Shakespeare in The Netherlands during the Second World War


Jan Frans van Dijkhuyzen


The 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War has given rise to a flood of publications on the German occupation of The Netherlands. Inspired by this renewed interest in the Second World War, I have carried out a certain amount of research into Dutch translations and performances of Shakespeare's works between 1940 and 1945. The first results of this project are reflected in this article. I should point out that my use of the word "translation" here, has a double edge, since it draws not only on the most common meaning of the term — "the action or process of expressing the sense of a word, passage, etc., in a different language" — but also on its somewhat obscurer sense of "transformation, alteration, change; changing or adapting to another use". Nazism is mainly known for its aggressive banning of all forms of artistic expression (then known as "Entartete Kunst" or "Corrupt Art") that deviated from Third Reich doctrines; it is less well-known that it also attempted to integrate certain art forms into its ideology. Here, I want to investigate some of the ideological uses to which Shakespeare was adapted during the Second World War, by the Nazis as well as by anti-German theatre companies and actors.

Shakespeare appears to have occupied something of a special place within Nazi cultural policies.[1] Germany's basically sympathetic attitude to Shakespeare appears, for instance, from the following excerpt from a letter, written by Kulturkammer official Frans Primo to actor Eduard Verkade:[2]

You are urgently requested by the Theatre and Dance Section of my Department to submit for inspection the texts (printed or in manuscript form) of plays, revues, cabaret shows and recitations to be performed by you or your company well in advance of performances.
In view of the present circumstances, you are strongly discouraged from performing works written by Anglo-Saxon, American or Russian playwrights. The same holds for works or adaptations by Jewish or other immigrants.
An exception is made for Shakespeare in approved translations, while, for the sake of completeness, I should like to point out to you that Bernard Shaw is Irish by birth.[3]

In Germany itself, too, Shakespeare was exempt from the ban on foreign playwrights and was even appropriated for the Nazi cause. When, in September 1939, enemy playwrights were banned from German theatres, an exception was made for Shakespeare, who was to be considered a German author.[4] Nazi ideologists even saw Shakespeare's works as the exemplary embodiment of the socio-political Renaissance experienced by Germany. Germany's rebirth, brought about by the Third Reich, was seen as historically analogous to the Renaissance of Elizabethan England.

One of the obvious difficulties of attempts to incorporate Shakespeare into the Nazi ideology was his Englishness. England was, after all, one of Germany's principal enemies and Nazi propaganda was in general vehemently anti-English. How could Shakespeare's nationality be reconciled with the uses to which Nazi ideologists set out to adapt his works? The solution to this problem was the suppression of Shakespeare's Englishness, in favour of a celebration of his "universal", or "classic" qualities. Shakespeare was not ranked among English playwrights, but among classical authors such as Sophocles. For instance, the Public Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam (Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, or RIOD) has in its possession a list of plays performed at the Municipal Theatre of Amsterdam (Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam) during the 1942-1943 season, submitted to the Kulturkammer. On this list, an anonymous Kulturkammer official has scribbled down, with bureaucratic precision, what portions of the entire repertoire were filled by plays of Dutch origin, French, German and the like. According to his notes, 25.51% of the plays listed are French, 32.66% Dutch, and so on.

Interestingly, "Classical" and "Shakespeare" form a separate heading and together make up 3.15% of the repertoire; the only "classical" play being Sophocles' Antigone. At first, the exclusive link between Sophocles and Shakespeare seems arbitrary — Joost van den Vondel's Gijsbreght van Aemstel, which is also on the list, and falls under the heading "Dutch", has as strong a claim to being termed a "classic" as Twelfth Night (Driekoningenavond), especially in The Netherlands. Seen in the light of Shakespeare's awkward nationality, however, it makes sense: by labelling Shakespeare as "classic", his Englishness was erased and the conflict between his nationality on the one hand and the ideological place reserved for him by Nazi Germany on the other, was resolved.[5]

