Blog about diaper theft and other everyday crime during World War II
Why did people steal bicycles, clothes, chickens, and sheep during World War II? And how did they talk about their crimes during their trial? Historian Jan Julia Zurné regularly stumbles upon interesting stories in archival materials of courts during her research. At the beginning of September, the blog 'Oorlogsboeven’ (War Crooks) was published on which these stories can be read and the developments in her research can be followed.
The archival material of the district courts of 's-Hertogenbosch and Haarlem contains meters of judgments and trial and penalty files of 'ordinary' people who committed a crime during or just after the Second World War. Historian Jan Julia Zurné began her research Crime in wartime, in which she is digging out cases like these, at the end of 2020. There is now also a Dutch blog for the general public: War Crooks, Everyday Crime in Wartime. Zurné: 'One of the goals of my research is to make people more aware that many ordinary people became thieves during and just after the war. Or sometimes felt compelled to become a thief.’
The trials and verdicts of the district courts of 's-Hertogenbosch and Haarlem from the period 1936-1949 have now largely been scanned. We are talking about more than 200,000 pages in total.
- Would you like to know more about how to search through such a quantity of material? Read the blog about this topic on War Crooks (in Dutch)
Zurné's favourite are the prison notes: suspects wrote a letter to the judge while awaiting trial or after the verdict, explaining how they had arrived at their crime and why they should receive a suspended sentence or a reduced sentence. 'Those are beautiful, handwritten letters. The defendant is speaking with no filter’, Zurné explains. 'For example, there is a note from a war criminal who wrote to the judge that he was very sorry for his crime. And that he had got into trouble because he had been hiding several Russian prisoners of war and his wife had begun an affair with one of them. He was completely worn out, he wrote, and tempted by crime. But he had come to his senses and wanted to go home to save his family. This is a letter from someone pouring his heart out, but it also shows how the war can intervene in someone's family life.'
Bicycle theft was a major problem in World War II. From 1942, newspapers were sounding the alarm: no bicycle was safe! This is also reflected in court reports. Zurné looked at cases from the first months of 1943 and 1944 and found that one third to forty percent of all cases involved bicycle theft. Bicycle thieves were punished quite severely, because owning a bicycle was so important in those days, for example, to get to work. From the summer of 1942 onwards, bicycles were requisitioned and collected by the Germans, so they became even scarcer. And the consequences of not having a bicycle were great. So people stole one.
A number of blogs have now appeared on the War Crooks site - which has been up and running since the beginning of September this year. ‘The first one - about a harrowing diaper theft - I wrote myself’, says Zurné. 'While collecting the sources, I made lists of things that would be interesting for the blog. Other people can also work these out. For example, volunteers at the archives who do this more often. It is not the intention that only I provide input.’ Zurné also hopes to inspire people to use the sources themselves. That sometimes happens, but usually very specifically. For example, people who are looking for information about their grandfather. ‘But I want to show that you can do more structural research into those sources. For example, you can look at the kind of arguments that defendants put forward when they write to the judge. That brings us closer to the perceptions of people in the occupation period and just after.'
So the files give a more nuanced story of people who kept quiet about their wartime past. Because they were 'ordinary' people who were sometimes forced by the circumstances of war to go down a bad path and end up in prison. Zurné: 'You also see in probation reports that the officials who help the war criminals often emphasise; "This is a war case. It's someone who in normal circumstances would never have stolen and we believe it won't happen again when everything is back to normal soon." We are often very tempted to ask the question: was someone right or wrong? But because of the circumstances, things like this are not black and white.'
‘I could go on endlessly about it’, Zurné concludes with a laugh. ‘But that's kind of what the website is for.’
The project 'Crime in wartime' is a collaboration between the Brabant Historical Information Centre, the North-Holland Archives and Radboud University. The project can be followed on the website Oorlogsboeven.