Dutch remembrance day (Dodenherdenking) and Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag) are taken seriously here and fully celebrated. Here are some fun facts, things that went wrong in 2016 and a couple of the special cartoons commissioned for the occasion, reflecting on freedom, war, refugees and what it all means today.

Rear view mirror, cartoon by Guffo, Mexican artist
The peace that surrounds us now is a result of the war and destruction of the past. A powerful image by Mexican cartoonist Guffo commissioned for the 2015 remembrance and liberation celebrations, www.4en5mei.nl


Freedom Festivals – Bevrijdingsfestivals

Every year each of the twelve provinces and the major cities in the Randstad organise a Freedom Festival (Bevrijdingsfestival) on 5 May, together forming the largest free one-day cultural event in the Netherlands. Last year, in spite of the fact that some of the events had to finish early or had parts of the celebrations curtailed due to awful weather, an estimated 927,500 people took part in the Freedom Festivals. They are coordinated by the National Committee for 4 and 5 May. In 2015 the theme was Freedom and Identity. In 2016, they seem to be sticking to the 5-year theme of Passing on Freedom. Not only is this a wonderful free music festival, but there is a definite emphasis on celebrating freedom and taking a moment to think about people who aren’t so free. Well-known Dutch artists act as Freedom Ambassadors,  visiting several of the festivals to perform and pass on the message of freedom and each festival has a Freedom Square with stands and activities run by organisations such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross and Humanity in Action. Not to mention the main Dutch refugee organisation, Vluchtelingenwerk, whose work is particularly important this year.

There are free festivals in:

  • Almere
  • Amsterdam
  • Assen
  • Den Bosch
  • The Hague
  • Groningen
  • Haarlem
  • Leeuwarden
  • Roermond
  • Rotterdam
  • Utrecht
  • Vlissingen
  • Wageningen
  • Zwolle

Things I didn’t know about Bevrijdingsdag

  • There is a 5-year theme to provide continuity, Vrijheid geef je door – Passing on freedom.
  • An annual theme is chosen each year. In 2015 this was Wie de ogen sluit voor het verleden, is blind voor de toekomst – Those who close their eyes to the past are blind to the future. This is a quotation from Richard von Weizsäcker, the first postwar president of a united Germany who died in February this year. Last year the celebrations focused on the liberation in 1945 and what we can learn from it. You can read the full text in English here.
  • In 2016, the general them of Passing on Freedom seems to have been adopted. A text has been written by political philosopher Tamar de Waal entitled De vrijheid omarmd, Freedom embraced, dealing with the themes of refugees and connections to the past.
  • There doesn’t seem to be a translation into English this year which seems particularly strange as you would think, with so many refugees in the country who can’t yet speak Dutch but who may speak English, that the translation would be more important than ever!

  • Several artists were commissioned to produce cartoons related to the theme this year, like last year. My favourite in 2016 is the one below. You can see the others on the 4en5mei site.
Embrace Freedom
True Freedom by Swaha from Lebanon, www.4en5mei.nl
  • Due to the strong influence of the Dutch Resistance after WWII, it was felt inappropriate to celebrate liberation on the same day as commemorating the dead, hence the 2 separate days.
  • Dutch Remembrance Day (Dodenherdenking, literally Remembrance of the Dead) only commemorates lives lost during and after WWII because unlike many other European countries the Netherlands was neutral in the First World War, so had no war memorials or formal tradition of remembrance. So unlike the UK, Dutch war memorials only commemorate WWII!
  • To ensure a respectful 2 minutes’ silence at 8pm on 4 May, it is compulsory for all shops close at 7pm for Dodenherdenking. All public transport stops, cars pull over to the side of the road, radio and TV stations are quiet, some social media platforms ask users to respect the 2 minutes’ silence. The major airports including Schiphol even ensure that planes to not take off and land around 8 o’clock.
  • Bevrijdingsdag concludes with a light classical concert held on the banks of the Amstel River in Amsterdam, featuring popular artists and a different orchestra each year. It is free to the public and televised.

Small-scale celebrations

As well as larger celebrations, smaller towns are starting to organise their own events to celebrate Freedom. One local one that caught my attention in 2015 was the brand new Vrijpop (Free Pop)  in neighbouring Beuningen. N.B. It’s not taking place in 2016, but they are already counting down to 2017. All afternoon there was a free programme of music, not only of the 1940s swing-band style (Glenn Miller Market Mood & Andrews Sisters), but they also programmed some more alternative bands going on into the evening (The Hubschrauber, Donnerwetter). The last is ironic; Donnerwetter is German for ‘thundery weather’ and there were thunderstorms in the afternoon. The thing that caught my attention, though, was the Kinderbouwdorp, the children’s building village, where children can enjoy themselves building structures out of old wood. The organisers chose this activity to remind people of the Wederopbouw, the reconstruction required after the Second World War when so much of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed or damaged – bridges, roads, railways, houses, factories and other buildings. What a wonderful way to bring it all to life for young children!

Things that went wrong on 4 and 5 May 2015 – The bells, the bells!

All around the country, the freedom to party was restricted by the need to shelter out of the torrential rain, coupled with high winds. Many of the festivals were delayed as a result of this. Tragically, 2 young women who sheltered under a tree in a park in Amersvoort were killed by lightning on 5 May last year.

In 2015 there were also a couple of things that went wrong with the traditional ringing of bells to celebrate freedom. In one small town, the large ceremonial bell that is used during the Liberation Day ceremony rather unceremoniously let everyone down. To everybody’s horror, the klepel (clapper) of the bell fell out, leaving behind a deafening silence broken only by gasps of horror.

In Boxmeer, on the other hand, the 2 minutes’ silence was broken by the unseemly tolling of the church bell. A spokesperson could only explain that it was due to ‘a technical issue’, presumably because they have an electronic bell instead of one operated by someone pulling on a rope.

2016 – Hemelvaart and Bevrijdingsdag on the same day

With any luck, this year’s celebrations will go without a hitch. The weather at least seems to be auspicious, with clear blue skies and the temperature predicted to reach 20ºC. This year is also a public holiday for everyone because it falls on the same day as Hemelvaart or Ascension Day, which is always a public holiday.

Happy Liberation Day! How are you going to pass on freedom?