6 May 2024

How wavering made the National Commemoration a paltry spectacle


And so it became a paltry spectacle, the National Commemoration on Dam Square. Paltry because much of the citizenry that carries and underpins the commemoration was absent.

The run-up to the commemoration was dominated by fears of its disruption. Wouldn’t there be shouting or demonstrations? Would we be able to handle the tension of remembering past deaths in the face of the reality of daily deaths? Of the uneven responses to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza/Israel? Of the discomfort in our own democracy, where the Chamber President made statements that clash with the basic values of that same democracy and yet will lay a wreath on behalf of us all?

The National 4 and 5 May Committee and the mayor of Amsterdam did not think so and took us under protection. The result was a National Commemoration with only a paltry 5,000 people. The power of silence eroded by the absence of the people who support it.

What was striking beforehand was that the fear was not so much inspired by concrete threats or the announcement of large-scale demonstrations. No, we should note, it was fear of painful disagreements becoming visible. About war then and war now, about ‘never again’ and what that should mean now. About interpretation of democratic values by our people’s representatives.

By being guided by the fear of disturbing the silence, the mayor and the National Committee have overlooked the fact that the power of silence lies precisely in its being widely supported by citizens. This requires as many people to be present as possible. The security measures taken and the publicity surrounding it worked to the contrary. Indeed, attendance was fully discouraged by the introduction of a registration requirement as if you were going to a commercial event.

Instead of fear-driven paternalistic security measures, the National 4 and 5 May Committee and the mayor should have had the courage to call on us, citizens, to take responsibility for the silence together. To link the commemoration of the dead of then with mourning for the dead of now. Paired with an invitation to let the disagreements about how to prevent the dead of today be present in all silence on Dam Square. And to discuss them with each other again in democratic openness from 5 May.

The mission of the National Committee and the mayor is to enable remembrance as well as celebration of the regaining of our freedom. Our freedom which, in the words of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, is at its core pluralism borne by the people. It is precisely on this point, supporting democratically borne pluralism, that they have proved shaky.

They could have taken a cue from Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who has already reminded his compatriots and especially political and administrative leaders twice, at his year-end speech and on Italy’s 25 April (their 5 May), that we make democracy together through the exercise of freedom.

At a time when our democracy needs a strong defence, let us hope that this wobbliness was a one-off.

Published in de Volkskrant on 6 May 2024 (online) and 7 May 2024 (on paper).