Hannie Schaft: the Dutch spy who was executed by the Nazis

Allegedly, when the first shot aiming at Hannie Schaft’s head only grazed her temple, she taunted the firing line: “Ouch! I shoot better!”

Hannie Schaft is arguably the most famous resistance fighter in modern Dutch history. During WWII, the young woman fought against the German occupiers and was later wanted for treason, espionage and murder.

The Nazis, who had no idea who Hannie was, described her as ‘the girl with the red hair’ on their most-wanted list.  

So who was this revolutionary Dutch resistance fighter? How did she get catapulted into a life of espionage? And what do we know about this 100% verified badass? 🦹‍♀️

Schaft’s younger years

Hannie Schaft was born as Jannetje Johanna Schaft in Haarlem, on 16 December 1920. Her parents were Peter Schaft and Aafje Talea Vrijer. 

Hannie had an older sister, who tragically died from diphtheria at the age of seven. In part because of that, her parents raised Hannie with great caution and kept a close eye on her.  

It is said that Hannie developed a political consciousness from a young age. Both parents were avid followers of world affairs and discussed these openly at the dinner table, also with Hannie.

Peter Schaft in particular was an active supporter of the socialist-democratic party SDAP and conveyed his leftist tendencies to his daughter.

The young Johanna was also an excellent student at school. But while she was open and talkative at home, in class she remained rather quiet and withdrawn. Her bright red hair also made her the target of teasing and mockery. 

This experience of social exclusion could have contributed to the strong sense of justice that would later draw Hannie into the resistance movement. It also found expression in her wish to study law at university.

Later, Hannie dreamed she could specialise in human rights and work for the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN). 

University: first steps into the resistance 

Hannie started attending the University of Amsterdam in 1938 to pursue a law degree. Only a year later, in 1939, German troops invaded Poland under Adolf Hitler’s command and World War II took hold of Europe.

Already in these early stages of the war, Hannie’s spirit of resistance began to show. Through the Red Cross, she started sending packages with food supplies and other necessities to imprisoned Polish soldiers. 

The young Hannie Schaft before her work in the Council of Resistance. Unknown photographer/Wiki Commons/Public Domain

While Hannie had trouble making friends at school, she had an easier time at university. Two connections, in particular, would last Hannie until the end of her life: the sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen.

Hanni also founded the all-girls debate group ‘Gemma’. Critiques against the German Nazi occupation and anti-semitism were frequent topics of discussion.

By the end of their time at university, the girls were protesting on the streets more than they were studying. Girl power at its finest! 💪🏻

Germany occupies the Netherlands

Despite attempts by the Netherlands to stay neutral during the war, German occupiers took control of the country on May 10, 1940.

During this time, Hannie started writing articles in the university paper criticising the segregation of Jewish students and teachers, who were later banned from campus. 

She also joined the 80% of non-Jewish students who refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the German Reich. As a consequence, Hannie had to stop her studies early.

Responding to the concerns of her parents, she left Amsterdam and moved back home to Haarlem. 

Joining the Council of Resistance

The Raad van Verzet (Council of Resistance) (RvV) was founded in Haarlem in 1943. Under the occupation, there were different, disconnected resistance groups popping up all over the Netherlands and the RvV wanted to create a unified movement across the country.

Both the Oversteegen sisters and Hannie were determined to keep up their fight against the German occupiers so they joined the RvV. Hannie made a point of emphasizing that she wanted to do more than distribute flyers or steal passports. Instead, she wanted to fully step into the role of an active resistance fighter. 

So, Hannie was ordered to assassinate a member of the German Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD). 

photo-of-hannie-scaft-standing
An unlikely resistance fighter. Image: Noord-Hollands Archief/Fotoburo de Boer/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0 (Modified)

The girl with the red hair fronted up to the challenge, and pulled the trigger while aiming at her target — unknowingly shooting a rubber bullet at a fellow RvV member instead. She passed the test, and became entrusted with a larger role in the resistance movement from then on. 

This was also when Jannetje Johanna Schaft took on Hannie Schaft as her permanent code name — and Hannie Schaft, the legendary Dutch resistance fighter, was born. 

Beginning her career as an assassin 

Under the guidance of experienced RvV members, Hannie was instructed in the use of weapons and espionage. Because she spoke excellent German, Hannie was considered to be an especially valuable asset to the movement. 

Some people even confused her for a moffenmeid a derogatory Dutch slang term used for German women. Whilst it made some Dutch people distrust her, Hannie could easily listen in on German officers and develop friendly relations with them if she had to. 

Together with her university friends Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, Hannie carried out attacks against high-ranking German officers, stole important documents, and was also ordered to kill. 

However, Hannie did not blindly follow orders and was aware of her moral boundaries. At one point, she declined an assignment that required the abduction of children whose parents were Nazi officials. It’s a thin line to walk but she did it gracefully!

