‘Internal colonization’, wrote an observer in 1930, is ‘not [a] definite concept’.2 He was right about the indefinite nature of the term, but not in ways he could have imagined. ‘Internal colonization’ was associated with ‘rural areas and other territories for agricultural settlement’.3 In the same breath, this rural connotation was juxtaposed with more urbanized modes of settlement, such as garden cities and suburban residential zones. Internal colonization might not have been a fixed concept in 1930, but its contours were rather clear. From the late nineteenth century up until the outbreak of the Second World War, ‘internal colonization’ was used by historical actors to refer to the practice of (re)claiming land with the combined aim of enabling human settlement and fostering agricultural exploitation.

Saliently, the term was reintroduced in scholarly work some three decades later. And this time ‘internal colonization’, once again showing its indefinite substance, opened up a semantic field that was highly indebted to (neo-Marxist) social theory. Internal colonization became a normative marker of state-enforced modes of social, economic, and ethnic segregation – it was an intentional process undergirded by what was negatively perceived as the state-sponsored ideology of internal colonialism.4 This type of colonialism, Michel Foucault and many others after him argued, was due to ‘the boomerang effect’ of (external) colonialism, bringing ‘a whole series of colonial models’ back to the West – and thus allowing a number of new hegemonic divisions in urban society.5

This semantic shift (from rural to mostly urban, from non-normative description to normative analysis) raises questions about the use of internal colonization as an analytical category. As most of the contributions to this special issue stress, the rural was a common denominator among the languages and practices of internal colonization before the outbreak of the Second World War. However, if historians look beyond ‘internal colonization’ as a descriptive category applied to the rural in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the term enables us to distinguish a broader set of interrelated historical practices and discourses for which the rural-urban divide is not constitutive.

Here the case study of the resettlement of (a part of) Rotterdam’s citizens after the devastating bombardments of the Second World War will be read through the lens of internal colonization. This instance of resettlement allows us to grasp internal colonization as a collection of historical practices that stretches beyond its formerly dominant understanding as a rural phenomenon. Thus, internal colonization will be understood as an analytical category that is not restricted per se by the generally accepted temporal and spatial demarcations in most of the historiography.

Against the background of massive devastation, collective trauma, and urgent recovery, the accommodation of thousands of homeless victims was one of the most pressing issues for local authorities in the bombed-out cities of Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. In most of the post-blitz reconstruction historiographies, this episode, and its impact on the relocation and fragmentation of the urban community, is largely outshined by the boastful narratives of spatial redevelopment along the lines of modernist urban planning. The perspective of internal colonization opens up a new avenue of interpretation, which enables the critical assessment of governmental practices relating to post-blitz reconstruction beyond the tenets of urban planning history. In the case of Rotterdam, this approach allows for a much stronger articulation of the reconstruction politics that amounted to a social cleansing of the city after its physical destruction. Before presenting the case study, issues relating to the rural-urban divide, normativity, and the common denominators of internal colonization need to be assessed.

Internal Colonization as an Analytical Framework

The assessment of rural-urban distinctions in internal colonization has resulted in some awareness of interconnection and interdependency in historiography. James Scott, in his seminal work Seeing Like a State, sees ‘a project of internal colonization’ as a systemic expression of modern statecraft, whose practitioners ‘strive to shape a people and landscape’.6 Scott’s use of the term landscape, instead of rural or agricultural land, opens up broader conceptions of the environment of internal colonization, which is to say it allows the inclusion of urban landscapes. One obvious and well-researched historical example of internal colonization, the transformation of the Pontine Marshes in Fascist Italy, presents an intrinsic inter-permeation of the rural and the urban. Here new settlements on rural land expressed urban ambitions through the planning of new, medium-sized towns, and existing urban centres perceived to be overcrowded were addressed in concomitant population policies; densely populated urban areas served as the pools of recruitment for new dwellers on the marshes.7 Vice versa, agricultural production needed to be expanded to feed the ever-expanding cities.8

The (sub)urban environment might also be considered as a locus for internal colonization in its own right during the period 1880–1940. The auctor intellectualis of the garden city idea, Ebenezer Howard, placed the suburban garden city, conceived as a green residential settlement for urbanites, in line with earlier proposals, quoting a mid-nineteenth-century plan to displace people to ‘a colony well beyond the range of London smoke’.9 Before establishing the garden city movement, Howard even tried to create an urban ‘Home Colony’ in the 1890s.10 We can see that the garden city movement of the early twentieth century adopted a discourse very similar to that of rural internal colonization, albeit with clear (sub)urban intentions.

