BACKGROUNDER (March 2023)
New information on the Nazi past of controversial Dutchman, Pieter Schelte Heerema
Sometime after Pieter Schelte Heerema, a member of the Dutch SS, returned to the Netherlands from Russia in mid-1942, he “appeared to have completely turned around. He had become dead set against Germany and everywhere he was rousing public opinion against the SS. He strongly advised his comrades against joining the Waffen SS.”
This assessment is from a recently discovered April 1944 report on Heerema, which was signed by Jan Jürgen (John) Petersen, another member of the Dutch SS stationed in The Hague, who worked for the Dutch SS’s Intelligence Service.
“’The Dutch were good enough to serve as cannon fodder, but would never receive any rights.’ That was clear to him now,” Petersen’s report says of Heerema, who claimed after the war to have switched sides and joined the resistance in 1943.
Heerema’s relationship with the resistance and the handling of his postwar collaboration case by the Dutch courts in 1946 are both subjects of controversy. In the 1960s, Heerema pioneered the development and expansion of the Netherlands’ offshore oil industry.
He once again became a figure of controversy when his son, Edward Heerema, owner of the Swiss-based Allseas Group, sought to honour his father’s marine engineering legacy by naming the world’s largest construction vessel the Pieter Schelte. Given Pieter Heerema’s Nazi past, this provoked public outcries in 2008 and again in early 2015 when the vessel was being completed, at which time Allseas relented and renamed the ship Pioneering Spirit, keeping the initials of Pieter Schelte.
At the start of the war, Pieter Heerema was “very pro-German” and “very anti-communist.” “The German race is the model,” a report on a speech he gave in 1941 quotes him as saying. “The Jewish race, by comparison, is parasitic… therefore the Jewish question must be resolved in every Aryan country.”
According to A Snake on the Heart – History, Mystery, and Truth: The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject, a new book about Petersen by Patrick Wolfe, different sources make contradictory statements about Heerema’s time with the SS. While Petersen’s report lends credence to the claim that Heerema switched sides, Petersen was also critical of Heerema.
“Piet Heerema filled me with huge aversion because he had incited and even forced many—very many—boys to go to the front, whereas he himself had gone to extremes not to be sent to the front,” Petersen declared in a statement on April 22, 1947. While this appears to contradict the report’s assessment that Heerema was “everywhere … rousing public opinion against the SS,” it may be a dichotomy typical of the evolving perspectives, intrigue, and shifting loyalties that occurred during the German occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, when some people found themselves in difficult circumstances and needing to adjust their personal situations, if they could manage it. To what extent this is true of Heerema is unclear.
Details in Petersen’s April 26, 1944, report on Heerema indicate that Petersen knew Heerema, just as he knew Heerema’s sister, Tine. The report says Heerema had been “imprisoned shortly before May 1940 in South America, suspected of espionage for Germany,” and that, after “bribing some eminent persons,” he fled by clipper and returned to the Netherlands via the Balkans. A member of the N.S.N.A.P. (National Socialist Dutch Workers Party), he joined the Dutch SS soon after it was established. The report also says that he was sent to Munich at the end of 1940 by Henk Feldmeijer, the leader of the Dutch SS, “to appraise [Dutch] S.S. trainees [likely including Petersen] slated to become officers.” When Heerema returned to the Netherlands, he “became ‘Standaardleider’ of the ‘Standaart 4,’” one of five Standaarden (regions) into which the Dutch SS was organized. Petersen was a member of Standaart 4, which covered the provinces of South Holland and Zeeland and had its headquarters at The Hague.
In addition to being in the SS, Petersen, a former insurance salesman, returned part-time to that industry in August 1941, possibly as a spy and informer. In January 1943, he further diversified his activities by joining the Schutzgruppe, a semi-military organization attached to the German army that performed rudimentary functions on its behalf. “By playing a reckless game, namely playing the German authorities against each other,” he wrote in a letter in mid-1951, “I managed to remain free till [early September] 1944” when the Allies were about to enter the country. In response to this threat, German occupation officials declared a state of emergency, and Petersen’s Schutzgruppe unit “was placed on stand-by” for active service.
Petersen and his younger brothers, Constant Petersen and Wim Kempen, were imprisoned as collaborators after the war. Wim was married to the daughter of Barend van Leeuwen, a member of the resistance. In October 1946, Van Leeuwen wrote a testimonial letter on Jan Petersen’s behalf. He hoped it would “contribute to [Petersen’s] release.” In the letter, Van Leeuwen “declares that he guarantees the political accuracy of Mr. J. J. Petersen. Mr. J. J. Petersen had knowledge the undersigned worked illegally and hid Jews in his home.”
The story of the three brothers provides a window onto the labyrinthian reality that prevailed during the harrowing Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. A Snake on the Heart unravels the manipulation and lies that Jan Petersen used to survive the war. As Wolfe notes in the book, Petersen contributed to some of the war’s horrors and mitigated others. To his detriment and that of others, Petersen retained his tendency to manipulate and lie for much of the rest of his life.
A Snake on the Heart, published by Iguana Books of Toronto, is available online in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats.
For more information: See A Snake on the Heart, Chapter 12 – Muddled and Mysterious, John Makes His Own Way in the SS, pp. 175-176, 180, 183-186, and Appendix 1 – Pieter Schelte Heerema, pp. 443-449.