“From the very beginning, those political delinquents have been very highly regarded by us,” grumbled Frans Dohmen, chairman of the Dutch Catholic Miners’ Union, in his 1986 memoir. “It was an absolute stupidity to give people who had been wrong or very wrong during the war the choice to work in the mines and thus ‘serve out’ their sentence. As a result, mining work was brought down in an extremely inhumane way.” It was mainly indignation afterwards, says historian Annet Schoot Uiterkamp, who received her doctorate in Maastricht on Wednesday for her thesis Coal and camps. Employment of political offenders in Dutch coal mines 1945-1958 . She thinks the portrayal in later years was mainly due to the broader negative sentiment surrounding coal mining during and just after the mine closures some half a century ago. “That was also the time when interest in the war and right-wrong revived.” But just after the war, the resistance was not too bad. The radical General Union of Workers in the Mining Company was most vigorous in September 1946, under the slogan “No galley crooks next to our good Limburg Miners”. But the protest quickly died down. Bulging Camps The Military Authority, the day-to-day administration in the liberated South, initially objected, according to the thesis. It had no objection to the use of ‘wrong’ Dutch people to repair damaged schools and roads, for example. Making political offenders work underground, however, was a step too far. Yet pragmatism and expediency ultimately won out. The employment suffered, so soon after the Liberation, a glaring shortage of personnel. And the Netherlands, which was struggling with a lack of just about everything, had a great need for coal. Meanwhile the camps were bulging; thousands of people were imprisoned there and only cost money. They were ‘useless mouths that had to be fed by the state’. What if those men were given the choice to work underground for payment during their sentence? Internationally, it was not a unique solution. According to Schoot Uiterkamp, Belgium, already liberated in 1944, had similar plans developed by the government. “In the Netherlands, which is still largely occupied, the initiative was mainly based on the mines. The implementation there started earlier than in Belgium.” Employed political delinquents leave the Emma State Mine in Treebeek under guard (circa 1947-48). Photo private collection Kevin Raetsen In the Netherlands, 13,271 detainees worked voluntarily in the mines between 1946 and 1958. The vast majority did so in the late 1940s. At the State Mines, owned by the national government, they made up about 9 percent of the underground plows at their peak. At the private mines this even rose to 13 to 17 percent in August 1947. After that the numbers decreased rapidly. mildness The political offenders initially worked in separate shifts. Later, when the number of ‘wrong’ Dutchmen in the mines decreased sharply, this strict separation could no longer be maintained. Schoot Uiterkamp found in her research “little or nothing” that indicated a very hostile attitude of ‘normal’ miners towards the prisoners. “That didn’t work underground either. As members of a team you had to be able to rely on each other.” It fitted in with the development of thinking that also took place elsewhere in Dutch society. “Where, shortly after the Liberation, strictness and feelings of revenge predominated, as the years went on, the mildness increased. I heard it back in interviews that the then Regional Omroep Zuid conducted around 1980 with people from that time: it was considered more important that the high-ranking players in the mines, who had collaborated with the Germans, were punished than that the smaller players were dealt with.” At a later stage, ‘heavier cases’, such as SS men, Eastern Front fighters and war criminals such as Westerbork camp commander Albert Gemmeker, were also allowed to opt for underground work. Two special groups joined the normal miners and ‘wrong’ Dutch people in those years. “German workers were initially fired from the Dutch mines after the war. Bona fide Germans were allowed to return afterwards. And from 1946, non-bona fide Germans were also able to work underground again. By the way, you soon became non-bona fide. Even if they had been a lot less wrong than Dutch collaborators, they got such a negative stamp. They were also dealt with more strictly by the mines, they worked longer in separate shifts. Until 1949, they received 10 percent less wages than free and detained miners. “A smaller group was that of the Indies refusers, men who did not want to fight in the colonial war in Indonesia. In the end, not many of the mines went into that.” Nicer than at home Although trained as a historian, Schoot Uiterkamp (now 72) became a librarian. After her retirement she delved into the deployment of political delinquents in the mines. She got the idea for it from employees of the Limburg Regional Historic Center, near her home. At first she thought she would write one or more scientific articles about it. It culminated in a dissertation. When she started her investigation, Schoot Uiterkamp still thought that the employment was forced labour, intended to qualify for a reduced sentence. “That soon turned out to be a wrong assumption. It was really a choice presented to the political offenders: either normal detention or working in the mines. If they went for that last option, it didn’t automatically mean a reduced sentence.” According to her, a tree could be raised about the ‘voluntary’ with which the delinquents entered the mine. “Parents and wives exerted pressure. Sometimes they had already appealed to the authorities before: ‘Let my husband work!’ Because working in the mines meant making money. That money, minus living expenses, went directly to parents, wives and children. Single prisoners were paid the accumulated amount upon release.” The historian does not rule out the possibility that some men opted for better living conditions. “Apart from the heavy work underground, they had it better in Limburg than in the Dutch camps where they were initially imprisoned. It also became clear from my research that some men found it more pleasant in the camps in Limburg, where they were locked up outside working hours, than at home. During leave – to which they were entitled from 1949 – they sometimes came back from home screaming, where they were confronted with tensions within their relationship, wives who had cheated on them, meager living conditions and an environment that turned their heads.” In the camps in South Limburg, things were relatively nice for each other. “And the living conditions gradually improved. The prisoners were offered opportunities for further training and cultural relaxation.” Schoot Uiterkamp was able to reveal a lot through source research: a lot about the lives of the men in the camps outside working hours, a little less about the employment itself. That depends on DSM, she says. That chemical company did not give her permission to view the archives of the Staatsmijnen, its legal predecessor. The brand new doctor: „’Privacy sensitive’ was the motivation. But we should have come to an agreement about that. When the State Mines were privatized in 1966, the mistake was made not to regulate the public access to those archives. I tried to gain access through the senior officials of DSM and the university, but in vain. That was really frustrating.” experimental garden A special discovery by Schoot Uiterkamp was that the detention of employed persons appears to have been a testing ground for innovations in the Dutch prison system. “There were different categories with different regimes. Prison Nievelstein, the former government agency in Eygelshoven, became the very first open prison in the Netherlands in 1957, partly filled by the last political prisoners still working in the mines. This approach was based on ideas of those responsible for the camps in Limburg and in national judicial circles. But much of this innovation also stems from the special circumstances just after the war. Out of the unavoidable improvisation given the unusual situation, unconventional solutions were born.” Employed in the mines Albert Gemmeker (1907-1982): during the war he was, among other things, commander of transit camp Westerbork. Was sentenced to ten years in prison, including pre-trial detention. Worked from March 1949 in the Limburg mines. Was released early in April 1951. Tinus Osendarp (1916-2002): Bronze medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 100 and 200 meters, both won by the legendary Jesse Owens. During the war he became a member of the NSB, the Germanic SS and the Sicherheitsdienst. Hunt down resistance fighters and people in hiding with the Commando-Leemhuis. Sentenced to twelve years. Chose work in the mines and was released early in 1952. Melchert Schuurman (1900-1967): composer who, in his own words, got the NSB to sing, responsible for some of the movement’s battle songs. Served as a member of the SS, as did two of his sons who were killed. Sentenced to ten years, but justice released him after half that time. Worked in the camps near the mines, mainly leading the orchestras and choirs there.
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