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04/10/2010

A very different sort of banker

An exhibition in the Amsterdam Verzetsmuseum celebrates Wally van Hall, the banker who used his financial connections to fund the Dutch Resistance movement during WWII. By Dragan Klaic

Bankers have experienced a dramatic drop in social status thanks to the economic crisis. Humiliating public hearings featuring once mighty bankers in the U.S. Congress, court verdicts and fines against top financial brass have severed the profession of practically all moral authority. And recently the German Bundesbank expelled one of its board members, Thilo Sarrazin, for racist and Islamophobic positions in his book "Deutschland schafft sich ab. Wie unser Land aufs Spiel setzen" (DVA Munchen 2010). It must be quite a relief for the banking profession to see a monument to one of their own unveiled in front of the Nederlandsche bank in Amsterdam, followed by a exhibit opening in the Verzetsmusem, the museum of the Resistance movement.

The exhibition, "Wally van Hall, Banker of the Resistance Movement", places a banker in the role of cultural hero and presents him as an icon of national history decades after this remarkable story sank into collective oblivion. Van Hall (1906-1945) was a Dutch banker who, like many others, continued his work after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, hoping that he would be able to prevent further damage. By 1943 he had set up the Nationaal Steunfonds (NSF), an illegal central bank of the resistance movement. The NSF generated and dispensed some 83 million gulden (the equivalent of 450 million euro today) to families whose breadwinners were deported to Germany, to people who hid Jews, to artists who refused to register with the Nazi Kulturkamer and were thus unable to practise their profession, to families of seamen stranded far from home by the war. Through a broad network of couriers on bicycles, cash reached those in need every week. The NSF also financed the underground printing of more than 150 titles, as well as the large scale forgery of identity documents and ration cards. In 1944, Van Hall paid wages to 30,000 railway workers who went on a long strike to slow down Nazi supplies while the Allies advanced from the south to liberate the Netherlands. As the man with cash, Van Hall effectively coordinated the fragmented and fractious Resistance movement of communists and Protestants, of conservative Oranje monarchists and leftist and liberal democrats, while moving around the country under various aliases. On January 27, 1945 he was arrested by the Nazis and shot in Haarlem on February 12. When the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, the NSF still held a cash reserve of 23 million gulden.

The exhibit in the Verzetsmuseum explains how Van Hall was able to generate a huge amount of cash for the Resistance, using his connections with fellow bankers. There were gifts and there were large bank loans guaranteed by the Dutch government in London exile. Occasionally, violence was used, such as the assault by resistance fighters on the Rotterdam post office that brought the NSF half a million gulden. When the Nazis prohibited the circulation of 500 and 1,000 gulden banknotes, banks laundered the bills by exchanging them for smaller denominations for distribution by Van Hall. The tax authorities continued to send out income tax bills to wealthy individuals but instead of depositing their payments in the Nederlandsche Bank, sidetracked them to the NSF. Even more ingenious was the trick devised by Van Hall and his brother Gijs – whereby the resistance printers falsified government bonds of 100,000 gulden, which the treasurer general of the Nederlandsche bank switched with the real ones kept in the bank's vaults. The real notes were then passed on to Van Hall, who cashed them in with the friendly banks. All these transactions were meticulously noted using a secret system devised by Van Hall to be untraceable in case of arrest: lenders received old shares (pre-revolutionary Russian Vladikavkaz coupons, for instance) and banknotes withdrawn from circulation whose serial numbers were pegged to the sums borrowed. After the war the holders of these documents were reimbursed by the Dutch authorities. When the railway strike forced Van Hall to increase his operation substantially, the Dutch government raised the guarantee and send a courier with the guarantee decree on a microfilm. The exhibition, an accompanying educational website and a cartoon version of Van Hall's life successfully clarify the complex system of transactions for a lay audience, and for children in particular.

Thanks to Van Hall, the banking profession regains a little of its glamour or at least respectability. The monument by Spanish sculptor Fernando Sanchez Castillo honours a figure of patriotic commitment, courage and cleverness who applied his talents to the common good, rather than personal enrichment or corporate power. Van Hall's modus operandi reflects the self-organising genius of Dutch civil society in the increasingly harsh conditions of war-time occupation, and recalls many ingenious methods of resistance by professionals who stayed on in their jobs and helped the underground movement. The resurrected memory of Van Hall provides a counter narrative to recent Dutch financial upheavals and traumas, such as the ABN AMRO split, Icesave's betrayal of its clients, the Fortis debacle, the DBS bank collapse, and the sharp criticism by a parliamentary commission of the supervisory regime of the Nederlandsche bank boss A.H.E.M. Wellink. Many villains of those embarrassing stories are now being overshadowed by the young, self-assured, smiling, pipe-smoking Wally van Hall, the banker of the Resistance movement. And yet, if he and his companions succeeded in carrying out their transactions for the common good under the nose of the Gestapo, is it any wonder that today's bankers, driven by greed rather than idealism, operating on globally through computer networks, cannot be kept in check by splintered national supervisory agencies?

Wally van Hall, bankier van het Verzet. September 3, 2010 to April 17, 2011. Verzetsmuseum, Plantage kerklaan 61, Amsterdam. Tu-Fri 10 am to 5 pm.

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Dragan Klaic is a theatre scholar and cultural analyst, based in Amsterdam.
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