In the City of Bikes

I seem to have accidentally been reading books about Resistance in late 2016. I promise you it was in no way intentional, but I was on a bike book bender and it turns out, bikes ARE a means of resistance.

The first one I read, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan is a personal story of a bike loving family and their place in the historic city of bikes, Amsterdam. Part memoir, part history, part fascinating street-level tour of Amsterdam, In the City of Bikes is the story of a man who loves bikes — in a city that loves bikes.

I wasn’t immediately sucked into the book. I found it in my collection, not exactly remembering why I picked it up. But then, I got to the part about the siege of Amsterdam in the winter after the Americans took France back in WWII. I was completely amazed at how he described the city’s people in that awful winter and what they did to survive. I will now always think of the bicycle’s role in a citywide resistance to the Nazi occupation.

The Dutch famine of 1944–45, known as the Hongerwinter, was a modern famine that took place in the German-occupied part of the Netherlands, during the winter of 1944–45. A German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm areas. The city was without electricity, heat, and food in an especially harsh winter. To make a bad situation worse, they were also without their bikes.

“On October 25, the Nazis cut off the city’s supply of gas — the fuel used for heating and cooking in many Amsterdam apartments. Two weeks earlier, the Nazis had cut off the city’s electricity supply. In many apartments, Amsterdammers pedaled on propped-up bikes to create small amounts of electricity via the bike’s generator.”

The Germans did everything they could to get the bikes out of the hands of the Dutch during the five years they occupied the territories. They sent some of the bikes back to Germany to be ridden by Germans or to be melted down for metal. They made new rules for riding in towns and cities. They made sure there were no replacement tires. They eventually made having a bike illegal — bike and parts were horded and hidden in attics to avoid detection. But still, even as the Germans fled east and the Allies moved north, that last winter, some Amsterdammers still road bikes.

“ In early 1941, it was said that upon greeting one another, the Dutch would ask: “How are your bike tires? Can you still get by on them?” Production of bicycle tires in the country had ground to a halt because raw rubber from the Dutch East Indies could no longer reach Holland.”

They confiscated the Jewish residents’ bike’s first. Then, they forced men to turn their bikes into the city. Curiously, among all of the Nazi’s shenanigans in Holland up till then, the commandeering of bikes appeared to have struck the rawest of Dutch nerves. One diary describes that day like this:

“ Word of the hunt for men’s bikes had spread citywide, making that morning’s rush hour unlike any that had preceded it. In an internal Nazi report, a German official wrote: “This operation created a great excitement in the city. As a result, this morning only a few cyclists took to Amsterdam’s bustling streets. Because they feared the seizure of their bicycles, workers walked to their job sites.”

The bike factories were also decimated during the war, so that even after the siege was ended, it took a while for bike ownership to reach pre-war levels.

“According to some reports issued within weeks after the end of the war, a total of 60,000 bikes had been taken from the 120,000 German soldiers who had been captured in the Netherlands and repatriated to Germany. Many repossessed bikes were sent to the Simplex bike factory in Amsterdam, where they were restored and redistributed.”

But of all the bike-related legacies of the war, “cursing the moffen” about the bikes was easily the most notable. The proper Dutch answer to any question posed by a German was: “First Return My Bike.” It would thrive for decades, eventually with the Dutch asking for their grandmother’s bike back.

“The phrase used by Amsterdammers who’d actually lost bikes was now being expressed by activists, some of whom hadn’t been born by the time the Germans invaded Holland (Van Tijn was a toddler in 1940). A new generation of Dutch had inherited the postwar grudge against the Germans”

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