Simon Kuper insists on pre­sent­ing the truth, and refus­es to hide it away.” As a result, he deep­ens our under­stand­ing of Europe’s dark­est hour. Bibliography.

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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