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Istituto per i Beni Culturali Emilia-Romagna

Memoria e Ricerca

Educatori pubblici: gli storici olandesi influenzano la politica contemporanea

di Hinke Piersma
in Memoria e Ricerca n.s. 37 (2011), p. 71

Public Educators: Dutch Historians Influence Contemporary Politics

By Hinke Piersma

Three days after the liberation of the Netherlands on 5 May 1945, the Staatscourant (a governmentally issued newspaper) announced the foundation of the National Institute for War Documentation (Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie (RIOD)).1 The institute’s ambitions were clear from the beginning: in addition to scientific research, it took upon itself the task of informing the Dutch population about topics related to the Second World War. In fact, RIOD was active on many fronts. It gathered material for the pursuit of historiography, it preserved publications, it furnished documents needed for the prosecution of collaborators, and it conducted research for and about individuals regarding social benefits and pensions. In 1964, the institute was even granted an autonomous role in the hunt for war criminals.2

An institute with an unhealthily strong monopoly, that’s how Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan once described RIOD. The institute was capable of making or breaking reputations, and it did so. In this article, I will focus on two of its directors, Lou de Jong (1914-2005) and Hans Blom (1943) because both were involved in highly debated cases important to Dutch history. De Jong was responsible for the collapse of a politician’s career, while Blom was involved in bringing down an entire Cabinet; two directors, thus, each of whom played a decisive role at specific moments in the political history of the Netherlands.

The three topics raised in this article regard the investigation into the wartime history of a prominent politician (the Aantjes case), the procedures surrounding the prosecution of a Dutch war criminal (the Menten affair), and the Dutch involvement in the war in former Yugoslavia (Srebrenica).3 While the first two cases have a direct connection with the Second World War, the third conjures echoes of it. For this reason research into these cases has been politically and socially highly sensitive, because the Second World War remains to this day an important moral gauging point. The concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, complicity and responsibility are key words in these affairs.

1. Willem Aantjes

Willem Aantjes (1923) was an impassioned politician. In 1959 he became a Member of Parliament (in the Lower House) for the protestant Anti-Revolutionaire Partij (ARP). Over time he gained influence, due not least to the integrity (known to friend and foe alike) with which he approached his work. The concrete result was that in 1971 he assumed political leadership of the ARP. After 7 years, on November 6th, 1978, his career came to a crashing halt. The person directly involved in this dramatic development was RIOD-director De Jong.

De Jong was born on April 24th, 1914 into a Jewish family. He grew up alongside his twin brother Sally in Amsterdam. He studied history and in 1937 he received his Master’s Degree cum laude. He began his writing career as a journalist. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands on May 10th, 1940, he fled to England because of his Jewish background. His parents and his twin brother remained behind. He never saw them again: they were deported and murdered.

In London, De Jong was employed as a newsreader for ‘Radio Oranje’, the mouthpiece for the Dutch government in exile. In this period he also published four volumesabout the Netherlands in wartime, under the title Je Maintiendrai. Upon his return in 1945 he was assigned as director of RIOD. He became nationally known via de Bezetting(The Occupation), a television series broadcast in the sixties, and through the masterly mainstay 14-part work Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog.

In fact, De Jong combined his academic career (writing Het Koninkrijk) with his ambitions as a public educator when he informed the general public on national television about the years of the German occupation of the Netherlands. The link connecting his academic and public performances was that De Jong earned a name as someone who interpreted people’s wartime behaviour as deliberate decisions and who did not eschew moral judgements on the subject. His historiography focussed on collaboration and resistance, closely connected as these were with his moral perspective: someone had behaved ‘rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ during the war. This view cost Aantjes dearly. Without the involvement of a single judge, he was publicly sentenced by a historian.

It all started with a tip from a lawyer from the Hague, who on October 26th, 1978, reported to the monumental building at Herenracht 747 in Amsterdam, where RIOD was housed.4 The institute at this time was a bastion of research, everything there turning on De Jong’s investigations, and visitors could not generally expect a warm welcome. The lawyer, however, had an appointment with De Jong himself. Their meeting concerned Aantjes’ ‘wrong’ wartime history. Rumours about this had been circulating for some time, but in the fall of 1978 there appeared to be reasons to take these seriously. Alongside the information brought in by the lawyer from the Hague, stories surfaced about a possible membership in the ‘Nationale Jeugdstorm’ (the youth organization of the NSB, the ‘Nationaal Socialistische Beweging’ (the National Socialist Movement)). After lengthy deliberation, De Jong decided to open an investigation into Aantjes’ activities. Remarkably, he did not inform the Minister of Education and the Sciences, A. Pais. This is noteworthy because RIOD fell under his political responsibility.

