Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour
By Simon Kuper
Nation Books, 257 pages, $15.99
Bill Shankly, the legendary soccer coach of the British club Liverpool FC, is often quoted as saying, “Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.” The attribution is erroneous, but in the face of the Holocaust, even the playfulness of the sentiment rings hollow. Soccer’s fanatical support and cultural centrality, however, can provide a crucial prism through which to view life and death, war and peace.
Simon Kuper, author of “Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power,” is the world expert on the intersection of soccer, culture and politics. His newly rereleased book, “Ajax, the Dutch, the War,” is a revaluation of the Dutch role in the Holocaust, starting with the surprising silence of the country’s biggest soccer club, Ajax, regarding its actions during the Nazi occupation.
The Holocaust is a subject that appeals to writers for the same reasons that World War II films appeal to movie directors: The bad guys are really bad, and the good guys don’t have to justify themselves. In this book, though, Kuper, who grew up Jewish in the Netherlands, goes the other way. He makes us reconsider our characterization of the Dutch people as innocent bystanders and helpers of Anne Frank. Using the tight-knit clubbiness of soccer clubs, and especially that of Ajax — popularly, though with tenuous cause, known as the “Jewish” club — he investigates how “goed” (“good”) the Dutch people actually were.
Standing in opposition to the general perception of Dutch tolerance and progressiveness (friendly tourists, marijuana at “coffee shops” and Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District) is a brutal fact. As Kuper starkly puts it, “About three-quarters of [Holland’s Jews] were murdered in the gas chambers; in all of Europe only Poland lost a larger proportion of Jews.” Even Anne Frank was probably killed as a result of a Dutch informer. How does Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax — and, by extension perhaps, the entire Dutch nation — square the evidence of their being “fout” (“wrong”) with their own self-perception? And if, as Raul Hilberg’s “The Destruction of the European Jews” shows, 120,000 of the Dutch Jewish population of 140,000 were lost in the war years, why do Israel and the English-speaking world still love the Dutch?