Freie Presse: History
Volk en Vaderland [People and Fatherland], the news and propaganda magazine issued by the Dutch Nazi Party, Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB), appeared for the first time on 7 January 1933. This was just a small event in a series of momentous events that happened during this year full of doom. That same month, on 30 January, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Reich, the big eastern neighbour of the Netherlands. A mutiny on the Dutch warship Zeven Provinciën [The Seven Provinces] occurred in the Indian Ocean on 4 February. Ten days later an air attack by the Dutch government took the lives of 23 sailors and ended the mutiny. These events took place against a background of worldwide economic crisis that hit the Netherlands extremely hard. In 1933, nearly 20 percent of the work force was unemployed. The Dutch government, a coalition of Protestant and Catholic conservatives, witnessed these developments with great concern.
This background explains a great deal about the course of history after January 30, 1933, when German and German-Jewish refugees came to the Netherlands, and some of them continued their political activities. Many of these refugees were social democrats or communists, not very much appreciated by the Dutch authorities. Soon after Hitlers takeover the first German refugees entered the Netherlands. At the end of 1933, their number had risen to about 5000, more than 8 percent of the total amount of refugees from Germany. Later on the Dutch share in the relief of refugees became somewhat less because of a more stringent government policy and the transit of refugees to countries other than the Netherlands.
After January 1933, the number of refugees kept growing and specific events in Germany accelerated the flow. The first event was the Reichstag fire on 27 February. The fire was seized on by the Nazis as an excuse to intimidate the labour movement. The next day, the Hitler government passed the emergency ordinance 'Zum Schutz von Volk und Staat' and prominent authors such as Erich Mühsam and Carl von Ossietzky were arrested, together with politicians from the Social Democratic and Communist Party (the SPD and KPD). In Prussia alone, more than 100,000 opponents of the Nazi regime were arrested in the weeks following the Reichstag fire. The KPD was prohibited immediately. The ordinance curtailed freedom of speech and opinion. The SPD paper, Vorwärts, appeared for the last time on 28 February. The next step in the process of repression was to disband the free trade unions in May. Consequently, many German social democrats fled to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam was the most likely place to go, as the most important institutions of social democracy were established here. Moreover, there were eight international trade union secretariats. As the central place for Dutch publishers, Amsterdam was relatively attractive for those refugees who earned their living as writers.
Soon after Hitler came to power, political and humanitarian initiatives were begun in the Netherlands. The Dutch SDAP and Trade Union Federation NVV held a protest meeting in the Diamond Exchange on 22 March 1933. The main target was the anti-Jewish policy of the Hitler regime. A Committee for Political German Refugees was established soon afterwards. This mixed committee was chaired by Emil Gross, former chairman of the Socialistische Studentenschaft in Berlin.
In May 1933, the idea of launching a German newspaper for the border region was born in SDAP circles. It was to be named Freie Presse, a widely circulated political-cultural weekly. Since the number of German speakers in the Netherlands was estimated at 400,000, it was assumed that a print run should be at least 20,000. Illegal distribution in Germany was considered necessary. The magazine was intended to counteract Nazi propaganda in Germany from a social democrat point of view, as well as in those regions in the Netherlands where many Germans lived. It focused on the German workers in the textile industry in the eastern part of the country and the many miners in the south.
Staff and publishers
The editorial staff consisted of exiled social democrats, led by Helmut Kern and Emil Gross. Co-editors were A. Moser (pseudonym: Alfred Bayer), Erich Kuttner, Heinz Wielek, and Franz Vogt. The leadership of the SPD in exile (Sopade) in Prague halfheartedly agreed to establish the weekly. Like the exiled leaders of the social democratic trade union, ADGB, the Sopade refused to share in the costs. The SDAP, NVV, and Arbeiderspers were primarily responsible for paying the costs. Cees Woudenberg, SDAP secretary, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Freie Presse. The first issue came off the press on 15 July 1933. It claimed an area of distribution in19 European and 3 non-European countries, but in reality Holland was its home base.
The paper contained 8 to 10 pages, including some regular columns such as 'Briefe aus Deutschland' and 'Alltag aus dem Dritten Reich'. The latter column featured news that was to discredit the Nazis.
In spite of contributions by well known German writers such as Georg Bernhard, Emil J. Gumbel, and Alexander Schiffrin, famous for their defense of rights and freedom, the print run of Freie Presse remained much lower than anticipated. In July the run was probably 7,000, in December 6,000.
