Colijn, Hendrikus (1869–1944)

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Dutch politician.

Hendrikus Colijn was a farmer's son born on 22 June 1869 in Burgerveen, a small agricultural village just south of Amsterdam. In 1886 he volunteered for military service and six years later became a second lieutenant in the Royal Dutch Indian Army. He distinguished himself in the Aceh Wars and also as a civil servant. He retired as a major in 1907, when he was appointed secretary of the government of the Dutch East Indies. After a successful career in the colonial civil service, he returned to the Netherlands in 1909 to become member of parliament for the Protestant Anti-Revolutionaire Partij and in 1911 he was appointed as minister of war. In his characteristic energetic way he began the reorganization of the army. After the fall of the government in 1913 he became president of the Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij in 1914. His international position allowed him to represent Dutch interests during World War I, when the Netherlands stayed neutral.

Despite pressure to resume a political career, he remained in business as president of the Koninklijke Petroleum Maatschappij and a director of Royal Dutch Shell. He returned to parliament in 1922 and became minister of finance in 1923; in 1925 he led his first cabinet, which fell after only a couple of months. He remained in the Dutch parliament while at the same time being active in all kinds of international economic organizations and involved in the modernization of the administration of the Dutch East Indies . During the economic crisis he pleaded for a severe retrenchment policy, which he was finally able to implement in 1933 as head of his (second) broad coalition cabinet. Colijn was convinced that the only solution to the crisis was austerity, and he strove to balance the budget and maintain the strength of the guilder. This served to increase unemployment, however, thus making even greater demands on the Dutch exchequer. His stringent welfare cuts provoked riots in July 1934 in a working-class district of Amsterdam, where the police use of armored vehicles to suppress the revolt led to seven fatalities. Under strong international pressure and criticism from his Catholic coalition partners he was forced to devaluate the Dutch guilder in September 1936. At the same time his defense cuts became more and more controversial as international tension grew. His political career came to an end in August 1939 when his fifth cabinet fell. He nevertheless remained active in international diplomacy until the Germans invaded Holland in May 1940.

At the beginning of the German occupation he criticized the Dutch government for going into exile in London and pleaded for an acknowledgment of the German hegemony in Europe. However he remained too wedded to a Protestant morality to reach an accommodation with Nazi ideology and soon dissociated himself from the Germans. In June 1941 he was taken hostage and deported in March 1942 to Ilmenau (Thüringen) where he enjoyed a relative liberty until he died of a heart attack on 18 September 1944.

Characterized by a colleague as "excessively admired [and] whole-heartedly vilified" (Jan Blocker in De Volkstrant, 11 April 2004, p. 16), Colijn distinguished himself from his more parochial conservative Protestant fellow politicians through his wide experience in business and diplomacy. Profoundly influenced by his years in the Dutch Indian Army, he was committed to principles of law and order and highly critical of democracy. He misjudged the rising nationalism in the Dutch Indies and the dangers of National Socialism in Europe. Although an admirer of Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, he played an important role limiting the impact of National Socialism on the Dutch public, thus paradoxically criticizing democracy while at the same time maintaining its credibility. In his lifetime, his rhetorical qualities and his firmness made him very popular even among the liberal opponents who agreed with his economic policies. His self confidence, however, also led to failure, as can be seen in his unsuccessful struggle against the economic crisis that severely damaged the Dutch economy and sustained high levels of unemployment much longer than necessary during his six-year regime. After the war, Colijn was largely remembered for his stubborn defense of the gold standard. He was vilified for his colonial policies and his lack of sympathy for the plight of the Dutch unemployed. The image of the steady steersman who had protected his people from the evils of modernization was further undermined when his biographer revealed that during his military career Colijn had been responsible for atrocities in the Dutch East Indies during the so-called Lombok expedition of 1894. At the time, his ruthlessness had been applauded, but in the changed climate of the 1990s, it was seen as a further stain on his character.

See alsoDutch Colonial Empire; Netherlands.


Primary Sources

Colijn Archives in The Historical Documents Centre for Dutch Protestantism of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Secondary Sources

Langeveld, Herman J. Hendrikus Colijn, 1869–1944. Vol. 1, 1869–1933: Dit leven van krachtig handelen. Amsterdam, 1998.

——. Hendrikus Colijn, 1869–1944. Vol. 2, 1933–1944: Schipper naast God. Amsterdam, 2004.

Dickvan Galen Last