The history of Liberation Day in the Netherlands

The history of Liberation Day in the Netherlands

Liberation Day is here again. What better way to spend your Liberation Day than learning about an important part of the Netherlands’ history? Settle down and get ready to learn all about the liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazi regime.

Why was the Netherlands invaded?

At the start of the Second World War, the Dutch government planned to continue its policy of neutrality from the First World War. The German government pledged to remain neutral towards the Netherlands in October 1939, after the war had already been declared between the “Allies” (Britain and France), and Nazi Germany.

The Dutch were slow to re-arm when Hitler came to power and had little military spending. The Dutch Prime Minister at the time, Hendrikus Colijn, was convinced that the Nazis would not violate their guarantee of neutrality. However, by late 1940, it became clear that they intended to invade the Netherlands, so the Dutch desperately stepped up their military organisation.

Hitler wanted to invade the Netherlands for a number of reasons, one being the German Air Force - the Luftwaffe - would benefit greatly from the Dutch airfields along the coast, allowing them to perform air raids against Britain. He also hoped to draw Allied forces away from the Ardennes region in France and deeper into Belgium. The Nazis also suspected the British and French might move to occupy the Netherlands, considering its location and strategic advantages, before their own forces did and decided to move in first.

The battle of the Netherlands

The Netherlands was invaded by German forces on May 10, 1940, without any formal declaration of war. The German forces advanced rapidly into the country although they were met with fierce resistance from the underequipped Dutch soldiers. The Germans faced heavy casualties, with the Dutch soldiers even defeating a parachute assault on The Hague, allowing Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government to escape to Britain and form a government-in-exile. However, after the fourth day, the Nazis controlled most of the eastern part of the Netherlands.

A turning point in the battle for the Netherlands was the bombing of Rotterdam. Rotterdam had seen conflict from the first day of the Nazi invasion after German forces managed to cross the Maas River and capture several bridges. On May 14, the Wehrmacht commander, General Rudolph Schmidt, gave the Dutch an ultimatum: surrender the city, or it would be destroyed. The ultimatum was ordered to be returned by the Dutch commander, General Henri Winkelman, with a message stating that, in order for the Dutch to take the Schmidt’s ultimatum seriously, it would have to be signed by the commanding officer, stating his name and rank.

General Schmidt accepted the Dutch reply, however, while a new ultimatum letter was drawn up, German bombers, which had been scrambled by Hermann Göring in Bremen, zeroed in on Rotterdam. Around 80 aircraft were involved in the bombing, with 1.150 50-kilo bombs and 158 250-kilo bombs being dropped. Between 800 and 900 people were killed, around 85.000 people were made homeless, and around 25.000 homes, 2.320 shops, 775 warehouses, 62 schools and 24 churches were destroyed. The city was surrendered shortly afterwards.

Following the devastating “Rotterdam Blitz," the Dutch had no way of stopping the German bombers. Following another ultimatum regarding the city of Utrecht, the Dutch high command decided to capitulate rather than risk losing another city and the lives of more civilians. So, on May 15, 1940, the Netherlands officially surrendered to Germany.

The liberation of the Netherlands

Fast forward to 1945, the Allied forces are advancing through Europe and the Nazi regime is all but defeated. Canadian, British, Polish, American, Belgian, Dutch and Czech forces entered the Netherlands from the East at the beginning of May and liberated the eastern and northern provinces. Other parts of the country, especially the South East, were liberated by the British Second Army, consisting of British, Polish, American and French airborne troops.

The Netherlands was officially liberated on May 5, 1945, hence marking Liberation Day in the Netherlands.  The Canadian General, Charles Foulkes, and the German Commander-in-Chief, Johannes Balskowitz, formalised Germany’s surrender at the Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen. This liberated certain areas of the Netherlands, like the West, that were still occupied by German soldiers. Two days later, on May 7, 1945, the German Instrument of Surrender was signed, signifying the unconditional surrender of all German soldiers.

Liberation Day in the Netherlands

The day before Liberation Day is known as Dodenherdenking, or Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is a solemn affair, with ceremonies being held in Amsterdam at Dam Square at the National Monument and a two-minute silence observed at 8.00 pm. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima lay a wreath at the National Monument, with the Prime Minister, Amsterdam’s Mayor and the President of the National Committee in attendance. The King then gives a speech.

Liberation Day, or Bevrijdingsdag, in contrast, is a day for celebration and festivities. Usually, Liberation Day is characterised by big parties, celebrations and festivals. Each city organises its own festivities as well as 14 Liberation Day festivals that are held around the country. Aside from music festivals, military parades, street theatre performances, festival markets and film screenings are common and popular events. Every year, a team of 5.000 torchbearers light a torch at the Liberation Flame in Wageningen and carry it around 200 municipalities in the Netherlands.

Liberation Day is a day for people to come together and commemorate peace and security as well as reflect on the privilege of living in a country that respects people’s rights and freedom. Take this time to reflect on how lucky we truly are and acknowledge there are places in the world where people don’t have the same freedoms as us.

William Nehra


William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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BrianMaclellan2 09:28 | 3 May 2020

The liberation of the Netherlands is not complete without the mention of Operation Market Garden

Dina Roussou 15:13 | 6 May 2022

Your article states: 'planned to continue its policy of neutrality from the First World War. '. The Netherlands were not neutral on the WW1. They have been manufacturing and sold Cocaïne to both sides of the war at the time. Some years back, a Dutch book was written about it, followed a panel on major TV station. A country that sells a product to enchance forces to kill, its definatelly not on a neutral position. Reading the history well and in depth gives us the opportunity to learn a good lesson for the future.