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Biography first UN High Commissioner Refugees, Van Heuven Goedhart

23 February 2011

The former Second World War resistance fighter and journalist Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart (1901-1956), although somewhat unknown to the greater public, played a major role in international politics. This is revealed in his biography ‘Riemen om de kin’ (Oars to the chin), for which Jeroen Corduwener will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 28 February 2011. Van Heuven Goedhart, who was to become the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is described in the book as a resolute man who persistently fought the same battle for tolerance in every role he came to play.   

From editor and resistance fighter…

Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart began his career as a journalist, first as editor-in-chief at De Telegraaf, and when he was fired there, at the Utrechtsch Nieuwsblad from 1933. Under his leadership, the latter paper became one of the voices speaking out against National Socialism, in both the Netherlands and Germany; Van Heuven Goedhart already spoke out on behalf of Jewish refugees in those early years. During the German occupation of the Netherlands he joined the Resistance, which included acting as editor-in-chief of the underground newspaper Het Parool 

... to Minister and High Commissioner for Refugees

Van Heuven Goedhart fled to London in 1944, where he became Minister of Justice in the Dutch war cabinet. However, his opposition to a day of reckoning (‘Bijltjesdag’) in the already liberated southern Netherlands led to his resignation. After the war he returned to Het Parool as editor-in-chief, where he was to argue for an independent Indonesia. In 1951 he became the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which he was to remain until his death in 1956. Starting out in a back office in Geneva with a minimal budget, in his five years in office he managed to create a prestigious organization that looked after the interests of two million refugees from its dozen offices worldwide. In 1954 the organization was to receive the Noble Peace Prize for its efforts. 


Although the Netherlands has had players on the world stage, for example Ruud Lubbers, Jan Pronk and Max van der Stoel, they are more the exception than the rule, according to biographer Corduwener: ‘The Dutch don’t really care for international politics and Van Heuven Goedhart is one of a select few. It was always apparent where his heart lay – while at university he was a vociferous supporter of the international outlook of Hugo de Groot and during the Second World War he lobbied for a united Europe. His international career followed from his desire to play a role in public administration.’ Van Heuven Goedhart remained a resolute character who, throughout his life, would continually take contrary standpoints, such as his opposition to a day of reckoning in 1944, which was to lead to his political demise. He always took the side of the oppressed. 

Contemporary concern

Oddly enough, little was known about Van Heuven Goedhart, certainly about his early years prior to 1940. Corduwener had to delve deep into international archives for his material and also consulted Van Heuven Goedhart’s surviving daughters. The renewed interest in this near-forgotten Dutchman is certainly deserved, Corduwener feels. ‘His battle for tolerance is of contemporary concern. Xenophobia, the persecution of minorities, disdain for refugees – these are all major topics in his biography and are timeless ones which are certainly relevant today.’ 

First copy presented to Ruud Lubbers

Therefore, it’s not without reason that the first copy will be presented to another ex-High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, on Tuesday 1 March 2011, at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. This will be followed by a discussion on what drove Van Heuven Goedhart, with Amnesty International director Eduard Nazarski and former Minister for Development Cooperation Jan Pronk. 

Curriculum Vitae

Jeroen Corduwener (1956) gained a degree in History teaching and taught at the School of Journalism in Utrecht. Since the early 1990s, he has mainly worked as a journalist in Africa. At present, he works for the American Internews media organization, helping to train radio journalists in the Central African Republic. Corduwener will receive his PhD from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen and was supervised by Prof. J.W. Renders. His thesis is entitled ‘Riemen om de Kin’ (Oars to the Chin) and will be published by Uitgeverij Prometheus/Bert Bakker.

More information

–  Jeroen Corduwener, corduwener,

- Uitgeverij Prometheus/Bert Bakker

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.53 a.m.
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