Speech by Mark Rutte at the official opening of the exhibition, ‘Routes of Liberation: European Legacies of the Second World War’

Speech by the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, at the official opening of the exhibition, ‘Routes of Liberation: European Legacies of the Second World War’, Brussels.

Mr Schulz, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In September 1944, a Dutchwoman, Kate ter Horst, witnessed the Allied parachute landings from her home in Oosterbeek, near Arnhem. The drone of aircraft engines and the image of hundreds of paratroopers floating to the ground made her heart soar. After years of war and occupation, freedom beckoned. At last.

It was an overwhelming feeling, which Kate described in her diary like this:

‘Mad with joy we walk through the garden and climb up on the roof so we can see more, grasp more of what’s happening. We can hardly believe it. Can it really be true? Is this the long-awaited end to our sorrows, falling from the sky? Does this mean freedom?’

Those words show conflicting emotions: euphoria, certainly, but also disbelief and uncertainty. And with good reason, it turned out, as Operation Market Garden stalled in Arnhem. Liberation took many more months of fighting and destruction, and came only at the cost of countless more young lives.

During the Battle of Arnhem Kate ter Horst made a real difference. She set up an aid station in her home, and in no time its rooms were filled with wounded British servicemen. Kate had a cheerful word and a sympathetic ear for each of them. Her reading of Psalm 91 brought particular comfort to her young guests, if only because of that one, moving line: ‘For he will give you into the care of angels, to keep you wherever you go.’ To those British veterans Kate ter Horst would always remain the ‘Angel of Arnhem’, bringing light to the darkness. Her story is told at the exhibition that opens here today. And I welcome her daughter Sophie, who is with us to mark this occasion.

Kates’ story is a remarkable one. But it’s only one of countless personal stories of Europeans who saw liberation at first hand. Often their stories are as unique as Kate ter Horst’s. But they all have one thing in common: a powerful longing for freedom. A universal longing felt across Europe at that time. We all know how history played out, of course. For some, liberation meant simply waving in the streets as columns of allied troops marched by.

Others, like Kate ter Horst, had to survive for months on the front lines. Large parts of the southern Netherlands had been free and safe for months while people in the north faced a winter of hunger and want. More than twenty thousand people starved to death. And on a European scale the differences were just as extreme. While the West celebrated freedom in the spring of 1945, the Iron Curtain of oppression soon descended on the East. Freedom vanished once more.

Which brings me to the key significance of this exhibition. Because the European ‘routes of liberation’ bridge these differences. They are routes that unite us, both literally and metaphorically. They create a bond between countries and regions that each perceive and commemorate the Second World War from their own historical perspective. They create a bond between us and those who lived through the war: our parents and grandparents, who suffered and fought for our freedom. And they also create a bond between us and our liberators, the Allied forces, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

The words Sir Winston Churchill used to describe the men of the First Airborne Division, who fought in Arnhem, apply to every soldier – regardless of his nationality – who fought to liberate Europe. He said, and I quote:

‘In attack most daring, in defence most cunning, in endurance most steadfast, they performed a feat of arms which will be remembered and recounted as long as the virtues of courage and resolution have power to move the hearts of men.’

We must never forget their sacrifice for our freedom.

Ladies and gentlemen

The post-war history of Europe is a story of peace. Of old foes becoming friends. Of countries working together more and more closely. Of disappearing boundaries between people, both physical and metaphorical. It’s a story of rising prosperity and shared economic challenges. But above all it’s a story about the dream of freedom. A dream that has come true for almost all Europeans since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This post-war story has also brought us ever closer to the point where we can come together to reflect on the horrors of the Second World War.

I’m proud of this Dutch initiative. And I’m proud that seventy years after D-Day there is so much support ¬for it in other European countries. It means that this exhibition on the ‘Routes of Liberation’ says as much about the present and our common European future as it does about our past. We can trace a direct line from Liberation to the free and democratic European elections that will be held on 22 May. So it is not merely symbolic that both the European Parliament and its president have had such a visible, galvanising role in this initiative.

Thank you, Mr Schulz.

In closing, I’d like to take you back to the home of Kate ter Horst in Oosterbeek.

It is still the autumn of 1944. In her diary, she writes about two soldiers who stood lookout for three days in the village church while under sustained attack by enemy forces. The soldiers escaped by the skin of their teeth and later described their ordeal to Kate:

‘Their eyes,’ she wrote, ‘are filled with horror at the fate they themselves escaped. How many comrades did they have to leave behind? And what Providence will sustain them in the hours, days and nights to come? […] The guns surround us like a ring of iron. They seem to approach by command, slowly but surely. The fighting swells into an orgy of demonic violence. The air and space around us are a living hell. There’s nothing more to say. Together we sit frozen, full of dread, and silent.’

That deafening silence, ladies and gentlemen, is something we must continue to hear and continue to break through. By never forgetting. By continuing to commemorate the victims of a war that almost destroyed Europe. And by defending freedom with all our might. Not just our own freedom, but that of others too.

The Routes of Liberation will show us the way.

Thank you.