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Alumnus Henk Cor van der Kwast

Henk Cor van der Kwast
Henk Cor van der Kwast

Why did you choose to study History in Groningen?
I chose to study History (then: Contemporary History) because I was interested in political and social issues, especially international relations. For me, studying History was a subject in which you learn to understand the present better. For example, how did political leaders deal with conflicts in the past? And how was progress achieved? Initially, I wanted to become a teacher in order to communicate these kinds of issues. The History programme in Groningen appealed to me, because it focuses on the period after 1945. When I started my PhD at the Johns' Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS) in Bologna, it turned out that this post-doctoral study programme also fitted in very well with the degree programme in Groningen.

Students often find that they have to justify their choice of degree programme. For example, whether a programme will provide added value. Did you feel the same way?
Yes, I did and that feeling started at home. My father was an architect by profession and he thought history was a wonderful subject, but he did think that I should ask myself what I wanted to achieve if I was to study history. I thought that was pretty obvious. You spend a number of years studying and it is a preparation for a future job and your professional life. You have to do that consciously and well-considered. So I could also explain it. My youngest son wants to study history and I have asked him the same questions as my father did with me. Secretly, of course, I am happy, because now he has a good story!

How did you experience your student life? Were you an active student?
It was a great time! I also found the (extra) subjects I took very interesting (e.g. International Law, European Law). When I was a student, the pressure was a bit less, so you could do a lot of activities next to your main classes. I took French courses, for example, and read a lot of Dutch and English literature out of interest. I was also active in the European Movement and in a political party. I was a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and therefore travelled a lot to congresses in Europe. I was also active in student organisations in the field of international relations. It was precisely these activities that fitted in well with the degree programme. When I graduated, my professor called me "Zoef the hare, you delivered a paper and were off again on a journey". I was surprised! And so was my family, because they thought I was just sitting in my dorm room doing nothing.

How did your career fit in with your studies and what aspects do you often see recurring?
At Foreign Affairs I had a career in which three themes played a major role, namely: European cooperation, human rights, and security/non-proliferation. In all these themes, history and international law are of fundamental importance. After all, in order to be able to steer a policy, you have to know how things came about and grew. Which factors and facts played a role and how do they relate then and now? Hard skills are also important. When I studied history, I learned to analyse and write well. And only a diplomat who writes well, stays! History is also very important in my current job, as ambassador to Slovakia. You can understand and influence a young country like Slovakia only if you have factual (historical) knowledge. Especially in times of fake news and disinformation, facts are essential.

Are there any subjects, experiences or people who have inspired you during your studies?
Yes, there are! In the first place, the course Philosophy of History taught by Prof. Frank Ankersmit. I thought his lectures were fantastic, but the exams were tough. I had to do the exam twice, but I enjoyed it. I also found the subject European Integration taught by Associate Prof. Chris Baljé very interesting. The scientific aspect was limited, but he was on top of European politics. So we made trips to Brussels and Strasbourg. As alumni students from The Hague, we met him again when he was registrar in the (Dutch) Senate. Many alumni had a good position in civil service and politics in The Hague. I also found the course European Law taught by Prof. Timmermans interesting. A tough minor subject, but I have used the knowledge often! Finally, a guest lecture on the Tokyo Tribunal, given by Nico Schrijver, and the course on the ‘Groot- Nederlandse Gedachte’, given by Prof. Kossman has inspired me.

What do you think is the importance of the humanities and how do you see this reflected in your own career?
For the importance of the Humanities, I use a quote from Herman Tjeenk (Vice-President Council of State and former President Senate): "a feeling that the connection with the future, the society in which we want to live, is not established, while the connection with the past, the values that bind and unite us, is neglected" (Tjeenk & Willink, "Groter denken, kleiner doen" Een oproep. Prometheus, 2019) . I think this is essential. This is about history and the humanities and it applies to the Netherlands, but also to central Europe.

In the region where I work, we have close contact as ambassadors of the Visegrad group (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). There are also regular exchanges with Vienna and the younger (EU) member states, such as Bulgaria and Romania. During these exchanges, we discuss topics such as freedom of the press, the fight against corruption, and European values. Nationally, these themes are also important. For example, on Human Rights Day, we organized an embassy concert entitled "Stand up for Freedom of the Press". It was a concert in honour of the murdered investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner. His parents were present at the concert. Besides music composed for them, there were readings from Dutch, German, and Slovak literature. The whole thing was broadcasted on Slovakian national television and watched by 12,000 people via a livestream. So I firmly believe in the importance of transmitting our values. The future of Europe depends on it!

Last modified:01 December 2022 2.42 p.m.
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