Aerial view of the bridge over the Neder Rijn, Arnhem; British troops and destroyed German armoured vehicles are visible at the north end of the bridge, 19 September 1944.
Imperial War Museums

ALTHOUGH the greater part of Holland rises above sea level, the world's imagination has always been caught by the almost equally large low-lying sections -- former swamps, lakes, inland seas -- which would be submerged were it not for dunes, dykes, locks and pumps. Voltaire, that caustic wit who loved us not, condensed his feelings into the famous valediction: "Adieu, canaux, canards, canaille!" And in the English tongue there was Oliver Goldsmith, who wrote in "The Traveller:"

Embosom'd in the deep where Holland lies, Methinks her patient sons before me stand, Where the broad ocean leans against the land.

And Byron, who referred in "Don Juan" to "that water-land of Dutchmen and of ditches," and Thomas Hood, who wrote playfully that "Holland lies so low, they're only saved by being dammed."

As with the poets, so with us all. It is the water which looms large in any mental picture of Holland (and in a good many pictures on canvas as well) -- the water, and the patient, skilful, unremitting toil of the inhabitants, toil which has transformed vast flooded areas into lush, fertile land and kept the hungry water-wolf at bay. In America, the conception of Holland threatened constantly by inundations is part of the childhood recollections of millions who treasure the memory of "Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates."

People living on a continent cleft by that aggressive giant, the Mississippi, have no difficulty in understanding why the world has always been so much interested in our broad man-made acres. In Holland, every day of every year, a never-ending, tenacious struggle is waged and won (most of the time) by puny men against one of nature's most powerful elements. Just as the airman or the mariner cannot relax his vigilance for one second on pain of damage or death, so the Hollanders who man the dykes, the locks and the pumps must be forever on the alert. The penalty of a moment's lapse of attention and care is loss of homes, loss of wealth, loss of life. This epic and romantic quality of the everyday life of the Dutch people has had a universal appeal to men's minds.

The Germans are now denying the people of Holland enjoyment of the fruits of that epic battle: the peaceful possession of their land. Worse still, they surrender the prize to the foe. They deliver the land to the waves from which it had been wrested. To us Hollanders it seems a particularly odious and damaging form

of high treason. Can the world look on unmoved? American public opinion has already replied with an emphatic "No." Holland's achievement in driving back the sea is rightly considered part of the patrimony of western civilization.

So much for what may perhaps be called the moral side of the problem of German inundations in Holland. Let us now get down to the specific facts.

The accompanying map shows those parts of Holland which lie below highest sea and river level and those which rise above it. The former are shaded so as to differentiate the sections subject to inundation by both sea and river water from those subject to inundation by fresh water alone. The unshaded areas represent higher land. The sand dunes along the coast, bulwarked by a number of very heavy dykes, have been left white like the other somewhat higher parts of the country.

As Professor S. van Valkenburg has written, "The Dutch lowland is still an intricate system of reclaimed lake and marine floors." [i] The area subject to inundation is divided into a great number of districts, called "polders." Each polder usually has its own system of dykes, drainage canals and ditches and its own discharging sluices or pumping plants, or both. At a rough estimate, there are about 2,500 such polders. Rainfall and water which has seeped in from adjoining areas must be removed from each of them in order to maintain normal living conditions. If the level of the polder is sufficiently high, water is removed by gravity flow through discharging sluices into the sea or into tidal rivers during low tide; if this is not possible, it is removed by means of pumping plants. In a small number of polders both methods are used. At a rough estimate, the area of land drained by gravity flow through sluices is about 980,000 acres, and that drained wholly by pumping plants about 2,340,000 acres. A great many pumping plants are electrically driven, while others have Diesel or steam engines. There still remain, in addition, quite a number of the famous windmills which give such a characteristic note to the Dutch landscape. In the old days these windmills provided the only water-removing machinery.

The polders vary greatly in age and size. The work on some of the larger polders which was completed in northern Holland around 1650 attracted considerable attention from contemporaries. Sir William Temple, for example, who at one time had been British Ambassador to Holland, wrote in 1673 in his "Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands:"

There is in North Holland an Essay already made, at the possibility of draining these great Lakes, by one, of about two Leagues broad, having been made firm Land, within these Forty years; This makes that part of the Country called the Bemster, being now the richest Soil of the Province, lying upon a dead flat, divided with Canals, and the ways through it distinguisht with ranges of Trees, which make the pleasantest Summer-Landschip of any country I have seen, of that sort.

Since the seventeenth century a vast amount of work has been done in those regions, culminating in the truly gigantic project for the reclamation of most of the Zuyderzee, already partly completed before the present war. When the great dyke was laid across the mouth of the Zuyderzee it transformed this arm of the sea into what is virtually a lake, called the Ysselmeer.

