It’s easy to think that pre-Stonewall, there were no ‘out’ gay people. This is not true.
Although being openly gay could risk arrest or imprisonment in many countries, the 20th century is littered with examples of brave souls who refused to hide their sexuality.
Some, such as London’s Quentin Crisp, were brazenly gay throughout their lives. Others, such as Alan Turing, have only been re-discovered and celebrated many years after their death.
Dutchman Willem Arondeus is an unknown name to many people today. To some, he’s just one of the millions who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
However, the way he lived his life and his contribution to the war effort deserves to be remembered.
Arondeus was born in Naarden, east of Amsterdam, in 1894. He was the youngest son of an Amsterdam fuel trader.
He ran away from home at the age of 18 and befriended artists, much to the upset of his family. Some historians believe friction over his sexuality contributed to the breakdown of his relationship with his parents. Either way, he was never to have regular contact with them again after he left home.
Emboldened by his new friends, he became an illustrator, painter and designer of posters and tapestries.
Other than being commissioned to paint a large mural for the Rotterdam City Hall, he did not achieve great commercial success as an artist.
He had little money or fame, and often struggled to make ends meet. This lack of fame perhaps enabled him to be more open about his sexuality than other artists with higher profiles.
By the late 1920s he had turned his back on painting and concentrated instead on writing. He published and illustrated two novels in the 1930s, followed by books exploring famous figures in the Netherlands art world.
By all accounts, he did not make any attempt to hide the fact he was homosexual. Same-sex relationships had been legal in the Netherlands for over 100 years, and the first records of gay bars in Amsterdam date back to 1911.
Arondeus lived with his male lover, Jan Tijssen, in the Netherlands capital for several years. The two split when World War II broke out.
Nazi invasion and resistance
Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. Finding themselves greatly overwhelmed, the Dutch forces surrendered within five days.
A covert Dutch resistance movement had been active since the start of the war. Its activities were ramped up by the German invasion. Members of the resistance offered hiding space and shelter to the enemies of Nazi Germany: from injured airmen to Jews. Anne Frank and her family were sheltered in Amsterdam.
The Nazis also oversaw the re-criminalization of homosexuality.
Arondeus became an active member of the Dutch resistance. In 1941, he published his own periodical to encourage others to resist the Germans.
Arondeus was among those who believed the Nazis were lying when they said that Jewish people needed to be registered for their own safety. He feared there were more sinister reasons why the German authorities wanted to know who was Jewish.
Amsterdam Public Records Office bombing
A resistance group that Arondeus joined, Raad van Verzet (Resistance Council), forged documents for Jews to hide their identity.
However, the Nazis got wise to this trick. They realized that if they compared the false documents to records in the Amsterdam Public Records Office, they could determine who was using forged papers.
On 27 March 1943, Arondeus led a small group in the bombing of the Amsterdam Public Records Office.
Arondeus, dressed as a German Army captain, led over a dozen resistance fighters to the office. They disabled the guards by drugging them. They placed the sleeping guards in a courtyard so they would not be harmed, and then placed their bombs.
This single act of explosive defiance led to thousands of public records being destroyed by fire.
Although the bombs only succeeded in destroying a quarter of the files in the building, the attack hampered the Nazis in their quest to identify Jewish people. It also inspired the destruction of other record offices across the country.
‘Homosexuals are not cowards’
The resistance group’s victory was short-lived. Within a fortnight, Arondeus and over a dozen others were arrested. It’s believed an anonymous traitor informed the Gestapo of their identities. The group included two other gay men: a tailor, Sjoerd Bakker and a writer, Jouhan Brouwer.
Arondeus and 12 others were found guilty. They were executed by firing squad in July 1943.
In his last meeting with his lawyer, ahead of his execution, Arondeus conferred a message that he wished to be shared after the war was over: ‘Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards!’
Although Willem Arondeus was posthumously awarded a medal of honor by the Dutch government in 1945, historians believe his leading role in the resistance was downplayed in the immediate decades after the war because of his sexuality.
It was only through a TV documentary on 1990 that the Dutch public at large learned that he was gay.