People observe Remembrance Day in Driebergen, Netherlands, on May 4, 2017. RNS photo by Richard Mouw

What we can learn from the Dutch on Memorial Day

DRIEBERGEN, Netherlands (RNS) Once a year in the Netherlands, joggers in the park stop running for two minutes. Bicyclists pull over to the side of the road. Television sets and radios are turned off. Parents hush their children. And in many villages and cities people congregate in public spaces for a communal ceremony.

May 4 is the annual Remembrance Day, and this year my wife and I joined millions of Dutch citizens there in observing a customary two minutes of silence, beginning at eight o’clock in the evening.

We attended one of those public ceremonies this year with Dutch friends in their city of Driebergen, about 40 miles southeast of Amsterdam.  It was, for us, a good preparation for our own Memorial Day at the end of this month.

For the Dutch, Remembrance Day, which they call "Herdenkingsdag," is specifically about World War II. But it is not — as is often the primary focus on our own Memorial Day — simply about those who died in military service. People are encouraged to reflect upon all of the lives lost during the horrible years of the German occupation. And the focus on the tragic elements is kept separate from the more joyful memories that are the theme of the next day, another national holiday: Liberation Day, or "Bevrijdingsdag," when the end of the Nazi occupation is celebrated.

In Driebergen, the painful memories explicitly cited in the public ceremony were very local ones. Seventy Jewish citizens had been taken away by the Nazis, never to return. Eleven others, young men, were shot because of active engagement in the Resistance. When food supplies were cut off, children in the town died of starvation.

During the two minute silence, everyone stood still, most with heads bowed. A young man in front of us turned to look at the street behind us, and nudged his girlfriend to see how the traffic had come to a halt for those brief moments.

There is a continuing debate in Holland about whether there ought to be an expanded focus for Remembrance Day reflections. What about other wars? Why not think also about recent Syrian refugees who have drowned at sea?

Good questions — but I think it is good for the citizens of Driebergen to emphasize very local memories. During the nonsilent parts of the public ceremony, many wreaths were laid at the city’s statue of liberty breaking free of the ropes that had been binding her. The local school soccer team stepped forth with flowers, followed by the Scouts, representatives of churches, a synagogue, the local mosque, the children and grandchildren of people who had lost their lives.

Our own American experience after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks showed that sometimes in times of national tragedy many of us discover in our own hearts a yearning for a community that is bigger than we had experienced before, a desire to join in some sort of expanded sacred space with people whom we are not otherwise inclined to think of in terms of our commonness.

In their important book, "Habits of the Heart," published in the 1980s, Robert Bellah and his team of social scientists wrote about the importance of maintaining “communities of memory” in public life. The memories can be about good things, but often the communal sense is reinforced in a special way by sharing painful memories.  The Bellah team talked about public experiences that come close to being a “common worship, in which we express our gratitude and wonder in the face of the mystery of being itself.”

I was struck by the feel of the Driebergen gathering. Attendance at that city’s houses of worship is down significantly in recent decades, but on the evening of this year’s Remembrance Day there was a worshipful mood as people gathered to remember very specific losses of life. There was even worshipful music, as during the wreath-laying the band played “Now Thank We All Our God” and “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”

It wasn’t just the explicit Christian references that made me feel somewhat at home at the Driebergen ceremony. There are still overtly Christian themes at work in the public cultures of, say, Sweden and Spain, but because of their “state church” associations they come across as a little strange to me. Dutch society is devoted to religious pluralism, as is our own American context. When Christian themes show up in public commemorations in these settings, they do not seem forced — they come across as specific religious memories that are actually still at work in the culture.

On our own Memorial Day this year I’m going to set the alarm on my iPhone for 7:59 p.m., to remind myself to stop for two minutes of silent remembering. And I will prepare to make my own memories very specific ones, about people who have died in the past — and continue to die in the present — because of the ravages of warfare.


  1. Nice enough, but thinking of how the fallen that these Dutch remember were victims of a world gone wild led by a madman, one wonders if there is not more to learn from the Dutch for American fundagelicals. While Mouw’s American fellow travelers reap discord in the U.S. and voted in an American madman as their leader, the Dutch eschew forced religion of any type and find solace in freedom, a freedom American right-wing zealots seek to extinguish.

  2. Israel does a very similar thing on their Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the entire country coming to a halt while a siren goes off for one minute. Various people, from some American Jewish students returning from an Israel trip to then-President Clinton have tried to have this happen in the US, but it hasn’t seemed to catch on.

  3. Curious. Exactly who is forcing religion on you, and how is it being forced on you?

  4. There are many instances. For example:

    1. Religious displays on public property
    2. Peer-pressured participation in school prayer
    3. The whole “faith-based initiatives” thing
    4. Government funding of Ken Ham’s Ark themepark
    5. Religious tests for public office
    6. right-wing religious public lobbying

    Pick of any issue of Americans United’s “Church and State” and more examples abound.

