Who: Vincent Kuitenbrouwer (1978)
What: University Lecturer in History of International Relations
First job: Student assistant at the History degree programme
Favourite spot at the UvA: The inner courtyard at the entrance to the Oost-Indisch Huis
Essentials: Historical experience and a sense of relatedness and direct contact with the material you are researching.
‘My fondness for stories goes back a long way. I used to read a lot, I had many stories read to me and I also had a very good history teacher at secondary school. As long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for nice stories about how the world works. History tells these stories: so it was a logical step for me to study History. I grew up in Amsterdam, close to the UvA, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would study at this university. But I also did an Erasmus exchange in Aberdeen in Scotland and a Master’s in Oxford, so I have actually been outside the Amsterdam ring road, ha-ha. Amsterdam is a good place to make connections with the rest of the world. It’s not only a central city that a lot of people visit, above all it’s also an open city that’s subject to many influences in parallel. Travelling without moving really is possible here.
‘History is about asking critical questions and about reflection.’
‘In History it’s important that you not only learn facts, but also that you learn to approach these facts in a critical way and that you formulate your own interpretation. I really hadn’t expected that when I started my studies, but it was precisely this critical reflection that I found interesting and from which I really benefited: it was a positive eye-opener. At the end of the day, history isn’t about knowing things: you can never know everything that happened in the past. And besides, more knowledge is being added all the time, so ‘knowing everything’ is an impossible task. The key thing is to ask critical questions and then to respond to these in an independent way by finding the right, appropriate information. By reflecting properly on this information, you can use it to construct an interesting story. Students should begin studying history due to the great stories you hear there, but above all because it can help you develop this ability for critical reflection. We’re putting ever more emphasis on this in the degree programme. This ability is worth a lot in the outside world, even if you’re not working in the history field. You can use it in all kinds of areas: independent and critical reflection is something appreciated by many employers.’
‘I specialise in the history of international relations and in particular the colonial history of the Netherlands. My doctoral thesis was about Dutch perspectives on the South African War around 1900. My research mainly focused on how information moved from South Africa to the Netherlands and how it was translated here into books, pamphlets and other cultural items. When I started my research at Oxford, I imagined that it would simply involve research in the Dutch archives. But it transpired that many of these archives and collections had been sent to South Africa. When South Africa became part of the British Empire after the war, Dutch propagandists felt that the Dutch or Afrikaner identity should be maintained in the country. The collections were sent back so that they could play a role in the construction of that identity. So there was an interplay: raw information was sent to the Netherlands, where it was converted into tangible publications that were then sent back to South Africa. This connection had a strong influence, both in the Netherlands and in South Africa. This realisation prompted me to think about the importance of media networks, and in the end this formed the subject of my doctoral thesis.’
‘Colonial history plays an important role in many discussions of identity.’
‘My current research extends further than just the Netherlands and South Africa. I see colonial history as important because it shows how different parts of the world came into contact with each other. This created an area of tension between conflicts, exploitation and exclusion on the one hand, and a connection between people on the other. I’m fascinated by this area of tension and I think it can be effectively revealed by research into media. This type of discussions takes place in that area of society, even if in a way that is often more implicit than explicit. Since gaining my doctorate I’ve been investigating the history of radio as a medium with which the Netherlands tries to reach the rest of the world. This research is about colonialism and decolonisation, but also about nation branding, development collaboration and influencing news flows. I see that many people are asking themselves what the commitments established in earlier times mean today. Colonial history plays an important role in many discussions of identity. Somehow I feel that at the start of the 21st century people thought that it was a closed chapter, and now it’s all coming to the surface again. In fact, we need to keep re-interpreting history, or at least certain parts of it.’
‘I focus as much as possible on media history. To give one example, I’m writing a chapter on radio and propaganda for an international project on global radio. I’m researching how radio was used in the past to influence and manipulate audiences outside one’s own national borders. I’m also writing a history of Radio Netherlands Worldwide. This was the programme operated by the Dutch state for international audiences outside the Netherlands, broadcast in seven different languages. It’s a current study, because Radio Netherlands Worldwide was ended as recently as 2012 and also because it involves a fake news component. That’s because in 2014 it was realised that following the disappearance of Radio Netherlands Worldwide there is no longer a central organisation that manages the international media channels of the Netherlands. In 2012, rather naively, it was thought that this would no longer be needed. By now the geopolitical circumstances have changed so much again that there are growing calls again for an organisation that not only broadcasts but also monitors what is being said about the Netherlands in international media, and which if necessary is able to provide a response. November 2019 marks ‘100 years of radio’, and then we’ll be taking a look at the history of radio in the Netherlands in Beeld en Geluid in Hilversum. People from Radio Netherlands Worldwide can present their stories and show what great material they still have.’
‘History is something you should be able to feel. That might seem difficult for something that no longer exists, that happened in the past, but there are many places in the Netherlands and abroad which you can visit to establish a link with the past. Look at Amsterdam: there are many places in the city where you encounter history. When you wander through the streets and alleys here, if you keep your eyes open you’ll find monuments everywhere. In the little inner courtyard at the Oost-Indisch Huis, for instance, stands a commemorative stone for an aeroplane that crashed in 1949. Some of the passengers in that aeroplane were American journalists who had been to Indonesia to report on the war. This air crash meant the disappearance of all their articles. The urban myth goes that if these articles had been published, world opinion would have moved to support the Netherlands during the decolonisation. It’s a place that means a lot to me because it brings me close to my research.’
‘Another place that has stayed in my memory lies in South Africa: Blood River, or Bloedrivier or Ncome, the names in the Afrikaans and Zulu languages respectively. In 1838 white pioneers, known as the Voortrekkers, fought a battle there with an impi of the Zulu people. In the white history of South Africa this moment is often described as a victory for the Voortrekkers and portrayed as the start of the ‘process of civilisation’ in South Africa. In the 1960s they installed a moment consisting of bronze covered wagons in a circle, at the location that the Voortrekkers were shooting from. They called the place Blood River because the river turned red from the blood of the people they killed, as the story goes. After 1994 a Zulu Heritage Centre was created on the other side of the river, where the other side of the story is told. This centre doesn’t deny that the Zulus were beaten in the battle, but it does talk about what this battle actually meant. It offers alternatives to the Afrikaner reading, for instance by emphasising that the Zulus had other concepts of land ownership. The Heritage Centre is built in the form of an ox horn, the Zulu attack formation. Shields hang on the outside of the building. So on the banks of the river, two visions of history literally stand opposite each other. A place like this teaches you to think about the polyphony attached to such an event.’
‘In History, students develop an ability for critical thinking.’
‘The UvA is associated with the city of Amsterdam. The urban environment is good for the university, and you can also see this through the people you encounter there. The places and buildings where you spend time as a student or staff member can influence you. For people in the humanities, especially for people studying or researching history, it’s good for us to be in the centre of Amsterdam. It’s nice to realise that you’re walking through the streets where history actually took place. You get steeped in it. Another thing I like is the great freedom of choice at this university. You don’t get forced into moulds and there’s plenty of space to do your own thing. This is an important quality that needs to be retained. When I was studying here, for instance, I took part in the Grand Tour: a journey that humanities students can sign up for and in which they learn about the history of the place they’re going. It’s things like this that typify the programme at the UvA and make the university attractive.’