Soldiers jumped en masse from aircraft over Gelderland last week, just like 75 years ago. In the context of the commemoration of Operation Market Garden, various events from the Second World War will also be re-enacted by actors this weekend. For example, the conquest of two bridges in Nijmegen by American soldiers. Are these re-enactments just spectacular to see or can we also learn from them?

In the afternoon of September 20, 1944, 260 American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division cross the Waal in boats. They have to conquer two Nijmegen bridges over the Germans. The men don't have paddles. That is why they use their rifles and coffee mugs to get ahead. But on the other side, behind a provisionally erected sand wall, are German soldiers. They open fire on the unprotected Americans. Half of the allies will be wounded or killed, but the liberators succeed in conquering the bridges.

Exactly 75 years later, the 24-year-old re-enactor Dennis Kiekebos from Staphorst joins 149 others in the same place in a boat to portray the Waalcrossing. Kiekebos is chairman of the re-enactment association Pontoon Group '40 - '45, which replaces events from the Second World War.

Dennis Kiekebos in military uniform. (Private photo)

Mimic reality as accurately as possible

During a reenactment, they try to approach historical reality as closely as possible. Kiekebos: "Only boys and men between the ages of 15 and 35 participate in the Waalcrossing to show a correct picture. And we use 75-year-old attack boats that were also used at the time. Although our boats were not used in the Waalcrossing, with operations in Arnhem. "

The Netherlands has 47 re-enactment associations that are affiliated with the umbrella National Platform for Living History (LPLG). In addition, there are dozens of groups that operate independently. The eras that the associations re-enact vary from Roman times to the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) and from the Napoleonic wars (1795-1815) to the Second World War.

"For some, reenactment is a game and others also live at home down to the smallest details in the 1950s." Ineke Strouken, expert

It differs per association how meticulously the actors imitate history. "With LARP groups ( live action role-playing , ed.), The game content is high and a lot of imagination is involved," says Ineke Strouken, expert in the field of Dutch traditions and Dutch folk culture. "But you also have individuals who live at home down to the smallest details in the 1950s."

The Kiekebos group always keeps the war in mind during the Waalcrossing, all the more so because the 95-year-old veteran Hugh Wallis comes to watch. He was in the second boat in 1944 and is now returning to Nijmegen for the first time. "We enjoy it, but we also want to create a bit of awareness," says Kiekebos. "The role of the American division in Nijmegen was crucial in defeating the enemy. We want to give that to the public. That we will not forget."

The reenactment of the storming of the Waal bank by American soldiers (Photo: Pontoon Group '40 -'45)

Replaying the event gives a different perspective

The focus on re-enactments is growing among academic historians, says University of Amsterdam's lecturer on the latest history of Samuël Kruizinga. "When you try something out yourself, you sometimes get a completely different picture of how something worked," says Kruizinga.

"For example: we have known for a long time that gunpowder comes from China. But it was not until well into the 1990s that scientists copied Chinese gunpowder for the first time with recipes from the tenth century. And what turned out? Chinese gunpowder ignited less well than the European That could explain why people didn't immediately come up with the idea of ​​making pistols and guns in China and in Europe they did. "

That is why re-enactments often take place during commemorations. "You get a much better impression of the scale. How long is the bridge over the Waal exactly? How long does the crossing take? With how many people did they do that?", Says Kruizinga. "You see all those young boys and you think: maybe I was there in another time."

"Before the Vietnam War, people thought that war was taking place in organized columns." Samuël Kruizinga, lecturer on the latest history

Images and re-enactments can create a more powerful bond with history than books, says Kruizinga. "You saw that very strongly during the Vietnam War, the first war to be seen on TV. Before that, many people thought that war was happening in tight columns of soldiers marching towards the opponent. But on TV, the public now saw chaos and coffins in airplanes. It changed enormously how people thought about the war. "

War is much more cruel than the replayed version

But re-enactments also have their limitations. An exact approach to the events is impossible, if only because many historical weapons cannot be used for re-enactments. "You can never really re-enact history," says folk culture expert Strouken. "Wars are much more cruel than re-enactment groups are able to present. The actors must be very aware of this and communicate this to the public."

Kiekebos also endorses this. "We can never portray it exactly and we should not want to. But we can give an impression. An image says more than a thousand words."

When Kiekebos and the other re-enactors crossed the Waal on Friday afternoon and defeated the German soldiers, the audience watching walked together to the Waalcrossing Monument. It commemorates the 260 soldiers who made the liberation of Nijmegen possible 75 years ago. The day of reliving and commemorating is thus complete.