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“He dared to go against the prevailing views”

“He dared to go against the prevailing views”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Jos Perry inspired by Ger Harmsen

When Jos Perry, historian and researcher at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, took his PhD, his supervisor refused to attend in cap and gown. The three-piece suit that he wore, was already a tremendous step for former communist and member of the Dutch Communist Party CPN, professor Ger Harmsen (1922-2005).

“Ger was extremely contrary,” says Perry about his supervisor, who in or around 1950 considered Stalin a hero and regarded Marx, Hegel and Lenin the great thinkers. He was a labourer’s son who only later in life studied philosophy and history, and who spent his whole life striving for more equality.

Harmsen, who was a professor in Groningen, held heated debates, could be extraordinarily vicious. Often almost aggressive, certainly if he viewed people as his opponents. “He was quick to think in terms of camps: us and them. That troubled me, as if people in another camp couldn’t be good.” The heated debates were not Perry’s cup of tea either. “I was more likely to pull back.”

Nevertheless, Harmsen has been a major source of inspiration. “He was on the fringes of politics, philosophy and history, and was an authority in the field of the history of the Dutch labour movement, the subject of my thesis. While my supervisors in Nijmegen, where I had a position, regarded non-normative science as the ideal, Harmsen sought social engagement. For many years, for example, he used his knowledge for the good of the trade union. It was called social relevance in those days, now we would call it valorisation.” Moreover, Harmsen put a lot of emphasis on empirical research: source studies, archives, interviews, and literature. “Don’t start by studying Das Kapital by Marx, he said to his students. That is far too difficult to start off with. Try looking at a summary and take an open-minded view when doing historical research. All that, his engagement as well as the empirical approach, appealed to me. ”

Harmsen’s contrariness applied to a variety of fields. “He dared to go against the prevailing views. The student movement was a radical left-wing movement in the nineteen-seventies. They referred to the university as a corrupt bourgeois clique, and becoming one with the labourer was the ideal. Harmsen, who himself had worked in a factory and knew the labourers’ environment inside out, thought that was a ridiculous idea. He felt it was his duty to go against this position and just got stuck in. And no, it was not with kid gloves.”

Ger Harmsen was a man with many faces, concludes Perry, who was his friend. “He could be very social, have groups relate to him, was charming, boyish, very disciplined, and had a great love of nature. He was very interested in moss, which he went looking for in the Swiss Alps, on Madeira or Mallorca. I was impressed by his mental flexibility. Until a great age, he continued to contemplate issues and revise his opinions. I especially found his seeking and doubting side very sympathetic.”

It is with some sadness that he remembers his master’s farewell speech in 1987. “He had long left the dogmatic behind, just like his membership to the communist party. He wondered gloomily what had come of his ideals. Whether all the efforts of studying Marx and Hegel had been of any use.”

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