Sunday 25 August 2013

The Selfkant

Proof once again that I shouldn’t toss my local freebie onto the waste paper pile the moment it lands on the doormat. Hidden away on page 15 of my Zondagsblad the other week – amongst mind-numbing reports of minor road-traffic incidents, local fêtes and sponsored cycle rides - was an article that actually held my attention for a change. It was an account of a joint research project recently carried out by students of Maastricht University and RWTH Aachen University. The investigation centred on the effects that annexation had had on the identity of the Selfkant, a small territory of land which, for a little more than 14 years, had been expropriated from Germany by the Netherlands in 1949 as part of war reparations.

The Selfkant today marks the most westerly point of Germany. It occupies an area of 42 square kilometres and is bordered on three sides by Limburg, the Netherlands’ southernmost province. For 15 years, the Selfkant formed part of the Netherlands and was eventually handed back to the Federal Republic on 1 August 1963, just over 50 years ago.

The annexation of the Selfkant formed part of originally much wider plans for the expropriation of German territories which had been dreamed up by Dutch zealots seeking recompense for war damage suffered by the Netherlands during the years of Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1945. Even before the end of the war, it had been established that financial remuneration would be out of the question, given the ruinous state of its eastern neighbours, so concerted plans were devised on various fronts for land annexation. Some fanatics proposed grand schemes which entailed the takeover of land as far east as Hamburg, including the expulsion of German nationals to create new land for an already overcrowded Netherlands. Other schemes carried more credibility, such as a detailed plan advanced by Frits Bakker Schut, who was director of the National Office for the National Plan (Rijksdienst voor het Nationaal Plan) and secretary of the Dutch Committee for Territorial Expansion (Nederlands Comité voor Gebiedsuitbreiding). The Bakker-Schut Plan envisaged expropriation (and complete ‘dutchification’) of land up to the River Rhine, including seizure of major cities such as Cologne, Aachen, Münster and Osnabrück. The plan would have enlarged the size of the country by between 30 and 50 percent.

In the end, such ambitious annexation plans were dismissed by the Allied High Commission on the grounds that 14 million refugees had already been displaced on Germany’s eastern limits as a result of border revisions there. In particular, the Americans felt that destabilisation of the western half of Germany would have an adverse effect in view of the impending Cold War. In the end, these large-scale plans were diluted to the annexation of just 69 square kilometres of German territory, the largest slice of which was the Selfkant, and involved 10,000 inhabitants, who on 23 April 1949, became Dutch citizens.

The border ‘corrections’ in the Selfkant were effectuated on Saturday 23 April 1949 when a column of Dutch military police vehicles crossed the border near the Dutch town of Sittard. Six villages and several smaller communities were placed under Dutch administration, known as Drostambt Tudderen (≈ bailiwick). According to the government in The Hague, the primary reason for annexation of the Selfkant was to relieve traffic congestion in the heavily industrialised region of South Limburg. The physical westward incursion of the Selfkant into the Dutch province meant that the corridor separating South Limburg from the rest of the country was just 4 kilometres wide at this point.

The Selfkant was put in charge of a local administrator, the Landdrost, who was appointed by and directly accountable to The Hague. All local powers were vested in the Landdrost, which meant that German administration was disbanded entirely. Key figures from the latter were appointed to an advisory council, but this council had no decision-making powers whatsoever. Despite losing their German franchise, residents enjoyed all the rights accredited to Dutch citizens. The German education system was left intact, except that now, children would receive two hours’ schooling in Dutch per week.

In the immediate post-war years, the Selfkant was positioned somewhere between a rock and a hard place. A recovery programme was not forthcoming initially. In anticipation of the border revision, little had been done on the part of the German authorities to improve an already underdeveloped infrastructure that had also suffered badly from war damage. Solicitations to the Dutch government after annexation to expend efforts to redress the situation also fell on deaf ears to start with: necessary work would only be carried out when the border revisions were ‘more permanent in nature’. One Dutch newspaper reported that the roads were so dire that it was almost impossible to drive from one village to the next.

The situation changed when the Landdrost brought the seriousness of the situation to the attention of the various ministries in The Hague and an investigation was instigated by the Dutch Ministry of Home Affairs. The outcome was that money and resources were made available for the restoration of homes and improvement of roads.

Despite the privations, reports suggested that the local populace were not unhappy with their lot. Initially they enjoyed favourable currency exchange rates, were able to buy some provisions at cheaper Dutch prices and farmers were able to take advantage of the more auspicious markets in the Netherlands whilst simultaneously ‘exporting’ produce free of excise to Germany. The social security system in the Netherlands was also seen as a bonus. The work ethic amongst the Selfkanters was such that their skills were a desirable commodity in the Dutch coalmining and other industries. There was hardly any language barrier to speak of, since locals on either side of the border spoke each other’s dialect.

Over the years, the situation improved enormously. There were new housing developments and schools were renovated. Instead of 13 kilometres of poorly tarmacked road at the beginning of the annexation, the Selfkant had 63 kilometres in 1959 and a 8-kilometre transit route across the Selfkant linked up South Limburg with Central Limburg (a road which remained Dutch until many years later). Money was pumped into the Selfkant from both sides. The population had the best of both worlds.

Whilst the Selfkant prospered, the debate rumbled on about the territory’s future. Of course, there was a hard core of German patriots who canvassed for the unconditional return of the Selfkant, but given that its citizens were enjoying sweeteners from both sides of the border, most people were probably happy to keep the post-1949 status quo.

The question of a referendum on the matter was mooted several times between 1957 and 1960, but this was never effectuated, on the grounds that it would probably open up unnecessary rifts in the population, even within families. Against the background of ongoing rapprochement at an international level, embodied by the creation of the European Community, an agreement was eventually reached by the two countries whereby the Selfkant would be returned, in exchange for war reparations (Wiedergutmachung) of 280 million Deutschmark, on 1 August 1963.

In the weeks leading up to the handover, there was a lot of commotion. Having got wind of the repatriation, it is said that dealers from as far away as Rotterdam and Hamburg had moved in to the Selfkant to trade in commodities like tea, coffee, butter, tobacco, detergents and textiles. With the big price differentials, it would be possible to make handsome profits because at the moment of transfer, goods would be tax-free. It was reported that these speculators had commandeered as much empty storage space as they could in the Selfkant to hoard their goods before the transfer of power.

At 7 p.m. on July 31, the Landdrost handed over the civil registers to the newly installed Oberkreisdirektor and at midnight on 1 August, the Dutch military police retired to behind the pre-1949 lines where new barriers and customs posts had been erected. Meanwhile, when the barriers were raised on the ‘German-German’ border, a convoy of trucks loaded with thousands of tons of produce and livestock headed eastwards.

Appropriation of territory didn’t end completely there. The N274, the north-south transit road bisecting the Selfkant between Koningsbosch and Schinveld, remained in Dutch hands as perhaps the most lasting reminder of annexation, until this was eventually handed over to the German authorities in 2002. The Selfkant is overwhelmingly rural in character and its close proximity to the heavily urbanized region of South Limburg, means that it is an attractive area for many Dutch people to settle. It is said that around 25% of residents have Dutch nationality.

Further reading (in Dutch):