It was known that during the war Aantjes had been a postal worker in Germany, so the RIOD staff delved into the archives of the Deutsche Dienstpost in den besetzten niederländische Gebieten. There they found damning evidence. In the folder containing correspondence from the Reichspostdirektion, it was found that Aantjes had on October 12th, 1944, become a member of a division of the Waffen-SS. In this capacity, he also seems to have served for a time as a camp guard in the forced labor camp Port Natal near de Dutch city of Assen. It was at this point in the investigation that De Jong chose to inform the Minister of Education and Sciences, as well as the Prime Minister, Dries van Agt, and the Minister of Justice, Job de Ruiter (these last two Aantjes’ fellow party members).5 De Jong was invited, under cover of the utmost secrecy, to the official residence of the Prime Minister. He brought with him the report detailing the results of his research, and in addition he took along a speech he had written which, De Jong felt, the Prime Minister should read out that very evening. The Prime Minister refused. It was his opinion that more research was necessary and that Aantjes himself should also be heard alongside other witnesses.

A discussion between Aantjes and De Jong ended in a stalemate. De Jong maintained that Aantjes had joined the Waffen-SS of his own accord and had been a camp guard, but Aantjes denied both allegations. According to Aantjes, he had refused the Waffen-SS membership and had not been a camp guard, but had instead been a prisoner at Port Natal. Meanwhile, however, a reporter had heard rumours that there was an ongoing investigation into Aantjes and things moved into high gear.

On November 6th, 1978, Nieuwsblad van het Noorden (a regional Dutch newspaper) broke the story as front page news, under the title ‘Aantjes Signed Up for the SS in 1944’. The same evening, De Jong held a press conference for Dutch television; the sixteen-page report that was to seal Aantjes’ political fate was distributed to the journalists present.6 In the weeks following, when De Jong’s findings were subjected to scrutiny by research journalists, inconsistencies were found. There could be only one conclusion: the work would have to be repeated, from the foundations up. De Jong was forbidden to speak publicly on the matter and two investigative committees were set up. One was tasked with investigating the knowledge gleaned since 1945 by assorted politicians about Aantjes’ wartime history, the other with looking into that history itself.

The two reports were published in 1979. They comprised in total (including appendices) approximately 1,200 pages. De Jong’s report was corrected on a few fundamental points. Aantjes had volunteered for the German-SS, not for the Waffen-SS (the German-SS is the non-military branch of the Waffen-SS). He had done so because this or a similar enlistment would expedite a return to the Netherlands. Upon arrival Aantjes was put under pressure to join the SS-Freiwilligen Brigade but had refused. As a punishment for this refusal he was imprisoned at Port Natal and was put to work there.7

On August 29th, 1979, the two-day-long parliamentary debate about the Aantjes reports began. Although it was for the opposition parties an excellent opportunity to raise the issue of the procedures used by the government, the debate was concerned not least with the role played by De Jong. Lower House member Joop Voogd, a member of the social-democratic party (PvdA), at that time in the opposition, was relatively mild about De Jong’s actions. He was only critical about the fact that RIOD director had started an investigation into the actions of an individual member of Parliament without first addressing the Minister. However, Voogd expressed understanding about De Jong and his staff, because ‘they were driven by professional obsession’. Voogd held the government to be more accountable than De Jong for taking the directorship out of their hands.

The leftist liberals (D’66) also concluded that the government had displayed shortcomings by not assuming political responsibility when it could have done so, specifically after they had been made aware of De Jong’s investigation. The debate about Aantje was, for D’66, reason to seek more clarity about the role of the RIOD in awkward questions about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the wartime period, and about the principle question of whether it was appropriate to open an investigation at all: did this hinge on the reliability of the tip or on the position of the person the tip was about? In other words, what role had Aantjes’ prominent position in Dutch politics played?

Het Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond (GPV) seized upon the debate about Aantjes as an opportunity to deal with De Jong. This small, Christian splinter party found De Jong’s series het Koninkrijk, referred to earlier, to be one-sided and monochromatic. According to the GPV this also characterized the report about Aantjes. The GPV found it imperative that something be done about De Jong’s authoritative position. The party gained the support of the leftist pacifistic party (PSP), who weighed in with the statement that De Jong had ‘delivered a heavy blow to his scientific reputation’.

All of the political parties took it badly that De Jong had put himself forward as public prosecutor armed with evidence both hastily cobbled together and at some pointsunsound. The communists took a different position. They argued for a continuation of the ‘purification operation’8 by means of calling upon each individual Member of Parliament to voluntarily provide information about behaviour and attitude during the war to RIOD.9

De Jong said little afterward about his actions and his hard-hearted judgement of Aantjes. He held to his conviction that a historian has a moral duty to involve himself where necessary in political questions, no matter what the consequences. One of his successors, Hans Blom, felt very differently. Blom believed that a historian’s task is to analyze the past, not to pass political or moral judgements.10 This conviction rendered him ideally suited to participate in the investigative commission looking into the Dutch war criminal P.N. (Pieter) Menten. This commission comprised three members. Alongside Blom were the jurist A. C. ‘t Hart and chairman Ivo Schöffer, a professor at the National University of Leiden and Blom’s tutor. In 1976 (two years after the Aantjes affair) the commission was established by the Cabinet. Blom was not yet director of RIOD but was, as a chief scientific member of staff, attached to the Historical Seminary of the University of Amsterdam.

