Of soldiers and a milkman
Yesterday was father’s day. Many friends shared pictures to honour their fathers (some of them deceased) on social media. To express what I owe to my father, I will share this piece, which I wrote some time ago, but for some reason kept stored in my computer…
When my father spoke about WW II, one story always returned. The story of that morning when he discovered that our country had been occupied by Germany. Living close to the border, that morning he saw German soldiers passing his parental home as if they had the right to do so – which made him realize that borders can suddenly become futile, imaginary. After the soldiers passed, the milkman came into the street and put bottles with fresh milk in front of the house, like he did every day. The absurdity of life going on. Only now do I understand why that story was so meaningful for him, kind of summing up the connection between his convictions and actions.
At that date, May 1940, he had just turned nineteen and had started his studies at the university not long before. In the following years, he tried to find his own personal response to the occupation – intellectually and in practice – which led him to take part, three years later, in underground activities. This was not a subject about which he talked much, and when he did, it was in an almost excusing manner. The cell didn’t accomplish much, and its members as well as their families paid the highest price. Only after a few months they were found out, three members were executed, my father survived in hiding. His brothers were taken hostage, and were made to suffer the concentration camps; his younger brother perished in Bergen Belsen. The family of the founder of the cell was burned to death in their house as retaliation by the nazi’s – among them a girl with Down’s syndrom. The activities of the resistance group were to help people get into hiding with false papers, and to print and distribute pamphlets to call the people of their city to join in the general strike of April and May – a protest strike by the Dutch people against the occupying forces.
After the war, my father never went to meetings of ancient resistance people, and didn’t like the kind of self-congratulatory atmosphere surrounding much speech about ‘the resistance’. I always understood something of the emotional side of his discomfort, as he had to live with the unspeakable personal consequences of his actions. Only now am I beginning to understand there was also a principled side to it. His actions were never for ‘the fatherland’ and he would not have participated in armed actions against the nazi’s. For he had, in a sharp light, seen the futile and imaginary character of the idea of a nation connected to a piece of the earth. It was, in his eyes, not worth the fight. He spoke often about how he saw that the era of the nation-state was over, although the world didn’t yet understand that. He was a visionary idealist – his actions were aimed at stimulating the suppressed democratic potential of actual human beings, not at saving the Dutch nation.
During the last conversation we had about the war, a few months after his 94th birthday, he told me that his resistance work did not just start when he got involved in the group initiated by his friend Toon Fredericks, as I thought. His first ‘illegal’ action was in 1940, when he intentionally ‘lost’ his identity papers, to help a Jewish man to flee or go into hiding. Again, during the Christmas time of 1942, he assisted in helping a Jewish woman with her child (the wife of an Austrian artist, who already was hiding with friends) to go into hiding in a home for the elderly nearby. These were untold stories until the end of his life. He would never want to be in position that people would applaud him for such actions. Not just because no applause could ever make up for the loss and the destruction of that time. But also, I suspect now, because he felt a distance to any public honoring of helping Jews, such as that by the state of Israel. No state power, to his view, should morally appropriate the actions of individuals to stand up for their fellow human beings. In this vein we spoke about the Paris attacks, last year: how French government officials appropriated the protests against terrorism of grieving individuals, interpreting them as support for the French nation.
My father could no longer believe in the nation state, after that morning in 1940. In discussions on political philosophy, in which I put forward Seyla Benhabib’s thoughts on this matter, and Hannah Arendt’s, he granted me that nation-states – peoples seeking protection by claiming a piece of the earth, drawing and defending borders – perhaps were still a necessary institution (the lesser evil) in these times. I, for one, did not share his 1940’s idealist belief that the problems of a nation-state system could be overcome by creating a world federation or something of that sort. I was always more on the Nietzschian side, stressing that one always has to reckon with human irrationality – in whatever era we might come to live.
Having had a full philosophical training myself, whereas he did only some courses in philosophy while studying law, and later chose practical jobs above academia (jobs in which he tried to stimulate the potential of individuals: young workers, those seeking later in life education, and young people with learning disabilities) – my argumentation was stronger. So he usually let me ‘win’ on the theoretical plane. It is only now, when I see his life ‘from the outside’ so to speak, as he died last October 2015, that I understand the consistency between his beliefs and his actions. He did believe in democracy, he did believe in the necessity of reason to organize human relations, he did believe in furthering human potential. He was very cautious of any combination of state power and national sentiments, to say the least. His hesitations over against armed resistance sprung from the same source: it would, in his eyes, always be incorporated by some kind of nationalist state power, and could not support a free flourishing of human life. As much as I can see how this position is very idealist, perhaps not of this world, I acknowledge respectfully his silent consistent adherence to the experience expressed in that story of soldiers and a milkman, of early 1940: that no nation state can protect you, in the end, and that, in spite of that, life just goes on.
From the time I was in primary school, my father and I were in an ongoing conversation and discussion on philosophy, religion, politics, law and ethics. My philosophical work has to a certain extent been the critical exploration of presuppositions and foundations that showed in these discussions. This article is meant to say thank you (a thank you that is never enough) to my father for the intellectual and critical inspiration I got from him sharing his thoughts with me.