Poetess Henriette Roland Holst, documentary film


This video is the trailer of the Dutch documentary film Droom & Daad, about the life of poetess Henriette Roland Holst.

It says about itself (translated by me):

Droom & Daad – documentary by Annette Apon

Henriette Roland Holst (1869 – 1952) organized political meetings with Lenin and Trotsky, and corresponded with Rosa Luxemburg. Her letters, poems and speeches give insight into her deepest dilemmas. Old film footage takes us to those turbulent years.

The title of the film is from a line in Ms Roland Holst‘s poetry book De Nieuwe Geboort‘ from 1902.

On 30 December, two days before the end of the Roland Holst Year, I went to see this film.

The film basically limits itself to the years 1891-1927. Turbulent years for Ms Roland Holst and the world indeed. In themselves, hard enough to fit in this 74 minute movie, without additional attention for prequel and sequel.

Still, these limits are a bit problematic. The poetess’ youth in Noordwijk village flashes past in a few seconds. She was born in a liberal Christian family. She was in the liberal Christian Remonstrant church all her life; not mentioned in the film.

Henriette Roland Holst in a garden in Noordwijk in 1893, portrait by her husband Richard

The last twenty-five years of her life get a few sentences at the end of the film. As we will see, 1927 as the end of the film leaves the impression of Roland Holst’s life and, more generally, attempts to make the world better, being failures. While on the contrary the title of Henriette Roland Holst’s autobiography is Het vuur brandde voort; The fire kept burning. She published it in 1949, three years before her death. During these last three years, she still campaigned against nuclear weapons and the Korean war.

In Henriette Roland Holst’s life there were many highs and lows from 1891-1927.

1891 was a high. She had started to write sonnets and other poems. Willem Kloos, leader of the Dutch 1880s avant-garde poetic movement, reacted to them by calling this woman, his junior, “the greatest poet living at the moment”.

1896 was a high again. She married visual artist Richard Roland Holst. William Morris from England was his inspiration. Together with Richard, Henriette wrote a book about English pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Also in 1896, the newly married couple decided to join the young Dutch Social Democratic Workers Party, the SDAP. Together with Herman Gorter. In 1891, the sonnets by avant-garde poet Gorter had inspired Ms Roland Holst’s own work. Gorter in winter skated all the way to meet her in Noordwijk. He advised her to read Italian poet Dante; very good advice, she found out. Gorter advised her to read philosopher Spinoza. Though she considered Spinoza valuable, his writings did not really click with her.

Then, Gorter advised her to read Das Kapital by Karl Marx. He said that book would help her to understand how world economics and politics work. That, in turn, would help her to improve her poetry.

Together with Richard, Henriette read the first volume of Das Kapital. Richard then stopped reading this complex work. But Henriette continued with volumes two and three. She would apply Marxism in her writings on Dutch history and other subjects. In 1947, Amsterdam university would award her a honorary degree for her history books. Being a woman, in her youth she had been unable to go to university.

Like in 1891 a new poetic world had opened for Ms Roland Holst, in 1896 a new political world opened for her. It gave her strength and optimism.

In 1900, she met Rosa Luxemburg who would become her life long friend. Rosa Luxemburg called Henriette “my blonde Madonna”. She predicted a great future for Roland Holst in the international labour movement.

Dutch socialist Vliegen, though, as a right-winger within the party, critical of left winger Ms Roland Holst, still thought: “She certainly is the most talented woman ever in the international social democrat movement”.

Gradually, Richard would find himself on the reformist right wing of socialism. While Henriette was on the revolutionary left wing. This contributed to tension within the marriage.

It was not easy for director Apon to make the film, as there are no film images of Henriette Roland Holst. Nor are there film images of SDAP congresses while she was a member. Ms Apon solved this with other early twentieth century movie clips, giving an idea of Roland Holst’s times.

Henriette’s strength and optimism were sorely tested in 1903.

The Dutch railway workers went on strike. They won. The vengeful rightist government reacted by banning strikes. The socialists tried to stop these anti-democratic anti-strike laws with a general strike. However, that failed to achieve its aim. A bitter pill for Henriette Roland Holst. She tended to interpret political setbacks as her personal failures.

1909 was another low. The right wing of the Dutch social democrats excluded the left wing from the party. Henriette sympathized with the left wing. It included her poet friend Herman Gorter. But she did not want to break with the party majority. After two years she resigned from the Social Democrat Workers Party after all, without joining Gorter’s new Social Democrat Party. Rosa Luxemburg was opposed to that. She wrote to her friend that a bad workers party was still better than no party at all.

A new low in August 1914. World War I broke out. Like with German anti-war socialist artist Käthe Kollwitz, the bloodshed devastated her.