2. Pieter Menten

Menten (1899-1987) was a Dutch businessman. Shortly after the First World War he left for Eastern Europe to try his luck. He was successful. At the end of the 1930’s, he was a wealthy man living on an estate in Galicia. In 1941, after Germany had taken large areas of Poland, he joined the SS and worked closely with the Nazis. In this capacity he was involved in mass executions of Jews. In 1949, Menten was put on trial for collaboration with the enemy. His lawyer, L.G. Kortenhorst, at the time the Chairman of the Lower House and a Catholic, was able to get Menten an acquittal on the majority of the charges. Menten was sentenced to prison for a term of one year for collaborating with the enemy. The accusation that he had served in the foreign military was found not to have been proved, and the mass executions were not discussed because the evidence was deemed unreliable. Because Menten had already been behind bars for a year awaiting trial, he was freed immediately upon the announcement of the verdict.

In 1976, Menten became front page news due to his auctioning off of some of his pieces of art. What set the ball rolling was that some of these artworks were plundered during the War. Menten’s past became part of heated debate and a new trial lay ahead. A day before he would have been arrested, he escaped to Switzerland. This flight of a prominent Dutch war criminal plunged the minister of Justice Van Agt (who had been the Prime Minister at the time of the Aantjes affair) into severe political problems. The Catholic Van Agt was already mistrusted because in 1972 he had been an advocate of freeing the remaining German war criminals in Dutch custody. This led to a storm of protest during which Van Agt was accused of indifference to the victims of the Second World War.11 Now he again appeared to be handling certain legacies of the Second World War sloppily. Under pressure from the Dutch Parliament, Van Agt promised an independent historical investigation into the way in which the Ministry of Justice had operated from 1945 to 1976. This investigation was especially inflammatory because the suspicion was raised that specifically the Catholics had covered for Menten during those years.

The report garnered many accolades in professional circles, but it raised very little excitement among the general public. Perhaps that was due to the fact that the report was extremely long-winded and came to no sensational conclusions. According to the committee, there were indeed oversights and even errors committed, but there was no question of a Catholic protection of any kind.12

The Menten investigation was Blom’s first experience of the tenuous connection between science and politics, and as such was a test of his competence and of his belief that even politically sensitive subjects can be objectively described. In this belief Blom differed emphatically from De Jong. The public outing of this was his now famous oration in 1983: ‘In de ban van goed en fout. Wetenschappelijke geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland’ (Obsessed by Right and Wrong? Scientific Historiography about the Occupation of the Netherlands). The thinking in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the historical context in which De Jong had operated, had delivered some fine research, but in the meantime, Blom found, this analytical framework stood in the way of new insights about the Occupation years in the Netherlands. According to Blom, historians should disentangle themselves from this political-moral perspective. A historian was not a judge, he or she needed to avoid moral judgements and must focus instead on clarification and analysis. Historical research, in Blom’s view, should not serve as a hangman.13

Blom was aware that his scientific research agenda was not unproblematic. In 1984 he wrote that the Menten Commission at times expresses approval or disapproval of the behaviour of various parties. This was, according to Blom, unavoidable because issues of a political and moral character brought about the research in the first place. Consequently, their omission would have been contrived.14 Thus the Menten Report consciously made a concession to the public-societal need to make pronouncements about the ‘behavior’ of the various parties involved. Blom described it as a necessity. That raises curiosity about ‘his’ approach to the Srebrenica investigation.

3. Srebrenica

In 1996, Blom had only just been appointed director of RIOD (shortly thereafter re-named the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD)15 when the government asked him if NIOD was prepared to investigate the fall of Srebrenica in 1995. In November of that year this request led to a concrete governmental assignment supported by a parliamentary majority.

There were at least two reasons Blom was interested in this assignment. Firstly, the work would enable Blom to follow up on his conviction that a historian has a social function; in other words, a historian has a public duty to fulfil. Secondly, he was challenged to pursue his research agenda by demonstrating that even publicly/politically highly sensitive subjects from recent history can be described in a scientific-analytical manner without the need to include moral judgements. This was no small task, as the events in Srebrenica were heavily morally laden. This was not least because a comparison to the Second World War had been put forward.

What had happened? In the context of the United Nations’ (U.N.) peace missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, from 1994 Dutch military personnel were sent to the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica (Dutchbat I, II en III). This area had been declared by the U.N. as one of the so-called Safe Areas. However, on July 11th, 1995, the situation in Srebrenica became untenable and the Bosnian-Serbian army took the enclave. In the following days, 7,500 Muslim men were murdered, the majority on the run outside the enclave. U.N. intervention had prevented neither the fall of Srebrenica, nor the mass murder. The question raised was, who carried the responsibility for the failure and what role had been played by Dutchbat?

