Ed van Thijn, ‘man behind Den Uyl’, refound his Jewish identity

PvdA politician Ed van Thijn, who died this morning at the age of 87, was known in the 60s and 70s as โ€œthe man behind Den Uylโ€ and โ€œthe squire of Den Uylโ€. He followed his party leader faithfully. According to himself, that was because he never had the ambition to become the number 1 himself, although he was mentioned as crown prince at the time.

Years later, Van Thijn explained in one of his many books why he always wanted to stay in the shadows. He knew his limitations, such as his laborious speech, which was aptly parodied by Kees van Kooten, and who remarkably contrasted with his smooth writing style.

His Jewish origin also played a role, he said in the 90s. โ€œI was afraid of anti-Semitism, without any concrete cause ever occurring, but I just carried that fear with me. No, my highest ambition was to be number two.โ€

In the years 1983-1994, he was number 1 in Amsterdam as mayor. Before and after that, he was twice briefly Minister of the Interior and under the Den Uyl cabinet (1973-1977) he was a group leader of the PvdA.

Watch a video with a look back at Van Thijn‘s life below:

Van Thijn (1934) was the only child of a Jewish couple, who was arrested in Amsterdam in 1943 and was taken away to Westerbork. They escaped the gas chambers because the father jumped out of the train and then managed to get his wife and son out of Westerbork.

Van Thijn then sat, separated from his parents, at eighteen places in hiding. At the last address, a farm in Overijssel, he was in a corner land. While hunger prevailed in Holland, he enjoyed sandwiches with eggs and bacon and thick slices of black pudding.

On November 26, 1944, things went wrong. The Germans found him and took him to a House of Custody. There they tried to get out of him that he was a Jew. They shouted at the 10-year-old boy, smeared objects at him, threatened with dogs, shining a bright lamp in his eyes, but Van Thijn insisted he was not a Jew.

In the

end, he was still taken to Westerbork, but from there no trains left to the extermination camps.


After the liberation, Van Thijn was reunited with his parents. The war lingered over the family like a shadow, although it was never talked about. His father became rich as a textile dealer, the holidays were spent in expensive hotels and the son – who went to Ajax with his father on Sundays – was shamelessly spoiled.

Meanwhile, the tensions in the family became unbearable. Van Thijn’s mother regularly had heavy crying pours, his father indomitable tantrums, sometimes flying his wife to the throat. โ€œSeveral times I had to throw myself screaming between them to prevent further handtangiquities,โ€ Van Thijn later wrote.

Den Uyl

Van Thijn studied political science and, thanks to the later Minister of Foreign Affairs Max van der Stoel, joined the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, the scientific bureau of the PvdA even before the end of his studies. He had great admiration for Den Uyl, who was director there at the time.

With his political career, things went well. In 1962, he became a member of the Amsterdam City Council, as successor to Den Uyl, who became an alderman. In 1965, he became the chairman of the group, in 1967, Member of Parliament. In those years, his relationship with Den Uyl became even closer because they commuted up and down together between The Hague and their hometown of Amsterdam.

A few photos of his career:

Van Thijn was the creator of the polarization strategy, where the contrast between left and right was central. It had to break the power of the denominational middle parties. Van Thijn felt that the PvdA should rule with them only if they expressed a preference for a progressive cabinet before the elections. That would bring about โ€œa separation of spiritsโ€ in them.

The polarization strategy led to two of the most difficult cabinet formations in Dutch history: those of 1972/1973 and 1977. In 1973, the formation led to the Den Uyl cabinet, with ten progressive and six confessional ministers. Van Thijn succeeded Den Uyl as chairman of the group. In that position, he held on to the polarization and continued to put pressure on the confessioners and his own Prime Minister.

In 1974, he stated that the Den Uyl Cabinet had to implement four reform proposals as a litmus test for its progressiveness. That was not successful: in 1977, the cabinet was already talking about the first reform proposal.

A Negotiator‘s Diary

That was the work of KVP Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister Van Agt, who had since been elected CDA party leader. This development meant a second fiasco for the polarization strategy, because it had the formation of the CDA asnew middle parties cannot occur.

