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Biography Paul Rijkens

Paul Rijkens (1961)
Paul Rijkens (1961)

Paul Rijkens (1888-1965) was as ceo of the Unilever company one of the most respected and influential global entrepreneurs of his time. This biography aims to make clear the underexposed and undervalued role he played as a ‘corporate statesman’ on the (inter)national economic and political stage: as a man who in his capacity of leading man of a multinational felt a responsibility and moral duty to bring about a better world.

Due to his organizational and diplomatic skills he made a remarkable career within the Dutch butter company Van den Bergh which he had joined as an accountant in 1910. As only non-family member of the board he played a crucial role in the joining in 1927 of this large enterprise with its main Dutch competitor Jurgens in the Margarine Union. Two years later he fabricated the merger of this international operating food enterprise with the British soap company Lever Brothers, resulting in Unilever. He led this multinational, already then the 6th biggest company in the world, from 1937 until 1955.

Before the Second World War Rijkens’ international activities were mainly business driven. Yet, as the Netherlands became occupied by Nazi-Germany and the Dutch government fled to Great Britain, he became otherwise drawn into world affairs. He devoted the Unilever enterprise to the allied cause, acted as main advisor and supporter of the Dutch refugee community in London and aided the Dutch cabinet in every possible way. During this time he enlarged his network with many persons in (inter)national political and diplomatic circles. Many of them would play a leading role in world affairs after the war. He became friends with Prince Bernhard with whom he would co-operate closely in in the years to come.

Once the war was over, Rijkens concentrated mainly on managing Unilever, be it that in the context of the Cold War and the decolonizing world he supported the Dutch government in its socio-economic policy to recover from the war damages. When he stepped down as president of the board in 1955 he decided to devote his time to a great variety of societal activities, domestically as well as internationally. At home he presided many civil society organizations and charities. Especially education and culture had his interest. In international affairs he supported the European integration process, and co-founded the European Culture Foundation. He was also one of the founding fathers of, and a permanent driving force behind the Bilderberg organization, the informal dialogue forum of key figures from both sides of the Atlantic to improve relations between Europe and the United States. Rijkens furthermore tried to alleviate poverty in the Third World through trade and economic cooperation and was member of international committees to advise on this matter. He was very influential.

Most of his endeavors to contribute to society were hidden to the public. So also his efforts to improve post-colonial Dutch-Indonesian relations. As main representative of the informal lobby group of foremost leading Dutch entrepreneurs he tried to mediate in the late 1950s and early ‘60s between the Netherlands government and Indonesian president Sukarno in the dispute over the possession of Dutch New Guinea. To prevent an escalation of the conflict in a war he tried to influence the Dutch government to hand over the contested island to Indonesia. Once the pressure group’s doing became public, Rijkens was accused for giving priority to business interests above high moral principles. Insiders new better, yet the public and nationalist politicians accused him of high treason. His controversial stand damaged severely his reputation as a ‘honest, just and social industrialist’ as a main Dutch newspaper had called him when he turned seventy. Due to his close cooperation with Prince Bernhard he withdraw from the board of the European Cultural Foundation as the Bilderberg group of which the prince-consort was also a key-member. In many other fields however he remained active, be it less prominent.

Rijkens decided to write his memoires to explain what drove him as a (business) man and in particular to clarify his misunderstood intentions in the New Guinea case. He died before they were published. The autobiography did not result in his rehabilitation as it revealed too little. He was forgotten quickly by the public. It was only in the 1980s his reputation was partly restored. Research made clear he had been right in the New Guinea dispute. All his other major activities however remained ignored by historians.

This biography wants to picture Rijkens in all his different roles acting on the cutting edge of international trade and politics: as a captain of industry, a business diplomat, benefactor as well as private person. What now made Rijkens Rijkens? What drove him, what was his compass? By disclosing his thus far mostly neglected and undervalued commitment and contribution to the welfare of his country, Europe as the world this study aims to do him justice by making clear how important international operating businessmen as Paul Rijkens have been in shaping the post 1945 world.

Although the biography covers his whole life, the focus of this study is on the last 25 years of his life as he acted in these years most prominently as ‘corporate statesman’. As such this biography fits in the so called ‘New History approach’ in which the traditional focus in international relations historiography on big events is being shifted to the dynamics of the historical process and where not so much the doings of statesmen and the input their political-diplomatic entourage is being researched but moreover the role of societal actors.

Dr. J.F. Meijer: assistant professor of the department International Relations and International Organisation at Groningen University. In 2013 he published (in cooperation with Rimko van der Maar) the biography of the Dutch topdiplomat Herman van Roijen (1905-1992).


Last modified:10 November 2023 10.09 a.m.
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