There was sympathy for the fact that Dutchbat was not equal to the sheer power of army leader Ratko Mladic’s troops. However, this was not extended to the way the Dutch military personnel were seen to have cooperated with their orders. In particular criticism was levered at the fact that they had helped separate the men from the women, and had loyally led the women to the waiting buses. That is, in addition to the ‘active’ cooperation of enacting the ‘separation’, Dutchbat had, simultaneously, displayed a ‘passive’ attitude toward the men who remained behind; these men were obediently handed over to the Serbian army.

These two ingredients (active cooperation and passive attitude) were directly related to the Dutch national trauma developed during the 1960’s and 1970’s. This trauma was in part a consequence of the publication Ondergang (Decline) by the Dutch historian Jacques Presser in 1965.16 In this (two-part) study of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, Presser set himself up as the speaker for the murdered Jews and accused the Dutch population as a whole. He emotionally described the active participation of the Dutch civil service and the police respectively in the registration, isolation and deportation of the Jewish population, and condemned the submission of the Dutch general public to these actions. The debate about the fate of the Jews pinpointed the responsibility of the Dutch themselves and the key question of what they had done to prevent this catastrophe.

This question, which had characterized many postwar affairs (for example the previously cited discussion about the release of the German war criminals), was again brought forth by the fall of Srebrenica and the murder of 7,500 Muslim men. The attitude of the Dutch military personnel seemed in the eyes of many to be comparable to that of the Dutch toward their Jewish fellow countrymen-and-women during the Second World War (active participation and passive attitude). This comparison lurked as a ticking time bomb within the investigation begun in 1996 by Blom and his research team.

The investigation into the fall of Srebrenica resulted, five and a half years later, in an encyclopedic study comprising thousands of pages. Not so much as a week later, the second Cabinet led by Kok (1998-2002) offered to stand down. It should be noted that their term of office was nearly over anyway, so this could be viewed as something of an empty gesture. Nevertheless, Dutch government had, by means of the resignation, assumed political responsibility for the drama in Srebrenica.

Blom appeared to be the hangman he had not wished to be, because, as he said afterwards, if such a direct link between historical research and day to day politics really exists, then historical science will become no more than politics by other means. ‘Then it will be open season on us.’17 With this statement Blom intended to make a clear distinction between himself and his predecessor De Jong who, as we have already seen, had approached Prime Minister Van Agt with a speech he himself had written, expressly to seal Aantjes’ political fate. He felt and feels that the murder of the Muslims was the cause of the resignation of Kok’s Cabinet and that the Srebrenica report was ‘just’ the motivating factor.

4. Discussion

On April 10th, 2002, Blom presented the Srebrenica report live on national television. He began his address with the following words:

At least seven and a half thousand missing Bosnian Muslims, almost certainly all dead. Approximately six thousand of them slaughtered in mass executions. That is the tragic outcome of the events which in 1995 followed the capture of the U.N.-declared Safe Area of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb army.

Not really a neutral opening statement for a historian like Blom, De Jong could not have set the tone better. This was also true of the continuation of Blom’s argument. It must be concluded, according to Blom, that the deployment of Dutch troops was not caused by parliamentary or media coercion; on the contrary, the Dutch Cabinet had set itself enthusiastically to this end. In combination with a National Military ‘which, in a time of economic cut-backs, wanted to demonstrate what the armed forces’ show-piece, the Airborn Brigade, could do’ there seemed little political attention to critical commentary. Although the mass murders could not have been predicted, the proponents of the deployment had taken on a great responsibility by neglecting to consider the possibility that the actions of the warring parties could escalate out of control.18

A strong judgement with an undeniable moral content regarding the question of political responsibility. Was this again a concession, like that which had earlier considered appropriate in the Menten Report? Was Blom again driven by necessity to adopt a moral standpoint, because to do otherwise would appear contrived? And, if so, how can this be reconciled with Blom’s research agenda? The question comes to the fore of whether Blom wishes to serve diverse masters; namely, science (objective, analytical historiography), politics (a historian must not walk away from his or her societal responsibilities), and the general public (remaining silent about the ‘behavior’ of those in question is contrived).19

Blom’s colleagues concerned themselves mainly with his research agenda and the question whether he had succeeded in carrying it out. For historian Maarten van Rossem was the answer affirmative. He put forward the idea that the publication of the report could finally bring an end to the ‘moralistic chatter’ about Dutchbat’s role.20 Blom also garnered accolades from the Netherlands southerly neighbours. Belgian historian Pieter Lagrou wrote almost jubilantly about the courage with which the investigation team had tackled the subject. He was impressed by the nerve with which the thrown gauntlet was taken up. The investigation bore witness to the continual intellectual ambition to ground the events in Srebrenica in the broadest possible context. The weakest element of the report, Lagrou found, was the description of the role Dutchbat played, because it failed to make explicit a number of conclusions about the moral and intellectual calibre of the Dutch battalion. Although a soldier ‘was not a professional hero’, the ‘absence of any superficial resistance of combative responsibility left a bitter aftertaste’.21

Lagrou was not alone in this criticism. Historians Michiel Baud and Frank van Vree accused Blom of writing objective history, in their opinion an idée-fixee and also impossible and undesirable. Baud had himself investigated a highly politically sensitive case, namely the past history of Jorge Zorreguita, father of Maxima, the fiancée of future King Prince Willem Alexander, who worked from 1976 to 1981 as (under)secretary of Agriculture under Jorge R. Videla's junta. According to Baud, historical research on behalf of the government itself varies in two ways from ‘normal’ historical research: such studies are undertaken because of a specific public debate and are characterized by a political-moral context. The question in this sort of research is whether or not the persons involved could or should have acted differently. Blom’s choice to present the developments in the enclave in such meticulous detail had, according to Baud and Van Vree, meant that it ‘in the end almost inevitably led to the conclusion that the outcome was unavoidable’.22Some comments even referred to whitewashing or exoneration of Dutchbat.

