The last piece of writing of Titus Brandsma

Comment (English) on the written defence ‘Waarom verzet…’

by Gerrit Steunebrink

The last piece of writing of Titus Brandsma

Gerrit Steunebrink[1]

Titus Brandsma’s last piece of writing, written in prison, is a statement to the Gestapo about why the Dutch are against the NSB.[2] Titus was arrested in 1942 because of his activities as spiritual adviser to the circle of roman-catholic journalists. In the name of Mgr. de Jong, later cardinal, it was his assignment to make clear to journalists that the catholic church would give no space to propaganda favouring the NSB. The Gestapo asked Titus to explain why.

Whoever reads this short text today, reads it out of a taken-for-granted viewpoint of history. Roughly speaking, this taken-for-granted view means that you saw it coming, of course; that everything had gone wrong with Germany and the Nazis and, as a consequence, the Dutch immediately began to resist.

This taken-for-granted reading of history falls to pieces on closer inspection. The aim of the writing was to place Titus under an obligation to make clear to the occupier why it is that the emergence of Nazism in Germany is understandable, but that of the NSB in the Netherlands is not.

Although fiercely defensive in its tone, the writing is also characterised by a nuanced style which, in the beginning, seems odd, but on further reading indicates an intrinsic and tactical precision which persuades. Titus tries to evoke understanding for the German situation and in this way tries to teach the Gestapo where things went wrong in Germany. Furthermore, German Catholic criticism is taken into account. When Titus attempts to make clear to the Gestapo why the Catholics are against the NSB, he does this by presenting the Catholics as part of the Dutch, Christian nation as a whole. All the Dutch people, the majority being Christian, are against the NSB and totally loyal to the Netherlands and the House of Orange.

This is also typical for the time in which Titus wrote, the time of catholic emancipation and the pillarization of society. The nationalistic image of the Netherlands as a Calvinistic nation, which was formulated in the nineteenth century, brought with it an anti-catholicism. The Dutch Reformed church, founded by King William I, saw itself as ‘the church of the fatherland’, and as such had no separate social and political organisations. In this atmosphere, suspicion prevailed against the catholics concerning their patriotism. The catholics could, of course, not relate to this nationalistic theology. However, the members of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, that split off from the Dutch Reformed Church, also had difficulty with it and understood themselves not as a ‘national church’, but as a denominational, although, also according to Abraham Kuyper, the Netherlands was a Calvinistic nation. Just like the catholics, they built up their denominational political and social organisations. In his piece of writing, Titus fiercely defends this prevailing order as typically Christian and Dutch.

Consequently, the catholics, in contrast to what the anti-papists thought, could identify themselves with the founding story (if one prefers the founding-myth) of the Dutch state, the revolt against catholic Spain. In this way Titus situates the catholics in what he calls the synthesis of Dutch history: ‘the wrestling of the Dutch nation for its freedom’.[3]

Nazism in Germany and the catholic church

He tried to understand German Nazism from the particular German background of the First World War and thereupon argues that this background is not Dutch, and that Dutch national character is different.

Titus understands Nazism as a movement which arose out of pragmatic motives, particularly the salvation of the German nation from the destruction after the First World War. It was only very slowly that this movement was given a theoretical foundation. With that Titus cites first and foremost the influence of the philosophical movement of Neo-Hegelianism. But then biologistic[4] and materialistic theories very quickly came to the fore. Then, in the long term, anti-religious and anti-catholic tendencies began to reveal themselves. The consequences of this were foreseen, so Titus claims, by cardinal Faulhaber in Munich and bishop Hugo of Mainz. These consequences, so Titus adds and still trying to soften things a little, were perhaps not immediately visible to everyone, perhaps even not explicitly so intended, still able to be prevented or modified. But they were certainly there. On top of that, the view was also impeded, so Titus makes clear, by the Concordat which the Vatican agreed with Hitler in 1933 to regulate the position of the church. Consequently, this brought with it a tendency to view the developments with a positive expectation, so that many aligned themselves with the party by way of the rather splendid communal ideal of the salvation of the German nation from [the] imminent destruction.

Then, certainly for us today, Titus makes a rather idiosyncratic but at the same time interesting and historically revealing comparison with the catholic reception of William of Orange in the Netherlands. He refers to the catholics in the Netherlands who compare the cooperative stance of many Germans towards the new regime in Germany with the catholics’ acceptance of William of Orange![5] According to them and Titus, the catholics warmly embraced William of Orange and opened the gates to him. They also wished to be part of the ‘nationalistic’ movement and were perhaps somewhat too optimistically predisposed when it came to the possible anti-catholic consequences of this. There is a great deal here which is parenthetically stated, bubbling up out of catholic discussions in the days of Titus. First and foremost, it says that the Dutch catholics are also nationalistic and supporters of the House of Orange. Subsequently, their doubts about possible negative developments can perhaps shine a light on the ambiguous feelings of the Germans.

In this way, ultimate understanding is shown towards the Germans. Sometimes you get the feeling that Titus desires to bring the Gestapo, for whom he is writing, to insight even perhaps to a U-turn. At the same time, what is said here to Dutch people of all denominations, is that the catholics could be loyal supporters of William of Orange, because the anti-catholic consequences of the revolt under the leadership of the House of Orange are from a later time.

