75 years ago: Suddenly orange: When two places in North Rhine-Westphalia suddenly belonged to the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Heinrich Cremers, 89, never left his birthplace of Selfkant and yet lived in another country for 14 years.

75 years ago: Suddenly orange: When two places in North Rhine-Westphalia suddenly belonged to the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Heinrich Cremers, 89, never left his birthplace of Selfkant and yet lived in another country for 14 years. From 1949 to 1963 he was a resident of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, because at that time the westernmost tip of Germany was incorporated into the neighboring country, as was Elten further north, now a district of Emmerich.

If Cremers had had his way, Selfkant would have remained Dutch forever: "It was a nice time, like we were in Holland. A very good time," he remembers. It was April 23, 1949 - about 75 years ago - when the red, white and blue flag was raised in both places.

The government in The Hague had originally even planned to annex large parts of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony - as compensation for the war damage caused by Germany during the five-year occupation of the Netherlands. However, the USA and Great Britain opposed each other because they wanted to use West Germany's potential in the emerging Cold War against the Soviet Union.

The only thing the Netherlands could get hold of were the two towns with a total of just a few thousand inhabitants. There was something indecisive about the annexation from the start. The residents of Selfkant and Elten kept their German passports, but with the note “Will be treated as Dutch”.

“It was such a mixed status,” explains political scientist Tim Terhorst, who wrote his master’s thesis on the Dutch period in Elten. The Fortuna Elten club was incorporated into the Royal Netherlands Football Association, the streets were given Dutch names, traffic signs and mailboxes were replaced. But at the same time, school lessons continued to take place in German.

The chairman of the Selfkant local association, Paul Beckers, can still remember: "We had German teachers. The newspapers that were read here were all German." Terhorst concludes from all this that the Dutch did not really intend to keep the territories permanently. Rather, they served as a bargaining chip in the compensation negotiations with the Adenauer government in Bonn.

The incorporation into the kingdom was in no way disadvantageous for the two places. So the 82 meter high Eltenberg suddenly took on a whole new meaning - it was now suddenly the second highest point in an entire national territory. And that attracted tourists.

“Especially from 1954/55 onwards, the town was served by numerous buses,” says Terhorst. Another factor was that foods such as coffee, butter and cigarettes were cheaper in the Netherlands, which also attracted German tourists. “The tourists contributed to Elten doing extremely well economically during this time,” said Terhorst.

Selfkant benefited, among other things, from smuggling, not only of food, but also of cows, for example, which were also cheaper in the Netherlands. Cremers himself worked all his life on the other side of the border, at the electronics company Philips in Sittard. Communication was no problem, the local dialect was spoken.

When the compensation negotiations between Bonn and The Hague were finally concluded successfully - the Netherlands received 280 million German marks - Selfkant and Elten returned to Germany in 1963 after 14 years. Were the residents happy about it? That can be doubted.

Terhorst has stated: "The people of Elten still remember the Dutch period as a golden decade." Golden with a hint of orange, as some of the border markings were painted in the color of the royal family. Heinrich Cremers is certain: "If there had been a vote, we would not have gone back to Germany." He himself would have voted to remain with Holland. But the residents were not asked.

In Elten, entire streets with typical Dutch brick houses and large windows still remind us of the era under the red, white and blue flag. Terhorst: "When you drive in there, you think you're already in Holland." The same applies to Selfkant: "The architectural style - that you can see from front to back, without curtains - this whole Dutch mentality has already become a bit established here and has influenced us," explains local researcher Beckers.

Heinrich Cremers also still speaks a dialect, the Limburg Selfkant dialect, which is interspersed with Dutch words and phrases such as "zogenaamd" (so-called) or "toch wel" (yet well). “Speaking standard German is difficult for me,” says Cremers. From his living room table he looks through the window across a field to the Netherlands.

The houses he sees in the distance already belong to Sittard. "People's lives have changed completely," says the old man. "In the past, Germans in Holland were sometimes really insulted. Today that has all disappeared." And the border? You don't see them anymore

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