The pro-Nazi theatre company De Voortrekkers (meaning appr. "The Pioneers", with pseudo-military overtones of "Venture Scouts"), whose artistic director was Head of the Theatre Department of the N. S. B. Headquarters, deftly played upon Nazi Germany's affinities for Shakespeare.[6] In a letter to the Kulturkammer, dated 4 April 1941, they write of their plans to perform a "universal classic", mentioning Shakespeare's "more popular comedies" as potential candidates, along with Die Deutsche Kleinstädter (German Provincials) by the German playwright August Kotzebue (1761-1819), in this way ingeniously combining "classic" and "German". This betrays a fundamental self-contradiction within Nazi appropriations of Shakespeare, no doubt caused by blatant irrationality. On the one hand Shakespeare was to be considered German, but, since this proved problematic, it was, at the same time, safer to stress his status as a "classic".

Obviously, the play which lent itself best to Nazi interpretations was The Merchant of Venice. Its anti-Semitism was taken for granted and considered one of its admirable qualities. Werner Krauss, an actor who frequently appeared in Nazi propaganda films, was even personally selected by Goebbels to play the role of Shylock in a notoriously anti-Jewish production.[7] In April 1940, shortly before the German invasion, the play was performed in Amsterdam by Het Residentie Toneel. Director Johan de Meester took some trouble to emphasise Shylock's "humanity", as well as the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare's Venice. Although the poignancy of staging The Merchant of Venice at this particular moment in history seemed to go unnoticed by many reviewers, some pointed to the injustice inflicted upon the Jews and its implications for a present-day staging of The Merchant of Venice:

In 1940, an audience understands, perhaps better than in the author's time, by how many indignities, inflicted upon the Jews, Shylock's vengefulness was nourished. [...] This Jew speaks the truth too often and is injured too often for his downfall to cause a sense of satisfaction in the spectator. [...] The difficulty of staging this play, then, lies with the character of Shylock, especially in this day and age. (Het Volk, 29 April 1940)[8]
Without any doubt, Philippe la Chapelle [Shylock in this production] has offered us a well-considered and masterful creation. This Shylock was impressive, particularly because of his proud dignity. Gruffly, he shows his hatred to those who abhor him, yet ask for his help. His appearance in court was especially strong; squinting suspiciously at an environment consisting solely of enemies, as if he subconsciously knew what was going to befall him. Before that, Shylock had already moved the audience by his unadorned lament over the persecution he suffered purely for his Jewishness. (NRC Handelsblad, 29 April 1940)[9]

In 1951, Dutch Shakespeare translator Bert Voeten translated The Merchant of Venice. This fact acquires an uncanny ring if we consider the following excerpt from a report, written by Voeten for the Nazi Chamber of Culture in January 1942:

I visited the young painter A. Schuts, who is still studying at the Antwerp Art Academy, on the Nispenscheweg. He turned out to be richly infected with prejudices against and false notions of the workings of our Guilds. I informed him of these matters in the usual manner and again, as I have experienced to many times, he slowly came to acknowledge that "there was indeed something in it". Still, he had think about the matter and discuss it with his confrères.
When I visited him a second time, he enrolled as a sympathiser. Another soul converted!
In addition, I visited coppersmith and plate metal worker C. Nieuwlaat, 33 Boulevard Antverpia in Roosendaal — a highly competent and talented young artist. In fact, he is more of an artisan than an artist. I have noticed that, among practitioners of this artistic trade, the Guild-idea is gaining ground more rapidly than among artists of "higher rank". Apparently, they are more familiar with this concept. At the end of a pleasant afternoon filled with animated conversation, Nieuwlaat spontaneously enrolled as a sympathiser. That's number two![10]

From this document it appears that one of the most prominent and best-known Dutch Shakespeare translators worked as an active recruiter for the German Kulturkammer during the Second World War. At the time, he also wrote articles for the pro-German literary journal Aristo, whose chief editor was an admirer of Benito Mussolini. With hindsight, Bert Voeten's tendentious translation of Portia's remark about her hapless Moroccan suitor — "Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.79) — seems more than mere coincidence, or an enforced solution to translation difficulties: "Laat ieder die op hèm lijkt zo verdwijnen" [trl. "Let all who resemble him vanish so", my italics].[11] "Vanish" is a rather warped and, in the light the dubious role Voeten played during the Second World War, sinister translation of "choose".