Thus the re-emergence of the term internal colonization in the social sciences in reference to urban phenomena in the 1960s is not entirely detached from previous historical discourses. One could argue, however, that unlike the advocates of the garden city movement, who postulated a clear rural-urban connection, these scholars delved almost exclusively into the urban fabric. The renowned urbanist Kevin Lynch, for instance, gave a socio-political definition of internal colonization, alluding to spatial divisions in the metropolis. Using apartheid’s extreme segregation in Johannesburg as an example, Lynch spoke of internal colonization ‘when one clearly demarcated group exploits and controls another’.11 The term is also frequently used to refer to oppression of any kind, for instance in the work on the social segregation of African-Americans in American society.12

In his theoretical accounts of (urban) space, Henri Lefebvre stated that key to the production of urban space was the state’s ‘attempt to homogenize, hierarchize, and to fragment social spaces’.13 Lefebvre’s ‘internal colonization’ was a signifier of ‘the authoritarian aspects of spatial management in Paris and other French cities’.14 Translating postwar urban planning in France into a process of ‘internal colonization’ of French cities, he referred to several grands ensembles and new towns as the most pregnant expressions of this process – which ultimately gave rise to the lifestyles of those whom Loïc Wacquant has called ‘urban outcasts’.15

Lefebvre’s language of internal colonization still resonates in current debates about segregation and ethnic conflict in urban France and elsewhere. The displacement of immigrants to the metropolitan fringes have led to ‘militarized’ and ‘securitized’ forms of internal colonization which, in turn, have created France’s new ‘badlands’ – i.e., the banlieues – from the 1980s onwards.16 Such a view of the state’s spatial regimes links up with what James Scott has distinguished as a quintessential element of contemporary statecraft: ever increasing (political) surveillance.17

At this point, we need to establish a baseline set of signifiers to identify a connection between historical practices that might fit the analytical category of internal colonization. I will not try – it would be in vain – to enumerate an exhaustive set of criteria, but based on definitions and conclusions drawn from the literature, and particularly the considerations salient to this special issue’s introduction, internal colonization includes, at least: first, a demarcated space on which human (re)settlement is projected within the geographical borders of a particular polity, be it a nation-state or a city; and, second, a predefined aspiration of (re)settlement effected by the state and sustained by surveillance of the internal colony.

Taking into account the urban dimension of internal colonization discourses (historical as well as sociological and normative), and accepting two distinguishing features of internal colonization that inform the interpretative framework (demarcated resettlement and statecraft), the urban case study, drawn from the interlude between internal colonization’s heyday and the emergence of critical social theory, will now be introduced.

Post-Blitz Urban Resettlement in the 1940s and 1950s

When war or natural disasters have devastated cities, the shelter needs of suddenly homeless populations have been met with a plethora of responses. Particularly in the twentieth century, with its unprecedented urban scale in the West, many systematic governmental responses directed towards resettlement emerged out of chaos or destruction. These responses often became part of more enduring projects to re-allocate housing throughout the urban fabric. For instance, the devastating earthquake that took down most of the Italian city of Messina in 1908 was followed by a series of temporary mass-housing initiatives, a precursor to the Fascist efforts to displace members of the lowest social classes to remote residential zones in the 1930s.18 Similarly, the destruction of many Belgian and French towns near the battlefields of the Great War offered an opportunity to reshuffle the populace through mass-housing plans.19 Moreover, the influx of billeted ammunition workers and refugees during the war (the Belgian diaspora to France and the Netherlands) prompted the establishment of thousands of emergency workers’ hostels and refugee camps in the urban margins throughout Western Europe.

