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Controversial WWII museum exhibit highlights “the bad sides of history”

Posted January 27, 2023

January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It was designated as such by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 to mark the date when the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated sixty years prior. The hope is that the day of remembrance can commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime, promote education about the Holocaust, and inspire people to work to prevent further genocide.

But while nations around the world will set aside time today to remember those who died, the proper form of that remembrance remains a matter of some debate. And as those in charge of Amsterdam’s Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum) have learned recently, some can be very vocal when they believe the memory of those who passed has not been honored correctly.

Humanizing the heroes and the villains

The Resistance Museum has existed in Amsterdam since 1985. For most of that history, the displays focused on highlighting the efforts made by the Dutch resistance movement to subvert the Germans across the five years they occupied the Netherlands. However, the museum’s new offering represents a slightly different approach.

The new exhibit highlights the role that one hundred individuals played in the Netherlands during World War II. But whereas such exhibits often traditionally focus on people who resisted the Nazi occupation, the museum has chosen to feature those who collaborated with the Germans as well.

Liesbeth van der Horst, the museum’s director, told reporters “We are offering new perspectives, a different emphasis. By showing the choice these people made [to collaborate] you highlight how courageous it was to choose to resist.”

But, as Nina Siegal writes, not everyone sees it that way. And, given that nearly 75 percent of Dutch Jews were deported and murdered by the Nazis during the war—by far the largest percentage in western Europe—it remains an emotional subject for many.

Jalda Rebling, whose family was part of the resistance, argued that by humanizing both the heroes and the villains of the story, “the whole wartime disappears into a grayish state.”

However, if that’s the case, van der Horst does not seem to mind.

More than “monsters and heroes”

“We don’t just have monsters and heroes,” the museum’s director notes. Rather, “people are people and you have many shades between good and bad.”

Van der Horst went on to add that “we show pictures of some Nazis, especially Dutch Nazis, because they are also part of our history. The bad sides of history also have to be included.”

To that end, the exhibit includes short vignettes on people like Hannie Schaft—a law student who “sabotaged German military operations and shot Nazis”—right next to that of Emil Rühl, who worked for months to catch her before ultimately handing her over to be killed by the Germans.

Wim Henneicke, who led a “Jew hunting” group, and Gerard Mooyman who, as a teenager, was “so impressed” by German propaganda that he joined up and served on their front lines, are other examples of people who would not have previously made the display but now feature prominently alongside resistance fighters.

Forcing people to grapple with that side of their history was an integral part of the exhibit’s purpose.

As van der Horst described, they wanted their audience to recognize that “in the face of a threatening dictatorial regime, it’s not easy to just act. Sometimes people judge too easily, in hindsight. They say, ‘More people should have been involved in the resistance,’ and ‘They didn’t do enough.’ Of course, it’s true, they didn’t do enough, but it was not that easy to do enough. . . . You cannot expect resistance from everybody.”

In general, most of us like to think that we would stand up to evil when given the opportunity. Yet, history shows repeatedly that the vast majority of people will not. There are shades of gray to every person, and one of my favorite parts about reading the Bible is that it does not shy away from that fact.

Present faithfulness does not guarantee future obedience

Whether it’s the villains or the heroes, it’s rare for a biblical character to be completely good or completely evil.

For example, with the exception of Jesus, Scripture does not include any infallible heroes, and I believe there are two primary reasons why that’s the case.

First, acknowledging that even the most important figures in biblical history were fallen people helps us to realize that there is no reason we cannot follow God as well.

Prominent figures like Gideon and Moses, for example, tested the Lord repeatedly before agreeing to serve him (Judges 6; Exodus 3). And the disciples failed Jesus on countless occasions before going on to become the leaders of his burgeoning church. It can be reassuring to remember that the Lord can use us just as readily as he used them if we are willing to follow his will.

Second, by humanizing its heroes, God’s word cautions us that present faithfulness does not guarantee future obedience. Every choice we make presents us with the opportunity to follow God’s will or our own, and the consequences of either choice can be profound.

David, for example, was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) through whom the Lord accomplished truly amazing feats. However, decades of faithfulness did not stop him from assaulting Bathsheba, arranging her husband’s murder, and then trying to cover it all up (2 Samuel 11). Nor did it keep him from becoming a negligent father (2 Samuel 13), an impotent leader (2 Samuel 15), or a vindictive old man (1 Kings 2).

If David could fail so absolutely after starting so strongly, you and I can as well.

At the same time, even the villains in the Bible are rarely without some redeeming quality.

The religious leaders during the time of Christ, for example, were mostly well-intentioned people who just wanted to help their fellow Jews follow the Lord. And Paul was much the same prior to his conversion. They were sincere in their belief that opposing Jesus was an act of service to God. That they were utterly wrong in that belief does not change that there was often some pious motivation behind it.

Ultimately, none of us are so good that we are beyond the need for God’s help or so bad that we are beyond his redemption. And though there is room to disagree with the Dutch Resistance Museum’s approach to teaching people about their people’s history, the exhibit does a good job of reminding us of that fact.

Every day brings the chance to be a hero or a villain in God’s story.

Choose wisely.

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