In memoriam Bert Altena

21 October 2018 - 13:10

The sad news of the death of Bert Altena (July 11, 1950 - October 3, 2018) was received with great sadness by many people. This also applies to the IISH staff.

A few colleagues still know him as a student at VU University Amsterdam or the much talked-about conference of the OSGN on the history of Suriname in 1974.

After graduating, Bert started in 1978 as an editor of the International Review of Social History. Bert started with the IISH journal as a replacement of Frits Kool during his illness. Interestingly, a former communist was succeeded by an anarchist. The IISH, with its extensive sources on libertarian movements, became a permanent place for Bert for the rest of his life, in a literal and intellectual sense. He continued to work for the Review until 1983. Among other things, he worked on the Bibliography, which partly explains his vast knowledge of modern literature on social history.

After leaving the IISH he wrote his thesis on the workers' movement in Vlissingen 1875-1929 (1940). With his supervisor Horst Lademacher he shared a history of working at the IISH. With his other supervisor Arie van Deursen he shared his protestant background. Although Bert, who was a minister's son, had turned away from the faith, he was on good terms with the VU professor. Bert considered these two historians, together with Jacques Giele, of great importance for his scholarly development. He became a research assistant at the Erasmus University and together with Dick van Lente he gave a series of lectures called 'Introduction to Western History' from which the book Vrijheid en Rede (2003) originated. In 1997 and 1998, Bert was able to work on this as a Fellow at the IISH. In the reading room he was almost buried under the many dozens of books he consulted for this.

Domela Nieuwenhuis Foundation
The contact with the IISH was also intense because Bert was secretary of the Domela Nieuwenhuis Foundation from 1986 onwards. The Foundation has lent the archive of Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis to the IISH, just like its own archive. Domela Nieuwenhuis was a constant in Bert's historical work. Together with Rudolf de Jong, he published Domela's family correspondence: "En al beschouwen alle broeders mij als den verloren broeder': de familiecorrespondentie van en over Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, 1846-1932 (1997). He wrote several articles about the anarchist foreman, including about his anti-militarism: Geen man en geen cent: Domela Nieuwenhuis, de Eerste Wereldoorlog en het anti-militarisme (2014).

Bert also belonged to the first generation of the Friends of the IISH in 2004 and until one year ago he was a regular visitor of the half-yearly meetings of this friends club. Bert shared interesting observations with us on almost every subject discussed there and he was able to tell extremely humorous anecdotes.

I spoke to him often and mostly personally at the IISH. He only called me twice. The first time was on the evening of the 20th November 1981. The days before we had a discussion about the great peace demonstration of 21 November. I had expressed some reservations about this. On the 20th he wanted to know what I would do the next day. He found it inconceivable that an anti-militarist would not be there. He convinced me easily. The second time was on Monday 17 September of this year. Bert sounded optimistic despite his major health problems. At that moment he had not said goodbye to life yet. That farewell came quickly.

Bert will be missed as a good historian, a man with great humor, a source of great stories, a committed researcher, but really the most as a good person.

October 10, 2018,
Huub Sanders

Bert Altena