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Herman Van Goethem resigns as rector: “I have risen from an ordinary person to someone whose statements can carry a lot of weight”


Who is Herman Van Goethem?

  • He was born in Mortsel in 1958.
  • He studied law and history and obtained his doctorate in law in 1987.
  • He was one of the founders of a new Holocaust museum in the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen.
  • He is full professor of political and institutional history at the University of Antwerp.
  • He has been rector of the University of Antwerp since 2016
  • In 2019 he published 1942, the year of silence about the persecution of the Jews.
  • In 2023, Van Goethem became chairman of the Hannah Arendt Institute.

It’s always a challenge to navigate such a diverse campus. Directly opposite the student restaurant, the Aula Jan Fabre survived the controversy of a few years ago. An air-purifying moss wall is being installed – the environmental permit has been approved. Until September, outgoing rector Herman Van Goethem will maintain an overview here from Building A at Middelheimlaan 1. On the way to his office we pass one of the many sculptures that have escaped from the nearby sculpture park. The hybrid being of Recontent (d’Haese) seems to be positioned as a pacesetter for a conversation with a legal historian. “Reality only takes shape in memory,” can just be read from the flaking title image.

“Poetic,” says the scientist. “The world is shaped by events and stories. The events are the people who are born, live and do things. The stories are the connections we make, linking past, present and future.”

We are here to hear his story, about eight eventful years as rector, behind but often also on the screens. As a debater, opinion maker, book proposer, also of his own bestseller 1942. The Year of Silence, about the persecution of the Jews in Antwerp. “Empathetic historiography”, as he calls it, which was not without criticism. A revised edition was recently published.

And there was corona, when science and the university itself were on the front line and confidence in them was tested. Although Van Goethem nuances this. “The university remains globally accepted as a knowledge institution, sometimes an irritating knowledge institution, which it should be. Corona was a special case: rarely did you see the entire process so showcased, scientific practice as a system of methodological doubt, constant questioning and a reorienting search for exactitude. People could closely follow the consideration of choices.”

In the period in which all meetings disappeared, even before Teams, Van Goethem started Reizen Corona on Facebook: fifty episodes in which he allowed his followers to travel through time using 19th-century city photography. “I now want to combine that with my own diary, the light-hearted with the dramas. In March 2020 I kept track of this from day to day, you felt the historical awareness. I now want to reconstruct the rest from the many emails. There is a nice publication in it.”

You have a thing for diaries. You also used a mixed form in 1942.

“While researching the book about Leopold III that I published together with Jan Velaers in 1994, we came across the war diaries of August De Schryver. An incredible genre. Saisi au vif, as the French say, captured live. You see the doubts, they are open diaries. And when I was working on the Jewish raids in Antwerp in 2005, I found the diaries of Max Gevers, a stockbroker during the war, in the Heritage Library. Again, extraordinary documents and an inspiration for my approach to 1942.”

The Journal of Belgian History commented on this: “The scientific analysis is bent too much to fit in with the emotional moral message.”

“The diary genre allowed me to step into a world where neither Auschwitz nor D-Day is known, to play a game in which you only look at today. It makes it more comprehensible for the reader. I wrote a history book in the present tense, which is sometimes problematic. Methodologically, I had to include flash-forwards, such as with Wilfried Depret, the resistance boy who is arrested and whom I visit decades later. This is how the first person figure has also crept in. That was not my intention, but that way you get to experience the search process. Of course, this personalized approach raises questions about the boundary between literature and history. But every reality is constructed. Everyone is free to lay the cards differently and create their own story. I like that game with methods. I call it empathetic history. I accept the opposition.”

And the resentment in resistance circles that they were already active before the end of ’42?

“There was resistance, but on a small scale. This started to boom at the end of 1942, after El Alamein and Stalingrad had heralded the defeat of Germany. In Antwerp there was previously a twilight zone in which members of the White Brigade also participated as police officers in the Jewish roundups. Those officers acted according to the law of the lesser evil. They carried out German orders and built up resistance within the corps. But as far as the Jews are concerned, they miscalculated terribly, because they did not realize what was about to happen to them – nor did the Jews themselves, for that matter.”

As quickly as we are able to discredit the resistance in Flanders, the realization of guilt among collaborators is just as slow.

“That has changed. The group that still praises Wies Moens and Ward Hermans has become marginal and the Cyriel Verschaeve streets have disappeared, except for a square in Alveringem. In the early 1990s, in my Belgian political history course, I had to explain that collaborators were wrong. That is over. But it remains a difficult matter, because by definition you will hardly find any documents about the resistance.”

