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May 1940 - The battle for the Netherlands - (book evaluation)


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May 1940 - The battle for the Netherlands

During the spring of 2010 the Dutch publishing house Brill (in association with Brill Boston) launched an English book on the Five-Days War in May 1940 in the Netherlands, intended to provide the English speaking market with a standard-work. It is titled 'May 1940 - The Battle for the Netherlands' [ISSN no: 1385-7827 // ISBN 9789004184381].

The book is quite costly, against a retail price of EUR 90 or USD 128. For that money the buyer gets 417 pages of actual content (excluding appendices) and a quite well illustrated book. The book represents volume 57 of the existing series History of Warfare.

This book saw its first issue in the Netherlands in 1990 with a follow-up edition, mildly edited, in 2005. Particularly the first edition of 1990 managed to stir up the normally calm lines of veterans in the Netherlands. A strong dispute around the editors' claim that the Dutch army had considerably and regularly infringed the Lex Belli [international law on warfare] during its desperate defence in those dark days of May 1940, escalated to such extend, that the veterans formally pressed charges against both lead editors of the book [e.g. the Ministry of Defence]. Although the veterans were unable to find the consent of the Court, the Dutch Ministry of Defence decided that a law had to pass the House that authors writing under the wings of the Department would no longer fall under Ministerial liability. It was an indirect signal to the veterans ánd the authors that although officially the authorities didn't yield to the veteran demands, the authors had crossed a line that had caused significant discomfort higher up.

In 2005 the book saw a second and slightly revised edition, wherein most of the disputed sections had been deleted or adjusted. Implicitly the lead-editors had yielded for the overwhelming – and most of all unexpected – wave of strong and sometimes fanatic criticism. It had not only been the matter of the Lex Belli that had triggered individuals and stake-holders to protest. It had also been the countless imperfections in the book, which were quite flagrant since the authors claimed it to be the new standard works on the Five-Days War, that supposingly had been built-up in a scientifically sound manner constructed around new researches – quod non. The 2005 edition had improved on the Lex Belli issue, but still contained many imperfections as to the balance of the content. Sadly enough, the English edition now hitting the markets in the UK and the US has hardly improved on that. It is still packed with imperfections.

Save the aforesaid, should one judge the book on head-lines, it shapes a quite reliable reproduction of the events that took place during the May 1940 invasion of the Netherlands. It is the only product of its kind in the English speaking world and as such an asset for those who find the invasion of the Netherlands a topic of interest. It constitutes a leap forward as to available (existing) productions on the English speaking markets, which tend to represent extremely poor quality on the affairs in the Netherlands during subject episode. In a way the appearance of this book can therefore be enchanted.  

In the extended evaluation of the book it shall be commented chapter by chapter [see the links in the left margin directing to various chapters]. Not all chapters have been reviewed, simply because some chapters are of very reasonable quality and others are not. The Chapters 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 have been reviewed and commented.

 But first we shall lift up the curtain on how the book was originally received in the Netherlands.

A dispute of magnitude …

We write the year 1990. A most controversial book appears on the Dutch domestic market about the German invasion of the Netherlands. It was written by a selection of professional historians and had been supervised by two war-history names connected to the Ministry of Defence, the Military War-History Institute [then IMG, nowadays NIMH] to be more precise. It were the director of the NIMH [Piet Kamphuis, MA] and his deputy [Herman Amersfoort, Ph.D]. The first is still in place, the latter is nowadays a Professor of Military History at the Dutch Defence Academy in Breda, amongst other positions.

The book stirred up a major share of the surviving Dutch war veterans, who up to that point had only risen to the occasion once before, when an execution of a Dutch NCO during the war-days had hit the public domain in the 1970’s. The authors had considered it fit and just to proclaim a highly disputable standpoint towards the (presumed) Dutch army (non)adherence to international law during the Five-Days War. More in particular, they accused the Dutch veterans (of particularly the battle of the Grebbeberg) of at least equal breach of the Lex Belli as their opponents, mainly Waffen SS formations of SS regiment Der Führer. In fact the authors compaired events of Dutch abuse of white flags (to run from the front or identify themselves to fellow comrades in the rear) to straight out murder or shielding (behind POW's) events by some opposing Waffen SS members. Besides that controversial comparison of events, the authors claimed that - under the circumstances - the Waffen SS its gross infringements of the Lex Belli could be near justified by the Dutch waiving white flags all the time. Perhaps the most controversial issue of all was that one particular soldier, who had been decorated the highest possible medal for valour, had been accused by the authors of the killing of Germans after the capitulation of his position, which had caused the SS to shoot him and two others on the spot. Besides one partially supportive report of a Dutch NCO, who had been dug away from battle-stress during the fighting, all other Dutch reports claimed that the particular Dutch soldier had only yelled at an SS soldier after which the latter shot him dead, along with two other being shot.