When we come to the Second World War, we find a particular context of resettlement. Recent publications have pointed at hardships endured by minority groups during the transition between war and peace during the mid-1940s.20 Particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, many ethnic minorities were set adrift or were forcibly displaced to remote places, leading to an unprecedented refugee crisis on the European continent. Underpinning such exclusionary mechanisms (affecting about 50 million people) was an increasingly administrative and scientifically conceptualized set of criteria for community membership, based on varying social, cultural, or ethnic categories.

At the local level, particularly as cities were rebuilt after the bombings, similar practices of social exclusion became increasingly manifest, though they were of course effected on a smaller scale. In bombed cities such as Coventry, London, Rotterdam, and Hamburg, emergency policies gave way to considerations of large questions about relocating and housing significant segments of the local population. The flattened areas not only incited an outburst of modernist spatial planning and grand plans for urban redevelopment, but also urged authorities to initiate some form of population management.

The accommodation of people bombed out of their houses was one of the most urgent assignments for authorities in blitzed cities. One solution to homelessness was the erection of emergency or temporary dwellings, which in almost all cases were clustered on the fringes of the city. These ‘emergency villages’, in many cases, gradually became stigmatized as sites for the unfit and the unwanted, as temporary housing was mostly aimed at people unable to find or afford shelter elsewhere. In one extreme case, in Rotterdam, which will be elaborated further on, the emergency villages became subjected to a policy scheme of social (re)education and intense surveillance. These villages might be read as products of internal colonization, fitting the two requirements of demarcated (re)settlement and intentional statecraft.

Reading emergency housing in post-blitz cities in the 1940s and 1950s through the lens of internal colonization offers clear analytical yields. With regard to post–Second World War reconstruction historiography, it allows the articulation of the interlude preceding the acclaimed resurrection of Western European ‘New Jerusalems’ along the lines of modernist planning. (Planning) literature particularly stresses the new – planners, their plans, and their implementation and realization – and secondary attention (at most) is directed towards the removal of the old – in particular, social groupings throughout the urban environment. In Rotterdam, the case study presented in this article, the policy of rehousing the victims of the aerial bombardments allowed local authorities to act based on the perceived social qualities of the city’s residents, under Nazi rule (from mid-1940 until May 1945) as well as after the liberation.

Internal Colonization in Wartime Rotterdam: Stage One

After the major blitz of 14 May 1940, which laid to ashes the whole inner city and killed many hundreds of people, nearly 80,000 homeless victims roamed Rotterdam’s streets and grounds of debris. A later strike, this time by the Allied forces that bombed Nazi-occupied Rotterdam in March 1943, killed another 326 people and left more than 16,000 people homeless. Most individuals and families either found refuge with relatives and friends or moved to nearby towns. Schools, hotels, and public buildings were transformed into emergency hostels, temporarily accommodating an additional group of victims.21

The latter group of urbanites was unable to find new homes due to their lack of social and financial means. Most were the former inhabitants of the vibrant and dilapidated alleys – slums, some even argued – of the destroyed inner city. Saliently, in Rotterdam 5000 of the 8000 dwellings destroyed by the air raids had been listed for demolition before the outbreak of war.22

From the summer of 1940 onwards, families from the asylum hostels were entitled to register for placement in an ‘emergency dwelling’, a small and cheaply built single-floor house that was part of a series of planned complexes of temporary housing on the fringes of the city. In total, seven such complexes were realized, allowing about 7500 people to be accommodated – some well into the late twentieth century, as housing shortages diminished only after the 1960s.

Although the size and social composition of these villages varied, they all shared a defining asset: spatial isolation from the city’s residential districts that had survived the bombing.23 Obviously, finding ample space to build hundreds of temporary dwellings was imperative, and the city’s outskirts were a manifest option for such an undertaking. However, the selection of sites for emergency housing reveals a clear intent to isolate them from other districts, as they were not placed directly adjacent to middle-class areas. Railways, canals, roads, and bridges separated the emergency villages from the rest of the city. Moreover, in 1941 the municipality of Rotterdam, at the urging of the Nazi authorities, annexed a number of neighbouring towns, provoking new ideas about postwar urban expansion.24 These vistas of a new, expanding Rotterdam, confirmed the provisional nature of the emergency villages; in the long run, large-scale urban planning would swallow them up.