Paradoxically, Bert Voeten's relatively neutral translation of "all of his complexion" mitigates the racism of Portia's words. "All who resemble him" refers in the first place to the Moroccan's individual features, as opposed to his racial ones. "Complexion", by contrast, means not only "physical constitution" and "character, aspect", but also "natural colour, texture, and appearance of the skin". The simultaneous intensification and softening of the xenophobia of Portia's line shows an uneasiness on Voeten's part about its translation. One gets the impression that he felt compelled to compensate for his use of the word "vanish", by neutralising the meaning of the term "complexion".

Many artists were unwilling to conform to the cultural policies imposed by the Nazis. For instance, Eduard Verkade, one of the leading Shakespeare actors at the time, refused to join the Kulturkammer and was considered suspect because of his "dangerous" pro-English sentiments. Verkade was especially renowned for his numerous solo-performances of Macbeth and Hamlet. He saw in Shakespeare's plays a powerful vehicle for anti-German — or, more generally, anti-war — protest. Verkade was also the organiser of many so-called "black evenings" (or, "zwarte avonden") — clandestine theatre performances held at people's private homes, with the residents, their family and neighbours as audiences. Shakespeare was performed regularly on these occasions. Under the circumstances Macbeth was obviously an appropriate play, but, according to Verkade, Hamlet was significant too:

The play [...] is as relevant as ever. The battle of each individual still revolves around the same question: "to be or not to be?". Apart from those who perform glorious deeds, actions that speak to the world and instill awe, there are those unknown moral heroes who, in the face of their own conscience, as well as of eternal truths, address the inner dilemma of right and wrong, good and evil, and descend into the grave seemingly undistinguished. In young Hamlet we encounter such a hero.[12]

Although Verkade's rapturous rhetoric may now seem somewhat time-worn, his observations indicate the dimensions a struggle over literary meaning may assume in such a pregnant historical situation as the Second World War. It is, moreover, heartening to find that dissenting voices like Verkade's could be heard in a context where ideological resistance was not without risk.

Much more research into these matters remains to be done.[13] For instance, what were the "approved translations" Primo mentions in his letter to Verkade? Historical evidence suggests that the standard translation by Burgersdijk was widely used during the war, but it is as yet unknown what alterations in the Burgersdijk text were dictated by the Kulturkammer. If contemporary theatre scholars may be said to have a task, it would be to uncover the role of the theatre during World War II. As a public platform where the social pressures of society were rehearsed and enacted, this is where one may expect to find answers to questions about what were easily the most problematic years of the century.




1 For a fascinating filmic account of theatre politics in the Third Reich, and particularly its connection with Shakespeare, see Istvan Szabo's Mephisto, which tells the tale of a German actor who climbs to the top of his profession with generous boosts from the Nazi Party.

2 The Kulturkammer was the Nazi Ministry of Culture, which held under close scrutiny all artistic practices, in Germany as well as in occupied territory abroad. Membership was compulsory and, to give only one example of its authority, theatre companies were required to submit for inspection lists of all plays they intended to perform.

3 Orig.: "Het is dringend gewenscht, dat de teksten (druk of manuscript) der door U of Uw gezelschap te spelen toneelstukken, revue's, voordrachts- en cabaretprogramma's tevoren tijdig ter inzage worden toegezonden aan de Afdeeling Theater en Dans van mijn Departement.

In verband met de omstandigheden is het ten gehoore brengen van werken geschreven door Angelsaksische, Amerikaansche en Russische schrijvers ten strengste te ontraden. Dit geldt eveneens voor werk van of bewerkingen door joodsche of andere emigranten.

Uitzondering wordt gemaakt voor Shakespeare in goedgekeurde vertaling, terwijl ik U volledigheidshalve er op wijs, dat Bernard Shaw van geboorte een Ier is." (Source: Theater Instituut Nederland, Amsterdam).

4 See also Werner Habicht, "Shakespeare and Theatre Politics in the Third Reich", The Play out of Context: Transferring Plays from Culture to Culture, edited by Hanna Scolicov and Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), 110-21.