“A world of difference with, for example, the opulence I found with Hubert Pierlot, who led the Belgian government in exile, and his diaries with which I developed the international section in the 1942 reissue. When I wrote the first edition, I came across quite a bit against Russia, but I didn’t take that into account. The war in Ukraine makes those passages feel even more oppressive. Pierlot describes a meeting in London in April ’42 with Polish politicians as ‘terrifiant’. Because, he learns, communism is just a veneer, it is about a revival of Russian imperialism under Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. In 1942! This is how we naive people recently rediscovered Russia. Pierlot’s diaries are devoid of emotion, and then suddenly it says: ‘terrifiant’. That directness makes a diary so valuable. Later you can only look back. Then they become memoirs, and you make an analysis.”

How will you look back on your rectorship?

“I have about twenty notebooks in which I have kept track of the key points of meetings, from 2016 to now. Too fragmentary to be a diary, but it makes a reconstruction somewhat possible.”

And what could an initial analysis be?

“That I have learned a tremendous amount. In 2016 I became rector in a completely different world. Obama was president and was expected to be succeeded by Hillary Clinton. Also about the position: I have risen from an ordinary person to someone whose statements can carry a lot of weight. Fortunately, I can communicate quite well, and I have rarely slipped up. It was a discovery for me how important communication is as part of being a rector. Such a complex organization, which deals with everything in the world, from philosophy to physics, with 22,000 students and 6,000 employees, plus policy, financing… I used to laugh at executive summaries, now I know better. You have to manage like a CEO, with loyal employees who brief you. I had great employees.”

Could you have been rector of any university in Belgium?

“Without wanting to sound pedantic: I think so. Even from a French speaker, because I am well bilingual. I also see in the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) – where the Flemish rectors consult – that we have almost the same system everywhere.”

And from a philosophical point of view: could KU Leuven do it?

“How Catholic is Leuven still? They are all pluralistic institutions. The more relevant question is whether I could manage the VUB. We maintain the best contacts, but as the University of Antwerp we formally give religion a place and VUB prefers not to do that. We accept religion as a social reality that is related to a person’s identity. So we have a beautiful chapel, but also quiet spaces. We agree about human rights. I see no difference between our universities there.”

What highs and lows do you remember from the two mandates?

“Corona was a low point, and at the same time a moment of great cohesion. Populists such as Viruswaanzin have not affected confidence in the university. The man in the street suddenly learned about statistics and tables. But during that period, students, staff members and vulnerable people also took their lives. In 2022 we had a major fire on the City Campus and a month later my VUB colleague Caroline Pauwels died. Universities are also going through a turbulent period with the discussions around decolonization and the climate crisis, and now Gaza. Highlights include the honorary doctorates for world leaders such as Nobel Prize winner Denis Mukwege and economist Jeffrey Sachs, very inspiring people who you can easily approach and contact afterwards. The university is a privileged organization where you can do incredible things.”

That will be difficult to let go.

“Twice four years: then you set up projects, and what was not possible was not possible – I also learned that. I am very happy with the new rector and his team. It’s time to pass the torch. The last few months have been crazy, I thought, but the rectorship is Paris-Roubaix. You keep sprinting until the finish, and you’re lucky that you don’t get hit by any cobblestones. After that I can finally control my own agenda. Noticing that there are actually free moments and being very picky about them. More attention for the family, that’s one thing. And a few book projects, because I’m a writer through and through. No more deadlines for me.”

You also went well with media appearances. Do you fear withdrawal symptoms?

“No. And maybe I’ll be asked again? If not, that’s fine too. In any case, as a rector I am freer to speak. And I will continue to publish.”

Are you relieved that you will no longer have to deal with Gaza protests?

“I already thought: where is it? It’s a difficult situation, but it’s part of the job. In an opinion piece in this newspaper I explained why the university must be neutral. Although we now mainly hear a loud minority, I think many agree with me. If you argue for a ceasefire in Gaza, the question immediately arises: why not in Ukraine? That alone. The Human Rights Charter that the Flemish universities concluded in 2019 states that we must evaluate project by project, and not at the level of a country. Staying present and supporting people is important, even if it is through research into color pigment on Mesopotamian temples. This is the only way we can build bridges. A committee is currently reviewing cooperation with universities in Israel, I am waiting for the conclusions. In any case, as a university you can only take a public position if there is consensus within the institution. For example, that polarization is not good for a society. Or that climate change is a scientific fact. As a European university, we also share a common ground: for free elections, freedom of expression and human rights.”

Should the International Criminal Court in The Hague decide that a genocide is taking place in Gaza?

“Then we will look at that as a university.”

Would your answer sound different if you were a rector?

“Meh. Then I will have greater freedom of speech.”

And when exactly is that?

“On September 1st. Fortunately, I no longer have to write the opening lecture for next academic year. While others were having a barbecue, I dragged it along like a kettle on a tail every summer. Soon it will be a real holiday.”

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