Dutch Volunteers in the Second World War
If you want to study the enemy, you have to listen to him first
In May 1967, the publishing house De Bezige Bij – founded in 1942 by members of the Resistance – published The SS Men: Dutch Volunteers in the Second World War. The steel-grey cover and stark visual design emphasized the grim factuality of the subject matter: interviews with eight Dutch nationals who had joined the SS of their own free will. Their words were reproduced without commentary, as continuous statements.
This book remains one of the few publications, in the Netherlands or anywhere else, in which former SS members disclose their inner worlds to the general public. Unlike the postwar judicial proceedings – from the Nuremberg tribunals to the trial of Adolf Eichmann – where high-ranking Nazis had given false testimony in hopes of saving their skin, The SS Men presents the foot soldiers of fascism. The book provides a glimpse of the inner lives of Waffen-SS soldiers. That makes it an important work, but also a shocking one.
When it hit the shelves in 1967, it unleashed strong emotions among readers and reviewers. It was called ‘a dangerous book, because the SS volunteers have the opportunity to unload all the excuses they’ve thought up over the years.’ Critics also described it as ‘Nazi propaganda, pure and simple’ and ‘a book put together with skill but lacking in a sense of responsibility.’ But it was also recognised as a ‘sinister book that had to be published.’
But the book is also significant as an expression of the spirit of the sixties. In the cultural transformation of that decade, the book’s editors, Armando and Sleutelaar, played key roles. Their work as journalists was inspired by New Journalism, which blurred the boundaries between evocative literary sketches and documentary reporting. They had grown up with the war, and this reverberated in their adaptations of the interviews of former SS volunteers, which have a raw, horrifying poetic force.
In short, The SS Men marks the crossroads of the struggle with the impact of the Second World War, the cultural and artistic experiments of a new generation, and the historical study of the perpetrators of Nazism, the atrocities of the Second World War, and the persecution and genocide of European Jews. This encounter between the legacy of the Holocaust, sixties counterculture, and documentary history makes Voices of the SS a unique and disturbing literary creation.