In articulating this view, Titus points in fact to various discussions about how one, as a catholic, could act in solidarity with the protestant William of Orange, simply because one wanted to be part of it. After the catholics had, through the restoration of the hierarchy, achieved equal rights, after they had organised themselves and were politically represented, they wished as catholics to carve out a place for themselves in the founding story (if one prefers, the founding myth) of the Dutch State.[6] A manifestation of this can be seen, for example, in the attention which is given to Vondel in catholic Dutch language and literature at that time. He was the Netherlands greatest poet, living in the Golden Age of the Netherlands and yet catholic. And of course, the seventeenth century was still not as Calvinistic as the nineteenth. Consequently, identifying with William of Orange belonged to this, even though he was protestant. That people sometimes struggled with such solidarity is shown by the fact that no one other than the specialist historian Johannes de Jong, the later bishop and cardinal de Jong, considered the attempted murder of Willem of Orange by Balthasar Gerards, to have been, according to the norms of the time, an act of resistance![7] Viewed from the historical perspective this is not so strange. The legitimacy of the position of the Prince of Orange was, during his lifetime, controversial, both for the catholics and the Calvinists. However, later on this no longer applied to the bishop and Titus. The catholics now wholeheartedly supported the rebellion of the Prince of Orange.

After the war the matter is actually pieced together by the historian of Dutch catholicism L.J. Rogier, himself standing in the transition towards the removal of religious barriers, who rightly interpreted the myth of the Calvinistic nation with the House of Orange as a projection from the nineteenth century back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century. However, the members of the House of Orange at that time, against the will of the more headstrong, never really encouraged the furtherance of Protestantism, being more of a restraint on it for the protection of Jews and Catholics. In the beginning, the catholics distrusted William of Orange rather too much, according to L.J. Rogier! Even King William III, who got himself entangled in anti-papal zealotry around the restoration of the catholic hierarchy in 1853, once referred to the tradition of tolerance of the House of Orange.[8] With L.J. Rogier the catholics find their place on the basis of the ‘erasmianism’ of the House of Orange.

What’s more, Titus’ judgment of the German situation shows how long the implications of the developments of national socialism remained in the shadows. Titus himself only really saw it after the proclamation of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935. What became the taken-for-granted justification of this after the war, was not at that time self-evident, notwithstanding the fact that the catholic authorities, cited by Titus, had already foreseen the consequences of these developments. Furthermore, it is also striking how much the Concordat between the Vatican and Nazi-Germany in 1933 set catholic criticism on the wrong foot. The catholic church in Germany, much more than the Lutheran, was oppositional, but the oppositional catholic political party had to be dissolved as a consequence of the Concordat. Titus casually refers to this when he says that this Concordat cultivated false expectations in many people, catholics, and led to erroneous assessments. Perhaps in this way, Titus is also implicitly directing criticism to the Concordat. Therefore, Titus tries, from the perspective of Dutch history, to understand the Gestapo in the German situation, in the hope that the Gestapo understands that the German situation is ultimately not applicable to the Netherlands.

The Netherlands and the NSB

According to Titus, if the situation in Germany is unclear, then in the Netherlands it is at once clear. In Germany, the national-socialist movement is first and foremost a social-economic movement arising out of the destruction of the German State [and] only after this does the ideology come about which is subsequently materialistic and biologistic in nature. In the Netherlands, the NSB is a movement which begins the other way around, with national-socialist ideology being applied in the Netherlands. But as a result, it does not fit with the developments in the Netherlands which are different to those in Germany. The Netherlands was not part of the First World War, there is no talk of imminent destruction of the Dutch nation and the economic developments in the Netherlands, although there are difficulties, are much better than in Germany. Therefore, the Netherlands does not want the NSB. That is a very sober-minded point of view.

Of interest here, so it has been said in the meantime, is that with the development of Nazism in Germany, Titus points to the philosophical influences of Neo-Hegelianism, but not in the Netherlands, whilst there were certainly substantial connections between Neo-Hegelianism in the Netherlands and the NSB.[9]

Titus can also say with ease that the Dutch were able to acknowledge quite good things in national-socialism, he considers the attempts made towards social-economic improvements, though even so, the German measures cannot be adopted indiscriminately. One must very carefully select out of the whole, what is good. That attitude was missing with the NSB which subsequently is already un-Dutch. What is it then that characterises the Dutch people? First and foremost, realism. It is this realism which, in the form of prudence and circumspection, looks critically at lofty ideals. And second, religiousness.

