Remembering the bombing of Rotterdam on May 14

Just ten days after the yearly Dutch commemoration that is Dodenherdenking and Bevrijdingsdag, the inhabitants of Rotterdam have another infamous date to remember — May 14.

It was on this day, back in 1940, that a Nazi bombardment utterly destroyed the center of Rotterdam. Known internationally as the Rotterdam Blitz, the Dutch simply call it het Bombardement.

The bombing of Rotterdam aka Rotterdam Blitz

Call it the Dutch equivalent of Pearl Harbor if you will — the effect of the bombing of Rotterdam was as decisive as it was horrible. After several days of fierce fighting, the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands had come to a stalemate in Rotterdam. Taken by surprise by the fierce resistance of the Dutch army, Hitler knew he had to break the spirit of the Dutch people as a whole.

So it was that Nazi bombers dropped incendiary bombs over Rotterdam, quickly starting a fire that destroyed approximately 85,000 homes and ended the lives of nearly 900 people. The Dutch were at last no match for the Nazi war machine. Yielding to threats that the same fate would await Utrecht and Amsterdam, the Dutch surrendered unconditionally after the bombing of Rotterdam, marking the beginning of five years of Nazi occupation.

The German ultimatum ordering the Dutch commander of Rotterdam to cease fire was delivered to him at 10:30 a.m. on May 14, 1940. At 1:22 p.m., German bombers set the whole inner city of Rotterdam ablaze, killing 30,000 of its inhabitants. (OWI) NARA FILE #: 208-PR-10L-3 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1334
Rotterdam after the bombardment in 1940. Image: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The bombing of Rotterdam: the legacy

How can we best keep this part of history preserved for future generations? The most confrontational to the bombing of Rotterdam is without a doubt Ossip Zadkine’s statue De Verwoeste Stad. Located at a square named after the year 1940, the statue leaves the viewer with a haunting image of a soul in anguish that had its heart torn out.

bombing of Rotterdam
De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City) by Ossip Zadkine. Image: Ossip Zadkine/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

The Forgotten Bombardment of 1943

Though our relationship with the Germans has improved to the point that we’re basically BFFs today, het Bombardement has been an important reason why Dutch resentment against Germans lingered for a long time after World War II. In this respect, it’s quite telling that there’s another bombardment of Rotterdam which took place during the war which has remained unknown for a long time.

On March 31, 1943, a tragic mistake caused several dozen American B-17 bombers to drop their deadly load on residential areas rather than at the Nazi military installations. More than three hundred people lost their lives. Fittingly named The Forgotten Bombardment, this historical event has been shrouded in silence for decades until the unspoken ban was lifted in the ’90s.

Rotterdam today

Rotterdam literally rose from the ashes to become a beacon of Dutch culture once again. Priding itself with its no-nonsense mentality, Rotterdam is a city teeming with life and innovation. As we say here: niet lullen, maar poetsen (this is best left untranslated, but it refers to a hands-on work ethos). Home to some of the most well-known Dutch pieces of architecture such as the Euromast and the Kubuswoningen, the skyline of Rotterdam is no less than iconic.

Labelled as one of the places to go in 2014 by the New York Times and winner of the 2015 Urbanism Award, it was also voted one of the top cities by Lonely Planet in 2016 and one of the top best European destinations in 2017. Rotterdam is now a magnet for expats and young talent from the world over.

Feature Image: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2018, and was fully updated in May 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Frank Kool
Born and raised in Holland, spent his time procrastinating and studying Psychology and Philosophy. Frank harbors a special interest in weird social phenomena (which are ALL social phenomenon if you think about them long enough).

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Very bad, this bombing of Rotterdam. But the nazi’s were paid back thousandfold in their home country! And very unfortunate the bombing by the Americans. Stupid mistake. The same thing happened in The Hague by the RAF I think when they held the map upsidedown over Bezuidenhout.

  2. I lived through this bombing,born in 1939,yaers after we still had to live with all the ruins, but the people of Rotterdam have a can do mentality, and grew before our eyes, still many years of poverty,American church groups help out with relief packages what was greatly appreciated ,for we had not must left after 5 years of war.

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