5 Source: RIOD, Departement van Volksvoorlichting en Kunsten, file 180e.

6 NSB stands for "Nationaal Socialistische Beweging" (National Socialist Movement), the most powerful Dutch collaborating organisation during the war.

7 See also Graham Bradshaw, Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1993), 12.

8 Orig.: "Beter misschien, dan in de tijd van den schrijver, verstaat een publiek in het jaar 1940, hoeveel smaad, de Joden berokkend, Shylock's wraakzucht voedde. [...] Deze Jood spreekt te veel waarheid en wordt te zeer gekrenkt, om den toeschouwer met zijn ondergang voldoening te schenken. [...] Shylock is dus het probleem van de opvoering, van de opvoering in deze tijd, vooral" (Source: Theater Instituut Nederland, Amsterdam).

9 Orig.: "Philippe la Chapelle heeft hier zonder twijfel een wel-overdachte en gave creatie gegeven. Deze Shylock imponeerde vooral door fiere waardigheid. Norsch toont hij zijn haat aan hen, die hem verafschuwen, maar niettemin zijn hulp inroepen. Zeer sterk was zijn opkomen in de rechtszaal, met dat argwanend turen en speuren in een milieu met niets dan vijanden, als wist hij onbewust, wat hem te wachten stond. Tevoren had deze Shylock ook door zijn sobere klacht over de vervolging louter om zijn Jood-zijn, reeds ontroering gewekt" (Source: Theater Instituut Nederland, Amsterdam).

10 Orig.: "Ik bezocht den jongen schilder A. Schuts aan den Nispenscheweg, die nog op de Antwerpsche Academie studeert. Hij bleek rijkelijk geïnfecteerd te zijn met vooroordelen en wanbegrip omtrent de werking van onze Gilden. Ik heb hem in deze op de bekende wijze voorgelicht en het was weer, zoals ik dat reeds zoovele malen heb kunnen ervaren, een langzaam tot de erkenning komen, `dat er toch wel iets goeds in zat'. Maar hij moest er toch nog eens over denken en met zijn confraters over spreken.

Toen ik hem ten tweeden male bezocht, gaf hij zich op als sympathisant. Weer een zieltje gewonnen!

Bezocht verder den koperdrijver en plaatwerker C. Nieuwlaat, Boulevard Antverpia 33 te Roosendaal, een zeer bekwaam en talentvol jong kunstenaar, eigenlijk meer ambachtsman dan artist. Ik heb opgemerkt, dat bij deze beoefenaars van het kunstzinnige ambacht, de Gilde-idee sneller veld wint dan bij de artisten van `hoogere orde'. Zij zijn blijkbaar meer vertrouwd geraakt met dat begrip: Gilde. Nieuwlaat gaf zich aan het eind van een genoelijken praatmiddag spontaan op als sympathisant. Da's no 2!" (Source: RIOD, Departement voor Volksvoorlichting en Kunsten, file 128j.

11 The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); De Koopman van Venetië (Amsterdam: International Theatre & Film Books, 1992), 45 [First published in 1959].

12 Orig.: "Het stuk [...] is even actueel als immer. De strijd voor het individu blijft de keuze tussen `zijn of niet zijn'. Naast de persoonlijkheden die roemruchte daden vervullen, daden welke naar buiten spreken en bewondering afdwingen, blijven de morele verborgen helden bestaan, die het innerlijke vraagstuk tusschen juist en onjuist, goed en kwaad, ten opzichte van het innerlijk gemoed en oneindige waarheden uitstrijden en ogenschijnlijk roemloos ten grave dalen. Een dergelijke held is de jeugdige Hamlet." See E. F. Verkade-Cartier van Dissel, Eduard Verkade en zijn strijd voor een nieuw toneel (Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, 1978), 534.

13 Shakespeare in Nederland: kroniek van vier eeuwen Shakespeare in Nederlandse vertalingen en op het Nederlandse toneel, Robert H. Leek's extensive account of Dutch performances and translations of Shakespeare, (Zutphen: De Walburg Pers, 1988) pays relatively little attention to the period between 1940 and 1945. Although Leek does list the most important Shakespeare productions, he discusses only one — Johan de Meester's Merchant of Venice — in some detail.


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