Blom vehemently opposed this. He said there was a crucial difference between analysis and clarification and the glossing-over or vindication thereof. In the prologue of the Srebrenica report he wrote that in scientific research one should be exceedingly reserved regarding opinions about what specific people or institutions ‘should have done’, and that scholars need to guard themselves against making all-too-easy judgements in hindsight. ‘Doing things differently’ was only necessary or respectable in analysis where it could benefit a good understanding, certainly not when used to point accusatory fingers.23

And then there was politics. Blom has emphasized numerous times that he hoped that there would be a political debate based on the findings in the NIOD report. That did not happen, because the government took its leave. In this context the reaction of liberal Frank de Grave (at the time of the release of the report the Minister of Defence) is in a 2019 retrospective interesting. De Grave reproached Blom for political naiveté. A report, De Grave held forth, is in political circles the end of a discussion, not the beginning.24 His colleague, the Social-Democratic ex-minister Jan Pronk judged the Srebrenica investigation unusable because of its magnitude. He opined: ‘If historians write everything down, try to clarify everything, then everything is differentiated, everything is understood, and eventually also approved and explained away.’25 Blom again reacted vehemently. He spoke of a fundamental error in thinking when equating understanding with condoning. Nonetheless, alongside colleagues and politicians, Blom was under fire.

With acceptance of the Srebenica investigation Blom and his team found themselves in the political power game typical of democracies, which is characterized by the struggle for political power between opposition and government. Calling a ruling party to task is an important part of this political system and the manner in which that is done (especially on politically sensitive questions) plays directly to opposing political interests.26 The following example illustrates this. During the parliamentary discussions about Srebrenica in 1996, the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) was among the opposition. When it was announced that NIOD had been asked to investigate the fall of Srebrenica, they were opposed. Independent research could, said the CDA politicians, never assume the place of justification of political responsibility: they said that a parliamentary inquiry, and not a historical investigation, was the required tool.

The position of the Christian Democrats was entirely different when the matter at hand was the question of whether it had been appropriate to grant Dutch political support to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2002 the CDA had left the opposition benches and had become the largest political party, and had produced from their ranks the Prime Minister (Jan Peter Balkenende). Under his leadership it was decided to support the American action. However, in response to the increasing doubt regarding the legitimacy of the American decisions regarding Iraq, Parliament pressed for a parliamentary investigation. The following Balkenende Cabinets spent the next six years opposing any and all forms of such an investigation. In February, 2009 the political tide turned and Balkenende announced that the Cabinet planned to appoint a commission (!) to investigate the political decision-making regarding Iraq in the period preceding the invasion.

What made Iraq different from Srebrenica? Why were the Christian Democrats now for an independent investigation, when they had said that the Srebrenica investigation was deemed not good enough? To ask the question is to answer it. Political responsibility lay elsewhere than had been the case with Srebrenica; with regard to Iraq it lay with the Christian Democrats. 27

Conducting investigations when asked to do so by the government or Parliament is by definition political. By working on the Srebrenica investigation, Blom participated in the ‘parking’ of a political problem temporarily, thus granting the sitting Cabinet a stay of execution. Whether Blom wanted it or not, he became an extension of political opportunism. Although Parliament agreed with the investigation, it nevertheless had to tread water for five and a half years, a period during which at the same time those politically responsible were shielded from the storm.

Oddly, the role scientists play in the game between government and Parliament, Cabinet and opposition is rarely the subject of discussion. This is just as true regarding their views about the obligations they feel they have toward society. Both De Jong and Blom had the ambition to appear as public figures. Their personalities are key components. Blom said about himself: ‘I like it if people notice I’m there.’28 De Jong liked that too. Blom characterized De Jong as a public educator, a role that he said he did not want for himself--but is that actually so?

Blom and De Jong had clear research agendas. De Jong operated from a viewpoint of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as analytical contexts for his historiography about the Second World War. Blom sought a less stringent approach. In around 1980, historian E.H. Kossmann coined the term ‘accommodation’ (adjustment). In this ‘accommodation model’, which Blom saw as an appropriate analytical framework, a distinction could, for example, be made between collaboration out of political conviction and collaboration in an effort to make the best of the situation at hand. In 2007, Blom distanced himself from the term accommodation and now argues for a ‘more refined typology’.29 Nonetheless ‘his’ reconstruction of Dutchbat’s actions bears witness to this deeply rooted historical vision that ‘accommodation’ is an essential part of human behaviour and therefore one of the explanations for dramatic events in human history.

