Wageningen Student Life during World War 2

On May 10th 1940, the first day of the German invasion of Holland, about 85% of the population in Wageningen was evacuated, with most of the students going back home to their parents. After the Dutch Army surrendered on May 15th, the inhabitants of Wageningen were allowed back and found their city heavily bombed, with two employees of the university killed during the raids. Despite this there was a positive mood, the general spirit was to pick life up again in the best possible way.

So, after the summer of 1940, Wageningen University lectures commenced as usual. There were 659 students then, most of whom were members of one of the local student associations: Ceres, WVSV, Franciscus Xaverius, SSR and Unitas. For the time being, the German occupiers left these student organisations alone. In those days students and politics were regarded as separate worlds.

But around the same time the Nazis began with their oppression of Jewish people. In November 1940 all three Jewish employees at Wageningen University were suspended and a few months later discharged. Five professors and many students protested. The professors were reprimanded.

In October 1941 the Nazis issued a decree that no Jews were allowed as members of non-economic organisations – such as student clubs. This became a matter of principle in the student world which led to the decision of most Dutch student clubs to end their activities. In Wageningen only Unitas remained active (50% of its members supported Nazi ideas, the other 50% terminated their membership).

Although their official meeting places were abandoned and the organisations were dormant, students continued to meet at university and in the privacy of their rooms. Here, they started thinking of ways to sabotage the Nazis. The Germans knew that students were, and still are, by nature intelligent and questioning people and so watched them with suspicion.

Meanwhile Japan had joined the war and occupied the Dutch Indies from January 1942. Many Wageningen students were born in the Dutch Indies, where their fathers would work for the government or in the rubber, rice or sugar industries. These students now lost all contact with their parents on Sumatra or Java or elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. Emotionally, but also financially, these students were to face several big problems.

In 1942 Germany started sending Dutch workmen to German arms factories and obliged Dutch men of the age group 18–23 to work in the so called Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour), among them the Nazis wanted 6000 students. This led to student strikes in Utrecht and Nijmegen in December 1942. In Wageningen the rector magnificus, who was pro-German, prevented any student actions by letting the Christmas holidays start early. All rectores magnifici were declared personally responsible for order at the universities.

Early in 1943, the resistance in Wageningen decided to steal the local population registers from the city hall. Four of them, among whom two students, succesfully stole thousands of record cards so the Nazis could not use them to decide which men could be sent to Germany. This enraged the Nazis, who decided students must have been responsible. They rounded up 20 Wageningen students and imprisoned them in Amersfoort concentration camp. One of them died in captivity, the others survived but had to endure a harsh regime for two and a half months. As a result hundreds of students fled Wageningen out of fear. When another general was killed by students in The Hague, many students from all over the country were sent to camps as retaliation – including 43 Wageningen students.

From that moment on students kept a low profile. The Germans tried to retain their grip on universities by requiring each student to sign the Declaration of Loyalty, in which students declared to abstain from any actions against The Reich and obey the laws issued by the Germans. Those who would not sign, would be sent to Germany to do forced labour, living in poor circumstances under harsh conditions. This led to heated discussions amongst students. What harm would it do to sign the declaration? At least you could continue your studies. What if you didn't want to sign and did not want to be transported off to Germany? That would mean going into hiding. What effect did that have on your relatives? Parents were held responsible by the Nazis for the actions of their children. No one wanted to get their parents into trouble. But the Dutch government in exile made it very clear in radio broadcasts that in a free post–war Holland there would be no place for those who signed.

Eventually, 154 out of 700 students in Wageningen signed the Declaration of Loyalty to the Third Reich. 150 Students reported for forced labour in Germany, and the rest went into hiding. During this time the universities had also stopped lessons.

After the summer holidays of 1943 universities were opened again, but very few students actually showed up for classes. However, it was sometimes possible for (non-registered) students to take exams in a clandestine way, at the professor's home.

By September 1944 the Allied front had reached Wageningen and on October 1st the Nazis ordered everybody to leave Wageningen as the Allies started bombing the town. The inhabitants didn't return before May 15th 1945. The university opened its gates again on the 22nd of August 1945. In the end 30 Wageningen students and employees died in the war, most of them as a result of their activities in the resistance.

Thanks to: Bob Kernkamp, municipality archivist of Wageningen