Collaborators worked in the coal mines for a good salary

Collaborators worked in the coal mines for a good salary

PhD on political prisoners being put to work after WW II

17-10-2022 · Background

It was never a secret, but neither was it generally known: after the Second World War, thirteen thousand people from the Dutch national socialist movement and war criminals worked in the coal mines in Limburg. The fact that mineworkers were forced to work together with these ‘undesirable elements’, is a myth, says Annet Schoot Uiterkamp, who wrote a PhD on the subject.

After the liberation of South Limburg in September 1944, eight months earlier than the rest of the Netherlands, there were two pressing questions. How to get the economy up and running again? And what to do with the collaborators? 

The very pro-German national socialist movement (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, NSB) had many supporters in South Limburg. This was one of the conclusions from Annet Schoot Uiterkamp’s PhD thesis, as it had already been shown in previous research (in 1975) sponsored by the Social Historical Centre for Limburg. The NSB gained the most votes in the province of Limburg during the national elections in 1935, and reached third place in 1937. 

During the war, it was said loud and clear: anyone who had collaborated with the occupier had no place in society. So, yes, after Limburg had been liberated in September 1944, no time was lost. On the basis of official documents, but also on indications from residents, Limburg people who had been on the ‘wrong side’ were plucked from their homes and arrested. One year later, 6,615 political prisoners, mainly former NSB members, were detained in eleven different camps. 

Spekholzerheide

In the meantime, people were scratching their heads with regard to the recovery of the local economy. The mines played a major role in this and they were crying out for labourers. Also because all cross-border workers from Germany had been fired immediately after the war. Moreover, a lot of people working in the mines had been there in hiding, trying to avoid the Arbeitseinsatz in Germany, so they also left after the liberation.

Soon, mining managers devised the plan to use political prisoners as mineworkers. Initially, the government in The Hague rejected the idea, but after some time, agreed with a first experiment in Spekholzerheide. The ‘prison’, a former school, was only a couple of hundred metres from the Willem-Sophia mine. There were 187 imprisoned NSB members, also former mineworkers.

This can all be read in the PhD thesis Coals and Camps (Kolen en kampen) by external PhD graduate Annet Schoot Uiterkamp (72). She worked as a scientific librarian at among others the Maastricht School of Translation and Interpreting (now part of Zuyd Hogeschool) and at the Jan van Eyck Academy. “I was going to write an article for the Social Historical Centre’s yearbook, but it got completely out of hand.” 

Small fry

Many elderly people in South Limburg can still remember how, when they were children, they saw a row of prisoners walking in a procession through the streets, says Schoot Uiterkamp. “They were jeered at by some spectators, waved at by others, the latter mainly being the prisoners’ wives. They walked for many kilometres from other camps. But they were also transported by bus.”

In the beginning, this just concerned inmates from Limburg who had been members of the national socialist movement (NSB). Schoot Uiterkamp: “These members may have collected money, published propaganda or recruited other Dutch people. I see them simply as small fry.”

From 1946, political prisoners from across the country came to work in the mines, and there were tough guys among them. “Such as Dutch citizens who had served in the SS, who had taken part in the persecution of Jews, or had been camp guards. Although this elite unit did consist of large and small fish, such as drivers. There were also Germans who had committed a crime in the Netherlands working in the mines, including Albert Konrad Gemmeker, the commander of Westerbork camp.”

It was absolutely not a case of forced labour, Schoot Uiterkamp discovered. “The prisoners could choose to do this. They were recruited with attractive labour conditions and could expect a high salary. They themselves, by the way, didn’t see any of this, because it was paid out to their families.”

Leave

From 1946, after the entire country had been liberated, tribunals and special courts of justice were set up, which brought to trial Dutch citizens who had been on the ‘wrong side’. At the same time, there were experiments in Limburg with innovations in camps. The objective of the detention changed: retribution became secondary to a successful return to society. 

“They were beautiful camps, although they did have barracks, but also communal spaces. The prisoners could watch films there, follow lectures and take courses. Singing lessons in a choir were very popular. Another innovative element was that prisoners of the same age were put together in a barracks.”

The height of innovation was the leave centre, says Schoot Uiterkamp. “Prisoners had a right to one week leave per year. They could spend those days in the leave centre in Treebeek, or national work institution De Passart. There they could listen to music, or take supervised walks. They were also allowed to have visitors and drink coffee from nice earthenware cups. Those who were near the end of their sentence, were allowed to go on proper leave to spend a few days at home.”

Separate sections

All in all, putting the political prisoners to work turned out well for the Limburg mines. A total of more than 13 thousand delinquents went underground. Between 1946 and 1948, they made up 15 per cent of the workers in some mines.

A story that keeps turning up in books and articles is that mineworkers were forced to work side by side with former members of the SS and that they put up fierce resistance against this. But there is no evidence that this was the case, says Schoot Uiterkamp. "In the beginning, the mineworkers never met up with political prisoners. They started at different times and worked in separate sections. Later on, they did work together, but that didn’t cause any problems."

In fact, they depended on one another. Or as a former mineworker worded it later on in an interview: "If you are hostile towards each other, you will be left broken at the bottom of a hole, right, because the dangers are too great."

Photo: part of the collection of Kevin Raetsen at Weert

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