In 1915, new hope and optimism. In Zimmerwald in Switzerland, she was the only Dutch representative at a congress of socialists which wanted to end the war. She discussed this with Lenin, Trotsky and others. The snowy Swiss mountains contributed to inspiration.

Then, in 1917, still more hope and optimism. The czarist regime in Russia, which she detested, fell. Lenin and Trotsky, her fellow Zimmerwald congressists, became more and more prominent.

In 1918, yet more hope and optimism. The world war stopped. The German emperor fled across the Dutch border. Troelstra, leader of the relatively moderate Social Democrat Workers Party, called for revolution. So did the Social Democrat Party, which Ms Roland Holst had joined meanwhile.

She organized a big meeting in an overflowing hall in Amsterdam. Someone in the audience proposed spontaneously to go outside, to demonstrate in the streets. Let us go to the army barracks. Let us ask the soldiers to stop violence benefiting the rich. In Russia and Germany, many soldiers took the side of the revolution. That made the regimes collapse.

Some Dutch soldiers sympathized with the labour movement as well. Unfortunately, that did not include the soldiers at the gate of the Oranje-Nassau barracks in the Sarphatistraat in Amsterdam. They fired at the workers’ demonstration which came to convince them to break with the government. The soldiers’ guns killed four demonstrators, and wounded many more.

So, immediately after the high a new low for Henriette. Next morning she went to the hospital to speak to surviving victims of the bloodbath at the barracks. A wounded nurse told her the military had killed her fiancé and fellow demonstrator. Both were pacifists.

Again a low shortly after this. In early 1919 a German extreme right death squad murdered Henriette´s friend Rosa Luxemburg and many others, dealing a blow to revolutionary perspectives in Germany. Gustav Noske, interior minister and leader of the right wing of the social democrats, condoned the murders.

In 1921, Ms Roland Holst went to Soviet Russia. She found both high and low points there. The international communist women’s congress in Moscow was really inspiring. But the new Bolshevik government also did many things wrong. She met fellow author Maxim Gorky. Gorky told her about the famine in the Wolga region, in the wake of the czarist vs. communist civil war and invasion by British, United States, German, Japanese and other foreign armies. Gorky asked her to organize a relief campaign for the Wolga region people in western Europe. “Don’t wait till the communist party has set up an organizational framework for relief. Start organizing yourself”. Henriette Roland Holst managed to organize a succesful campaign.

Here, I have to criticize Annette Apon’s otherwise good film. The documentary leaves the impression that Ms Roland Holst broke with the Soviet Union and all of Marxism after her 1921 voyage disappointments. However, things were not so simple. From 1921-1927 she kept leaving and rejoining the Dutch communist party. For a time, the film notes in passing, she was a member of the BKSP. The film does not say what the BKSP was. It was a split from the communist party, as the BKSP founders thought that the Communist Party of the Netherlands was too critical of the Russian sister party, and “real” communists should supposedly be uncritical of whatever happened in Russia. The BKSP was a failure. And Henriette rejoined the communist party, becoming editor of its magazine. Until in 1927 she stopped at last with her see-saw membership. She would never join any leftist political party again, though retaining some sympathy for all of them. Very differently from Jacques de Kadt, in the mid 1920s briefly a fellow BKSP member. De Kadt in the 1920s attacked the Dutch Communist Party for not being sufficiently pro-Moscow. During the Korean war he had become a Cold Warrior McCarthyist member of the far right wing of the Dutch labour party, advocating to imprison thousands of Dutch communists in concentration camps.

Henriette Roland Holst kept fighting against Dutch colonialism, fascism and war. The film briefly mentions that when the nazis occupied the Netherlands, she hid Jewish refugees from Hitler’s murder gangs at her nature reserve Oude Buisse Heide.

The film does not mention that during the nazi occupation she wrote in the illegal socialist paper De Vonk, later called De Vlam.

The film does mention her support for Indonesian independence.

It does not mention that Indonesian independence fighters asked her advice while they were in the Netherlands, negotiating about ending the 1945-1949 Indonesian war of independence.

Neither does the film mention her anti nuclear weapons and anti Korean war views of her last three years.

Nevertheless, the many things about this poetess’ life which the film does mention leave a positive impression.

Marjan de Haan in a review thinks that Ms Apon missed the chance for the film to link 1891-1927 to today. I can add that the only real mentions of 2012 in the film are images showing that Henriette´s Oude Buisse Heide is still a beautiful nature reserve. And a mention that postal services now are less efficient than when Ms Roland Holst lived.

Marjan de Haan writes (translated):

Old-fashioned partisanship. Really? Did Ms Holst’s voice really sound that different from the protesters in Tahrir Square now?

August Bebel and the political awakening of the working class: here.

24 thoughts on “Poetess Henriette Roland Holst, documentary film

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