“Nothing Matters but the Future.”
Dutch Business Networks and their Visions of the Netherlands in a Changing World Order (1934-1948)
Work in progress
Over the course of the 1930s, after the shock of the Depression and with the rise of fascism, the liberal international political-economic system started to crumble. The low point of this long period of crises, the Second World War, transformed the international order, confronting Dutch policymakers with great uncertainty about the international position of the Netherlands and its colonies. Until now, the literature has mostly debated how Dutch politicians sought to reposition the Netherlands in this radically changing world.
At the heart of my project is a selection of previously largely ignored study groups, all of which were initiated by business elites and academics who advised policymakers on political and economic issues. In 1934, Philips initiated the Contactcommissie, which sought to advise the Dutch government on trade policy. These contacts continued during the Second World War, through the Studie Groep voor Reconstructie Problemen. This London-based group was chaired by Unilever chairman Paul Rijkens, who counseled the Dutch government-in-exile about the future of the Netherlands. While historians interested in the war have always been aware of this group, thus far no comprehensive study of its ideas exists. The Studie Groep was moreover part of a thus far entirely ignored loose-knit, yet interconnected global network of organizations based in New York (Netherlands Study Group, chaired by Philips director Frans Otten, joined by US-based Dutch scholars), Willemstad (Studiegroep Curaçao, initiated by Shell/Curaçaosche Petroleum Industrie Maatschappij), Batavia (Nederlandsch Indisch Nieuw Economische Studiegroep, initiated by businessmen and scholars), South Africa (Studie-Groep voor Nederlandse Belangen, initiated by Hollandsche Aanneming Maatschappij) and business circles in Buenos Aires (Actie Comité Nederland, organized by the Dutch-Argentinian Chamber of Commerce).
My preliminary research has revealed that these networks advised policymakers on a wide variety of topics, ranging from the future of the colonies, ending the neutrality policy, European cooperation, the growing political power of the US, to broader connected social issues concerning the reconstruction of the postwar Netherlands. The groups were moreover not only loosely connected to each other, but were also part of larger international postwar planning communities based in the United States (e.g. Harvard, Columbia University, Council on Foreign Relations) and United Kingdom (e.g. Chatham House), stressing the transnational nature and outlooks of these groups.
Up till now, the contribution of these groups and their members to mapping out a future for the Netherlands has not been fully explored. The central questions driving my project, hence, why and how did corporate, academic and political interests combine in these study groups to re-imagine the future of the Netherlands in a changing world order, and what has been the significance of their ideas and interactions?
While the period 1940-1948 is generally known as an impasse in Dutch international relations, political historians have based these conclusions mostly on the thought and activities of state-actors. With the new material I have identified for this project, including that of Philips and Shell, who have exceptionally given access to their archives, and that of the thus far ignored global network of study groups, a unique opportunity has arisen to better understand how these business networks, their members and their ideas were pivotal for the international position and relations of postwar Netherlands.
Essential for the development of my argument is the insight that mostly due to their international, globe spanning lives and careers, and consequential transnational connections and perspectives, the businessmen and academics in these study groups mainly thought of international solutions to address the political and economic crises of the 1930s and 1940s. In my project I will show how their ideas about the postwar international order and the place of the Netherlands therein were uploaded to the state through their interactions with state-actors in these study groups but also mediatized, through books, magazines, pamphlets and scholarly publications. In this way I can show how sometimes these ideas challenged the projects of the state, while at other moments they intertwined, leading to tensions and compromises, yet together helped shape the international position of postwar Netherlands.
My study will include the transnational lives, political thoughts and actions of businessmen who moved in and out of political office, such as J.M. de Booy (Shell) and Daniel Crena de Iongh (Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappij), but also scholars such as Jacques Polak, a prominent Dutch economist who worked for the League of Nations before the war. Crena de Iongh and Polak were members of both the London and New York study groups, both joined the Dutch delegation at Bretton Woods in 1944, and would both eventually make a career in the newly found IMF. Members of the group in Willemstad joined the Buitengewone Raad van Advies in London during the war and helped organizing the Conferentie Nederland-Suriname-Curaçao in May 1948 that would redefine the kingdom relationships. Captains of industry such as Frans Otten (Philips) and Paul Rijkens (Unilever) moreover contributed to the organization and funding of what is considered the first federal moment of postwar Europe, the Congress of Europe in The Hague, held in that same year. Reports of the study groups also served as inspiration for the founding of domestic international organizations, including Nederlandsch Opleiding Instituut voor het Buitenland in 1946, one of the first international business schools in the Netherlands (later known as Nijenrode) and think-tank Nederlands Genootschap voor Internationale Zaken.
My project has recently been granted NWO funding. While I continue conducting archival research, I will have an official NWO status as of September 2020.
I have moreover recently been awarded a travel grant by the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies in Middelburg, where I will conduct additional archival research in February. In April, I will moreover present my research at the “work in progress” conference of the Research School Political History in Utrecht.