The King’s Speech, and Beyond

This week, as every year, a remembrance ceremony was held in Amsterdam for Dutch casualties of WWII, and other wars. Due to the CoVid-19 epidemic, the ceremony was held without members of the public, in the central square of the city, attended by few VIPs. The ceremony was broadcasted in the Dutch media.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, gave a speech that received many headlines in newspapers around the world. Jewish newspapers cited his speech as unusual, “admitting that Jews felt deprived by his great-grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, during World War II.” I didn’t watch the ceremony in real time, just the recording. But yes, I did get to read the full speech.

Following a phone conversation with Michael Jacobs, a Dutch Jewish activist living in Amsterdam, I want to bring here some insights from this conversation, indicating what is behind this speech, which everyone has so praised. As we know, not always what is implied from the surface, reflects the original intent of the speaker. I think that the king’s speech is fraught with deception. As a linguist – I know that political pragmatics can provide beautiful headlines, but are empty of content. The relevant parts of my conversation with Michael Jacobs are listed here. Judge for yourself.

At the beginning of his speech, the king points out the reason for the remembrance ceremony: “… the choice was made for us. By an occupier with an ideology without mercy that killed many millions of people.” The phrase “millions of people” refers to the Jews, as the following paragraph indicates in his speech. But the word “Jews” is not mentioned. They are just referred to as “people.”

In the following paragraphs, His Majesty tells about a chilling testimony he heard six years earlier from Jules Schelvis, a survivor of seven Nazi concentration camps, among which the Sobibor extermination camp, where his wife, and most of his family, were murdered. After the war, Mr. Schelvis worked and was active as a printer, historian, writer, and Nazi hunter. He received various high distinctions, from the Dutch and Polish governments, among others. In the Dutch town of Amstelveen, a street will be named after him. Amsterdam, a city of many water crossings, has a Jules Schelvis bridge.

Yet, in the King’s speech, Mr. Schelvis is simply introduced as “a little man with bright eyes.” The king summarized Schelvis’ story, but didn’t mention his Jewish identity even once. Nor did he specifically mention the Jewish identity of the people traveling with him towards the extermination camps. They were simply “people.” Not Jews. Not mentioning this fact, suggests that it is somehow ‘okay’ to persecute Jews. Obviously, the reason for that was not lack of knowledge. Mr. Schelvis never hid his Jewish identity. On the contrary: he wrote and published material on the subject, persecuted Nazi war criminals, and testified as a Holocaust survivor in international trials against Nazi war criminals.

The king goes on to describe the gradual progress of eliminating the Jews from the Netherlands, starting from a sign put at the entrance to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam “Jews not allowed,” to their final destruction, but without mentioning the fact that Dutch officials eagerly contributed and participated in this work, and without referring to the Jews as human beings. After honoring those citizens who had resisted and fought, whom he described as ‘true heroes’, the king talked about “fellow humans, fellow citizens in need,” who felt “abandoned, insufficiently heard and insufficiently supported,” even by his great-grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who – together with the entire Dutch government – had fled to exile in London. At no point, however, did he bring up the word “Jews.” The king is praised for “criticizing” his great-grandmother, but in not mentioning the Jews, he did exactly as she had done!

Particular attention should be drawn to the status in which the king’s speech has been held: a remembrance ceremony for Dutch casualties during WWII and other wars. The king praised the Dutch merchant navy, who continued to supply food to the Netherlands during WWII; the soldiers who fought to defend the Netherlands; those who fought in Indonesia; the Dutch resistance against the Nazis; and the ordinary civilians suffering from famine and other hardships; he mentioned soldiers who went on peace missions and returned wounded, or did not return at all. But also here, he does not mention the word “Jew(s).” This, in particular, is where the statistics, which the king ignored, screams bloody murder: about half of all Dutch victims – were Jews! Compare this with their percentage of the population on the first day of World War II, which was only two percent.

In sum, this speech by the King of the Netherlands is deceptive. It was praised by the media, including the Jewish media, and around the world, for his “confession that Jews felt deprived,” “his apology,” and many other gems. Practically – media reporters did not bother to dig through his words in depth, check the figures, understand the meaning beyond the words, and simply – count; count the repetitions of the word Jew, and related words, in his speech; just count up to one. But no; reporters took from the speech what they were comfortable with; what they liked to hear. What “sells well” as a title, but practically – is empty of content. The attitude toward Jews as an abstract concept on a sign, rather than as real human beings, worthy creatures of flesh and blood. Today as in the past, many people prefer to close their ears and simply filter out what they don’t like to hear.

Thanks so much, Michael Jacobs, for this conversation.

Photo credit: Dutch Television screenshot.

About the Author
Holding a PhD degree in linguistics from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, I am the Principal Linguist in an Israeli Hi-Tech company, dealing with artificial intelligence. I have a previous experience in writing several guest-columns for various Jewish journals in the US and Canada. I am based in Israel.
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