Roland Holst, Henriëtte (1869–1952)
Roland Holst, Henriëtte (1869–1952)
Dutch Socialist militant, poet, and essayist, held in high regard for her contributions to her country's modern literature, whose anti-Nazi stance was vital to the morale of the Dutch resistance movement during World War II. Name variations: Henriette Roland Holst; Henriëtte Roland Holst-van der Schalk or Henriëtte Roland Holst van der Schalk. Born Henriëtte Goverdina Anna van der Schalk on December 24, 1869, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands; died on November 21, 1952, in Amsterdam; daughter of a wealthy family of the Dutch bourgeoisie; married Richard Nicolaüs Roland Holst (an artist and writer), in 1896; no children.
Published first volume of poetry (1895); with husband, joined Dutch Social Democratic LaborParty (1897); published Capital and Labor in the Nineteenth Century (1902); withdrew from politics (1912); returned to politics in opposition to World War I (1914); was a founding member of the Dutch Communist Party (1918); disillusioned with the Soviet system on visit to Russia (1921); quit the Dutch Communist Party (1927); became the voice of the Dutch resistance movement through her poetry (1940–45).
Born in the North Sea resort town of Noordwijk in 1869, Henriëtte Roland Holst came from a highly respected family, wealthy members of the Dutch bourgeoisie, and grew up in her family's large and beautifully furnished mansion. She was a critically acclaimed poet by age 26, having published sonnets in the leading literary journal De Nieuwe Gids and, in 1895, seeing the publication of her first volume of poetry, Sonnets and Poems Written in Terzinas. Much of her early verse was in the Romantic tradition of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she also resembled in her support for the downtrodden and her advocacy of social revolution. Other formative influences were English social critic William Morris and leading Dutch poet Albert Verwey, as well as the ideas espoused by Dante and Spinoza.
In 1896, she married Richard Nicolaüs Roland Holst, a talented artist who would teach for many years at the Royal Academy of Graphic Arts, serving as its director from 1926 to 1934. The couple settled in Bloemendaal, not far from Amsterdam, whose artistic and political circles they began to frequent. In Amsterdam as in other cities, intellectual battles raged about the contemporary struggle between capital and labor. While Henriëtte had long been concerned about the condition of the poor, she had little or no knowledge of politics at this time. As she wrote in her autobiography more than 50 years later, it was her husband who introduced her to the complexities of political theory and practice. The year after their marriage, in April 1897, they joined the Dutch Social Democratic Labor Party. Thus abandoning the privileged class to which she had been born, and influenced by Herman Gorter, a gifted poet of the period, Roland Holst focused on her quest for a more just society. As one of her Dutch biographers, K.F. Proost, wrote in 1937, "She was driven by her vision and indignation, and for more than 40 years with her enormous energy and interest she devoted herself orally and in writing to propaganda for a socialist society."
Well versed in Marxist theory, in 1902 Roland Holst published an impressively researched historical study, Capital and Labor in the Nineteenth Century. Despite her intellectual grasp of Socialist ideology, it was primarily her strong sense of humanitarian duty that drew her to the workers' movement, and this was eloquently expressed in her 1903 volume The New Birth. By this time she was doing editorial work for the Socialist theoretical journal De Nieuwe Tijd and was editing the party's newspaper, De Tribune. Her socialist bent can also be seen in her books of this period, among them the poetry collection Upward Roads (1907), The Rebels (1910), a lyric verse drama celebrating the failed Russian revolution of 1905, and Thomas More (1912), a drama exploring the conflict between the individual and society. Later dramatic works included Michael (1916), Children of this Time (1931), and The Mother (1932).
Within a few years of joining the Social Democratic Labor Party, Roland Holst had aligned herself with its "Tribunist" faction, a militant circle that took its name from the newspaper and held the reformist party leadership responsible for all but abandoning Marxist fundamentals. The Tribunists were mostly intellectuals of middle- and upper-middle-class background whose vision of Socialism was highly idealistic and, in the final analysis, probably unrealistic. By 1909, Roland Holst had become disillusioned with the compromises inherent in party politics and joined a militant splinter group calling itself the Left Social Democratic Labor Party. During this period, her friendship with Rosa Luxemburg , the German Social Democratic leader and radical agitator, brought her into contact with the most revolutionary tendencies of pre-1914 continental European socialism, and also tested her acceptance of Marxist doctrine. Radical politics and splinter-group activities failed to fulfill her idealistic notions of what society should become, however, and in 1912 she decided to withdraw entirely from the Socialist movement.