Not much is known about its illegal distribution in Germany. Acquaintances of Franz Vogt in Bochum and Oberhausen, including the former BAV secretary Heinrich Jochem, organized the distribution. Illegal printing material was smuggled across the border from towns like Dinxperlo and 's Heerenberg and transported further into the Ruhr region by bicycle or motorcycle. The issues sometimes entered the Ruhr region wrapped in bulb catalogs. Gross headed a strong network in Dortmund and Bielefeld and Freie Presse went there regularly. For the most part these networks were dismantled by the Gestapo, with many casualties, from 1934.
The paper lost money from its start. In July the loss amounted to 1000 guilders a week, later on it was 250 guilders a week. The loss made cooperation among the NVV, SDAP, and Arbeiderspers somewhat difficult. The director of the Arbeiderspers publishing house, Y.G. van der Veen, did not have much sympathy for the initiative and told the editors that it would soon be abolished. He did this before consulting the board of commissioners of which Woudenberg was a member. The arguments that followed this were very heated and caused Woudenberg to decide to resign as commissioner of the Arbeiderspers.
This conflict not only involved money, for complex political matters were in the background. It is not easy to assess the exact weight of these matters. The editors always had to keep in mind their status as refugees. Political activities initiated by foreigners had been prohibited by the Dutch Minister of Justice in July 1933. This prohibition applied to German Nazis just as well, but its impact was heavier for the left. in July, the Dutch government expelled two German Nazis because they violated this prohibition. In view of this, Freie Presse emphasized that it was a Dutch paper, established in Holland, with a Dutch staff and operating with Dutch capital.
Its support for the left-wing German political refugees placed the SDAP in an awkward position. They were afraid of being accused of taking an anti-nationalist position by the reigning political parties, which had happened during the munity on the Zeven Provinciën, especially since the SDAP was in the midst of a de-revolutionary and normalizing process. Its official policy was to allow only Dutch nationals to engage in antifascist propaganda. Thus, politically active German social democrats were again forced to operate illegally in the Netherlands. This was true for communists and other political opponents of Hitler.
Relations with the Sopade, the SPD in exile, were also tense. The Sopade published its own weekly, Neuer Vorwärts, in the Czech city of Karlsbad. In Saarbrücken, the capital of the Saarland and a protectorate of the League of Nations, it also established Deutsche Freiheit. The Sopade prohibited the Arbeiderspers from canvassing for subscribers to Freie Presse in countries other than the Netherlands. On the other hand, the Sopade tried to force Freie Presse to publish its decisions.
The SDAP had been very critical of the SPD in the period preceding Hitler's takeover, rejecting even the slightest attempt at cooperation with the communists. Nevertheless, following initial positive signals from Moscow, this was at the forefront of the political debate.
Moreover, the representative of the Sopade in the Netherlands, Ernst Schumacher, had been expelled to Belgium by the Dutch government. Communications between the Sopade in Prague and Amsterdam were limited, at the least. Distrust existed on both sides.
In addition to all this, increasingly more concrete information about repressive measures by the Nazis came to the fore. In September 1933 the German ambassador in The Hague Julius Zech von Burkersroda asked the Dutch government for the names of the German collaborators on Freie Presse and to prohibit their activities. In November of that same year, the solicitor in Amsterdam warned the staff of the Arbeiderspers publishing house that some of the contributions to Freie Presse might lead to international tensions. The leader of the SDAP in parliament, Johan Albarda, understood these arguments. Would it not be inconsistent if the Dutch government expelled German Nazis and left the German socialists alone?
The Dutch government felt enormously threatened by the neighboring country with its unfathomable, radically rightist regime. The national interest, as defined by the government of Prime Minister Colijn in 1933, prevailed in matters regarding refugees and their political activities. And the worries and fears of the Dutch government were largely adopted by the Dutch social democrats. That was partly because they shared them and partly because the party had to defend its own political status.
Financial problems hindered the growth and impact of Freie Presse. Van der Veen, director of the publishing house, had to make a grim decision. The SDAP gave Frei Presse one month to find another publisher, otherwise it would have to cease as of 31 January 1934. Since the editors failed to find any other support, no. 28, dated 27 January 1934, was the last issue of a weekly that wanted to establish '... a kingdom of freedom and truth based on the equality of all beings with a human face ...'.Text by Huub Sanders, with thanks to Ursula Langkau-Alex and Jan Lucassen for their comments.
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