A new bridge-builder on Alter Steinweg

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The Centre for Netherlands Studies © WWU - Peter Grewer

The Centre for Netherlands Studies © WWU - Peter Grewer

In the end, it all went very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the University of Utrecht even turned a blind eye to the customary period of notice and - in the spirit of close German-Dutch partnership, and due to the high regard in which the university held Prof. Jacco Pekelder - it allowed him to move in double-quick time to the University of Münster. The consequence of this speedy process is that, on this misty Wednesday, Pekelder is now standing in his echoing office containing just the bare essentials, with naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Pekelder, an expert on the early modern and modern history of the Netherlands, has been Director of the Centre for Netherlands Studies (ZNS) in the Krameramtshaus on Alter Steinweg since October 1st. "The furniture hasn’t arrived yet, but at the moment you hear about delivery problems everywhere," he comments with a laugh. Although he has just fetched a chair for me, his interviewer, from another office, Pekelder suggests that we talk not in the sparsely furnished ivory tower but in the MarktCafé. On market day.

Jacco Pekelder, 53, likes dealing with people. He doesn’t for example begin our conversation by explaining that he’s the new Director, that he has great plans, and that he’s an acknowledged expert on German-Dutch relations. Instead, he first talks about the teaching he will be able to do at the ZNS. "I like the constant contact with students, watching them grow over the years," he explains, taking the small Italian amarettino biscuit from his saucer before he has taken the first sip of his coffee. Although the ZNS is a small Institute - measured by the numbers of student and staff it has - Pekelder sees this as an advantage. For a brief moment he searches for the right German word to describe the Institute - and finds it: "beehive", a synonym for community and hard work.

This is something that the Dutchman recognised years ago, when he spent several productive weeks and months as a guest at the Institute behind St. Lambert’s Church. Münster - the city of the Peace of Westphalia - is a place he has always liked anyway. "My wife and I are still living in Utrecht," he says, "but we’re planning to move here as soon as she finds a job in Münster or in the border region." Otherwise, they will probably settle on Enschede. The city would be familiar territory for him, as he describes the Twente region as his homealthough not in any nostalgic sense. Still, he lived there from early childhood through to his teenage years - and that had consequences. In early years he felt that the border was a "relative concept", he says. It was permeable, and he only needed to switch on the TV to see west German programmes such as ’Winnetou’ or ’Die Sendung mit der Maus’. "We were always aware of German (pop) culture," he remembers. It was the same with German toys, for example the Siku model cars that he chose from German catalogues before Christmas. "This is how all things German came into my life - in a playful way," he says.

But it is not only such anecdotes that Jacco Pekelder relates. He feels visibly uncomfortable on his seat in the café as he tells of a school trip to Nordhorn in the 1980s. The then 17-year-old Jacco and his classmates saw the sports day - which was actually designed to be held in a spirit of friendship - as an opportunity to get one back on the Germans. The boys were marked by the anti-German feeling which still existed in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s - as a result not only of experiences in the two World Wars, but also as a reinterpretation of the defeat in the final of the 1974 World Cup as a ’German wrong’ perpetrated on the Dutch. "Just like the others, I became fanatical that day and wasn’t able to recognise the path of friendship," he admits with a laugh. The expression on his face clearly shows that he is glad he has changed his views.

Although much has generally changed for the better in Pekelder’s opinion - visible in many collaborations between the two neighbours - he calls on the Dutch to take a more mature view and see German-Dutch partnership not only in economic terms. "Cultivating cultural cooperation is essential," he emphasises again and again, using the word ’holistic’ - because his vision is that Dutch-German relations should comprise all areas of life. Just how important this is to him is shown by the euphoria he feels when talking about the project ’Popularising the Border Region’, which he conceived as a project taking a practical approach. Under his guidance, he says, the aim is for the ZNS to become a "mediator for Germany and the Netherlands living and working together". The idea is not new, he points out: but what is special about it is that work is not just done on individual projects, but that everything is brought together and combined and should pursue the aim of having a good community taking in both two countries.

Jacco Pekelder speaks critically, but not polemically; nuanced, but not abstract. What interests him is the centre ground, the ’grey tones’ between black and white, as he says. Crude, misleading or wrong images that each neighbour has of the other are what he would like to change. Not that he fundamentally rejects images: what’s important to him, he says, is to guide people as far as possible towards the reality of things. "The way we perceive other people can always be used to ask ourselves what effect we can have and whether we take other people sufficiently into account in whatever we do ourselves," he explains. He himself says that it is his ’second nature’ to be someone who builds bridges and who moves back and forth across borders - and there is much that points to this: the combination of research and teaching, of researchers and students, of the Dutch homeland and working in and on Germany. His private life is also characterised by ’community’: he is a member of a small film club (his favourite film is ’Blade Runner’ with the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer), as well as of a music club in which he also used to sing.

Building bridges and sending signals on behalf of closer social, political, cultural and economic collaboration - this is what Peldelker, a passionate European, demands of politicians. "I hope," he says, "that the trend of the past 20 years continues, and that the political players on both sides of the border strengthen the ties with their neighbours." He and the ZNS want to contribute to this. As chance would have it, towards the end of our three-hour conversation the TV in the café is showing a summary of the qualifying match (2:0) between the Netherlands and Norway for the next World Cup. Sitting with his back to the TV screen, however, Pekelder is not aware of it at all. Anyway, it’s time for him to make his way back to the Institute and to work, if not on assembling his furniture, then on German-Dutch cooperation.

About the ZNS: The Centre for Netherlands Studies (ZNS) was set up at the University of Münster in 1989. Since 1995 it has been located in Netherlands House, in the Krameramtshaus, along with the Institute of Dutch Philology and a library. From 1648 onwards, the Krameramtshaus served as accommodation for the Dutch delegates during negotiations leading to the Peace of Westphalia.

Author: André Bednarz
This article first appeared in the University newspaper "wissen

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