Visiting the Monument for All the Fallen, 1940-1945, Rotterdam, The Netherlands: by Mari Andriessen
Poignant memories and murky moral waters
On May 14, 1940, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, saw its Downtown area devastated by bombers of the Nazi German Blitzkrieg . Altogether, 884 people were killed, and the ruined Downtown area took years to rebuild.
A monument to the victims of World War Two stands at Stadhuisplein ; close to the Coolsingel and — as its name suggests — Rotterdam's City Hall (Dutch: Stadhuis ). The monument depicts four people: two men, a woman and a child. These doubtless represent typical civilian victims of the wartime devastation. These figures are engaging in their simplicity. One of the men is in overalls, carrying a spade, and is clearly a labourer. The other man, slightly more formally dressed, is possibly an office worker, and not implausibly the father of the child. The woman, probably the mother of the child, shows a skirt length generally identifiable with the early 20th century and hair which has been cropped in keeping with the styles of the 1920s and 30s. The child exudes an almost universal vulnerability. Comment has also been made regarding possible time references in the different directions in which the various figures are looking.
The sculptor was Mari Andriessen (1897-1979)(1). The work was unveiled in 1957 by Princess Wilhelmina of The Netherlands.
From a linguistic point of view, the Dutch term in the monument's title: Monument for All the Fallen (Dutch: Monument voor Alle Gevallenen ) which has been used to describe the victims is 'Gevallenen'; this word literally means 'fallen'. In English, the primary sense of the usage of 'fallen' in relation war deaths usually denotes military personnel who die on active duty. However, here the term is clearly applied to civilians also; and, indeed, with the arrival of aerial and multidimensional warfare in the 20th century, one can see how such a widening of the term can be apt.
Interestingly, on the day of Rotterdam's devastation by Nazi German bombers, Great Britain has a policy of not bombing German civilian targets. This policy was changed the following day by Winston Churchill, newly in office as Prime Minister of Great Britain, and German cities, like Rotterdam, began, too, to be bombed, often very controversially.
Leaving aside in a broader context the almost incomparable savagery of the Nazis, it may yet be fairly said that the fate of the civilian victims of aerial bombardment is undoubtedly comparable, with many of the inhabitants of Rotterdam, Cologne, Dresden, Coventry, and elsewhere suffering an identical fate, however distinct were the ideas of some of their political leaders. It is also fair to say that World War Two brought suffering to civilians — as opposed to soldiers — on a hitherto unimagined scale; indeed, while Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often remembered for being the first victim cities of nuclear bombing, yet the scale of civilian suffering in what is almost euphemistically called conventional bombardment was still greatly in excess of what occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The brutal fact is that Hitler, Churchill and Truman — ideologically poles apart — all used on civilians advances in weapons technology on a scale without parallel, in order to move forward their military objectives: decisions which continue to weigh heavily on strategists and students of ethics to this day (2).
January 25, 2013
(1) Responsible for prolific numbers of statues, Sculptor Andriessen's other, well-known work includes representations of Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, Albert Plesman (creator of Dutch airline KLM), The Docker (Dutch: De Dockwerker ), and many others.
(2) It could be argued that if Sir Winston Churchill believed military objectives could be furthered by the 'defensive' saturation bombing of cities which were important to the German war effort, then the end justified the means. Against this, it may be also said that it is still hard to maintain a disconnection with moral equivalence with what the Nazi German bombers did at Rotterdam on May 14, 1940, and elsewhere, since advancing a military objective was precisely what Hitler was seeking to do here, also, but can one really go to Rotterdam and say that its destruction was thus justified? During World War Two, it was long the contention of strategists such as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who led Great Britain's Bomber Command, that the relentless bombing of German cities would constitute the the principal means to bring the war to an end. Regarding Churchill's city bombing policy commencing the day after the destruction of Rotterdam, it may be said that, even if the end would at least hypothetically have justified the means, it was strictly a failure, since it transpired at the end of World War Two that German industrial production was still functioning at about 60%; thus, even from a starkly amoral perspective, does the saturation bombing of cities justify an end if this end was practically a failure in any case? From a factual perspective, Marshal Harris's prediction was simply wrong. But my purpose is not so much to moralize with a particular line of thinking as it is to point out that without doubt the wholesale practice of saturation bombing of civilian areas which commenced during World War Two (and possibly during the Spanish Civil War at Guernica, also) brought humanity into particularly murky moral waters.
Also worth seeing
In Rotterdam itself, on the opposite side of the Coolsingel from the Monument for All the Fallen, the City Hall (Dutch: Stadhuis ) is an imposing, monumental edifice; the Sint-Laurenskerk has a striking statue of Erasmus of Rotterdam; the Euromast and the Cube Houses are major landmarks; the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum has a very widely known art collection.
Dordrecht (distance: 22 kilometres) has a historic, partly Medieval, Cathedral.
How to get there: Airlines flying to Amsterdam Airport from New York include Delta Airlines and KLM. The Dutch railroad company NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) maintains rail services from Amsterdam to Rotterdam . There is car rental availability at Amsterdam airport. Much of Downtown Rotterdam is eminently walkable. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.