On 11 April, along with dozens of staff and students from Radboud University and Radboud university medical center, I walked the Sunset March, led by a military veteran. We do this every year to commemorate my predecessor Bernardus Hermesdorf’s closing of the university on 11 April 1943. He didn’t want to comply with the occupying forces’ order that he should have students sign a declaration of loyalty. In line with his predecessor, the soon-to-be-canonised Titus Brandsma, and Cardinal de Jong, he believed that the National Socialist ideology was incompatible with Catholic teaching. This took courage. From that time on, he always had a suitcase packed with essentials at his front door because of the serious risk of arrest. Students supported the Rector but suddenly found themselves no longer exempt from forced labour (Arbeitseinsatz). They had to choose between working in Germany for the occupying forces or going into hiding. Almost all chose the latter, with all the consequences that this entailed.
On the Sunset March, 48 lights lit up one by one as we passed by, symbolising the 48 soldiers who died while crossing the Waal during Operation Market Garden 78 years ago. I felt that each light that came on was like a shot taking the life of a soldier – a young man from a far-away country who will have had very different dreams but who left his loved ones behind to come and liberate a country that those dear ones had probably never heard of.
We walked the Sunset March to remember and to commemorate, in the same way that today, on 4 May, we commemorate the victims of World War Two and of later wars and peacekeeping operations. Victims of fighting and terror, not least of all those who were murdered for who they were: Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, and people with intellectual disabilities. We remember in order to be aware of the evil that exists, so that it doesn’t happen again and to be aware that we cannot take democracy and freedom for granted.
After two years of COVID-19 measures, we are back together again this year to share stories and to commemorate together. Yet being together is not the biggest difference after the past two years. The biggest difference is the sad fact that this year we are commemorating the dead while war once again rages in Europe. Once again, there are victims in Ukraine because Russia wants to annex the country and put an end to democracy and freedom. It is happening again. It appears that annual commemorations are not enough. Do we need to do more and, if so, what? Dare we – and can we – take a stand, stand up for our values, for the right to live together in peace?
Our situation doesn’t compare with that of the students who were forced to choose between working for the occupier or going into hiding. We are not being asked to go to a country we barely know and sacrifice our lives for their freedom and democracy. What is now being asked of us is solidarity, in word and deed – turning down the heating, donating money, speaking out. But is it enough?
While walking the Sunset March I wondered what I would do if war came. I don't know what choices I would make. I could of course tell myself that I’d be brave, that I’d choose to do the right thing, that I’d join the resistance, that I’d cross a river under machine gun fire. But shouldn’t I just be honest and admit that, like most people back then, I would simply try to live my life as best I could? What would I be prepared to do for democracy in this country or another country in Europe? As a 65-year-old, I can always say that I’m too old to fight. But how would I feel if my students, my children, members of my family, were called up for military service? I’m aware just how difficult I find this question, how hard it is even to think about it. I always thought that I would never need to, that it would never happen again.
Remembrance and commemoration are important and necessary. The simple fact that new stories from the Second World War are emerging to this day, some 80 years and two generations later, clearly shows the profound impact of war. Reading about it, hearing stories like the ones told on campus last Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as the terrible images of the war today – it affects us all. Certainly at the present time we are all confronted with it. There are many commemorations in Europe. The European Union was established to keep peace in Europe, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be enough.
Many warned us, but we didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to believe it. I admire the courage of the many Ukrainians who are fighting for their country, for their values. I hope I would be just as brave. Would Dutch people have that same courage? Do we think our democracy and freedom are worth dying for? Many Dutch people are proud of the Netherlands, especially when Max Verstappen wins, Ben Feringa is awarded the Nobel Prize, and Titus Brandsma is canonised. And perhaps even when we celebrate King’s Day.
The Netherlands has an important story to tell – a story with positive aspects but negative ones too, alas. These too we have to discuss in order to learn from them. Over the centuries, people in the Netherlands were often safe from religious persecution, but their sexual orientation or the colour of their skin meant that they weren’t always accepted. Our story is one of a battle against the sea, but also of battles in overseas territories. Early this year, research showed that the Dutch government deliberately tolerated the systematic and widespread use of extreme violence by Dutch soldiers in the war against the Republic of Indonesia. It took the international rule of law to literally call the Dutch government to order.
The Netherlands is also the story of many who can find their place in society in freedom, regardless of their background. Unfortunately, however, this doesn’t yet apply to everyone. A story of freedom in unity – it is for good reason that this is the theme for today. In particular, it is a story that moves forward, with opportunities, hopefully for everyone. A story where the ‘we’ becomes increasingly important again – and this needn’t be at the expense of the ‘I’ – where solidarity is once again something to strive for and be proud of.
Let us remember this evening, and celebrate tomorrow, the fact that we have freedom. But the day after tomorrow, let’s ask ourselves and one another the uncomfortable question: what more should we do? I don’t have the answer, probably no single individual does. But the answer is part of the story of the Netherlands, a country where there is much to be proud of, but where there is also much to be improved, a country that is far from finished.
Han van Krieken gave this address on 4 May 2022 to a gathering in the Sint Stevenskerk to mark the annual Remembrance Day in Nijmegen.
Han van Krieken is rector magnificus of Radboud University’s executive board.