  5. 5 is a non-starter, 6 is guaranteed under the 1st Amendment, Can’t comment on 4, 3 is another non-starter, 2 is between the kids, 1 classifies you as a snowflake.

  6. That is a right-wing epithet only meaningful to bullies in the process of committing bullying. I have no problem with religious displays on private property. They do not however belong on public property in a free society. To stand firm in the face of those who want to violate the constitution is bold and your sneering whine proves it is you who is the weak-willed babyman like the cowardly President who can’t stand dissent and the criminal congress member who assaults reporters. I served in the armed forces precisely to combat this sort of tyranny.

    Religious tests for public office occur all the time. Technically they are prohibited by the constitution but that doesn’t stop them from occurring. An example was an opposition group’s action against former Senator Kay Hagen of North Carolina criticizing her for accepting a contribution from a group of atheists.

    Sure “lobbying” is “guaranteed” as a right of something one may do, but that doesn’t make it right.

    Prayer services do not belong in public school, outside of paid use of school facilities by private groups. The use of them as an everyday thing facilitates bullying and oppression.

    No other non-theocratic country funnels government money to political churches.

  7. I also served in this country’s military to preserve American freedom, including many freedoms you disdain. None of the arguments in your above post are substantive. You may not like the term snowflake, but it is mere shorthand. If you shrink before that…it only proves the point. I can hardly conceive that you would allow yourself to be bullied by anyone.

  8. Let us remember that Memorial Day is of Civil War origination. Like WWII for the Dutch, one of our eras of horrific loss. I myself, enjoy as well as feel guilt at the way we use this holiday as a three day weekend heralding the coming of Summer. I like this Dutch tradition. I’ve neverknown of this despite living for some time on a Dutch Caribbean island.

  9. I can’t really address Item #4 either. But the Federal Judge of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Kentucky, Gregory Van Tatenhove, clearly addressed it:

    “If a tourist attraction, even one that as described here ‘advances religion,’ meets the neutral criteria for tax incentives offered by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, can the Commonwealth still deny the incentive for Establishment Clause reasons?
    This opinion is long, but the answer to that question is short — NO.

    Court decision was given on Jan. 25, 2016; and it’s still standing. So Ken Ham’s themepark does not practice ANY “forced religion” at all.
    This will make Kangaroo52 very happy. The End.

  10. I do not disdain any freedoms.

    The thing about the epithet “snowflakes” is it is merely classic bullying and a person who makes pretensions to be some sort of intellectual who resorts to it reveals their own powerlessness when doing so. Plus, a gazillion snowflakes equals a blizzard and that is what is facing the forces of oppression.

    How a singular person does “not allow” oneself to be bullied begs the question. It suggests the belligerent talking heads in the media who berated the reporter assaulted by Gianforte have merit in their bluster. Bullying exists independent of the person bullied. Its actions occur before the bullied person may react. I try to turn the other cheek except when prudence dictates other actions. An example occurred when I was an election judge in Harris County, Texas, in 1993. At the Astrodome where the ballots were due to be turned in after the close of the polls, I was waiting dutifully in line to be so processed when I was accosted by two other election judges. At the time (and perhaps still) election judges were appointed by the County Commissioners, and as such they appointed the precinct committee members of their party, thus some election judges were Democrats and some were Republicans as at the time both parties held two of the four commission seats. These fellows were perhaps bored with what there was to discuss – it was an uneventful election – and focused their attention on me. It soon dawned on me that the more dominant of the two was none other than Dr. Steven Hotze, a leader of a religious right front group who was frequently shown on local news programs. His hatchet face was unmistakable. The other was his wingman; Both were election judges appointed by one of the Republican commissioners. Hotze asked me which voting precinct was mine and thereby determined I was a Democrat. He shook my hand, but squeezed it so hard it was still sore the next day. I could have reacted in kind but such is not my modus operandi. At the time while Hotze exceeded me in height I exceeded him in weight and could have easily taken him down but such was not my inclination. It merely confirmed my assessment of his character which I had made prior to that chance face to face encounter.

  11. You are simply an enemy of religious freedom. Religious displays on public property are no bigger problem than secularist or anti-religious displays are. Peer pressured participation in school prayer can in a Dutch context only exist in confessionally bound or religious schools (“bijzonder onderwijs”). If you object to it, just take you children out and send them to a public school (“openbare school”). “Faith-based initiatives” are as legitimate as any non-faith based initiatives. And “religious tests for public office” simply don’t exist in Holland.

