In the vast lands of the Netherlands, popular cities like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, or The Hague are the cities that many people can sight as some of the coolest cities in Europe. Well, in the case of the Netherlands, a city that within the past 20 years that has been on a “come up” of sorts is Arnhem. Arnhem is located roughly an hour and forty minutes (by car) and forty-five minutes by train from Amsterdam. However, Arnhem has some hidden nuggets and a unique place in one of history’s most violent wars.
Currently, it is a city that is developing into one of the largest and most exciting cities in all of the Netherlands. Here today, we will talk about the history of Arnhem, the famous World War II battle that took place there, and why Arnhem is a good place to stop during your brief vacation or just day off. So, let’s begin shall we.
As an US citizen, it is extremely impressive to note that for the most part every other country on Earth has cities, town, and even structures that are up to thousands of years older than that of the US. However, we consider our history to be unique and vastly old. Places like the Netherlands were around way before and present much more to the current living society than most Americans may or may not appreciate. When deciding on your trip into the Dutch lands typically, you will want to visit grandiosities like Amsterdam, for its frugality and very moral free atmosphere; or you may want to go to Rotterdam for its obscure architectural designs. However, in modern history, at least in the cases of the United States and the United Kingdom, Arnhem holds a special place.
According to archaeological findings, Arnhem was populated over 70,000 years ago. The earliest settlements were during the Stone Age, when Neanderthals ruled the European lands. According to written history however, the first known settlement was around 1500 BC. Arnhem was unique because unlike most civilizations, it was not built directly on, or even around a river. The closest major river to it would be the Rhine. However, having not been built on a major river the civilians adapted and used various streams. By 1530, with the various Europeans colonial powers being established did man attempt to control the Rhine and move its waters further west towards Arnhem.
In the colonial period Arnhem was not always ruled by the Dutch. Having desired to rule the world as an empire the English came to Arnhem to try to take it over in the last 1500s. They were unable to accomplish the feat. Then, the other colonial power in the late 1600s tried to take it over and was successful. The French occupied Arnhem on two different occasions, each for a very short time. The French claim was that they were using the city as a protection against the potential Spanish invasion. During various colonial wars Arnhem changed hands and was not officially Dutch again until the early 1800s. The French occupied Arnhem again in 1795 and then in 1813, the Dutch had enough of French rule and expelled them from Dutch soil.
Within the 19th century Arnhem established itself on its own without outside intervention. It became a known as “The Little Hague of the East” and soon became populated by businessmen on traveling routes. Arnhem appeared untouched by the outside world and held its own for the remainder of the 19th century having only three other famous Dutch cities in front of it in terms of population and economic power. However, the 20th century would change everything.
World War II: The Battle of Arnhem
In 1940, Nazi Germany, trying to ravage Europe as had been done to them in the First World War captured. In May of 1940, having lost the Battle of Britain and looking for new places to conquer for the Lebensraum (Living Space), Hitler settled on occupying the Netherlands and utilizing it a place for operations and as a point to continue his master plan of building Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). Arnhem and the rest of the Netherlands was occupied within 5 days. The Netherlands had a massive Jewish population and during the war ¾ of them would be exterminated, mostly Jews from big cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, however, places like Arnhem had large Jewish populations as well.
Between 1940 and 1944 the Nazi’s ruled the Dutch. In June of 1944, the tide seemed to change, the Allied Forces were gaining ground and has launched Operation Overlord (D-Day) and had entered occupied France. The walls where closing in and by creating a larger from the Allies felt that a place of entry to do that would be the Netherlands. The goal of Operation Market Garden was a large airborne assault in order to capture multiple bridges and move Allied troops across the Rhine and into Germany. The end result would most likely end the war by Christmas of 1944. The Netherlands was thought to be a place where older and more “green” German soldiers were stationed and the real threat would be in France or in the Eastern Front. Well, the centerpiece to the entire operation was Arnhem. Thousands of troops were launched into nearby towns across the Dutch mainland and gradually moved to take the objectives set out by their commanders. The issue with the operation was that in fact, due to bad intelligence the Germans had a much larger force that was more capable of taking down an Allied advance. The British Airborne units took massive casualties and did not reach any of their objectives that were set out in Market Garden’s planning. The operation lasted between September 17th and September 26th when Allied troops where withdrawn. Arnhem, would remain under Nazi occupation until April of 1945 when the city was liberated by the First Canadian Army.
Market Garden was the Allies biggest failure during the war and Arnhem reflects that as well as the vital importance of that failure. It currently names one of its bridges after John Frost, a British Airborne commander who jumped into Arnhem. Following its liberation, Arnhem unveiled various memorials around the town to commemorate where British Troops had given their lives in the search of freedom from Nazi occupation.
Following World War II, Arnhem resettled and rebuilt its population. Currently, the city holds 159,000 within its limits but in its metropolitan area holds up to 400,000 others making it one of the largest cities in the Netherlands. For those that have never been to the Netherlands, it is not a place known for strong summer heat. Usually, a summer heat wave may be in the 80s as opposed to in the US where a day can get up well past 95 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, in winter, it can be very cold and windy. Especially in cities that have lots of bodies of water within them. Although Arnhem is like a big city of sorts it has various other villages within its municipalities that enlarge their population. Not to mention, the city borders Germany and is a great place to take a quick 30 minute train into Germany should you want to do this.
If you are looking for an ideal spot to a quiet rural part of the world Arnhem might very well be the destination that you are looking for. Within the city, there is both a royal feel and also a modern mecca. Each of its parks offers a unique Dutch landscape, one that you cannot get anywhere in the big city. Furthermore, within its limits Arnhem is home to many memorials and museums for those who lost their lives during World War II. Also, it is home to the Netherlands Open Air Museum which is a museum that discusses the uniqueness and subtleties of Dutch history and Culture. Unfortunately, the original museum was laid to waste in the bombs of World War II but was rebuilt following the conflict. Arnhem also has spectacular architecture which it links with nature as many houses have large trees and vine overgrowths on them.
For small town festivals, Arnhem is a great destination. They have a commemoration of the Airborne assault as well as the Free Your Mind Festival which is a large music festival that takes place in Arnhem. It also has various other cultural festivals throughout the year and even a Fairy Tale Festival.
For getting around Arnhem, the trolleybus system is considered to be one of the best in all of Europe. Unfortunately, you cannot fly directly to Arnhem but rather have to fly to either Amsterdam or Germany to get to it. Even its train systems are international. Should you need to get to Switzerland, France, or more Arnhem is a great place for international travel.
The Hidden Gem
Of Europe’s many hidden gems the Netherlands is amongst the best. It is pretty hard to believe unless you have been there but the Netherlands has various hidden gems. Arnhem is one of them. Whether you live there or not. It seems like based on what is written here that Arnhem should be your next European destination.
Ellis Distefano (author) on April 19, 2021:
Thank you, your comments are much appreciated.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 18, 2021:
Wonderful article, I remember on my visit to Europe I had been to Arnhem; one of the battles of the second world war took place there. Great reading.
Liz Westwood from UK on April 18, 2021:
This is a fascinating article. I once knew someone who took part in Operation Market Garden. I recall visiting a museum near Arnhem many years ago, as my father and brother were interested in wartime history.