5. The dogs bark, but the caravan travels on

Dutch democracy is characterized by coalition government by ideologically differing parties. Problems and conflicts need to be solved in a similar system via deliberation and the forming of a compromise. Conducting research at the behest of the government or Parliament fits into this model, because the situation is temporarily pacified thereby. Sensitive or awkward political questions are ‘parked’ for the duration of the investigation. At least that’s how it worked with Blom. There was no chance of political ‘parking’ with De Jong, it was not in his character. And they differed further on a fundamental point. Although they were both public educators, they had conflicting opinions about how to fulfill this role. De Jong preferred to present himself as a sort of ‘omniscient narrator’, an approach typical of traditional education where the professor related the facts. Blom was a Montessorian, preferring people tot think for themselves. He is disappointed in hindsight that discussion of the results of scholarly/analytical research, intended to provide clarity, was impossible without it becoming immediately re-enmeshed with the overarching discussion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

So where does that leave us? It can be argued that De Jong and Blom alike could see themselves clearly in the definition of the public historian as a mediator on the one hand between the academic practice of history and non-academics and on the other between the various interests in society that seek to create historical understanding.30 It appears, however, that each of them saw at a certain point their goal flash by unattainably. In De Jong’s case the Aantjes affair went wrong when he overplayed his hand by confusing the job of historian with that of judge. And Blom himself suddenly became the judge he had not wanted to be when the Kok Cabinet resigned.

An era ended with De Jong and Blom. Their views will form a part of academic discussions for a long time to come. In the meantime the history of the Second World War is being redefined by politics in terms of “heritage” and the focus is on preservation. One must ask if we need to accept this, because do we not thereby run the risk that through “preservation” historical research could be shoved into the background, as well as our role in the debate? Historians are not custodians, but participants in the societal discussion about present and past. The caravan moves on and the dogs bark. Let us keep barking in new contexts about awareness of the relation between politics and science. That is the least we owe to De Jong and Blom.


Bank, T.Th.M., P.J. Boukema and Ch.J. Enschedé, Rapport van de Commissie van Drie in de zaak Aantjes (Den Haag, Staatsuitgeverij, 1979).

Baud, M. and F.P.I.M. van Vree, ‘Geschiedschrijving, politiek en moraal, in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 116, nr. 2 (2003) 64-77.

Blom, J.C.H., ‘Historical Research as an Answer to Critical Political Questions: The Example of the Menten Case’, in: The Public Historian, Vol. 6. nr. 4 (The University of California Press, Fall 1984) 37-48.

Blom, J.C.H., De muiterij op De Zeven Provinciën (Amsterdam University Press, 1975).

Blom, J.C.H., and B.G.J. de Graaf, ‘Het Srebrenica-onderzoek. Een extreem geval van eigentijdse geschiedenis’, in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 116, nr. 2 (2003) 116-138.

Blom, J.C.H., ‘Historical research where scholarship and politics meet: the case of Srebrenica’, in: Harriet Jones, Kjell Ostberg & Nico Randeraad (eds.), Contemporary history on trial (Manchester, University Press, 2007).

Blom, J.C.H., ‘Historisch onderzoek op het snijvlak van wetenschap en politiek. Het geval Srebrenica’ in: In de ban van goed en fout. Geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2007) 133-153.

Blom, J.C.H., ‘In de ban van goed en fout? Wetenschappelijke geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland’ in: J.C.H. Blom, In de ban van goed en fout. Geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2007) 9-29.

Blom, J.C.H., Een kwart eeuw later. Nog altijd in de ban van goed en fout?’ in: J.C.H. Blom, In de ban van goed en fout. Geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland(Amsterdam, Uitgeverij Boom, 2007) 155-179.

Bootsma, P., Srebrenica een ‘veilig gebied. Reconstructie, achtergronden, gevolgen en analyses van de val van een Safe Area. (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2002).

Bouwman, R., De val van een Bergredenaar. Het politieke leven van Willem Aantjes (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2002).

Cohen, J., Het bewaren van de oorlog. De roerige beginperiode van het Rijksinstituut voor oorlogsdocumentatie 1945-1960 (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2007).

Davids, W.J.M., et.al., Rapport Commissie van Onderzoek Besluitvorming Irak (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij Boom, 2010).

Eickhoff, M., B. Henkes and F.P.I.M. van Vree, ‘De verleiding van een grijze geschiedschrijving. Morele waarden in historische voorstelling’ in: Tijschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 123, nr. 3 (2010) 323-339.

Jong, Lou, ‘Enkele gedragingen van mr. Willem Aantjes gedurende de periode van de Duitse bezetting’ (unpublished, NIOD Archive).

Lagrou, P., ‘Het Srebrenica-rapport en de geschiedenis van het heden’ in: Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden (BMGN), 118, nr. 3, (2008) 325-336.