The part of the Netherlands liable to be flooded is approximately 45 percent of the country's total area -- that is, almost one half. Moreover, this part is of overwhelming importance to our national economic life, containing by far the largest part of the population, all the largest towns, all the most fertile regions, all the greater commercial centers and a considerable portion of the national industries.

The following tables tell the story of what would happen if inundations were carried out to the fullest hydraulic limits. Table I indicates the effects on Dutch agriculture, Table II that on Dutch industry. The agricultural figures are based on statistics of 1937, the industrial on those of 1938, revised somewhat in each case to bring them as nearly as possible into conformity with reported conditions in 1943.


  Production, in tons, Percentage of total Percentage of total
  in areas subject national production agricultural production
  to inundation of these products in the Netherlands
Wheat 324,176 81.3 3.7
Rye 137,220 23.8 1.6
Pulse 55,254 86.7 .6
Potatoes 1,697,285 50.3 19.4
Sugarbeet 1,261,617 89.3 14.6
Rapeseed 45,974 61.2 .5
Milk 1,779,345 63.2 20.2
  --------- ---- ----
Total 5,300,871   60.6


  Income, in billions of Percentage of Percentage of
  florins, in areas total amount in the total amount
  subject to inundation class of industry in the Netherlands
Ceramics 24.3 71 1.7
Printing 44.2 85 3.1
Building 215.2 82 14.8
Chemical 40.1 77 2.8
Wood and cork 44.5 90 3.1
Clothing 88.2 80 6.1
Leather and rubber 24.7 53 1.7
Coal and peat 4.3 5 .3
Metal 194.3 67 13.4
Paper 20.2 73 1.4
Textile 21.2 23 1.5
Gas and electricity 100.1 85 6.9
Food 182.1 76 12.6
  ------- -- ----
Total 1,003.4   69.4

The threatened districts might be inundated in several ways. Cessation of pumping and stoppage of the discharge of water would cause the water level in the polders to rise above the ground level relatively quickly, depending on the volume of seepage and rainfall. Water also can be let into the polders from the sea, from the Rhine or other rivers, and from lakes. This method can be adopted gradually or it can be done abruptly by destroying sluices and breaching dykes. In the latter case, there would be very great destruction of life and property. But no matter what method was used, if the inundations were carried above a certain level there would almost certainly be damage to pumping plants. The introduction of sea water would of course render the soil unfit for agriculture for some years to come.

Several times, in the course of the centuries, the Hollanders have themselves resorted to inundation as an extreme measure of defense. They did so, for instance, in the course of the Eighty Years War against Spain, and again in 1672 when Holland was attacked simultaneously by Britain, France and the Electors of Munster and Cologne. They did not hesitate to resort to flooding again late in 1939 and early in 1940, when the German menace against Holland became apparent; and the Dutch Army found it helpful in the course of their short campaign against the invaders. It is very important to note, however, that the Hollanders were at great pains to limit the resulting damage as much as possible, and that their precautions met with complete success. The Germans are notorious for their ruthlessness in war, especially when they are operating in other people's countries. What will happen when they start inundations in Holland? Their sinister record justifies the gravest misgivings.

Although the Hollanders cannot complain in principle if the occupying forces use inundations as part of their defense, they are greatly concerned as to the possible extent of the inundation and the methods by which it is carried out. The Germans wish to cover the flank of their Army and hope to reduce the length of the coastline which they must defend against invasion. Flooding will render the terrain impassable, will submerge or waterlog roads and railways, and reduce heavy transport to zero. If it is carried out carelessly it will in addition make the inhabitants homeless, ruin all their stores and stocks, and cause famine. Beyond this material ruin, too, looms the specter of epidemics, since drinking water installations will inevitably be either destroyed or polluted.

There is no way of determining precisely even what the Germans are doing, let alone what they are planning, but reports which so far have seeped out of the country are very disquieting. In the southwestern islands considerable areas have already been evacuated and flooded, and this has been done in the most callous manner. People abroad who are sitting comfortably in their homes of an evening cannot imagine what it would mean to them if suddenly enemy soldiers entered to tell them that their house, land and all their personal property except what they could carry was to sink beneath the water within a few hours. This is exactly what has already happened in parts of Holland, and no doubt will continue to happen on an increasing scale. The Germans have had plenty of time to arrange to avoid the cruel hardship of these summary evictions; but for reasons of their own they have chosen the brutal way, setting on the march in still another corner of Europe another column of helpless humanity -- farmers, workers, town-dwellers, with their wideeyed children, their pathetic bundles, their despair and their silent rage.

