top of page

The night that never went dark - Arnhem in WW2

It all started 500 years ago with a river

On a cloudy, unremarkable Sunday in September, families climbed the steps to Eusebius, Arnhem’s largest Cathedral and gothic pride. The morning was chilly, but the forecast called for a warm afternoon: summer wasn’t over yet.


The sun shone through the church’s blood-red stained glass windows and onto the slate floor as the parishioners listened to the sermon. Some in attendance drifted off into daydreams, forgetting the war in the world outside for a moment. Churchgoing was one of the few group activities the Germans permitted. Group gatherings of more than five could result in arrest or on-the-spot shooting.


The warning sirens started, bringing them all back to reality. The pastor paused for a moment, waiting to see if they’d need to head to a shelter. The sirens stopped. The crowd exhaled. He continued.



Gothic church with tall spire
Eusebiuskerk Arnhem

When the service ended, the families returned home to rest and prepare for a week of work and school. By dark, the children were in bed; their parents listened to the radio or read by candlelight. It was forbidden to have lights on after dark - the Germans worried the Allies would use them as navigation. The earth shook, rattling the row houses. Explosions woke the children from their sleep. The Allied forces were raining bombs down on the city.


Two days later, the city was engulfed in flames. The residents called it “De nacht waarin het niet meer donker werd”, or the night that didn’t get dark. Heavy fighting ensued, laying waste to the city. The bombing of the Rhine Bridge had an unintended consequence: a bridge tower came loose, flew into the city, and crashed into the Eusebius church, destroying much of it.


That night was the start of Market Garden, the most extensive and ambitious campaign of the war by the Allies. It was a spectacular, tragic failure that would leave Arnhem occupied for another six months.


As retribution, the Germans cut off the food supply to the northern part of the Netherlands. 20.000 people died from starvation. It’s known as Hongerwinter, the Hunger Winter. In what’s now the wealthiest part of the country, people ate tulip bulbs, sugar beet soup and vegetable skins. The Germans also cut off all power supplies, leaving the Dutch without heat or electricity. Children born to malnourished parents in those regions have higher incidences of obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia than their peers born in healthier conditions in other parts of the country.


After the war, Arnhem was known as the “Stalingrad of the West.” It was the most bombed city in the Netherlands. Perhaps its fate was sealed half a millennium earlier when the Duke, Karl van Gelre, decided to reroute the Rhine to turn Arnhem into an economic powerhouse, strengthening its connection to Germany and the Dutch cities to the west.


Architecture

The current gothic version of Eusebius dates from 1300, sitting on the remnants from an older church from the 9th century.

  • Tomb of Karel van Gelre.

    • Carved from black marble with a life-size alabaster statue of the duke, it’s one of the Netherlands' most important 16th-century sculptures.

    • Karel van Gelre fought against the Holy Roman Empire for as long as he could. But in the end, Charles V won, and the region became the last in the Low Countries to bend the knee.


  • The organ

    • is one of the largest glockenspiels in Europe

    • The original organ dates back to 1750 but was damaged during WW2. The bells are on display on the ground floor of the church.


  • Graves

    • The church basement houses the graves of several noble persons, including Karel van Gelre. Here, you can also see the remnants of the 9th-century church.


  • Eusebius is a gaudy visual feast. There are 81 sculptures on the flying and 16 sculptures carved into the outer church walls depicting gargoyles, dolphins and characters from Donald Duck and even a recreation of Noah’s ark.



Current day

Today, the church is a museum and a national monument, housing art exhibitions, musical and theatrical performances and fashion shows. The church tower is still the tallest structure in the city, visible from Germany. On the south side, Fridays and Saturdays, there is a market selling everything from fresh, locally grown, organic produce (think gnarled celeriac, black cherries, potatoes still caked in the dirt they grew in) to antiques.


When it came time for the reconstruction, one architect suggested a war memorial, like the Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin. The city rejected the idea, choosing instead to rebuild the Church and ensure that it returned to being a place for the community to gather. Today, Eusebius and the restored bridge are iconographic shorthand for the city and a testament to its resilience.


The tongue

The current incarnation of the church is the latest of many. The first mention of the church is in 893, “Est in Arnheym ecclesia,” or There’s a church in Arnhem. That was a small church dedicated to St Maarten. 550 years later, work began on a new Gothic structure. By the fifteenth century, more churches had sprung up in Arnhem, and the church’s attendance fell. To get more bums on seats, the German city Prüm sent a relic, the tongue and skull of St Eusebius (a martyr who, after his tongue was cut out by the Roman emperor Commodus, continued to speak), to Arnhem. Hence the current name.


The tongue and skull now rest comfortably in the other Catholic church, St Maartenkerk, in another city.


Worth visiting

  • Duivelshuis: Across from the church stands the “Devil’s House”, a gothic city castle built in the 15th century that now serves as the mayor’s office. It’s abutted by a much larger and more modern office building that houses the city council

  • Sabelspoort: the medieval city gates built in 1357

  • the Rhine River is a few minutes walk from the Church

  • Throughout the city, there are plaques commemorating WW2. A visitors centre on the Rhine can direct you to self-guided tours or by historians.


Practicalities

  • You can reach the church by public transportation, either by train or bus. From Arnhem Centraal, you can take a bus, bike or walk for 15 minutes.



Comments


bottom of page