The break was painful for her. In her 1912 book The Woman in the Woods, Roland Holst described the feelings of anguish, bitterness and emptiness that overwhelmed her as she isolated herself from the cause she still felt strongly drawn to. Comparing herself to the poet Dante, Roland Holst felt lost in a forest, but without a guide to lead her from the wilderness. Forced to rely on her own intuition and judgment in the making of difficult decisions, she reflected her sense of powerlessness and pain in the following lines from The Woman in the Woods:
She remained alone amidst
them who fought, full of burning pain,
longing for a god, to pray to him
to be also a man in her heart.
Her political withdrawal ended with the start of World War I in 1914. In the bloodbath that engulfed Europe, Roland Holst, like other proponents of Marxist theory, saw an extraordinary opportunity: If workers throughout the world were to unite with members of their class rather than with their own nationalist governments, such a people's movement could end once and for all the root causes of war and human suffering. And the Netherlands, as one of Europe's few remaining neutral states, was an ideal place for breeding this new spirit of proletarian internationalism. In 1915, Roland Holst became head of the small and short-lived but vocal Netherlands Revolutionary Socialist League, a group attempting to fuse the ideals of socialism and pacifism. That same year she traveled to Switzerland to attend the Zimmerwald conference, where participants first heard the impassioned call of Vladimir Lenin to "turn the imperialist war into a proletarian world revolution."
Inspired by the Russian revolutionary, and energized by such an ambitious agenda, Roland Holst worked to engage the Dutch working class in creating the foundations for a truly radical movement. She edited and wrote for Die Vorbote, the review published by the Zimmerwald left group of internationalist Socialists, which included the radical communists Karl Radek and Anton Pannekoek. In her articles for the journal, she stated her belief that the international working-class movement would soon recover from its temporary infatuation with nationalism exhibited by the war.
In November 1917, Roland Holst enthusiastically greeted the revolution in Russia led by Lenin; the following year, she became a founding member of the Dutch Communist Party, which aimed to create a workers' state based on social justice and true freedom. When the Comintern, the Leninist organization dedicated to bringing about a world revolution, opened its Amsterdam bureau in November 1919, she became a member of its first executive committee. She was also a leading participant in the Communist conference held in Amsterdam the following February. Soon thereafter, she went to Strasbourg to advocate the Leninist revolution at an important French Socialist congress.
In 1921, Roland Holst went to Soviet Russia as an honored guest and important speaker at the Third Congress of the Comintern. Soon after this trip, however, she privately began to voice her misgivings about what she had witnessed there. She deplored the lack of freedom she had found within the Communist Party and the revolution's high cost to ordinary people; she also believed that the Soviet Union appeared to be evolving rapidly into a brutal bureaucratic dictatorship distorted by ceaseless warfare against enemies of the state. In this, she became one of the first to perceive the brutal excesses that would characterize the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The hope she had expressed in 1918, that the revolutionary forces of the day could somehow achieve social justice with minimal use of violence, was now beginning to seem a bit naive. Her book Sunken Borders, predicting that "the gentle forces will win in the end," contained clear signs that this militant Socialist and revolutionary was experiencing a growing sense of spirituality very much at odds with the leadership in the Soviet Union:
God grows in us: in you in me in all
the more we prepare ourselves with courage
for the battle for the sake of the conscious life of mankind
and for the penetrating gratification of Love.
In her 1923 book Between Two Worlds, Roland Holst rejected the Russian Revolution, terming it "a dreadful disease, a life-and-death crisis in the body of society." By November 1927, the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, she resigned from the Dutch Communist Party, abandoning the Soviet Russian model of revolutionary social transformation and the emerging evils of Stalinism. Sympathizing with the breakaway position of Leon Trotsky, she made clear that her commitment to social justice remained undimmed, and that year she founded a splinter group, the Independent Communist Party.
Man's sorrow often will not let me sleep.
