'The Breda three': Decision-taking postponed by guilt


After the Second World War eighteen German war criminals were sentenced to death in the Netherlands. Eventually four Germans remained in Dutch prisons. Three of them became known as 'the Breda three'. Why did their possible release evoke such strong opposition in the Netherlands? Dutch researcher Hinke Piersma answered this question in her Ph.D. thesis.

After 1945 there were a lot of affairs in the Netherlands that could be traced back to the Second World War. However there has rarely been a question which so dominated Dutch feelings and affected the Netherlands so deeply as the debate about 'the Breda three'. They were in the public eye from their sentencing at the end of the 1940s until the release of the last two in 1989.

Piersma's research into 'the Breda three', who were actually four prisoners until 1966 and who became just two prisoners in 1979, concerns the interaction between political decision-making and public debate, about perpetrators and victims and about a past which refused to be buried. With this the terms 'good' and 'bad' took on a new meaning.

In her research, Piersma demonstrated that the discussion about 'the Breda three' increasingly focused on integrity. The arguments from opponents of their release were supported by the national realisation that during the Second World War, the Dutch population had failed to provide sufficient protection for their Jewish compatriots. As a result of this, proponents of their release were increasingly less understood and Ministers of Justice were reluctant to use their authority to grant clemency. Or as one of them said in retrospect: 'In this case acting independently would have been political suicide'.

Eighteen, nine, three
After the Second World War, eighteen German war criminals were sentenced to death in the Netherlands. Four were tried in their absence and evaded capture and the death sentence was carried out in five cases. In the case of the remaining nine, the death sentence was commuted into lifelong imprisonment and in 1959/1960, five of these prisoners were released. For the remaining four prisoners no clemency decision was taken in the ensuing years. These prisoners were Willi Paul Franz Lages, Ferdinand Hugo aus der Fünten, Franz Fischer and Joseph Johann Kotälla. Lages' punishment was cut short in 1966 because he became seriously ill. The other three became known as 'the Breda three'.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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