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Rens Pieterse writes biography of Professor Ferd Grapperhaus

‘A tax crusader’... that’s how Ferd Grapperhaus, former Professor of Tax Law at Leiden University and father of the former Minister of Justice and Security, described himself. In his biography of Grapperhaus, Assistant Professor Rens Pieterse explains that he saw tax as a contribution to society.

Taxes allow us to shape society and involve citizens,’ Pieterse continues. Grapperhaus' work as State Secretary for Finance (1967-1971) was the starting point for the biography Pieterse has written about him. Grapperhaus introduced the turnover tax in its current form, was the driving force behind corporate tax and had clear ideas about 'Box 3', the wealth tax.

A long process

Pieterse had thought about writing this book for a long time. It took approximately one year to write and required a huge amount of effort. ‘I take my time to really get to know the person I’m writing about. What’s more, I work in the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and eraser. I spend many a weekend tracing relatives and sifting through information. I just keep plodding on, writing a few lines each day. And slowly but surely, a book emerges.’ It was a book that had to be written, says Pieterse: ‘Grapperhaus’ life and work are fascinating. He wasn’t just any old tax specialist. He had an unrivalled ability to manage and execute important tax projects.’

Koi carp pond

Grapperhaus was tasked with introducing mandatory European turnover tax within a few months. VAT was fixed for all Member States but had to be regulated by each country, and it was up to Grapperhaus to adapt the law to the situation in the Netherlands. One of Pieterse’s favourite anecdotes from this period is that Grapperhaus took all the civil servants involved in the project to the Veluwe (a national park in the Netherlands) to draw up a plan in record time. Next to the hunting lodge where they were staying, there was a pond full of koi carp. When the officials were hesitant about taking a decision, they’d throw a piece of bread into the pond. The direction the carp swam would determine which decision was taken. ‘And that,’ Pieterse explains ‘is where the Dutch term “karperisme” comes from’.

'Grapperhaus was opposed to those who wanted to make the tax system more complex by factoring in all their wishes and requirements' 

Simplifying the tax system

According to Pieterse, Grapperhaus was opposed to those who wanted to make the tax system more complex by factoring in all their wishes and requirements. His main aspiration was to simplify the tax system, ‘something that’s still not been achieved today’. Grapperhaus was also a great storyteller. He was able to capture the imagination of his students when lecturing at our university on the history of tax law. Pieterse himself also appears to be good at this, as his books trigger the interest of many. He has previously written other biographies of tax lawyers such as H. J. Doedens and H. J. Hofstra and is planning a book on Ad Nooteboom, ‘the father of remedial legislation’.

Lessons from the old masters

Through his biography of Grapperhaus, Pieterse hopes to showcase the importance of history for both today and tomorrow. ‘By examining social phenomena in a historical context, we can look at current solutions for tax issues taking a different perspective. Grapperhaus also benefitted from reflecting on the past as it allowed him to come up with tax solutions that no one else had thought of.’ Pieterse encourages his students to write their theses on influential people. ‘I’d like the legacy of certain ideas to live on. We can still use interesting lessons from old ideas and methods for the future. We should constantly ask ourselves: what can we learn from this?’

More information

This book is available in Dutch: ‘Over F.H.M Grapperhaus (1927-2010): een kruisvaarder voor belastingen.’

Text: Nicole Vijgen

Photo at top: Unsplash
Photo on the right: Boom Juridisch

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