What many have been led to believe about the Netherlands during World War II is in most cases a fallacy. The connotation that Holland was a contemporary band of resistance agents, protecting and hiding its Jewish population in spite of the German occupation is a dated product of Dutch propaganda. But as Simon Kuper, co-author of Soccernomics, puts it, because the Dutch language is rarely spoken outside the boarders of the country itself, portraying that idea to those abroad came easy. In his revealingly researched book, Ajax, The Dutch, The War, Kuper tells the true Dutch story of WWII, the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany through football, to which the war has incredible ties. The author offers a must-be-heard, alternative point of view by investigating soccer clubs from that infamous era.
The cornerstone of this work resides in and around Ajax Amsterdam, the world famous club of Johan Cruyff and Total Football. However, few know of the club’s role in the war and tie to Amsterdam’s once healthy Jewish community. In fact, most people are steered away from knowing these truths by the club itself that curiously denies, or rather actively hides, such involvement in traumas past. Simon Kuper removes the tarp to uncover what many have been so oblivious to – club suits locked in collaboration with the enemy, betrayal of Jews, former players, staff, and members sent to die in concentration camps, and the odd hero who may never be recognized. Just exactly why this is the case is compiled in the complexities of this page-turner.
Don’t be fooled by the words “Ajax” slapped in large white and red letters across the front cover, either. Kuper goes much deeper into wartime soccer than the Netherlands. Perhaps what is most intriguing about the book’s blueprint is the ability to cover such broad subject matter from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, England, and more with the specifics of colorful and engaging anecdotes, not all of which have happy endings. I’m afraid that’s the reality of non-fiction war stories.
One must be careful when reading not to develop a distaste for certain clubs or national teams based on what Kuper has unearthed about their past. As tragic as many of the stories within are, the sins of those who have once been should not pollute the image of the present. That being said, many traces of the war’s aftermath have shaped the customs and practices of clubs today, not all of them good. The Dutch are not a people oblivious to most of Kuper’s deductions. They know their actual history. But Kuper sums up their recollection of the war in the shape of monuments and museums as a “Disney” version of events, disinformation that intentionally leaves out the wrong (fout) and highlights the good (goed). In the words of Kuper: “… half of Amsterdam is a mendacious monument distorting the fate of the city’s Jews.” All of this made me ponder one thing. Which is the lesser of two evils - Amsterdam whitewashing its war history or Ajax covering theirs up?