Lagrou, Pieter, ‘Réflexions sur le rapport néerlandais du NIOD : logique académique et culture du consensus’ in : Cultures & Conflits 1, nr. 65, (2007) 63-79.

Lorenz, Chris, ‘Het “Academisch Poldermodel” en de Westforschung in Nederland’ in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 118, nr. 2 (2005), 252-270.

Patijn, S., Rapport van de Bijzondere Kamercommissie van onderzoek naar kennis omtrent gedragingen van Mr. W. Aantjes tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Den Haag, Staatsuitgeverij, 1979).

Piersma, H., De drie van Breda. Duitse oorlogsmisdadigers in Nederlandse gevangenschap 1045-1989 (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij Balans, 2005).

Schöffer, I., J.C.H. Blom and A.C. ’t Hart, De affaire-Menten, 1945-1976 : eindrapport van de Commissie van onderzoek betreffende het opsporings- en vervolgingsbeleid inzakeMenten vanaf de bevrijding tot de zomer van 1976 en de invloeden waaraan dat beleid al dan niet heeft blootgestaan (Den Haag, Staatsuitgeverij, 1979).

Sources online

Andere tijden, 14 januari 2010, http://geschiedenis.vpro.nl/artikelen/42946646.

Dutch Hansard, http://www.statengeneraaldigitaal.nl.

Martin Elands and Arent Snaak, ‘In geprek met Hans Blom’, interview Hans Blom, 2002, http://www.veteraneninstituut.nl.

Interview Hans Blom, OVT, 7 January, 2007, http://geschiedenis.vpro.nl/


Parlementaire Enquête Srebrenica, 2002-2003, htttp://www.parlement.com.

Srebrenica report online, http://www.srebrenica.nl/Pages/OOR/23/375.html.

1 In 1999 the name RIOD was changed in NIOD (Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie). Since 2010 the institute is called NIOD: Instituut voor Oorlogs-, Holocaust- en Genocidestudies (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies).

2 See: Jaap Cohen, Het bewaren van de oorlog. De roerige beginperiode van het Rijksinstituut voor oorlogsdocumentatie 1945-1960 (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2007).

3 The Netherlands has known many affairs connected with the Second World War, but these three are relevant because they well illustrate the views of Lou de Jong and Hans Blom in the context of their tasks as historians and their opinions what historical research is about.

4 The information about Aantjes’ resignation originates in: R. Bouwman, De val van een Bergredenaar. Het politieke leven van Willem Aantjes (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2002).

6 ‘Enkele gedragingen van mr. Willem Aantjes gedurende de periode van de Duitse bezetting’, NIOD Archive, Documentation I, nr. 2217 (Aantjes), map A, piece 3.

7 Bank, T.Th.M., P.J. Boukema and Ch.J. Enschedé, Rapport van de Commissie van Drie in de zaak Aantjes (Den Haag, Staatsuitgeverij, 1979); Patijn, S., Rapport van de Bijzondere Kamercommissie vanonderzoek naar kennis omtrent gedragingen van Mr. W. Aantjes tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Den Haag, Staatsuitgeverij, 1979).

8 De Jong called his 1979 investigation of Aantjes a ‘necessary act of purification’ ( Bouwman, 343). In the Netherlands, the term ‘purification’ is charged because it connects directly to the ‘purification’ of Dutch collaborators with the German occupiers after the Second World War. Thus by using the term, De Jong was making it clear that he saw Aantjes as a collaborator who, during the Second World War, was on the ‘wrong’ side.

9 Dutch Hansard ( Handelingen der Tweede Kamer) 15 and 16 November, 1978, http://www.statengeneraaldigitaal.nl.

10 In his dissertation Blom proposes: ‘The historiography of the Netherlands during the Second World War is adversely affected by the prevailing focus on collaboration and resistance, in which the context of right -and-wrong plays a large role. It takes particular toll upon the treatment of the history of the Dutch Union’. See: Hans Blom, De muiterij op De Zeven Provinciën (Amsterdam University Press, 1975).

11 This is in reference to Ferdiand aus der Fünten, Franz Fischer and Joseph Kotälla who at the end of the 1940’s were sentenced to life in prison. At that time in the Netherlands, a life sentence (then maximally 20 years) could lead to a pardon after two thirds of the sentence had been served. Van Agt had this in mind. He had to back down in the face of massive protest. See: Hinke Piersma, De drie van Breda. Duitse oorlogsmisdadigers in Nederlandse gevangenschap 1945-1989 (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij Balans, 2005).

12 Schöffer, I., J.C.H. Blom and A.C. ’t Hart, De affaire-Menten, 1945-1976 : eindrapport van de Commissie van onderzoek betreffende het opsporings- en vervolgingsbeleid inzake Menten vanaf de bevrijding tot dezomer van 1976 en de invloeden waaraan dat beleid al dan niet heeft blootgestaan (Den Haag, Staatsuitgeverij, 1979), Band 2, 613-615.

