My final project as a student focused on Pieter Jelles Troelstra’s student days. He later became known as a lawyer for the poor and as a socialist politician. He was one of the founders of the precursor of the Dutch Labour Party PvdA. In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, he called for a socialist revolution in the Netherlands. But our country wasn’t ready for that.
Troelstra studied law in Groningen from 1882 to 1888 and was a member of Vindicat, the student association. About a century and a half ago, joining that association was the most normal thing in the world; in fact, it would’ve been bizarre not to. You would’ve been branded a nihilist. Troelstra was known for speaking his mind, which is probably why he was put through hell during his hazing. It was so bad that his father and sister urged him to stop putting up with the brutal humiliation and leave the association. He didn’t. A month later, the hazing had come to an end. Troelstra, as president of the new pledges, made a speech during the inauguration. He joined as many as ten associations, three of which were drinking clubs. He threw himself into partying. Drinking, debts to landlords, defying authority, drunkenly roaming the streets until dawn: he did it all with abandon. As a matter of fact, he also displayed this passion through his countless poems and ardent pleas for the Frisian language.
So his student days were carefree? No, in newspapers I found there was an entirely different side to him. He wrote critical articles on poverty, hunger, unemployment and the wide gap between the rich and the poor. He endorsed a strike by Enschede textile workers. Under the pseudonym of Piet van Heuvel, a carpenter in Leeuwarden, he published a fortnightly column in the Friesche Courant for three years. In those columns, he became increasingly political. Where at first, he would still write about his beautiful nieces or an exciting handball match, over time, he started advocating universal suffrage so that poor people would also get a say in the national administration. So I discovered that even as a student, Troelstra was deeply engaged in the debate about society’s injustices.
Meanwhile, he seamlessly combined this seriousness with fun during his student days. In 1938 – during the tense period before World War II when crises were piling up, just as they are now – historian Johan Huizinga published the book Homo Ludens: man the player. In it, he argues that play is a prerequisite for our culture. Our civilisation will break down if people deprive themselves of the freedom to put things into other perspectives, to colour outside the lines, to explore different paths. And perhaps that ability to play is all the more crucial in these dark times. The greatest wisdom of all is knowing when you can or should alternate the serious with the playful. Some situations call for utter seriousness. Think of war, poverty, climate and a hundred thousand other forms of misery. But sometimes, you’re allowed to play.