When both editing authors refused to take back any of their controversial wordings and accusations, one particular war veteran – himself a direct victim (and war-invalid) of German wrong-doing at the Grebbeberg – took up the glove and pressed charges against the Ministry of Defence. It was perhaps not so much this one veteran that impressed the Defence Department (stealthily), but possibly the around 27,000 petitioners that supported him on his quest. In the year 2000 the matter was weighed in court, but the veterans failed to convince the judges, particularly due to the fact that what had been printed in 1990 could not be undone in the year 2000. The court did however suggest the authors to reconsider their claims should a second edition be considered.

The second edition [2005] showed that despite their won court-case the editors of the book had somehow come to the conclusion that their previous claims on presumed large scale Dutch infringements of the Lex Belli were unjustified or at least not substantiated by any persuasive leads or proof. Most of the disputed sections had been edited, some had disappeared entirely. It caused at least most of the critics to hush, but the dispute between the one particular veteran and both lead-authors continues to this day forth. 

The big row around the Lex Belli item overshadowed the more modest marginal protests against the balance of the book-content. The book’s introduction chapter – first and second edition [not included in the English version] – kicked-off with pretences as were the reader about to be guided through a scientifically sound piece of work that got rid of the many myths and impurities of the up to that point available library on the very topic of the Five-Days War. In fact, the book was much of the old news, leaving many obvious myths alive or even unmentioned. In a factual way the book contained – and still contains in the latest (English) edition – so many clear errors and impurities that at no point the self-proclaimed quality label can be achieved.

As much as the book – in both editions – caused things to be stirred up in the Netherlands, it shall most likely be applauded and enchanted abroad. The Dutch theatre has never temped any foreign historian or author to get into the matter beyond shallow depths. In fact, basically all that was written about it – even in books of reputation – was of extremely poor quality. Somehow the Dutch theatre in May 1940 was never appreciated by historians as more than a side-show, apparently totally missing the point on particularly the strategic relevance of the French Dyle-Breda strategy planning and execution for the outcome of the Case Yellow enterprise. It were the German successes along the Maas [Meuse] river and the Operation Dynamo [Dunkirk] that somehow got the attention of historians beyond anything else.

On a medium and macro scale the book shall be accepted as a genuine enrichment of the international library on the Second World War history. The micro scale details and impurities, that caused so much unrest amongst veterans and historians in the Netherlands, shall go unnoticed abroad - for as far as they have been incorporated in the English edition anyway. It shall be the occasional war-historian that shall be able to recognize the missing or erroneous details, but who in the UK or US gets bothered over such minor scale issues? After all, our WWII libraries are quite reputed for their ‘not so objective’ reproduction of our national histories. 

Final judgement

As has been said in the introduction hereabove the book may be worthwhile buying (and reading) should the reader be interested in purely the headlines of the battle for the Netherlands in May 1940. There is no competition in the world to this book as it comes to English publications about the May-War in the Netherlands. In fact, it is a first off as to this topic. There are plenty of books on the German operation against France and the Low Countries, and some of reasonable or even excellent quality, but those books tend to cover the Dutch theatre as a side-show (which it in fact was on the larger scale) or not at all. 

So far so good. But ... when it comes to getting a fair picture of the events in more detail, this book scores well below expectations. It doesn't fulfil its promise (e.g. claim) that it is based on the latest scholarly research - which it is definetly not - and it contains so many factual errors and impurities that it can also not live up to the clame of a 'standard work'.

The book has been written by several authors, edited by two 'authorities'. The authors vary substantially in quality and style. One of them in particular delivered poor quality, H.W. van den Doel. His chapters on the actual battle events - particularly chapters 8 and 10 - are extremely poor and substantially pull down the average score of the book as it comes to professional values. This author (and professor in history) has not done his research and has done nothing with the criticism that he received over the last two decades. He simply stuck to his first edition, at least largely so. Herman Amersfoort, author and editor, is the other remarkable character. His chapter 11 shows him the poor analist on WWII matters he is and totally puts him in the shadow of internationally reputed historians on the subject of the German Westfeldzug - the battle for France and the Low Countries. His personal quest as it comes to war crimes (and related affairs) doesn't dominate this book anymore, but traces of that controversial issue are still easy to recognize for insiders.

What would be an end-score, having read and analized the entire book? On the total scale and bearing in mind the generally main scope interest of foreign readers, the book can be considered a quite valuable asset in the international library. Although part of that 'judgement' may be earnt by the simple fact of scarcity (of English publications on the subject), it would be uncalled for to dismiss the book as anything else than an acceptable product for the readers-market that it is intended for. Be that as it may, the quality of the book on a professional scale is hardly satisfactory. Particularly weighing the self acclaimed pretences like 'standard work' and 'based on the latest scholarly research'. Both claims are undeserved, particularly the latter. The researches by many historians in the Netherlands of the last two decades or so, but also by foreign historians of reputation, have clearly missed the eyes of the authors and editors of this book.

End score

The end score, as far as yours truly is concerned, is as follows. For the leisure readers-market this book could be considered an expansion of the WWII library and a fairly good product. When it comes to serving professional readers and/or international historians the book should be considered a modest asset, that leaves plenty of room for improvement.        

A.M.A. Goossens - author of War Over Holland