In a recent German broadcast,[ii] a certain Major Hollinger explained the method of flooding used in these and other areas of Holland. At 8 a.m. on February 1, 1944, he said, the sluice-gates of all drainage and irrigation canals flowing into the sea were closed. After sketching the history of inundation as a military weapon from Roman times to the present day, he continued smugly:

Land can be flooded either by closing the floodgates, so that the water from the drainage and irrigation canals, which otherwise would flow into the sea, is dammed up and overflows the banks; or by opening the floodgates at high tide, and closing them at low tide, so that seawater floods the countryside. Meadows flooded with salt water are ruined for years, but flooding with fresh water has no such disastrous effect. The German authorities are so far taking the slower way of flooding the hinterland of the Channel Coast sector with sweet water, for which the farmers are of course very grateful.

It almost sounds as if the farmers were supposed to be enjoying it all, although the implications of the words "so far" were hardly cheering.

At the end of this war, Holland, like the other countries now under the German yoke, will have been robbed, devastated and maltreated by Germany in a great variety of ways. But even if the Germans do not flood more of her territory than they have done already,[iii] her predicament will be unique in that before starting in to rebuild great portions of her dwellings and factories and agricultural plant she will first have to reclaim from the water the land on which they stood.

The 9,000,000 people of the Netherlands are packed densely -- 640 people per square mile as against 43 in the United States. After the war, the area available for producing foodstuffs to support the lives of these people will be greatly reduced -- just how greatly will be determined by the extent of the German inundations. There will be tremendous problems of housing and feeding. For a long time there probably will be intolerable overcrowding in the dry areas. It will be necessary to import a great part of the country's food supply -- perhaps most of it -- in a period of world scarcity. There will be unemployment, with all its dangerous consequences. Health will be threatened or worse. Poverty will be universal. Indeed, in some respects the outlook for Holland seems blacker than for any other country now occupied by Germany.

The world may be sure that, in conformity with the country's inclinations and traditions, the Hollanders will do all they can in this crisis to help themselves. But there hardly could be a more unfavorable moment in which to undertake a vast land reclamation project than just at the end of a period of enemy occupation and organized plunder. Of course, much will depend on how many sluices, pumping plants and power stations the Germans decide to destroy. But even at the best, the reclamation of land, the rebuilding of houses, the restocking of farms and the rehabilitation of industries must depend to considerable extent on outside help. Holland gave assistance in Belgium, France, Austria and Hungary at the end of the last war; and she has aided France, China and other countries with gifts of money, material, labor and technical assistance when they were visited by floods or earthquakes. Perhaps now that she is confronted with so dire a calamity the outside world will in turn help her. Though she feels her case is somewhat special, she does not ask for charity and will gladly pay in so far as she is able for help through UNRRA or other relief agencies.

Holland will not forget that it was Germany which caused this present calamity. She hopes and trusts that the world will not forget. Common sense and ordinary justice seem to require that Germany be compelled to make good as great a part as possible of the damage she has done in Holland, of course with due regard to the claims of others. To the extent that Germany can make good the damage she has done, Holland does not expect to pay for it. Money payments from Germany will probably be impracticable. But Germany can and should make deliveries in kind (it is too early to determine exactly what they should be), and Holland expects her associates of the United Nations to join her in insisting that this be done. When a beaten foe has a record of inhumanity like Germany's, compassion yields place to the requirements of justice.

In Holland's case, the problem of adjustment has a special territorial aspect. If Germany wantonly destroys so much of Holland's soil that her 9,000,000 people are unable to live on the land which remains, it may be found necessary to grant her an equivalent portion of German territory or at any rate the usufruct from it. As already noted, Holland's population lives 640 to the square mile. The population density in Germany before the Nazis began their course of conquest was only 360 per square mile. (The figures, incidentally, put German laments over their need for Lebensraum in proper perspective.) If Germany's course of destruction in Holland goes to such lengths that the Dutch people need additional land in order to live, some suitable form of compensation (if territory, then territory minus Germans!) must be found. Hollanders are not annexationists by nature. In the course of the centuries they often have been in a position to annex parts of what now is Germany. They refrained. The Germans are now showing the extent of their appreciation for this forbearance.

Holland would have preferred to avoid bringing forward any proposal of this nature. Whether she will ultimately be compelled to press for its adoption depends on the Germans. I believe that public opinion in the United States realizes that it may be necessary and that, if so, it will be just. Mr. Herman P. Eberharter, a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, stated the case fairly when he said to the Foreign Affairs Committee on March 30 of this year: "It is reported that the Germans are flooding part of the Netherlands. This desperate action is further proof that the Nazis have a complete disregard for the rights and welfare of other nations. As a result of this act, thousands of acres of good land may have been ruined and valuable property irretrievably lost. But such considerations never gave any qualm to the selfish and callous Nazi mind and heart. To the Dutch people, who are being so cruelly tried under the brutal German yoke, go our sympathy and the assurance that with Allied victory will also come retribution and the correction of such crimes as those against life and property. The Germans will have to pay, perhaps, with their own territory for the ruined land."

[i] "The Netherlands." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943, p. 6.

[ii] German broadcast in English for Eire, April 15, 1944.

[iii] For reasons of security, no exact data can be given.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now