On the 14th of February 2020, exactly 75 years after the bombing of Dresden, the Dutch National Military Museum, opened the doors of an unusual exhibition. ‘Him or me’ turns an eye on the Battle for the Netherlands in 1944-45, seen partly from German perspective. Nazi-conscript Hans Kürten figures as one of the main characters in a display of exceptional artefacts, weapons, uniforms and vehicles (such as the V1 Reichenberg and the Tiger II tank). Next to Kürten’s story, the war experience of Canadian soldier Léo Major comes to life. In service of the Régiment de la Chaudière, Major was one of tens of thousands of Canadians who fought and bled for the liberation of Holland.
Their sacrifice, however, is not well known. As of today, many Dutch are of the opinion that their country, indeed the whole of West-Europe, has been liberated largely thanks to the American war effort. It were Hollywood movies and TV-series that cultivated the image of Allied victory as an American tour de force, leaving little attention to the struggle (and bravery) of Canadian, British and Polish troops. Their willingness to give their lives for the liberation of Europe is acknowledged by the museum’s decision to set up its exhibition from Canadian point of view. At the same time, attention (though not sympathy) is given to the hardships of war that were all too real for German soldiers as well.
Kürsten saw bitter fighting on the Eastern Front before being sent to Normandy. As his 116th Panzerdivision ‘Windhund’ tried to stop the Allied invasion, Kürsten fell witness to more gruesome scenes. According to one of his anecdotes, a German tank, sent in to rescue wounded soldiers, accidently crushed one of Kürsten’s comrades. This horrific event is displayed by mannequins in the exhibition. Less horrid, though not less controversial, is the staging of the Führer’s personal Mercedes-Benz W31, type G4. In this vehicle Hitler toured in triumphal procession through Sudetenland on October 10, 1938.
Back to Kürsten. His ordeal was anything but over. The young conscript got severely hurt at the Battle of Arnhem (17-26 September) where he stepped upon a mine and broke his back. After being hospitalised, he partly recovered and again reported for duty.
The same warrior spirit lived inside Léo Major. Fighting his way from Juno Beach (June 6, 1944) to the Scheldt river (October 2, 1944), he too got badly wounded. Struck by a phosphorus grenade he lost his left eye. After a short visit to a Nijmegen hospital, Major dismissed himself and returned to the front. In Zwolle the one-eyed marksman enjoyed his finest hour. During a reconnaissance mission he lost his comrade, but singlehandedly succeeded in making contact with the Dutch resistance, informing them of the coming Canadian artillery attack the next morning. For his audacity Major received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest award within the Canadian army.
Although their units faced each other in Normandy, it is unlikely that Kürsten and Major met on the battlefield. Today, at the opening ceremony of ‘Him or me’, the families of these soldiers found each other in embrace. Their moment of reconcilement –upheld by a performance of ‘Benedict’ from the Band of Mounted Regiments – moved present journalists, visitors and even military personnel. Each soul understood that mutual understanding overcomes ideological differences. By presenting the Second World War from different perspectives, the National Military Museum touches upon exactly that thought.