‘Auntie Yet’ and Humanity

The Internationalism of Henriette Roland Holst

Henriette Roland Holst-van der Schalk (1869-1952), poetess, writer and socialist, is one of the most revered women in the history of the Netherlands. Her contemporaries hailed her as ‘our greatest poet’ and saw her as a prophetess; the proclaimer of a beautiful, pure and righteous future. The historian Johan Huizinga compared her work as a poet to that of Vondel and, following the publication of her anthology Between Time and Eternity (Tusschen tijd en eeuwigheid, 1934), predicted that people would learn Dutch in order to read her poetry. That prediction has not yet come true. Although she became a great international figure, Henriette Roland Holst’s renown was due to her international political activism rather than her poetry.

The daughter of a wealthy notary, Roland Holst supported the Marxist labour movement from an early age and became one of its international leaders. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, Trotsky and Lenin were among her friends. Her most famous text is a translation into Dutch of the Internationale, the socialist anthem. Roland Holst’s interests had always extended beyond the Netherlands. Her governess taught her to speak French fluently when she was a child and at 14 she went to a German boarding school near Arnhem, where lessons were also given in English and Italian. After leaving boarding school, she lived for some time with a family in Liège. In 1888 she wrote her first love poem in French to a young baritone at the Liège opera company: ‘Et quand vous reviendrez, je ne serai plus là’.

She met her husband, the painter Richard Roland Holst, in 1892 during Paul Verlaine’s visit to the Netherlands. She was introduced to the French poet as the ‘jeune poète hollandaise’. Six months later she made her debut with six sonnets published in De Nieuwe Gids, the journal of the Men of the Eighties (‘Tachtigers’) that breathed new life into Dutch literature.

Discovering Marx

At the end of the nineteenth century, many Dutch artists turned to socialism under the influence of the British social reformer and artist William Morris, who perceived socialism as an improved version of medieval religious society. Henriette Roland Holst and her husband, a personal friend of Morris, were among them. They shared his belief that artistic renewal was impossible without social renewal in the socialist sense.

Towards the end of 1896, the poet Herman Gorter recommended Karl Marx’s Das Kapital to Henriette. According to Gorter, the book was ‘the key to understanding society’. Gorter held that ‘without that understanding it is impossible to write great poetry’. Henriette was moved by Marx’s conviction that the international working class would seize power and implement socialist methods of production. A year later, together with her husband and Gorter, she joined the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDAP; Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij) in the Netherlands, which had been founded in 1894. They quickly became the party’s leading propagandists. Henriette and Gorter became editors of the theoretical journal De Nieuwe Tijd. She practised Marxist literary criticism and spoke at meetings. In 1900 Henriette attended the International Socialist Congress in Paris. This was the fifth congress of the Second International (successor to the First International in which Marx played a prominent role). Here she met leading international social democrats such as Karl Kautsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Jean Jaurès. She spent many days attending meetings with international figures, and enjoyed the atmosphere of passionate intellectual debate.

In addition to poetry and political propaganda, Henriette published influential theoretical works during this period, including the much-praised Capital and Labour in the Netherlands (Kapitaal en Arbeid in Nederland, 1902). At Kautsky’s request she wrote — in German — General Strike and Social Democracy (Generalstreik und Sozialdemokratie, 1905), a book that was translated into many languages. So too were the articles she wrote for the influential German journal Die Neue Zeit. Influenced by her international circle of Marxist friends, she took a stand against reformism and revisionism in social democracy. This led to dramatic conflicts of principle that were serious enough to result in a schism within the SDAP in 1909. The Marxist Stuttgart wing split from the party and called itself the SDP (Social Democratic Party). Initially Henriette remained a member of the SDAP, but found herself in a somewhat isolated position. Despite the support she received from Kautsky, she suffered a nervous breakdown and left the SDAP in 1912. The anguish she felt as a result of her isolation and her inability to make a political choice found its expression in the anthology The Woman in the Wood (De vrouw in het woud, 1912), the drama Thomas More (1912) and a biography of Jacques Rousseau.

Henriette did not become politically active again until the beginning of the First World War. Strongly influenced by the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg, she founded the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSV; Revolutionair Socialistisch Verbond), an organisation of radical Marxists from within and outside existing parties. She also founded the journal De Internationale. In 1915 she was the only Dutch delegate to attend the Zimmerwald Conference, a secret international gathering of radical socialists — including Lenin and Trotsky — held in Switzerland. At the Zimmerwald Conference the foundations were laid for the Third International, or Comintern. Roland Holst’s meeting with Trotsky inspired a devotion that bordered on love.

In 1916 Henriette and her Revolutionary Socialist Party joined the SDP — which Gorter had joined when it was founded. This move was instigated by Lenin, who gave Henriette the leadership of the international Marxist publication Vorbote. In the same year, the SDP organ De Tribune became a daily newspaper. Roland Holst became one of its chief editors and helped to finance the publication.

At the barricades

From 1917 to 1927, Henriette Roland Holst was a communist. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the SDP joined the Comintern and called itself the Dutch Communist Party (CPH; Communistische Partij Holland, later CPN). During the unsuccessful Dutch revolution of November 1918 Roland Holst led workers and soldiers in a demonstration in Amsterdam — an action that she almost paid for with her life. Months later, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in Berlin during the Spartacus Revolt. Although Roland Holst began to criticise Marxism during the war, her critical powers were not yet equal to those of Luxemburg, who, in a visionary article published shortly before her death, warned against Lenin’s Marxist dictatorship. Against her husband’s will, Henriette travelled to Russia illegally in 1921 to attend the third Comintern congress. But she returned disillusioned and incensed at the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion, the sailors’ uprising she had been informed about by Aleksandra Kollontaj, a minister in Lenin’s first government. Yet she remained loyal to Moscow, subjecting herself to communist discipline and, initially, defending the terror that was being perpetrated in the name of revolution.

During the 1920s Roland Holst several times came into conflict with the CPH leadership. In numerous publications, of which her book Communism and Morals (Communisme en moraal, 1925) is the best known, her criticism of Marxism grew increasingly radical. Like her Belgian sympathiser Hendrik de Man, she championed a new form of socialism, ‘Gesinnungs-socialisme’, that was based on a change in mentality brought about through education and training. Henriette’s political texts and poetry reflect her spiritual development during the 1920s. Her contacts with religious socialists eased her break with communism. She left the CPH following Stalin’s campaign against Trotsky, who was ejected from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) at the end of 1927. Roland Holst campaigned in vain for Trotsky for many years: first against his exile, and later for political asylum in the Netherlands. Other victims of political terror world-wide, such as the Indonesian nationalists, could also count on her support. She was one of the first human rights activists in the Netherlands, and established numerous protest and support committees.

At the end of the 1920s Roland Holst joined the religious socialists. This brought her into close contact with Leonhard Ragaz, the Swiss theorist of religious socialism, and he became a close friend. In the years that followed she wrote biographies of international figures such as Tolstoy, Rosa Luxemburg, the Flemish poet and priest Guido Gezelle, and Gustav Landauer (one of the founders of the German Socialist Party). She also continued to publish poetry and wrote numerous mystery plays at the request of Christian-Socialist youth and student organisations.

Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, Roland Holst opposed fascism and National Socialism. She championed the cause of Indonesian independence and, on the occasion of Princess Juliana’s wedding to Prince Bernhard in 1937, she wrote a letter to Juliana requesting amnesty for imprisoned Indonesian nationalists such as Sukarno, Hatta and Shahrir. During the German occupation she worked for the resistance — as far as her advanced age would allow. She refused to join the Chamber of Culture and her calls for support for the Jews led to the founding of the illegal newspaper De Vonk, to which she contributed from early 1941. She took Jews into hiding at her country house in Brabant and wrote resistance poetry under the pseudonym ‘In Liefde Bloeiende’ (‘Blossoming in Love’). She also worked on biographies of international figures such as Victor Hugo (not published), Gandhi and Romain Rolland.

Conscience of the nation

After the war Roland Holst, widowed since 1938, settled in Amsterdam. Known affectionately as ‘Tante Jet’ (‘Auntie Yet’) she had become a living legend; the conscience of a nation. She remained politically active up to her death. In the radical-socialist publication De Vlam she opposed the death penalty for war criminals and wartime collaborators. She also supported Indonesian independence, which came about in 1949. Vice President Hatta of Indonesia honoured her with a visit to show his gratitude for her work.

On her death in 1952, Henriette Roland Holst was hailed as the greatest poet in the Netherlands. Yet her poems, contrary to prevailing opinion at the time, have not become classic works. The poetry which won her so much acclaim as a socialist, communist and later a religious socialist, is largely characterised by her presumption to speak for ‘humanity’, which found its expression in high-flown language. Yet her oeuvre is strewn with works that express doubt and uncertainty, in stark contrast to the certainty she desired. These verses, which she wrote without the ‘prophet’s cloak’ about her shoulders, still move those that read them today.

The question is whether Roland Holst’s urge to prophesy destroyed her as a poet, as her mentor, the poet Albert Verwey, believed. He considered her aspirations a danger to her work. In the long term he was proved right: her tendency to use her poetry as a vehicle for her political views was detrimental to her work. At the same time, her contemporaries were so inspired by her ambition to change the world — literally to recreate it — that they proclaimed her a national poet.

From a young age, Roland Holst needed an all-embracing ideal to work towards and live for. Without such an ideal, which soon came to be embodied in international socialism, she could not develop as a poet. Conversely, her social influence and authority are inextricably linked to her inspired and prophetic work as a poet. For Roland Holst, poetry was the servant of her ideals, to which she devoted herself in countless other ways too. She was acclaimed as a poet because, in her work, she searched for answers to man’s existential questions — and this was precisely what was expected of artists at that time. Her search for existential meaning lead her to explore various all-encompassing ideals, which, although formulated in different ways, were essentially the same: brotherly love, justice, community spirit, becoming completely absorbed into a greater whole and, finally, subjection to something that she could hardly define but eventually came to call God. Although she was apparently attracted by dogma, Roland Holst’s views changed constantly. This made her unpredictable as a politician, but as a poet the doubts she so openly experienced were the driving force behind her work. Her idealism and spirit of sacrifice appealed not only to her political sympathisers — an ever-changing group — but also to a much broader audience.

A believer

But what Verwey deplored in Roland Holst’s poetry — aspiration — was also true of her political life. She proudly took it upon herself to change society, striving at the same time to keep her hands clean and her conscience clear. In practice this problem — depicted in her poetry as the conflict between ‘dream and deed’ — amounted to the impossibility of combining purity and pragmatism. Her constant attempts to resolve that conflict made her into an eternal dissident, much maligned by opportunistic party supporters and venerated by idealists seeking to perform conscientious and uncompromising acts. Eventually she found her spiritual home among the religious socialists. The combination of ethics and socialism in their movement appealed to her more than its religious aspects.

Henriette Roland Holst came to religion late in life. Precisely how and when, she herself could not say, although she acknowledged that it was largely a reaction to her disillusionment with communism. Her poetry had always tended towards the religious; her early work was clearly inspired by mysticism. It is not difficult to prove that, in her politics too, Henriette Roland Holst had always been a believer. She experienced socialism and communism as religions. Her political passion, particularly in her communist period, stemmed from the desire to be absorbed into a greater whole and bear the burden of human suffering, so that she herself could find redemption. Roland Holst was aware of her duality, yet she tried to perceive her life as an entity. She drew a circuitous comparison between herself and Tolstoy in this respect. In her biography of Tolstoy, she wrote that he had undergone a terrible struggle ‘to find harmony in his inner world’. The unity in his life, she wrote, came from the fact that he ‘pursued the goal of attaining that which, at a given moment, he perceived as being his highest self, and subjecting all things to that goal’. Roland Holst was largely successful in attaining self-realisation. As she grew older, the significance attributed to her work became more and more indistinguishable from her own ideal: prophetess, international pioneer, inspiring example and mythical figure.

The voice of the individual conscience

Roland Holst’s significance derives not only from the image that she and her followers created, but also from the way in which she struggled to overcome her inner conflict. As a writer and poet she publicly testified to her crises of conscience, her changing beliefs, the splits with former political sympathisers, and the ethical questions with which she struggled. She thus came to personify the political and moral dilemmas of the twentieth century. Her engagement in the history of that period is the very source of her poetic art. She was involved in all the important events and developments of her time, and she made choices she regretted and mistakes that she acknowledged. That experience enabled her to develop independent beliefs that still command respect today. As a communist she condemned Stalin’s dictatorship early on. In the 1920s and 1930s she warned against the dangers of fascism and National Socialism. She was one of the first human rights activists. During the German occupation, while illegal words flowed from her pen, she called upon her compatriots not to lapse into hatred and revenge. In old age her hatred of colonialism led her to support the Indonesian republic. Although she always strove to speak for a party or a majority, for the proletariat or humanity, the voice that was ultimately heard was that of the individual conscience.

By Elsbeth Etty
Translated by Yvette Mead

First published in The Low Countries, 2001