By March 1941, 3000 families – at first individuals without families were not permitted to sign up – had registered for an emergency dwelling in Rotterdam. About 2100 units were actually built, housing about 7500 people during wartime. In the summer of 1940, the first emergency village, at the Noorderkanaalweg north of the city, was completed (see Figure 1). It consisted of 188 wooden dwellings, whose standardized interiors were paid for via deductions from war damage payments, the sum of money victims of the bombardments received from the authorities. From the beginning this complex attracted lower-class families. This was due to a number of reasons. First and foremost, the people most urgently in need of a home ranked among the poorest inner-city residents of the pre-blitz era. Additionally, there was the very effective selection method employed by the wartime housing authorities: differentiation by rent. Rent at the Noorderkanaalweg complex was very low, and the national government offered compensation to make up for municipal budget deficits. Similarly, another complex, at Zuidplein, also attracted many families on poor relief or unskilled workers with sub-standard rents. Consequently, both complexes ranked at the bottom of an emerging social hierarchy among emergency villages, which would soon tap into popular stigmatization of ‘villagers’, as the local historian Dick Rackwitsz has demonstrated in his work.25

Figure 1 

Depiction of the emergency village at the Noorderkanaalweg by A.F. Hens (August 1943) (City Archives Rotterdam).

Initiated and administered by a small group of local Dutch officials, who demonstrated considerable agency within the hierarchies of power installed by the Nazi occupiers, the Noorderkanaalweg complex was transformed from a temporary solution to an emergency housing crisis into an experimental space for the surveillance and oppression of those perceived to be social misfits.26 This transformation found its clearest expression in June 1943, when the Municipal Housing Corporation (Gemeentelijke Woningdienst) which managed all emergency houses in the city, was forced to hand over formal responsibility for the Noorderkanaalweg to the Office of Social Affairs. ‘The anti-social family is a family all of whose actions deviate from the prevailing rules which to live by in society, thus not only housing,’ was an underlying principle for the agency’s oversight.27 The ‘prevailing rules’ were based on positive valuations of ‘family relations, marriage relations, household management, financial management, habitation, neatness, social milieu, the nursing and parenting of children, the behaviour of the head of the family with regard to society, preparedness to work, sense of responsibility and health condition’.28

In general, the 1940s witnessed a behavioural turn in social work, expanding its focus: the attention given to housekeeping and the moral and psychological state of the individual in the interwar years now yielded to concern with a wider range of social attitudes in public and private life.29

The practices that emerged at the Noorderkanaalweg were those of the first stage of internal colonization – urban resettlement – combined with the aim of social amelioration. Under the aegis of the Housing Corporation some social work had been undertaken from June 1942 onwards, but now a whole new regime was introduced. Families deemed normal had to move elsewhere, so as to leave the socially unfit in isolation at the complex. Those families unable to move – in 1944 forty-four ‘normal’ families remained at the complex – were housed in the street called ‘A’. The alleys ascended to the letter ‘N’, where the most hopeless cases were living in the most confined part, surrounded by canals.30 However, in practice this division did not hold, as alleged anti-social families eventually moved into all the streets. All inhabitants were placed under supervision by social workers, housing inspectors, municipal housekeepers, and medical supervisors. Women were obliged to participate in household management courses, children were assembled for daily activities and school and the men who did not cooperate with the schemes of the employment agency were sent to work relief camps in various parts of the country for three months as of February 1944.31 Eleven houses were used for various amenities (e.g., a library, bath-house, central kitchen, and playroom) and office space.

Rogier van Aerde’s postwar novel Nooddorp (Emergency village, 1951) provides an account of the surveillance regime then in place, describing the village as ‘a concentration camp, sadly lying a few hundred meters off the road. Long rows of low, filthy living barracks – like prisoners’ sheds. Only the barbed wire and the watching towers with machine guns were lacking …’.32 The leading officials spoke – without hesitation – of a ‘kind of police for social relief’, keeping open, in case of the scheme’s failure, the option of sterilization, a eugenic hint that one also finds in administrative correspondence and reports during the war.33