The polarization then led to a third fiasco. In the elections, the PvdA got its best results ever, after which a second cabinet Den Uyl with the CDA was obvious. But Den Uyl and Van Thijn drove the CDA into the arms of the VVD with impossible demands. Van Thijn wrote his first book about it: Diary of a Negotiator. Anyone who thinks politics is absurd now should read that again.

The formation also produced the first cracks in the relationship with Den Uyl. Shortly before the end of his life, Van Thijn told that he found Den Uyl as an embittered opposition leader against Van Agt sometimes insufferable, although he continued to admire him as well.

Stunned, his favorite expression

In 1981, CDA and PvdA, forced by the election result, continued to rule together, in the second Van Agt cabinet. Van Thijn and Den Uyl had discussed that Den Uyl would never become a minister under Van Agt, but Den Uyl returned from that.

Van Thijn was’ baffled ‘(stunned was a favorite expression of him), but that did not prevent him from taking place in the second Van Agt cabinet himself, as Minister of the Interior. That was not a success either: the cabinet fell after eight months and the PvdA came back into the opposition.


After the 1982 debacle, Van Thijn left the House of Representatives to become mayor of Amsterdam. When he took office, Amsterdam did not go well. There was a lot of nuisance from drug trafficking and petty crime and the city was in the throes of violence from the squat movement. The squatters had made the Staatsliedenbuurt a kind of free state, where police, housing associations and municipality had nothing to say.

Van Thijn had the courage to enter the neighborhood, where he was welcomed with the Hitler salute.

Under him came the turning point. With decisive policy, he restored order in the city. He stood for a strong authority and a strong police, who did not let play with him. As a strong man, he attracted Erik Nordholt to the police, who was given ample powers. He also invested in the relationship with the business community, a sector he had no experience with until then.

It worked: gradually the city was recaptured on the squatters, the drug nuisance was reduced and Amsterdam started to grow and flourish again. Upon his resignation, he was seen as one of the best mayors Amsterdam had had.

IRT affair

In 1994, Van Thijn was persuaded by Wim Kok to return to national politics, to succeed the suddenly deceased Ien Dales as Minister of the Interior.

It was a short and unhappy adventure. After a few months, he resigned because the House of Representatives stated in a motion that he was no longer allowed to interfere with the control of the Interregional Police Detective Team. He was suspected of having a dubious role in what was going to be called the IRT affair, which revolved around the large-scale passage of drugs and the police’s participation in drug trafficking in hopes of catching โ€œbig fish.โ€

The parliamentary survey that followed showed that Van Thijn was not to blame, but then the affair had already broken his political career. PvdA leader Kok dropped Van Thijn in the summer of 1994. During the formation of his first cabinet, he informed Van Thijn that there was no room for him in his cabinet. Later, Kok acknowledged that he had not treated Van Thijn well.

Van Thijn wrote his second book about it, Retour The Hague. It was highly praised by reviewers, but his party mates highly resented this nothing concealing insight into politics and ignored him for a long time.

Van Thijn‘s Night

Nevertheless, Van Thijn returned to The Hague as a member of the Senate in 1999. He also played an important role in politics and even became one of the few politicians to whom a night has been named.

In the Night of Van Thijn, 22 March 2005, he turned as spokesperson for the Senate Group of the PvdA against a constitutional amendment that the elected mayor had to make possible. The proposal of D66 minister and party leader Thom de Graaf therefore did not reach the required two-thirds majority.

It was Van Thijn’s last political trick. At D66, the grapes were acidic. De Graaf called the PvdA โ€œthe champion of the regentsโ€, D66 minister Brinkhorst called Van Thijn ‘a rat’, a qualification in which Van Thijn heard an anti-Semitic sound.

In the last twenty years of his life, Van Thijn wrote a lot, including about the war and his Jewish identity. He was not raised religiously, had pushed away his war experiences for the first half of his life and fully assimilated himself. But from the 90s, he was intensively engaged in Judaism and Israel, and in 2000 he became a member of the Liberal Jewish Congregation.

In recent years, he has not entered thepublic disclosure. Because of a rare disease, polyneuropathy, he was paralyzed and lost his full head of hair. For years, he was cared for at home by his third wife, Odette Taminiau, until he moved to a care villa on Museumplein in February 2017.