Ghosts of Occupied Amsterdam

Amsterdam civilians were machine-gunned by soon-to-be-retreating German soldiers when they formed a large crowd to await the city’s liberation in 1945. Here the dead and injured haunt modern Dam Square.

Amsterdam’s Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse lives history. The company for which she works as a historical consultant, Historisch Adviesbureau 30-45, specializes in digging up archival material for clients pertaining to “daily life in the years 1900-1950”. In addition, Jo confesses in her Flickr profile, she has “a 1930s lifestyle,” donning clothing from the era and “attending 1930s theme parties”. Even her house has been carefully decorated to look not a day older than 1943.

But Jo is more than just a professional researcher and history buff. Beyond her archival sleuthing, she’s engaged in a number of reconstructive and interpretive projects that bring to life historical material in the present day. One is an effort to recreate 1920s Berlin as an environment for the virtual world of Second Life, allowing users to immerse themselves in the German capital’s long-gone prewar heyday.

In 2007, Jo embarked on what might have seemed like a more conventional project — she took her camera around Amsterdam, capturing street scenes from the same vantage points as old photos she’d found of the city under Nazi occupation during the Second World War — in addition to the archives, she’d located many of the shots in flea markets or on other Flickr members’ accounts. What she did next was less conventional: Jo fused the then-and-now shots into singular collages, juxtaposing ghostly remnants (and residents) of the occupied city with representations of the present day.

The location of the Nazi SS’ recruitment center during the occupation superimposed on a photo of the same scene in Dam Square today

The result (more examples are available on Flickr) is an Amsterdam that can’t erase the stain of the war years. Figures from the black-and-white photos taken during the occupation stumble bleakly through today’s lively, colorful city. A McDonald’s stands mere steps away from an SS recruiting post. Crowds of the dead haunt the world of the living. The city’s liberation is celebrated on streets that seem indifferent to their fortunate historical fate today.

This ghostly Amsterdam is a visual coda to the longtime European literary and artistic movement against the “move on” mentality that prevailed at the end of the war. While the same “bury the hatchet” attitude allowed once-enemy Europeans to work together on noble economic and political projects like the coal and steel union that eventually evolved into the European Union, German authors like W.G. Sebald and Günter Grass were adamant about rescuing the process of remembrance (the latter not without some hypocrisy on his part; the Nobelist admitted to involvement in the SS only decades after earning fame and acclaim for his moral disapproval of Germans’ postwar priorities).

Eventually, suspicions flared about the moral compromises involved in the postwar settlement — more than a few former fascists and their collaborators were still running European governments, and many acts of improper or poorly investigated retribution against alleged collaborators had gone wholly unpunished. In Germany, especially, this is what fueled the rage that defined the radical left of the 60s generation, and even terrorist groups like the Rote Armee Fraktion in the 1970s.

In his seminal novel, Austerlitz, Sebald used a particularly apt architectural metaphor — the construction of French President Francois Mitterrand’s Bibliotheque Nationale, a labyrinthine structure that seemed more dedicated to hiding information than providing easy access to it, had removed from sight the Paris railyards where France’s Nazi occupiers had shipped its victims to their death.

Jo’s collages — she’s expanded her coverage to wartime scenes from northern France, as well — provide a riposte to the notion that the ignominious past has been permanently buried, a mere layer of archaeological sediment below an ever-accumulating, forward-looking present. One could say the same of similar then-and-now collages made recently of Nazi concentration camps, but in these places, the pain of the past is already palpable, its evocation vivid. Reliving urban occupations force Europeans to think about the connection to the past of places they encounter and use every day.

Granted, such a project is more easily pursued in Amsterdam than in cities that were bombed beyond recognition during the war. Other efforts at asserting the presence of the past on the urban landscape — like the “stumbling blocks” listing the deported planted among Berlin’s cobblestones by German artist Gunter Demnig — may be more appropriate elsewhere. But one doesn’t have to be intimately familiar with the Netherlands’ largest city to recognize the haunting power of Jo’s work, an attempt to paint a living history. They are both an effort to remind Europe of its suppressed past and a means to show that its past is still present — however unselfconsciously determined its efforts to forget.

The people of Amsterdam celebrate their city’s 1945 liberation on a modern city street

The ghosts of Allied armies retake modern Cherbourg, France. Contemporary photo by Claude Demeester.

Amsterdam factory workers pose sometime during the occupation. Little is known about who they are — or what has happened to them, though the building in the background of the photo remains.
This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Monday November 29 2010at 12:11 am , filed under Art and Design, Europe, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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