Sabotage, seduction and a teenage Nazi-killer

Humble origins: Freddie Oversteegen was raised in poverty by a communist single mother.

Would you have joined the resistance in the Second World War? Freddie Oversteegen, a Dutch woman who blew up railway lines, hid Jewish children and shot Nazis from her bike, has died aged 92.

There was nothing sinister-looking about the teenage girl with long, dark, braided hair who frequented the taverns of Haarlem, a town near Amsterdam.

This was the early 1940s during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. German soldiers would visit bars during the evening, where the girl would seduce them. Some hours later, she would ask them if they wanted to “go for a stroll” in the forest. There, she would pull out a handgun and “liquidate” her target.

That girl’s name was Freddie Oversteegen, the last remaining member of the Netherlands’s most famous female resistance cell, who has died at the age of 92.

As with other similar organisations, the Dutch resistance was widely seen to be the preserve of men where, at most, women might act as couriers.

But Oversteegen, following in the footsteps of her sister Truus, was as much a soldier as any man. After joining the resistance at the age of 14, she waged constant war against Nazi occupiers and Dutch collaborators.

She sabotaged bridges and rail lines with dynamite, shot soldiers while riding her bicycle, and smuggled Jewish children across the country and sometimes out of concentration camps.

“We had to do it,” she said when asked about her killings. “It was a necessary evil, killing those who betrayed the good people.” But it affected her profoundly. When asked about the feeling of shooting and killing another human being, she said: “You want to help them get up.”

At its peak in 1944, the Dutch resistance numbered 300,000 people. This was despite the terrible risks associated with opposing the occupiers. Thousands were executed along with their family members. Others were sent to camps to be worked to death.

And so millions of previously normal citizens were left with a horrendous choice: keep your head down and obey your oppressors, or join the resistance. There was no middle ground.

Would you have joined?

Viva la résistance

I would have joined up, say many. Former French resistance fighter Roger Stéphane summed it up best: “Never had so many men consciously run so many risks for such a small thing: a desire to bear witness. Perhaps it is absurd, but it was by such absurdities that we restored our dignity as men.” Resisting tyranny is the ultimate act of bravery. More than that, it is a duty to stand up for your country.

That’s easy to say, reply others, but it just wasn’t worth it. The vast majority of resistance actions failed, resulting in terrible reprisals and massive amounts of unnecessary bloodletting. Nazism would still have been defeated without resistance movements. It takes a different, quieter type of bravery to keep your head down and live a normal life in completely insane circumstances.

You Decide

  1. Would you have joined the resistance during the Second World War?
  2. Is it worth fighting losing battles?

Activities

  1. Design a leaflet to be handed out by a resistance movement in a present-day conflict.
  2. Research an operation undertaken by a resistance movement in any country during the Second World War. Give a presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“I didn’t want to leave my children with the memory of a father with his feet snugly in slippers, waiting till it blew over.”

Jacques Lecompte-Boinet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There was some kind of organised resistance movement in every territory occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. There was also one in Germany, which was responsible for the majority of the failed attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Many of the resistance movements were directed in part by their country’s governments in exile.
What do we not know?
It is hard to quantify just how much of an effect resistance movements had on Germany’s eventual defeat. Some believe it made no difference, and that it was Germany’s defeat in the East combined with increasing US involvement that really had an effect. But others argue that the low-level fighting conducted in occupied Europe wore down the Germans enough to make a big difference.

Word Watch

Nazi occupation of the Netherlands
The Netherlands was invaded by the Germans in May 1940. The country had declared neutrality when the war started a year earlier. The Dutch government and royal family saved themselves by going to London.
Truus
Truus, who was two years older than Freddie, was the group’s leader. Of killing Nazis she said: “It was tragic and very difficult and we cried about it afterwards. We did not feel it suited us — it never suits anybody, unless they are real criminals. … One loses everything. It poisons the beautiful things in life.”
As much a soldier as any man
When asked how many people she had killed or helped kill, she responded: “One should not ask a soldier any of that.”
Jewish
About 70% of the Netherlands’s Jewish population was killed during the conflict — most famously Anne Frank and her family.
Numbered 300,000 people
It is estimated that the resistance was knowingly tolerated by about a million more, including a few individuals in the German armed forces.