Cleveringa Professor Frank van Vree: ‘It’s high time to discuss the ritualisation of the past’
The annual commemoration of the nation’s war dead on Dam Square and at Waalsdorpervlakte, the Dutch apologies for historical slavery and the Cleveringa Lecture itself: our relationship with history is often ritualistic, Cleveringa Professor Frank van Vree will say in his inaugural lecture on 27 November.
‘Why does Leiden University have the Cleveringa Chair and why does it hold this lecture every year? I think it is done for a different reason now from 40 years ago. I’m going to say something about that in my inaugural lecture The Ritualisation of the Past. On the ‘Lesson of History’ for the Present. The way in which we commemorate is not static; it is constantly evolving’, says Van Vree, without wanting to give away too much.
War in Gaza
Major events, such as the war in Gaza and Israel, influence how we reflect on the Holocaust. In Coevorden, for example, it was decided not to unveil new Stolpersteine (gold-coloured cubes bearing the names of Holocaust victims) because of that war.
‘For many, the entire history of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians is inextricably linked with the Holocaust remembrance culture.’
‘For many, the entire history of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians is inextricably linked with the Holocaust remembrance culture. This is true for both supporters and opponents of Israeli politics. But if you look at the responses from Germany, the Netherlands and, for example, the United Nations to the outbreak of violence, Holocaust remembrance plays an important role there too. I will say more about this in my inaugural lecture because it calls for more extensive consideration.’
Critical role of historians
Historians and as a result, academia have a dual role in this evolution of remembrance, says Van Vree. Historians are part of society and thus influenced by it. ‘Our colonial past has become important to us as a society. This has made that critical and objective role of historians all the more essential,’ he says. ‘It’s an emotive topic. We historians feel that emotion too, but in our work we have to follow the standards of our profession, such as being unbiased.’
Indonesian War of Independence
As Director of the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD), Van Vree was responsible for research into Dutch violence during the Indonesian War of Independence. ‘It was a really unique project with a large group of historians from the Netherlands and Indonesia working together.’ Despite his administrative duties and all the coordination of the research, he also contributed as a researcher. ‘Luckily, I have always continued to write.’
‘For me personally lots of things come together in the inaugural lecture that I am going to give. It’s a real moment of reflection, also on the career that I’ve had.’
‘Perhaps that is another reason why I said yes to the Cleveringa Chair. For me personally lots of things come together in the inaugural lecture that I am going to give. It’s a real moment of reflection, also on the career that I’ve had. And a book of mine is coming out in January: Nederland en de herinnering aan de Jodenvervolging (The Netherlands and Remembering the Persecution of the Jews) and that is really close to the subject of this inaugural lecture.’
Oldest assistant ever
As Cleveringa Professor, Van Vree is returning to the spot where he once received his doctorate. This makes the inaugural lecture all the more special. ‘I forgot at the time to call Guinness World Records: one of my two assistants was my 97-year-old grandmother. I’m sure there has never been an older assistant. She died three months after my defence. I’m still proud of her sitting there having almost read my entire book.’
In his inaugural lecture, the emeritus professor hopes to offer a different perspective on the ways in which we commemorate. ‘The images and emotions of the past resonate strongly in the present, which makes it high time to discuss the ritualisation of the past. We need to be aware of it.’
Come to the lecture or watch it online
Frank van Vree’s Cleveringa Lecture is on Monday 27 November at 16.00. Register in advance to attend. The lecture will also be livestreamed.
Who is Frank van Vree?
Frank van Vree (1954) is Emeritus Professor of History of War, Conflict and Memory Studies at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam. He was Director of the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) from 2016 to 2021, where he was responsible for the Independence, Decolonisation, Violence and War in Indonesia 1945-1950 programme. The conclusions of this led to an official apology from the Dutch government to the people of Indonesia.
Text: Tim Senden
Photo: Anne Reitsma