13 J.C.H. Blom, ‘In de ban van goed en fout? Wetenschappelijke geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland’ in: J.C.H. Blom, In de ban van goed en fout. Geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2007) 9-29; J.C.H. Blom, ‘Historical Research as an Answer to Critical Political Questions: The Example of the Menten Case’, in: The Public Historian, Vol. 6. nr. 4 (The University of California Press, Fall 1984) 37-48; M. Eickhoff, B. Henkes and F.P.I.M. van Vree, ‘De verleiding van een grijze geschiedschrijving. Morele waarden in historische voorstelling’ in: Tijschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 123, nr. 3, 2010, 323-339.

14 Blom, ‘Historical Research as an Answer to Critical Political Questions’, 47.

15 This name change came about because the institute was no longer a governmental responsibility, but had become part of the (independent) Royal Academy of the Sciences (KNAW).

16 See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Presser.

17 Martin Elands and Arent Snaak, ‘In gesprek met Hans Blom’, interview with Hans Blom, Veteraneninstituut 2002, http://www.veteranen.nl/page/pag_view.asp?pag_id=22079.

18 Speech by Hans Blom upon presentation of the report to the government. See: http://www.srebrenica.nl/Pages/OOR/20/058.bGFuZz1OTA.html.

19 In a reaction to this article Blom writes that he endeavoured with the Srebrenica report to present the fruits of careful and in-depth research while also underlining the political and moral weight of the situation. “The views that we tried to put into words,’ says Blom, ‘were insights into politically and morally charged events, but in the public discussion they were translated one by one into a political perspective’. E-mail from Hans Blom to the author, December 15th, 2010. See also: Blom, J.C.H., and B.G.J. de Graaf, ‘Het Srebrenica-onderzoek. Een extreem geval van eigentijdse geschiedenis’, in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 116, nr. 2 (2003) 116-138. A summary of the Srebrenica report is written by Peter Bootsma, Srebrenica een ‘veilig gebied. Reconstructie, achtergronden, gevolgen en analyses van de val van een Safe Area. (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij BOOM, 2002).

20 Maarten van Rossem, ‘Schuld en boete’, de Volkskrant, April 23rd, 2002.

21 P. Lagrou, ‘Het Srebrenica-rapport en de geschiedenis van het heden’ in: Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden (BMGN), 118, nr. 3, 2008, 325-336. In a French article from 2007, Lagrou was somewhat less laudatory. See: P. Lagrou ‘Réflexions sur le rapport néerlandais du NIOD : logique académique et culture du consensus’ in : Cultures & Conflits 1/2007 (nr. 65), 63-79. For a critical overview on Dutch contemporary academic writing see : Chris Lorenz, ‘Het “Academisch Poldermodel” en de Westforschung in Nederland’ in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 118, nr. 2 (2005), 252-270.

22 M. Baud and F. van Vree, ‘Geschiedschrijving, politiek en moraal, in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, Vol. 116, nr. 2, 64-77, aldaar, 69 en 74.

23 J.C.H. Blom and B.G.J. de Graaf, ‘Het Srebrenica-onderzoek. Een extreem geval van eigentijdse geschiedenis’, in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, jrg. 116, nr. 2, 2003, 116-138, there 136. P. Bootsma, Srebrenica een ‘veilig gebied. Reconstructie, achtergronden, gevolgen en analyses van de val van een Safe Area. (Amsterdam 2002), 48-49. See also: Elands and Snaak, ‘In gesprek met Hans Blom’, interview with Blom Veteranteninstituut, 2002.

24 Frank de Grave in Andere tijden, part II, January 14th, 2010, http://geschiedenis.vpro.nl.

25 Jan Pronk in Andere tijden, part II, January 14th, 2010, http://geschiedenis.vpro.nl.

26 Blom was not unaware of this problem. In a retrospective he wrote that during the negotiations between the Cabinet and NIOD, it appeared that a portion or Parliament did prefer a Parliamentary Inquiry, while earlier there had been wide support for an independent investigation by NIOD: ‘In the public debate, NIOD was reproached for making itself guilty of political intervention […] On the face of this, it was an argument to reject the assignment, but that could, in the newly created situation, itself be seen as a political intervention (but now serving the interests of the opposition).’ Blom, ‘Historisch onderzoek op het snijvlak van wetenschap en politiek’, 137.

27 On March 6th, 2009 the ‘Investigative Commission into Decision-making Regarding Iraq’ was established. Current NIOD director, Marjan Schwegman, took part in this commission. The commission released its report in 2010: Davids, W.J.M., et.al., Rapport Commissie van Onderzoek Besluitvorming Irak (Amsterdam, Uitgeverij Boom, 2010).

28 Interview Hans Blom, radio broadcast OVT, January 7th, 2007, http://geschiedenis.vpro.nl/


29 J.C.H. Blom, Een kwart eeuw later…’, in: J.C.H. Blom, In de ban van goed en fout. Geschiedschrijving over de bezettingstijd in Nederland (Amsterdam 2007) 155-179, aldaar 159.

30 See: website National Council on Public History, http://ncph.org/cms.