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Biography Willem Schermerhorn

The man who jumped in the well. Willem Schermerhorn, 1894-1977

Dr. H.J. (Herman) Langeveld

Willem Schermerhorn stood during his life in the shadow of Willem Drees, who would be the uncontested leader of the Dutch Labour Party from 1946 for more than a decade, and who would become a national character during his long reign as Prime Minister of the The Netherlands. But seen from the perspective of the years 1945-1946, it was by no means obvious that Drees would become the new leader of the Dutch Labour Party, rather it could have been expected that Schermerhorn would become the new political leader, because he was Prime Minister of the cabinet of ‘Convalescence and Renewal’ (1945-1946), with Drees at that time as a vice-premier. The aim of this biography of Schermerhorn is to take him out of the shadow of Drees, and to answer the question why and how it was Drees and not he, Schermerhorn, became the political leader of the Dutch Labour Party, and as a consequence, later on, Prime Minister. Furthermore, the role of Schermerhorn in the Indonesian decolonisation process will be analysed in this research.

  Herman Langeveld (1949) worked during more than 30 years in several functions at the department of History at the VU University in Amsterdam. His latest appointment was as a University Head Professor. In 1989, Langeveld published his Ph.D. thesis Protestant and progressive. The Christian-democratic Union, 1926-1946. Later he wrote a biography of Hendrikus Colijn (1998), Dutch Prime Minister in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century. Since December 2005 Langeveld is affiliated as a researcher at the Insititute of Biography. The duration of the project is four years.

Summary of the research

For a long time, it seemed that the son of a farmer Willem Schermerhorn would acquire fame through a scientific career rather than from a political career. When he was aged 31 he already became appointed as Professor at Delft University of Technology; as a pioneer of air cartography he became internationally recognised. But at the end of the thirties he became politically involved when he became the President of ‘Unity through Democracy’, a movement that tried to end the emergence of the Dutch Fascist Party NSB. Because of his leadership of this movement, Schermerhorn was imprisoned during the Second World War, together with a lot of other prominent Dutch political leaders, in the hostage camp in Sint Michielsgestel. Here, Schermerhorn became a leader among the prisoners: he became seen as a suitable person who should become Prime Minister after the war, to guide the Netherlands into an era of political and social renewal. In the early summer of 1945 Queen Wilhelmina appointed Schermerhorn and Willem Drees as architects of a cabinet of ‘Convalescence and Renewal’; Schermerhorn became Prime Minister. In the same year, the Dutch Labour Party was established, as embodiment of the renewal in Dutch politics. But at the parliamentary congressional elections of 1946, it appeared that this renewal was only supported by a minority of the Dutch population; also in the political area the prewar, religion- and ideological-based frameworks returned.

  Schermerhorn could not return as Prime Minister, and there was no place at all for him in the new cabinet. Schermerhorn was sent to the Dutch East Indies to try to find a peaceful solution in negotations with the leaders of the Republik Indonesia for the issue of decolonisation. This resulted in the agreement of Linggadjati in November 1946. But because both parties did not stick to the provisions of the agreement, Schermerhorns’ policy failed, and the Netherlands opted for a violent ‘solution’ (July 1947). This in fact marked the end of Schermerhorns political role; after his return to the Netherlands he was not appointed into any important political function anymore, and he decided to return to science. With the publication in 1970 of his diaries he kept during his years in Batavia in 1946 and 1947, the interest for Schermerhorn temporarily revived.

Recensie in NRC Handelsblad 9 mei 2014


Last modified:03 June 2015 11.32 a.m.
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