Dutch dust off 'painful' Nazi bunkers for tourism and heal­ing

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Just be­hind The Hague's sandy beaches un­der the dunes lie dozens of Nazi bunkers built dur­ing World War II which the Dutch are now dust­ing off to at­tract tourists and to help heal lin­ger­ing scars. Once buried un­der heaps of sand and rub­ble, this net­work of bunkers and tun­nels is a rem­nant of Hitler's "At­lantik­wall", a coastal de­fense stretch­ing 5,000 kilo­me­ters (3,125 miles) from north­ern Nor­way to south­ern France. The Hague in par­tic­u­lar was seen as a strate­gic point to be heav­ily for­ti­fied, and the Ger­man Nazi dic­ta­tor or­dered the At­lantic Wall de­fences to be built in 1942 seek­ing to keep an Al­lied in­va­sion of Europe at bay.

More than 870 bunkers of dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes were con­structed of re­in­forced con­crete. To­day around 470 of them can still be found in the Dutch cap­i­tal's dunes and forests, said Jac­ques Ho­gen­doorn, a vol­un­teer at the At­lantik­wall Mu­seum based in the sea­side sub­urb of Schevenin­gen. "Some have been opened to the public, oth­ers are used as a shel­ter for bats dur­ing win­ter­time," Ho­gen­doorn told AFP.

"Some bunkers are still be­ing dis­cov­ered," added Guido Blaauw, a busi­ness­man who has bought a bunker at the Clin­gen­dael es­tate where Aus­trian Nazi boss Arthur Seyss-In­quart-later ex­e­cuted for war crimes-once had his own mas­sive un­der­ground shel­ter. Af­ter the war, short­ages led to the bunkers be­ing plun­dered for ma­te­ri­als such as wire and wood un­til the an­gry Dutch sealed them off. Since 2008, Ho­gen­doorn and his foun­da­tion, with the agree­ment of lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, have care­fully re­stored one 10room bunker com­plex in the Schevenin­gen woods.

Here vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence the damp, cool claus­tro­pho­bic at­mos­phere where gen­er­a­tors con­stantly ran in the past to ven­ti­late the un­der­ground maze. It is a step back in time with ves­tiges of an old tele­phone sys­tem and signs that say in Ger­man: 'Be­ware, the en­emy is lis­ten­ing'.

'Buried it un­der­ground'

But the bunkers are a dark re­minder of the bit­ter Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion of The Nether­lands be­tween 1940-45, said Deirdre Schoe­maker, spokes­woman of the Euro­pean At­lantik­wall Her­itage Foun­da­tion. More than 100,000 Hague res­i­dents were forcibly re­moved to make space for the At­lantik­wall, which saw thou­sands of homes, seven schools, three churches and two hospitals flat­tened. The bunkers were of­ten built us­ing Dutch slave la­bor and with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of Dutch com­pa­nies hop­ing to profit from the war.

No won­der that when The Hague was fi­nally lib­er­ated in early May 1945, its res­i­dents buried the bunkers un­der sand and rub­ble to put the war be­hind them. "We have a Dutch ex­pres­sion... which lit­er­ally means 'buried it un­der the ground'," Schoe­maker told AFP. "That was re­ally the case af­ter the war and for many years, for decades you saw that. It was a painful his­tory," she said. "Peo­ple just did not talk about it."

'Bunker Day'

For decades the bunkers mostly lay dor­mant, an in­trigu­ing play­ground for lo­cal chil­dren, while oth­ers were used by the Dutch gov­ern­ment as high-se­cu­rity com­mand posts dur­ing the Cold War. Slowly how­ever in the last decade peo­ple's views have changed, Schoe­maker said. "There's more and more open­ness. Peo­ple are be­com­ing more com­fort­able about talk­ing about them, even with Ger­man tourists," she said. Grow­ing cu­rios­ity com­bined with an un­der­stand­ing of their his­toric sig­nif­i­cance led to The Hague's first of­fi­cial "Bunker Day" in 2014. "It's Ger­man his­tory, not the best his­tory, but his­tory you have to see in or­der for it not to hap­pen again," said Ger­man tourist Se­bas­tian Frank, 31, a geri­atric nurse from Dres­den.

The an­nual June event has now grown to in­cor­po­rate bunker vis­its along the en­tire Dutch coast as well as Bel­gium for the first time this year, Schoe­maker said. "There is huge in­ter­est. At our lat­est Bunker Day we had more than 10,000 vis­i­tors and each of them vis­ited at least three to four bunkers," she said, at an en­trance price of six eu­ros ($6.8) for adults and three eu­ros for chil­dren.

'Brings back mem­o­ries'

For many Dutch peo­ple who lived through the war, a visit to the bunkers may be the first time they can con­front an of­ten re­pressed past and it "brings back the mem­o­ries," said Schoe­maker. "I think it can be very ther­a­peu­tic ... It's of­ten a part of their his­tory that's been hid­den in­side them. In this way they can let it out and put it be­hind them." Bunker owner Blaauw added that "el­derly peo­ple who wit­nessed the war and had prob­lems with the bunkers right af­ter the war are now more in­ter­ested in them." But still many hes­i­tate to be re­minded of that time as the "war has de­fined their whole lives up un­til to­day," he said.

Vis­i­tor tour­ing bunkers built dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of The Nether­lands in The Hague. — AFP pho­tos

Vis­i­tor tour­ing bunkers built dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of the Nether­lands in The Hague on June 18, 2017.

Once buried un­der heaps of sand and rub­ble, this net­work of bunkers and tun­nels is a rem­nant of Hitler's 'At­lantik­wall', a coastal de­fence stretch­ing 5,000 kilo­me­tres from north­ern Nor­way to south­ern France.

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