    Your problem is really with freedom of speech and freedom of expression. What you really want is to limit these liberties to secular expressions and to prohibit religious expressions, and this I find rather hypocritical. Religions represent viewpoints, just as political parties and other ideologies. It is a basic feature of modern society is that a plurality of viewpoints can be expressed and that the State is not permitted to discriminate between religions or between religious and secular viewpoints. Secular viewpoints, by the way, are not neutral. They are no less ideologicaly motivated than religious viewpoints.

  12. There’s a time and a place for everything. The public square is not the place for a religious display.

    You can make any religious expression you want just not on the taxpayers’ dime.

    There is plenty of peer pressure in public schools.

  13. There’s nothing wrong with public displays of e.g. the Ten Commandments, or a Crucifix on a cross-road, if this fits in the cultural-historical context of the location. Nobody will come to your home and force you to become Catholic or Jewish. Expressions like these simply belong to the cultural heritage of the West, in a similar way as the expressions of Greek and Roman mythology in ornaments and statues, and opposing them is often symptomatic of the rejection of this heritage. A culture which forgets to remember and cultivate its own heritage is rudderless and empty.

    As to peer pressure, this happens everywhere, in particular in a youth context. There’s certainly secular pressure enough these days. So don’t blame others for doing what everyone does.

  14. I do not believe religious monuments belong on public land in a just society. The efforts to do so constitute nothing more than “we have the power to do this.” See Matthew 6:1-4.

  15. The same is true for secular or secularist monuments. So if I understand you correctly you want to close down and destroy churches and synagogues, for these buildings are monuments par excellence in the public domain and highly visible.

    To me your perspective betrays a closed mind because you don’t see how ideological you are. Your agenda is totalitarian, anti-democratic. Why is it so difficult to accept that religous citizens and their institions belong as much to society and have the same rights as others?

    Your quote from Mt. 6:1-4 is out of context. Remember that this text of Jesus belongs in the social and cultural context of Ancient Israel, which was a theocracy ruled by the Divine Law given to Moses at Sinai, and that Jesus perfectly obeyed this law. This text in the Gospel of Mathew doesn’t say at all that all religious observance should be hidden, or “in secret” but that one should avoid the sins of hypocrisy and individual religious show. Jesus himself attended synagogue services on a regular basis and went to the Temple at the times prescribed in the Law.

    This same theme of hypocrisy and personal religious show is addressed in Mt. 6:1618 in Jesus admonition concerning fasting. This admonition is about personal fasts a person takes upon himself as a religious discipline or for the sake of prayer intentions. It is not about public fast days. There were public fasts regulated by the Law and Jewish custom — e.g. the fast of Yom Kippur and the fasts mentioned in Zechariah 8:19 — and, obviously, Jesus’ words of observance “in secret” do not apply to these fasts. Every religion has a sphere of public life and worship, for without it the existence of religion itself is impossible.

  16. No, you do not understand me correctly and engage is beaucoup pomposity to express your obtuseness.

    Churches and synagogues are not government property. They are not in the public domain. The courthouse lawn is.

    The context of the scripture was spot on. The impetus to erect monstrous Ten Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns are motivated entirely by a desire to express dominance and nothing more.

    That said, there is nothing wrong with such things as the traditional Roman Catholic march of Los Pastores to commemorate Christmas. They should of course obtain a parade permit but it should be routinely granted and the fee waived.

    Normally, courthouse monuments are erected only after considerable pre-contemplation. The desire of certain groups to bypass standard procedures, as in the disgraced ex-judge Roy Moore’s erection of a 10C monolith in the dark of night, is only an effort to entwine church and state and express to those not of the favored religion that they are second class citizens. These are precise legal formulas as to what is acceptable and what is not. Consider for example the case of the City of Boerne (Texas) versus archbishop Patricio Flores, the Catholic prelate over the region. The Church wished to demolish a hundred-year-old church in violation of the historical preservation ordinance (Local nuns sided with the City). The Supreme Court ruled the city ordinance prevailed. Personally I believe as the actual owner of the property Flores should have been free to call in the wrecking ball, but SCOTUS ruled otherwise.

    I make no comment on your character or ideology as you have about mine, Congressman Gianforte.

  17. Thanks floydlee. We can check that one off the books.

  18. Perhaps in the US churches are not government property but here in Europe many ancient churches, cathedrales, and synagogues, are indeed government property, for obvious reasons. They are considered priceless, and are protected cultural monuments.

    I guess I misunderstood you at first because my impression was that you were a European. So I interpreted what you said from a European context. Now I see that you are an American.

    I can only add that I wished we had the same level of religious freedom here which you enjoy in the US. You’re far better off. Don’t spoil it.

  19. What is it you cannot do that you want to do?

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