A time to remember and celebrate

By Charell de Koster, USAG Benelux Public AffairsMay 1, 2024

Two Soldiers holding flags during an official ceremony with wreaths in front of them and people gathered in the background.
Soldiers hold the Dutch and Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum flag during Remembrance Day activities at the General War Cemetery in Brunssum, Netherlands May 5, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Charell de Koster, USAG Benelux Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

[Editor's Note: The following story is a part of USAG Benelux’s “Honoring our Legacy” series in which we tell stories of World War I, World War II, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Alliance achievements throughout the decades.]

BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – Every year on May 4 to 5 – Remembrance Day and Liberation Day – the Kingdom of the Netherlands joins together to remember victims of war and reflect on the meaning of freedom.

Official wording to entail who is commemorated during Remembrance Day (Dodenherdenking in Dutch) is continuously developed. As of 2022, “we remember all those - civilians and military - who were killed or murdered in the Kingdom of the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world; both during World War II and the colonial war in Indonesia, and in war situations and peacekeeping operations thereafter,” states the memorandum.

The first local commemorations were held in August of 1945 by the Commission for National Remembrance which found their origins in the Resistance. Within the first year the council of ministers wanted to combine remembering and celebrating the liberation on May 5; however, the committee resisted. To this day May 4 is to commemorate the victims and May 5 is to celebrate the hard-won freedom.

Since 1946, the planning of May 4 has been the same for local remembrance ceremonies with a silent march at 7:30 p.m. and two-minutes of silence at 8 p.m. while the flags are at half-mast.

Even though the Netherlands does not have legislation for flag protocol for civilians, companies or organizations, there is one for government buildings. The regulation states that the National flag is to be at half-mast from 6 p.m. till sunset. On the evening of May 4, the local municipalities will also have their local flag at half-mast.

Early on the commemorative ceremonies were held in the Ridderzaal at the Binnenhof in The Hague due to the roots the commission had in the city. Starting in 1961, the National Remembrance was changed to the Dam Square in Amsterdam where the National Monument was unveiled in 1956. The National Monument is a war memorial commemorating all victims of war and peace keeping missions.

During the 80s, the Dutch government noticed a decline in interest in the May 4 and 5 events. To create a better cohesion between the days and increase the importance of remembering, the National Committee [Dutch: Nationaal Comité 4 en 5 mei] was established. They aim to having a commemoration that most people can identify with.

In 1974, Scouts started to play a role during the National Remembrance Day at Dam Square. Scouting Nederland existed before World War II but was banned in 1941 as the organization refused to merge with National Youth Storm, the Dutch Nazi youth organization. After the war, it became known that many scouting groups continued illegally while others used their scouts’ skills to undermine the occupying forces and aid the Allies.

Almost every town, village and city in the Netherlands has a monument that commemorates war victims. In the evening of May 4, a procession of people including dignitaries and veterans walk towards the monument along the route and on location they are surrounded by locals as it is a public event.

In 2000, the Dam Square commemoration was redesigned. The ceremony includes specially composed music and the number of wreaths got reduced from over eighty to ten. The wreaths laid during the ceremony are to honor all victims of war. Scouts hand the wreath to the wreath layers. The King and Queen lay the first wreath on behalf of the entire Dutch population. After the national anthem, the other nine wreaths are laid. Five wreaths represent the different groups of war victims. The following four wreaths are presented by Dutch authorities. Since 2005, children lay flowers at the National Monument, showing the involvement of the new generations.

Traditionally, on the night of May 4-5, the Liberation Fire is ignited at the May 5 square in front of Hotel de Wereld by the mayor of Wageningen which is where the surrender was signed in 1945. The Liberation Fire is the symbol for national unity; and living in peace and freedom. From this location, walking groups depart into the Netherlands to spread the fire. Lighting the Liberation Fire symbolizes the beginning of the Liberation festivities around the country. It is an important moment for the Netherlands in the transition from commemoration on May 4 to the celebration of freedom gained on May 5.

The National Liberation Celebration begins each year in a different province with a program around the May 5 Lecture. Each year there is a different speaker that uses the lecture as a moment of reflection on the vulnerability of freedom, not only in the Netherlands, but also beyond. Other liberation celebrations include concerts, festivals and Freedom Meals. The core of the Freedom Meal is having a special meeting at the table, where guests talk about freedom and what is means to them. The May 5 concert on the Amstel River in Amsterdam rounds up the Liberation Day festivities. Both the Commemoration on Dam square on May 4 and the Liberation Concert on May 5 are broadcasted live on national television.

Liberation Day (May 5) is an official holiday in the Netherlands, but not everyone is off. For civil servants, the government established May5 a mandatory day off to underline the importance and value of commemorating liberation. Other employers give their employees a day off every five years, and some never have this day as a holiday all depends on their terms of employment.

This year marks a special celebration as the Netherlands celebrates the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II. Throughout the country, Soldiers of the Allied countries, resistance fighters, and fallen victims will be honored.

In an effort to honor and remember, the National Committee May 4 and 5 encourage and support commemorations around the country and have developed educational programs and public campaigns encouraging more involvement.

Additional Resources:

Dutch May 4 and 5 Committee Educational Resources.