Guarded Neutrality. Diplomacy and Internment in the Netherlands during the First World War, Susanne Wolf

Reviewer: Jelmer Rotteveel

Susanne Wolf, Guarded Neutrality. Diplomacy and Internment in the Netherlands during the First World War

History of Warfare, Volume 86

Koninklijke Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden 2013
ISBN: 978 90 042 099 16


224 pp.
€ 101, –

Guarded Neutrality

In recent years the interest in the fate of neutral nations during World War I has grown significantly. Susanne Wolf  (Ph.D., University of Sheffield 2009) has added to the increasing number of publications with Guarded Neutrality. Diplomacy and Internment in the Netherlands during the First World War (Leiden 2013) on the little-known subject of the treatment of internees and prisoners of war – and the problems they brought with them – in the Netherlands between 1914-1918. While Wolf must be commended for doing so, the resulting work is not without its flaws. When war broke out in August 1914 the Dutch government was seemingly adequately prepared. But when it became painfully clear that the war was not going to be over by Christmas, the system of internment and the containment of prisoners of war began to show its weaknesses. The Netherlands’ geographical location, sandwiched as it was between two of the principal belligerents meant its border guards were given little time to adjust to the realities of war. The first candidates for internment arrived within days after the outbreak of hostilities.
Initially, numbers were small, but the course of the fighting meant increasing numbers of civilian refugees and (at times not-so-genuinely) lost individuals or groups of military personnel, Belgian, French, British and German crossed the Dutch border. Until September 1914 the problem of internees was but a minor one. Consequently, the Dutch army was at this time much more preoccupied with ensuring the defence of the country than dealing with the trickle of internees. This changed dramatically when the port of Antwerp formally surrendered to German troops on 10 October 1914. As a result, a million refugees, civilians, Belgian garrison troops, and men of the British Royal Naval Division, crossed the border in a matter of days. Besides the linguistic difficulties and the adherence to international rules of war and neutrality, (local) authorities had to provide them with their immediate needs, such as food, shelter and clothing, or, in case they were wounded, medical care. Moreover, care needed to be taken into distinguishing between those who could be sent back – such as troops crossing the border due to map-reading errors – from whence they came or those who needed to be interned. And, if indeed they were deemed to qualify for internment, camps needed to be built to house them. Housing internees in camps  presented another problem; to keep the peace, separate camps needed to be built to make sure there were no confrontations between Allied and German troops. On the diplomatic level there was the constant challenge of maintaining Dutch neutrality in general. Would the combined military and naval strength of 200.000 men – a pitifully small number compared to those mobilised by the other belligerents – be sufficient to deter any violations of the Netherlands’ neutrality by Germany and Britain?
In short, the list of challenges and problems faced by the Netherlands was seemingly endless. Wolf addresses these problems – and more – in a roughly chronological order. It is commendable that she set out to tackle these, but the sheer number of different aspects of the subject makes for a rather unstructured and at times repetitive narrative. In her first two chapters, Wolf discusses the concept of ‘neutrality’ in an age of total war, internment and ‘the neutral state’ and the general situation in the Netherlands from August 1914 onwards. Chapter three deals with the Dutch situation in the first weeks of the war. In chapter four Wolf discusses some of the camps that were erected to house internees. Chapters five and six are on the middle and late war years respectively, the seventh on the arrival of prisoners-of-war and the eighth, and final, chapter is on the ‘going home’ or the return of internees to their respective countries.
Some subjects reappear several times – such as the problem of ‘officer’s parole’ – because they are closely linked to others. A more thematic approach would have made for a clearer structure and have provided the author with some more elbow room to explain some aspects more thoroughly. For example, the different camps that were erected are discussed rather briefly on their own (chapter four on the Belgian, German and British camps and chapter five on the camps at Urk, Wierickenschans and Bergen) or are referred to when Wolf turns to internment costs, the movement of families and political activity. One (or more) chapter(s) solely devoted to the subject of the camps would have enabled the author to better discuss the different aspects of neutrality and its inherent problems than is now the case.
The subject of (Dutch) neutrality in general, too, would have gained much more clarity if it had been discussed as a whole, since now it seems somewhat detached from the rest of the chapters. Furthermore, the conclusion too would have been clearer on its own, rather than being a small section encapsulated in chapter eight. Finally, another aspect of Guarded neutrality is something not usually present in a Brill publication; the book sadly suffers from innumerable printing- and spelling errors. Wolf has a clear narrative style which – if not for the structural problems of the work – makes for a pleasant read. Consequently, Guarded Neutrality leaves the impression of a missed opportunity. It could have been a well-written account on a little-known subject, but its merits are  overshadowed by its structural limitations.

Jelmer Rotteveel