From mid-1944 onwards, official reports, in language ever more desperate, tell of intensified surveillance and police assistance. The villagers increasingly refused to cooperate with the authorities; social workers were thwarted from entering houses; many families were selling their household goods, resorting to the black market and exchanging their food vouchers for tobacco or alcohol.34 Evaluations tended to conclude that the re-education programme as a whole had failed. In January 1945, the chief administrator J. Geijs proposed radical isolation of the anti-socials, ‘either in asylums or in camps of anti-socials’, as the ‘recklessness’ of collective behaviour was now deemed impossible to control under the current arrangements.35

Moreover, whereas the first reports, still compiled under the aegis of the Housing Corporation, stressed the village’s meager housing and impoverished living circumstances, the reports written by the so-called Extraordinary Researches division placed full responsibility for the conditions on the inhabitants themselves: ‘… one sees a mentality among these families which is aimed at the exploitation of social amenities and the perpetuation of life in straitened circumstances. In most cases, the men are uneducated stevedores, while the women are spineless, garrulous creatures negligent of their duties and with no inclination whatsoever to look after their houses or families’.36

The cold winter of 1944–1945 worsened the situation beyond repair. Many inhabitants died of starvation and the effects of the cold. Whole houses were demolished and used as firewood. After the liberation, in May 1945, the Canadian military decided to evacuate the whole village, which was demolished by the end of the following month, and the remaining residents were offered temporary shelter in an immigrants’ hostel.37 Ultimately, Dutch officials, with ministerial approval, deported the anti-socials from the hostel to so-called state evacuation camps in the rural north of the Netherlands.38 At least forty-six families (some three hundred people) from the Noorderkanaalweg complex were deported, starting with twenty-eight families in early July 1945.39 In the late 1940s and 1950s, these camps, which had been founded in the 1930s as work relief camps, became ‘family camps’ (gezinsoorden), where a new postwar episode of isolated, social re-education under surveillance commenced for the alleged social misfits, including those from other Dutch cities as well.40 Saliently, only in the spring of 1947, two years after liberation, did the Dutch government put the enforced deportations on hold, and then halted the measure.

‘Rotterdam’s Own Soweto’: Stage Two41

The isolation of those perceived to be misfits did not stop after their deportation to the countryside. With hindsight, the repressive surveillance and deportation of the ‘anti-social’ civilians of the emergency village Noorderkanaalweg can be interpreted as the first stage of Rotterdam’s internal colonization experiment. The removal of these unruly residents enabled authorities to shift their focus after the liberation to another category: ‘socially weak’ citizens. The aspiration was to create a new internal colony in which the weak urbanites would receive moral improvement through fine-grained social re-education programmes. Such measures had prewar precedents in Dutch cities such as The Hague, Amsterdam, and Utrecht, and continued to exist as ‘schools for living’ (woonscholen). Unlike the anti-social, the socially weak were designated as amenable to improvement through social re-education schemes.

In 1947 the city of Rotterdam endorsed a resolution that formally recognised an emergency village of 525 brick houses, built in 1941, as a site to test experimental policies of social re-education. This experiment – a term that was exhaustively employed – became known as the Zuidplein Project and encompassed about 570 families (in practice around 400 were subjected to surveillance and social re-education schemes), amounting to approximately 3000 citizens.42

This did not imply that a strict set of predefined categories and principles informed social re-education in Rotterdam. Local officials showed their awareness of the longstanding Dutch and foreign debates about and experiences with the ‘anti-social’ urban problem and the merits of social work, but they also stated that the whole experiment was open-ended and geared to be inductive and experience-based. Socially weak families had the prospect of becoming acceptably social. Official approval entitled them to move to one of Rotterdam’s (new) neighbourhoods. Thus upward social mobility underpinned the project, which was reflected in its being regularly called a ‘social sanatorium’.43

As such, the second stage of internal colonization was much more sophisticated than the wartime endeavours at the Noorderkanaalweg complex. It could boast of its reorganized municipal services, its inclusion of voluntary and religious organisations in its governance structure, and its large scale: ‘Rotterdam’s own Soweto’, wrote a letter writer to a much-read newspaper in 1990, looking back on the project – Soweto being one of the typical cases investigated by social scientists under the heading of internal colonization in the late twentieth century.