—Henriëtte Roland Holst
Decades earlier, in her Marxist phase, Roland Holst had been intrigued by the pacifist ideas of the Russian writer and social visionary Count Leo Tolstoy. At that time she had rejected nonviolence as a viable option for the disadvantaged and oppressed Dutch workers; before 1914, she had believed that anti-militarism in the form of isolated and individual acts of noncompliance or disobedience was a useless tactic. She even held that the proletariat should demand arms in preparation for the day when power would be theirs in a workers' republic. After 1927, however, having discovered the flaws of dogmatic Marxism, she became increasingly convinced that the use of violence could only debase and pervert the ideals of any just cause. Influenced by the Dutch pacifist theologian Bartolomeus de Ligt, Roland Holst became convinced that Socialism and Christianity need not oppose each other.
In 1928, she read a total of 22 works by and about Tolstoy. One result of this intensive study was the article "Tolstoi, the Great Wrestler for Truth," published in Liberation, the journal of the minuscule League of Religious Anarcho-Communists. In this article, while granting that Karl Marx was "a scientific genius," Roland Holst argued that Tolstoy, the poetical genius, had also offered profound insights into the nature of modern society, particularly moral ideals that orthodox Socialists had never taken seriously. Asserting that a meaningful new agenda for the Socialist movement must address moral issues, she acknowledged Marx as a major force in Socialist ideology, but proposed that his ideas needed to be humanized and tempered by Tolstoy's ideals.
She was also attracted to the ideas and personality of Mohandas K. Gandhi, India's saintly "Mahatma" and an advocate of political independence achieved through non-violent means. Gandhi's ideas are explored in several of her books published during this period, particularly the verse collections Between Two Worlds (1923) and Between Time and Eternity (1934). Unlike the Russian Revolution, the Indian independence movement never appeared to lose sight of the necessity of keeping ends and means morally connected, and in the 1930s, Roland Holst devoted considerable energies to Gandhi's cause. She established a Dutch Society of the Friends of India, raising funds and spreading the message of Gandhian nonviolence through its bulletin, Friends of India, and spoke about the movement throughout Europe. Throughout the 1930s, she continued to rank Tolstoy and Gandhi as two of the greatest "Heroes of the Spirit" ignored by a morally exhausted Western civilization. In 1935, she praised the great Russian writer in Friends of India: "A God-searcher of immense dimensions, a searcher of truth, that was the real essence of Tolstoi, that he was both in his immortal literary work, and in his apostolical activities." Her sensitive biography of Gandhi would be published in 1947, the year India achieved political independence.
Approaching 70 by the 1930s, Henriëtte Roland Holst was a venerated literary figure and the subject of a biography, but she was largely inactive in politics throughout that decade, which also saw the death of her husband in 1938. In May 1940, however, the German invasion of her country instantly reignited her inherent passion for justice. She joined several resistance circles, and during the five brutal years of Nazi occupation she wrote poems and essays expressing her feelings about the evils of Fascism. Printed by the press of the Dutch underground, these works were passed from hand to hand, and sometimes memorized by the resistance members who were risking their lives daily as they hid Jews and smuggled weapons to be used in the fight against Nazi occupying forces.
After the liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945, Roland Holst was universally acclaimed as one of the pillars of strength who enabled the Dutch people to survive the bloody foreign occupation. The following year, her powerful resistance poems were collected and published as From the Very Depths. By then in her late 70s, she remained active in public as well as literary life. For some time after the liberation she contributed articles to The Flame, the journal of the small but vocal anti-Stalinist faction of Netherlands Trotskyites.
In 1949, Roland Holst published her autobiography, The Fire Burned On, and on the occasion of her 80th birthday was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Amsterdam. She had spent her entire life in one of the world's smallest and most densely populated nations, and her life there was reflected in a line of one of her best-known poems: "Holland, you give no space but to the mind." Rich in honors, friends, and years, Henriëtte Roland Holst died in Amsterdam on November 21, 1952. Recent scholarly interest in her life and achievements tends to confirm the evaluation at the time of her death of several leading Dutch newspapers, which described her as the greatest woman produced by the Netherlands in a century.
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Roland Holst, Henriëtte. Het vuur brandde voort: Levensherinneringen. Amsterdam: V.h. Van Ditmar, 1949.
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Zweers, A.F. "Leo Tolstoj's Role in Henriëtte Roland Holst's Quest for Brotherhood and Love," in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. Vol. 7, no. 1. Winter 1980, pp. 1–21.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia