Organisation - April 19, 2012

Wageningen under fire in May 2002

Just after 6 o'clock in the evening on 6 May 2002, five shots ended the life of populist right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. His killer was Volkert van der Graaf, one-time student of Environmental Hygiene at Wageningen University. Wageningen was suddenly in the media limelight. Ten years down the line, Resource looks back. Text: Roelof Kleis & Nicolette Meerstadt

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‘Impossible. That's impossible', was the then PhD student Patrick Jansen's reaction to the news that Volkert van der Graaf may have been the killer. The Volkert who had lived at Droevendaal. Jansen's own Droevendaal, the enclave of which he was mayor for years. ‘Droevendalers are all the idealistic, pacifist types. I simply could not imagine that one of those people would have resorted to arms. Droevendaal was the last place where you would expect to find someone like that.' Jansen did know him. Not personally, but just as a fellow resident of Droevendaal. ‘Volkert was the sort of idealist that Droevendaal was full of. There were lots of students of Biology and Environmental Hygiene, like Volkert. He worked for the ‘Environment Offensive' association, which fitted that image perfectly.'
The murder of Fortuyn is one of those events where you always remember exactly where you were when you first heard about it. Such events leave deep scars on the soul. ‘I was in the car on my way home when I heard it on the radio', recalls Willem Koert. At the time he was a reporter for the WB, Resource's predecessor. ‘At home I turned on the TV and the first thing I saw was the shot of Fortuyn lying bleeding on the tarmac. It broke me up.'
Koert makes no bones about it: ‘Fortuyn was a hero to me. He put his finger on the issue. Many academics in Wageningen did not understand Fortuyn's popularity at all. They seriously thought Fortuyn's supporters came exclusively from the sorts of neighbourhoods that get painted orange during the World Cup. When they heard that some of their colleagues intended to vote for Fortuyn, they were shocked. All the more so if the prospective voters were professors.' Among the editors of the WB there was bafflement too, says Koert. ‘Just before the murder, Fortuyn was the subject of heated discussion during breaks. Fortuyn was not popular. I can remember discuss­ions just a couple of days before his murder, when people said they could understand it if there was an attempt on Fortuyn's life. The odd one even hoped it would happen.'
The Wageningen connection
‘We were in the process of buying a house. We heard what had happened from the estate agent', says professor of Environmental Policy Arthur Mol. ‘I didn't think anything like that would ever happen in the Netherlands. In retrospect, that was naïve, as it had already happened in Sweden.' Mol did not know at that point that one of his ex-students had carried out the murder. But even without know­ing that, he was deeply shocked. ‘In the first few hours after it happened there was some rioting at the Binnenhof. I was confronted with the fragility of our democracy. As a social scientist I study systems in which changes come very slowly. Then suddenly there were people want­ing to storm the lower house of parliament. That shocked me.'
Simon Vink, spokesman for the executive board, cannot remember where he heard the news of the murder. ‘I don't think in milestones', he replies brusquely. He prefers not to talk about that period. After the murder Vink received daily phonecalls about the Wageningen link with the murder of Fortuyn. He realized straightaway that he would have to deal with this issue. ‘I realized that a lot of questions would be asked.' So he spent two weeks establishing exactly what the link was between Van der Graaf and the university, and he patiently explained this to the press. It is a short story. ‘The link is very flimsy. Van der Graaf was a totally irrelevant figure to the university. He hardly even passed through. He studied here for barely a year. He played no role at all within the university. In that sense, Van der Graaf is not an alumnus and not a "Wageninger".'
But as soon as it became clear that the killer could be traced back to Wageningen, the town was flooded with journalists from the Netherlands and from abroad. ‘Conversations in Wageningen are about almost nothing else', wrote the WB ten days after the event (there was no website yet) in an article headed, Wageningen shocked and tense. ‘In pubs and on the street people are wondering out loud how this could happen.' You could cut the tension with a knife, said the reporter. ‘The national media have picked on Wageningen. Camera crews are combing the town. Every fart is news.'
Fact-free politics
‘There was a tremendous hunger for information', recalls Jansen. ‘I was inundated with phonecalls. At the time I was a provincial councillor for the Green Left so the journalists had my number. Suddenly Droevendaal was seen in a completely different light. Who was Van der Graaf and why hadn't we seen this coming?' Vink does not make much effort to hide his disdain for the media attention: ‘In the first instance, you get the simple questions about who, what and where. Then the journalists go for in-depth probing. For example, did Van der Graaf have a girlfriend? Or they ask whether there isn't another angle on the story. That hype, with all that investigative journalism on Van der Graaf's background, lasted about two weeks.' The university managed to stay largely out of the line of fire. ‘The media focused much more on the link between Van der Graaf and extreme animal welfare activism than on his link with the university', notes Vink. ‘In general, the reporting was reasonably measured, in terms of our institution. Our message got across pretty well.'
Green Left Wageningen did not come out of it so well. Van der Graaf was not a member of the party, but that didn't matter for the image generated by the media, says Jansen. ‘He stood up for nature and the environment, so he was left-wing. The bullet came from the left. That was the level of discussion, without any factual basis. Suddenly people are pointing at you as the source of evil. Suddenly your name is linked with something as appalling as murder; suddenly you are an accomplice. That is really scary. Left-wing Wageningen was a scapegoat. We really resented that.' ‘Lots of suspicions were aired', adds professor Mol. ‘In an article in HP De Tijd a tree depicted the network around Van der Graaf. I was in it and so was Simon Vink. That diagram was total nonsense, and so was the story, but I felt very uneasy about it. In that period a whole new kind of media, journalism and politics was growing up. Branding was becoming more important that the content. Fact-free politics started around that time.'
The article (The Green-Left Connection) to which Mol refers was actually published more than a year after Fortuyn's murder. It was an interview with investigative journalist Peter Siebelt about his book Eco Nostra, in which he ‘exposes' the ‘network behind Volkert van der Graaf'. It is an attack on the university, professors such as Arthur Mol and everything left-wing, progressive or otherwise suspect. According to Vink, all nonsense. ‘He makes all kinds of fanciful links. Wishful thinking. Of course Van der Graaf had his own social circle and activities. And no doubt there was a network around it. But that had nothing to do with the university. Van der Graaf lived here for a while, but that could have been anywhere in the Netherlands.'
Wageningen's church of the left
The attention Wageningen came in for was intense but short-lived. Yet this period in the limelight did Wageningen some good, thinks Willem Koert. ‘Wageningen really did show some signs of becoming a sectarian left-wing stronghold. In the nineteen eighties students could only really take certain courses if they dreamed of the Netherlands becoming a socialist utopia. If you had other ideas you would be told you had better go elsewhere. The media held a mirror up to Wageningen after Fortuyn's death, and that did it good. The death of Fortuyn showed that some of the ideas in Wageningen's church of the left really were very extreme.'
Patrick Jansen is quite open about the fact that he considered the rise of Pim Fortuyn dangerous at the time. ‘Populism entered into Dutch politics with Fortuyn. You either thought that was exciting or you saw it as scary and dangerous. I thought it was dangerous.' But in retrospect he takes a less one-sided view of Fortuyn. ‘Fortuyn gave voice to the underbelly of Dutch society. In itself it is good for that voice to be heard. But it did lead to fact-free politics, to short-term politics. And to me, that's deplorable. If Fortuyn had been able to shape Dutch politics we would surely have been better off than we are now. Wilders just tweets away off the top of his head. Fortuyn was a populist, but at least he was someone who engaged in the debate.'
Much has changed since the death of Fortuyn. Look at the tone of the debate, says Willem Koert. ‘The tendency towards polarization in informal discussions has gone. Before his murder, if you announced in left-wing circles that you thought development aid should be stopped, you would be told that your standpoint excluded you from the discussion, that it made you a bad person. Since his death, discussions of that kind are based on argument. That used to be fairly rare in Wageningen.'
Professor Mol agrees that the tone on public debate is more cautious these days. ‘Certainly in progressive green circles. Discussions are far less ideological and much more practically oriented. That makes it easier for ‘Henk and Ingrid' [the archetypal common Dutchman and woman, ed] to follow. It has become more important to create a popular support base and public understanding.'
New generation
Wageningen University has also become a lot more businesslike, notes Mol. ‘Nowadays it is all about rankings, image and funding. That has penetrated to the roots of the organization. For my chair group that has worked out well: we have more leeway and agreements are clearer. As long as you keep to them, you can decide what you do. You used to always have to go through the head office.'
As far as Willem Koert is concerned, Wageningen has taken that businesslike approach too far. ‘The left-wing church of the nineteen eighties and nineties has now been exchanged for the church of management', he thinks. ‘And that is every bit as intolerant and extreme as the old church of the left. There is not a single Dutch knowledge institution in which the management is as rigid and centralized as it is here. Wageningen seems to have a blind spot for its own extremism.'
The university has completely changed character, agrees Patrick Jansen. But that is not because of the death of Pim Fortuyn. ‘Ten years ago, Wageningen was still a town full of yoghurt-eating tree-huggers. Now it is a mini-metropolis characterized by a mix of very many different nationalities. My guess is that this has come about because there is a new generation that does things differently.'
‘You still get a certain kind of socially committed student here', says Mol. ‘But they are more business-savvy and pragmatic that the old guard. More and more people are coming who want to change the world. People with a social vision. Not the Van der Graaf kind, but people who care about the common good and their fellow human beings.'

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