Joodse arbeiders en werkbazen van de NHM bij de werkkeet nabij rijkswerkkamp Vledder, 1942
Joodse arbeiders en werkbazen van de NHM bij de werkkeet nabij rijkswerkkamp Vledder, 1942

The history of the Nederlandsche Heidemaatschappij in times of war and crisis raises the issue of executive responsibility

The Nederlandsche Heidemaatschappij (NHM, the predecessor of the KNHM Foundation and Arcadis) was the main private employment contractor in the Netherlands and supervised the employment of Jews from Jewish labour camps during the Second World War. This was the conclusion drawn by historian Lennert Savenije in his book Werk in Uitvoering ('Work in Progress'), which focuses on the history of the NHM in times of crisis and war.

Savenije conducted research at Radboud University on behalf of the KNHM Foundation. According to Savenije, the NHM's involvement in the employment of Jews should be viewed from the broader perspective of the provision of work. In Werk in Uitvoering, he uses various sources to demonstrate how the NHM positioned and developed itself as an active participant in this field.

The Nederlandsche Heidemaatschappij was founded in 1888 as an association that aimed to stimulate the development of Dutch agricultural land by encouraging forestry and the clearing of wasteland. In doing so, the NHM increasingly worked with unemployed people in government-initiated 'job creation' and 'work expansion’ programmes. These workers were paid slightly higher wages than the standard unemployment benefits at the time. They were also employed from state labour camps managed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Particularly during the crisis years (1930s), tens of thousands of workers toiled by hand under the supervision of the 'Heidemij', for example on the construction of Goffertpark in Nijmegen or the Twentekanaal.

War dilemmas and Jewish labour camps

The NHM remained active during the Second World War as an executor of employment projects and as a cultural expert organisation, thereby making an important contribution to the national food supply. “The organisation was confronted with a variety of war dilemmas in the occupied Netherlands,” explains Savenije. “Political and moral issues were approached in a technical way, under the leadership of chief executive officer Kees Staf.”

From January to October 1942, the NHM supervised the segregated employment of Jews from labour camps intended only for them. There, they received lower wages, little to no leave and, eventually, smaller rations. By order of the occupying forces, these racist measures were implemented by Dutch authorities.

Executor

The NHM never denied its involvement in the employment of Jews from labour camps, but always referred to its role as that of executor. “As early as the 1930s, the NHM countered the critique against its employment measures, arguing that it was not a policymaker,” says Savenije. “This was also its defence after the Second World War.” The wartime history of the NHM therefore touches on a moral issue that played a role in the historiography of the Second World War: the extent to which the Dutch government, companies and organisations bear responsibility for the implementation of occupation policies.

Photo: Jewish workers and foremen of the Nederlandsche Heidemaatschappij at the work shed near the Vledder labor camp, 1942 (Source: Camp Westerbork Memorial Center)

Contact information

For further information on the book and research? Please contact researcher Lennert Savenije via Madelon Witterholt (+316 2266 8095 or m.witterholt [at] singeluitgeverijen.nl (m[dot]witterholt[at]singeluitgeverijen[dot]nl)or the team Science communication of the Radboud University (+31 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl)).

Theme
History, Management, Politics