Indeed, Zuidplein can be regarded as a township. Not only due to its isolated location within the urban environment, but also because its social composition was perceived to be sub-normal, and because it attracted (vernacular) discourses of stigmatization and marginalization. In response, local officials and even some newspapers tried to boast of the experiment publicly to mitigate the Zuidplein’s emerging stigma. The project’s leader, the civil servant J. van Mill, was keen to stress that just as the other districts of the city did, the Zuidplein complex included a variety of families, among which were some ‘socially weak’ ones.44

The fulcrum of the complex was the neighbourhood centre, which opened in the summer of 1948 and served as the hub of social re-education schemes, ranging from cooking lessons to reading courses in the local library. Six social workers, nine so-called family caretakers, and one youth worker were present at the complex during the day. Becoming more than an experiment in social re-education, the project developed into an experiment in the engineering of neighbourhood life. The kind of social templates underpinning the visions of the postwar urbanite became apparent in the many mandatory activities: labour training pushed the men towards becoming hard-working fathers; cooking, sewing and cleaning courses, as well as information about infancy and upbringing, were geared towards rendering caring and nurturing housewives; youth activities, such as going on field trips, had the principal aim of instilling the values of ‘order and neatness’ in the new generation.

Essentially, the Zuidplein project was a mode of governmentality aimed at regulating and shaping the conduct of the patriarchal nuclear family, the desired social basis for the residents of the neighbourhood units under construction in postwar Rotterdam; it was an internal urban colony whose inhabitants had to be uplifted morally and socially before being entitled to the new urban citizenship of the postwar New Jerusalem.

However, only months after the neighbourhood centre had opened, the experiment at the Zuidplein was confronted by the first postwar expansion plans, which integrated the complex into the growing urban fabric south of the river Maas. In September 1949, a large apartment building (twelve floors) was completed next to the Zuidplein complex. Nevertheless, the programme continued well into the 1950s. The periodical evaluation of the experiment produced an ever-more fine-grained set of criteria to determine whether a family was social or socially weak. Questionnaires distributed among the inhabitants and reports by its paid personnel generated a body of statistics that gradually revealed the relative failure of the experiment. The number of families at the complex hovered around 400, with some decrease from 1956 onwards, of which 168 at the highest (in 1950) and 49 at the lowest (in 1952) were considered to have made progress, i.e., they qualified to move to a ‘normal’ neighbourhood. The number of families branded ‘unaffected’ by the scheme varied from 212 to 334 (between 53 and 82%), whereas the percentages of families that had ‘degenerated’ fluctuated between 5 and 12% in the period 1950–1956.45

From 1957 onwards, the emergency village was gradually demolished. In 1958, the municipality withdrew from the project and let urban sprawl – of the new neighbourhoods – prevail.46 The amount of social work and surveillance was reduced in 1958 as well. The responsibility for social care was handed over to a new private foundation that would continue to promote ‘social rehabilitation’ in the remaining dwellings at the Zuidplein. In 1965 the last remnants of the complex were demolished, and in 1968 the privatized social-work foundation stopped its activities.47 This closed the two-stage episode of internal colonization in Rotterdam.


By using internal colonization as an interpretative framework for the case of post-blitz resettlement, the nature of what may be called the experimental interlude of the 1940s and early 1950s becomes manifest. Particularly in terms of social politics, such as the resettlement of blitz victims, this period may be seen as a highly experimental parenthesis during which the soon-to-be-promulgated centralized frameworks of welfarism (e.g., health care, spatial planning, social provisions, and housing) were not yet in place or fully operational. Against the background of urgently needed repair and recovery, this politico-administrative void allowed local officials and professionals to act upon local circumstances without experiencing much interference due to centralized rules and regulations.

More generally, internal colonization can be employed as an analytical marker that encapsulates instances of demarcated settlement under surveillance through statecraft that is underpinned by aspirations of ameliorating man and/or nature. As such, it enables historians to connect and interrelate similar practices beyond existing tenets of time, geography, and historical discourse that inform most historiographies of planning and internal colonization. By discarding the rural-urban divide and by stressing similarities between motivations, discourses, and actual practices over time, a more encompassing historical narrative might be produced by internal colonization scholarship.