History of the Resistance of Physicians in the Netherlands

Dr. Ph. de Vries


Reviewed by Mira de Vries

Have you ever searched ages for a rare treasure, only to discover that it had been within your reach all along? Such was my excitement recently when my attention was drawn to this book by, of all people, my mother-in-law, with whom I have never discussed my interest in or activism on eugenics.

If you are like me, the first thing you want to read in a book is the blurb about the author -- often a brief biography and some personal information under a snapshot on the back flap. Any dust cover this book might have had perished long ago. Inside there is no information whatsoever on the author, except that he is a historian, indicating that his doctorate is in history, not medicine. De Vries being the most common surname in the country, one would expect the publisher to make some effort to distinguish this De Vries from the other zillion. Yet even his given name appears nowhere in the book, let alone a year of birth or other information. Were readers in those days not curious about the author?

This book, no longer in print but still available second-hand, is a classic, much quoted authority; almost the only one documenting the actions of physicians in the Netherlands during WWII. Written long before the extent of eugenic crimes against patients in other countries became known, it but ever so slightly cracks open a window onto eugenics in the Netherlands.

Many years were still to pass before historians turned their attention to the subject. By today we know that eugenics was born in England; was practiced in countries as far flung as the US, Canada, Brazil, Japan, and Australia; and came almost full circle back to Europe where in Germany it culminated in the holocaust. What I could not find in the historians' writings was whether eugenics was also practiced in the Netherlands. I have even corresponded with historians in the US and Germany on this matter, but none could answer me. If not, what prevented Dutch doctors from committing these despicable sins? Are they somehow endowed with moral superiority?

De Vries tells us that [contrary to Germany where medics massively rallied to the nazi cause] in the Netherlands only a few physicians sympathized with the Dutch nazi party, called N.S.B. Of the 5762 members of the Netherlands Society for the Advancement of Medicine, only 160 supported the N.S.B., less than 3%.

The triad of German chancellors installed by the nazi invader realized that Dutch doctors were key figures in domestic affairs. They ordered the board of the physicians' organization to vacate its seats in favor of chancellor-appointed members from among those 160. Fuming, the original board and other prominent members came together in secret to discuss what to do. Thus was born during times of obscene violence a movement of peaceful resistance by physicians.

Deprived of their main channel of communication, namely the Netherlands Society for the Advancement of Medicine, the physicians set up an alternative. It was a system of relay messaging. Each physician would personally pass on a particular message to five other physicians whom he knew were not nazi sympathizers. This relay system they called "Medical Contact" or M.C. Fortunately physicians were exempt from the nazi imposed curfew so they could travel freely and visit their colleagues on the pretense of medical emergency.

The first message thus distributed was a secret instruction to resign from the Netherlands Society for the Advancement of Medicine. Most physicians complied, referencing the Hippocratic oath in their letter of resignation. Only the physicians who were nazi sympathizers remained. Faced with this sweeping desertion, the chancellors set up a rival organization, the Physicians' Chamber, and ordered all physicians to join it. In secret the M.C. was warning physicians not to join. Only nazi sympathizers did. So the chancellors ruled that all physicians were automatically members of the Physicians' Chamber. The M.C. came up with a trick for evading membership -- renouncing medical titles. Physicians taped over the word "doctor" on their shingles. The chancellors, realizing that a major medical strike would only disrupt their plans, finally made known that they would drop their threats on condition that the physicians send a letter of apology. This time the M.C. approved, the letters were sent, and a deadly major confrontation with the invader was averted.

The author asserts that the history of the resistance of Dutch doctors is too long to be included entirely in one book. So much the less of it can I relate in this review. I'll skip to the end. After liberation, the physicians rejoined the Netherlands Society for the Advancement of Medicine. They resumed publication of their journal, which they renamed M.C., the name it still has today. And they commissioned the author to write this history. One suspects that recuperating from the wounds of war required viewing themselves in a heroic light.

To be sure, the physicians' resistance was heroic. It is an unspeakable shame that other professionals, in particular civil servants such as population registry officials, police, and operators of public transportation, did not follow their example. However, the author hints that although the physicians did help save lives where they felt they could, their main motivation was always preserving their own autonomy.

An aspect he repeatedly emphasizes is that the M.C. was effective thanks to peer pressure. Had the physicians been able to communicate openly fewer would have joined the resistance. Many at first felt that the M.C. was calling on them to disobey authority, and even to engage in childish pranks. Such reluctant physicians could count on being visited by the M.C.'s leaders, prominent and respected physicians, who would personally persuade them.

And now back to the matter I was looking to illuminate in the first place, namely euthanasia in the Netherlands. No, it was never practiced here before the war. Why not? The author does not explain it explicitly, but he does state that the nazis considered Dutch medical ethics "old-fashioned". On that I base my theory:
The nazis were right about that much. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th century eugenics was the ultimate in modern medical enlightenment. Dutch physicians simply lagged behind. They knew it was going on elsewhere, including next door in Germany. Heyl points out that they could have flooded the German government or embassy with letters of protest, but they didn't. Someday they would have come around to practicing eugenics themselves, had not the nazis bombed and burned their way into the country and tried to impose the doctrine by force. Ironically, it was the nazi invasion of the Netherlands that spared our medical history from being disgraced by a eugenic episode.
Heaven knows how I wish I could ask the author what he thinks of my theory. Sadly, I never will be nor ever was able to discuss the subject with him. The author, Professor of History Dr. Philip de Vries (1921 -- 2001) was already afflicted by cognitive decline when I married his son.

P.S. I found a 63-year-old dust cover!!! The back and flaps are blank.

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