Investigation into the betrayal of Anne Frank misses the point

AP Photo/Peter Dejong

On Jan. 16, the CBS program “60 Minutes” aired a report by investigators claiming to have determined who revealed the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis in August 1944. A team of experts including retired FBI agent Vince Pankoke applied modern forensic techniques in a six-year investigation to determine who tipped off the authorities about the location of the secret annex in an Amsterdam warehouse where the Franks hid for more than two years.   

The team concluded that Arnold Van den Bergh, a prominent Jewish businessman, was the most likely culprit. Van den Bergh, they allege, betrayed the Franks and other Jews in hiding to save himself and his family from deportation to the death camps. Pankoke admits that the evidence against Van den Bergh is circumstantial but considers it convincing. However, the Anne Frank House has issued a statement raising serious questions about the investigation. We will never know for sure who, if anyone, turned the Franks in to the Nazis.  

As a historian, I applaud every effort to uncover truths about the past. In this case, however, I am concerned that the investigation reinforces the antisemitic stereotype that Jews were complicit in their own suffering and that it will divert attention from a much more important and far more troubling question: Why did so many people in occupied Europe collaborate with the Nazis? The claim that they were coerced is a convenient myth that has been thoroughly debunked. As I tell students in my “Germany under the Third Reich” course, everywhere deportations occurred there was a strong tradition of antisemitism. The Germans got a lot of help from local governments and ordinary people in carrying out the “final solution.”   

The Netherlands, where the Franks fled, is a case in point. In 1940, 159,806 Jews lived in the country, including 25,000 refugees from Nazi Germany. The occupation authorities sent approximately 107,000 to death camps, where only 5,200 survived. The Germans could not have identified, located and rounded up so many people without active cooperation from a significant number of Dutch gentiles and the government bureaucracy.    

Although more Dutch Jews died in the holocaust than those from any other country in Western Europe, the Netherlands has not come to terms with its complicity in the genocide. Instead, it has constructed exculpatory mythology, portraying Jewish victims as coequal sufferers with the Dutch people at large and celebrating stories of heroic resistance.   

As in any occupied country, there were Dutch heroes to celebrate. The Netherlands is second only to Poland in its number of “righteous gentiles.” Nearly 6,000 Dutch men and women have been honored at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Their efforts helped save the lives of 25,000-30,000 Dutch Jews.   

Individual courage is not, however, a substitute for collective responsibility. National and local authorities along with ordinary people cooperated with the Nazis while most Dutch people remained largely indifferent to the suffering of their neighbors.  

The behavior of Denmark illustrates what other nations might have done and debunks the myth of coerced cooperation. During the first three years of occupation, the Danish government refused to implement antisemitic policies. Out of frustration the Nazis declared martial law in 1943 and set in motion plans to deport the Jews during Rosh Hosannah.  

Tipped off by a German informant, ordinary Danish people swung into action. They notified their Jewish neighbors of the impending threat, hid them, and moved them to ports where Danish fishermen ferried them to Sweden. In a matter of days, these Danes rescued 7,200 people, more than 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population.   

Apologists for other occupied countries will note the small size of Denmark’s Jewish population, the limited independence of its government, and the warning of impending deportation. However, historian Bo Lidegaard, whose exhaustive study of the evacuation documents how a broad range of Danes from government officials to ordinary people accomplished in one of the greatest humanitarian efforts of the war, offers a different explanation. The Danes viewed their Jewish neighbors as fellow citizens, not an alien “other.”  

The Germans made no mass arrests nor conducted reprisals in the aftermath of the evacuation. “The Danish exception shows that the mobilization of civil society’s humanism and protective engagement is not only a theoretical possibility: It can be done” Lidegard concluded. “We know because it happened.” The Danish example also demonstrates that the Dutch and countless others could have done so much more to save Jewish lives.  

Against the backdrop of mass deportations from the Netherlands and other occupied countries, the Anne Frank investigation seems at best misguided and at worst distraction from more important questions. Whatever their intentions, the investigators have reduced a profound human tragedy to a cheap “who-done-it” thriller.  

Documentary filmmaker Thijs Bayens, who worked on the investigation found its conclusion “very painful.” If the team had investigated the complex question of Dutch complicity and resistance during the occupation, their study would have been more painful but far more valuable.  

Why does any of it matter? On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must recognize that genocide denial is once again rearing its ugly head. Just this week a school board in Tennessee banned teaching “Maus,” a graphic novel of the Holocaust that makes the genocide accessible to teens. An Indiana lawmaker stated that teachers “need to be impartial” in teaching about Nazism. In Texas, a school administrator instructed teachers to present “opposing views of the Holocaust.”   

Any effort to deny, downplay, dismiss, or sanitize genocide whenever and wherever it occurs must be resolutely resisted. That resistance rests squarely on an honest encounter with history. Understanding the past can empower us to speak up in the present to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. 

Tom Mockaitis (@DrMockaitis) is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”

Tags Aftermath of the Holocaust Anne Frank Anne Frank Rescue of Jews during the Holocaust Responsibility for the Holocaust The Holocaust World War II

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