What the NSB has underestimated, according to Titus, is the deep Christian character of the Dutch people. Because this was ignored, the NSB has acquired an anti-national character, because the majority of Dutch people are Christian, protestant and catholic. Here, from the national perspective, both are joined together. Then, the pillarization of the Netherlands comes to the fore when Titus reproaches the NSB for wanting to restrict the ecclesiastical influence on social life, whilst more than half of the population wishes to propagate Christian principles and put them into practice in formation, education and the organisation of the labour force. Here, Titus particularly has in mind the reformed protestants and catholics. It is specifically said of the catholic population that, out of the force of its principles, it strives for a corporative State.[10] With that, Titus points to the consequences which in the Netherlands are derived from the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, the second great encyclical of the catholic church with regard to social doctrine. A corporative State is a State based on group representation in parliament, rather than on individual representation. This idea was still prevalent with the leader of the KVP (Katholieke volkspartij) from after the war, Carl Romme.

The NSB, so Titus says, has given the notion of the political a broader scope compared with the understanding of the Netherlands of itself as religious-ecclesiastical! That will not do! That is, according to Titus, the ‘cardo questionis’!

Furthermore, Titus points out that the Dutch people have made sacrifices for this religiousness. The catholics and the protestants have martyrs. And thus, added for the Gestapo, this will be no different today, because the driving back of religious-ecclesiastical influence is not only a defamation of God, but also of the glorious tradition of the Dutch people.

The NSB is also not acceptable because, for the greater part, it is made up of incompetent and overinflated figures, such that the Dutch people do not understand, Titus tells the Gestapo, that a people so renowned for its intelligence as the Germans, will work together with them.

Titus’ final argument is that the Dutch people blame the NSB for having sought support from the occupying power. Titus now argues very carefully and rather surprisingly. Titus will be no agitator, no resistance fighter! Except for a few exceptions, the Dutch nation is not like this, according to Titus. It waits in peace and order for its freedom. That sounds very obedient, but that was also the tone which the Dutch people heard at that time from Radio Orange: Keep calm! The rights of the occupying regime in accordance with international law will not be violated by Titus. Nevertheless, the occupation, Titus argues, is experienced as something violent and at odds with the synthesis of Dutch history: the struggle by the Dutch nation for its freedom. The founding-myth of the Netherlands is working here at full throttle. Titus wants to do nothing else but make these feelings clear. He did not want to organise the resistance, as stated in the charge. Making objections known is not contrary to the submission which, from the perspective of international law, is due to the occupying regime. Then, startlingly, a rabbit is pulled out of the hat: rather, the NSB contravened this position of international law, because the NSB tried with the help of the occupying power to establish an anti-national world of ideas, whilst the occupying power had agreed to seek to respect the national dignity of the Dutch people! What then, says Titus, does the Gestapo still want with the NSB, really now turning the skewer?

Ultimately, having returned back within its own borders and from out of its regained freedom, the Netherlands will be able to accept and receive much more from Germany than from this situation of force. Then Germany will also be returned to its own legitimate borders. Next to each other they will respect each other, these so closely related to each other (!) kindred nations. Thus, there you have it, it is finally said.

Then, at the end, Titus is able to beseech God’s blessing both for Germany as well as for the Netherlands.


A smart piece of writing which encapsulates the whole of that time. In a balanced way and showing a spirit of good will even towards the Gestapo by saying implicitly : Convert yourself into a good German! – Titus is free and remains majestically upright. Thus, he defended the Dutch State together with cardinal de Jong. After the war, Queen Wilhelmina wrote a letter of condolence to Titus’ family, mentioning his Final writing[11]. She also invited Mgr. de Jong for dinner. He sat to her right and each time he was the first to be served. Revd. Minister Gravemeijer of the Dutch reformed church, seated to her left, believed that protestants were discriminated against in the Netherlands. This queen, who perhaps was the only member of the House of Orange who had ever wished to be the figurehead of the Netherlands as a Calvinistic nation, confessed to him that previously she had mistrusted the catholics, but now no more.[12] With this ‘entry’ the catholic emancipation had, in the founding-myth, been completely fulfilled. The justified catholic protest has indeed cost lives. As a consequence of this, the catholic baptised Jews were the first to be transported. But standing there, facing this, is the life of Titus.

  1. Translation of: Gerrit Steunebrink, ‘Het laatste geschrift van Titus Brandsma’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 226-233.
  2. NSB refers to the Nationaalsocialistische Beweging, in English, the Dutch national socialist movement.
  3. Titus Brandsma, Het laatste geschrift, Tilburg 1944, p.20.
  4. Biologism is the conviction that everything can be explained biologically.
  5. Brandsma, Het laatste geschrift, p.9.
  6. See: Theo Salemink, In een donkere Spiegel, Nijmegen 2006, p.389.
  7. H. van Osch, Kardinaal de Jong. Heldhaftig en behoudend, Amsterdam 2016, p.106.
  8. L.J. Rogier, ‘Oranje en de katholieken’, and ‘Oranje en de Nederlandse staat’, in: Herdenken en herzien. Verzamelde opstellen van L.J. Rogier, Bilthoven 1974, pp. 182-194, 271-292.
  9. Derk Venema, Rechters in oorlogstijd, Amsterdam 2007, p.18.
  10. Brandsma, Het laatste geschrift, pp. 15-16.
  11. Ton Crijnen, Titus Brandsma. De man achter de mythe, Nijmegen 2008, p.245.
  12. Van Osch, Kardinaal de Jong, p.234.

Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos (2019)

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019