Schaft and Bonekamp 

Hannie also worked closely with one of the founders of the RvV, Jan Bonekamp, whom she admired greatly. Bonekamp was described as charismatic, fearless, and good-looking. He was also older than Hanni and seemingly made quite the impression on her.

However, even within the resistance movement, he was known as an extremist, who took especially great risks. While it is uncertain whether or not the two were romantically involved, Hannie was notably influenced by his unwavering commitment to the cause. 

During that time, her parents even asked her to move out because they were scared and apprehensive of her “dark work.”

A killing that went horribly wrong 

In 1944, Hannie and Bonekamp received an order from the RvV which would change everything. They were instructed to kill a Dutch police chief and collaborator in Zaandam called Willem Ragut. The plan was for Hannie to shoot first, and then for Bonekamp to follow up in case their target would not die immediately.

It was a good call because this is exactly what happened. Hannie’s first shot hit the collaborator in the back but did not kill him. Bonekamp, wanting to finalise the kill, followed up — but was shot in the stomach in return. 

photo-of-hannie-schafts-pistol
The pistol Hannie used to kill Nazis. Image: Thayts/Wikimedia Commons/CC4.0

Willem Ragut died nevertheless, and the two resistance fighters fled in different directions. But while Hannie managed to get away, the fatally hurt Bonekamp was arrested and taken to the hospital. 

Once there, he confessed to the murder and under the influence of heavy medication and psychological manipulation he also gave away Hanni’s address. 

Soon after, Jan Bonekamp died from his injuries. A week later, officials raided Hanni’s parent’s house in Haarlem. 

Underground and arrest

Efforts to make Hannie confess were fruitless but severe. To put pressure on her, the Nazis forced her parents into a Dutch concentration camp, which pushed Hannie to temporarily stop working for the resistance.  

After two months, Hannie’s parents were released and the young woman decided that she had to go underground. The girl with the red hair dyed her ginger mane black and started wearing thick-rimmed glasses.

But it was not only her looks that had changed. The death of Jan Bonekamp had shaken Hanni deeply. In letters that she wrote to friends and family at the time the young woman expressed feelings of all-consuming desperation and sadness.

Her emotional turmoil might have contributed to the even greater risks Hannie took on for the resistance in the months that followed. But her dedication was short-lived. In 1945, Hannie Schaft was caught during a police control carrying two resistance-friendly newspapers and a pistol.

She was arrested, and when forced to wash her hair, the Nazis knew they had finally found the red-haired assassin they’d been searching for for over two years.

Execution

On 21 March 1945, Jannetje Johanna Schaft — alias Hanni Schaft — was brought to the beach of Overveen and executed with a shot to the head. She was buried right then and there between the dunes.

The Netherlands was liberated from Nazi occupation only 18 days later.

Legacy

After the war, Hannie’s remains were uncovered amongst the bodies of 421 members of the resistance — all of them men. She was officially laid to rest in the Honorary Cemetery in Bloemendaal the same year. 

Following her death, Hannie became known as one of the bravest resistance fighters of WWII, both in the Netherlands and abroad. US president Eisenhower decorated her with the Medal of Freedom. Meanwhile, in the German Democratic Republic, a post stamp adorned with her image celebrated her as an anti-fascist heroine. 

Today, two books, one movie, and a short film have attempted to tell her story. A bronze statue titled ‘Woman in resistance’, designed by her friend Truus Oversteegen pays tribute to her legacy in Kenaupark, Haarlem. 

Hannie’s bravery and her unflinching sense of justice in the face of fascism, atrocity, and death, make her one of the most important heroines of modern Dutch history. She takes her rightful place next to incredible women in the resistance movement such as Truus Wijsmuller and the sisters Oversteegen.

What do you think of Hannie Schaft’s story? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image: Unknown Photographer/Wiki Commons/Public Domain (Modified)

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2022, and was fully updated in May 2022 for your reading pleasure.

Cara Räker 🇩🇪
Cara Räker 🇩🇪
Cara moved to the Netherlands at fifteen and she is here to stay! After all, there is so much to love about it, except maybe the bread (as every German will tell you). Next to finishing up her bachelor's degree in European politics (dry), Cara loves to do yoga, swim, and cook delicious veggie food.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for the story on Hannie Schaft. For those interested, The National Hannie Schaft Foundation was established some 25 years ago by fellow Resistance fighter Truus Menger-Oversteegen. This foundation is very active, including stimulating young people to stand up for Freedom and inclusion. Every year the Hannie Schaft lecture is held by a prominent person as part of the annual National Hannie Schaft Commemoration. Also the book by Truus Menger-Oversteegen describing the war endeavors of Hannie Schaft and the sisters Freddie and Truus Oversteegen is available in English, titled: ‘Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever’. For more information on Hannie Schaft please visit the website of this non profit foundation: hannieschaft.nl

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