International Symposium in London on Dutch Historian Pieter Geyl - A Report by Reinier Salverda

In the London Institute of Historical Research (IHR), part of the School of Advanced Study in the University of London, a symposium was held on Thursday 17 November 2016 to commemorate the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (1887-1966), who from 1919 till 1934 occupied the Chair of Dutch History at University College London (UCL).

A report by Reinier Salverda
UCL, Fryske Akademy, and Deputy editor of The Low Countries]

In Senate House, right behind the British Museum in the heart of academicLondon in Bloomsbury, about thirty British, Dutch, American, French and German historians came together for a day of lectures and discussions which was opened by the Netherlands Ambassador, Mr Simon Smits, and the Institute’s Director, Professor Lawrence Goodman.

The ten lectures that followed presented a fascinating range of themes characteristic of Geyl and the complex scholar he was – a dynamic and productive historian, politician, writer and teacher, who is perhaps best known today for his polemical debates with fellow historians, in particular with Arnold Toynbee, and his 12-volume A Study of History.

The opening lecture, by Pieter van Hees (Utrecht University), was dedicated to Geyl’s Greater Netherlands idea, not just as a central theme in the history of the Low Countries but equally as the vital basis for cultural and political cooperation between the Netherlands and Flanders in Europe. In the second lecture, Benjamin Kaplan (the current holder of Geyl’s UCL chair) presented an assessment of the way in which Geyl developed the Greater Netherlands idea in his analysis of the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) of the Dutch against the Spanish, in his book on The Revolt of the Netherlands (1931).

Geyl’s London years – as Ulrich Tiedau (UCL) explained – were marked by his longstanding controversy with Emile Cammaerts, who eventually became Professor in Belgian Studies, but not in UCL, and not until Geyl had for many years managed to keep him out. A special contribution was offered in the fourth lecture, by Stijn van Rossem (IHR), viz. the story of the significant contribution Geyl made to the foundation of the IHR, establishing its excellent Low Countries History Library, and initiating its longstanding and ever-flourishing Low Countries History Seminar.

Wim Berkelaar (Free University Amsterdam) then gave a thorough exposition of Geyl’s literary ambitions and output – which eventually got him the Netherland’s most distinguished literary award, the P.C. Hooft Prize, in 1958; and Remco Ensel (Radboud University Nijmegen) gave an in-depth discussion of the role Geyl played after the Second World war as a leading public intellectual in Dutch society.

Leen Dorsman (Utrecht Utrecht) then discussed the immense scholarly productivity of Geyl the historian; followed by Mark Hay (King’s College London), who examined the merits and achievements of Geyl’s formidable study Napoleon, for and against (1949); and by Alissa van Kleef (Bonn), who traced Geyl’s involvement in the 1930s with German Westforschung – but also his radical break with this field when it was taken over by nazification. I myself, finally, presented a discussion of the innovative impulses which Geyl contributed to the study of the 18th century history of the Dutch Republic. 

The programme as a whole – both the lectures and the lively discussions they elicited – made the symposium into an exciting day which did full justice to the many-sided and important role played by Geyl in Dutch historiography
The organisers are planning to bring together the various contributions and to publish them in book form in the coming year.


Read more about Pieter Geyl (and that other giant of Dutch historiography, Johan Huizinga) in this article from the first issue of The Low Countries Yearbook.

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