Jacob (Jacques) Presser (24 February 1899 in Amsterdam – 30 April 1970 in Amsterdam) was a Dutch historian, writer and poet best known for his book Ashes in the wind (The destruction of the Dutch Jews) on the history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands during World War II. Yet he also made a significant contribution to Dutch historical scholarship, as well as to European historical scholarship.
Presser was born in the former Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. His family was rather poor (his father was a diamond cutter), and his parents had Socialist leanings. They were secular Jews. Presser, himself, in later life, also gravitated towards the Left. As a child he lived for a while with his family in Antwerp, Belgium.
He attended the University of Amsterdam after finishing a commercial vocational college and having worked in an office for two years. At the University he studied history, art history, and Dutch. He graduated cum laude in 1926. Then he taught history at the newly founded Vossius Gymnasium (a grammar school) in Amsterdam.
In 1930, he came into contact with the renowned historian Jan Romein who helped him to get a job as an instructor at the Instituut voor Historische Leergangen, which launched his academic career.
Presser was affected by the then rising anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, and he wrote critically about it. When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, this was a very great shock for him; he even attempted suicide, unsuccessfully. Because of the Nazi anti-Jewish policies, he lost his job at Vossius Gymnasium; nevertheless, he managed to find work as a teacher at the Jewish Lyceum.
In early 1943, his wife Deborah Appel was arrested and deported to the Sobibor death camp, where she died. The loss of his first wife marked Presser for life. Yet he managed to escape from the Nazis by going into hiding in several places, including in a small town named Lunteren.
Post war years
After the war's end, Presser got back his teaching job at the Vossius Gymnasium, and he was also a lecturer in political history, didactics, and the methodology of history at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Amsterdam.
In 1947, partly at his instigation, the politico-social faculty of law was established at the University, and he began to teach there. From 1948, he was also professor at the Faculty of Arts. His Marxist political leanings prevented him from receiving full promotions at the University until 1952. Over the years, he spoke out on political controverses, such as the Dutch 'Politionele acties' against Indonesian decolonisation, and the activities of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy against suspected Communists. He also contributed to the communist daily paper De Waarheid during the first post war years. Later he published in other leftist magazines, such as Vrij Nederland and De Groene Amsterdammer.
In 1954, Presser married Bertha Hartog, his second wife.
In 1959, he succeeded Jan Romein in his Dutch history chair at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Amsterdam. Presser retired from his job on 31 May 1969. He died suddenly on 30 April 1970.
One of Presser's most significant works was his extensive biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, first published in 1946. In contrast to the common hagiographies of the French emperor, Presser is quite critical of the personality, and the political and military activity of Napoleon. Already in the introduction to the book, Presser makes quite clear that one of his main intentions is to try and dispel various euphemisms and legends about Napoleon. The book also contains extensive chapters on the nature of his dictatorship and the pillars in French society which he used to strengthen his rule: Propaganda, Police & Justice, the Church, Education and, of course, the Army. Finally, he describes the legends about Napoleon in various countries. (This work is only available currently in Dutch and in German.)
Commissioned by Elsevier Publishers in 1941, Presser wrote a comprehensive history of the United States of America. He completed the first version while in hiding. A reworked edition came out in 1949. Shortly after the Second World War there was a lot of interest in the history of America in the Netherlands. The book is rich in its descriptions, anecdotes and details; the writer explicitly sympathizes with the 'underdogs' in American history: the native Americans, the Afro-Americans, the poor. At the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, a fourth, revised and updated edition was published with a postscript on the period after 1965 by the historian and America-expert Prof. Rob Kroes. Since this book was mainly intended to serve the Dutch reading public, it was never translated.
In 1950, Presser received a commission from the Dutch government to produce a study about the fate of the Dutch Jews during the war. This would later become his historical masterpiece Ondergang [The destruction of the Dutch Jews]. He worked on this project for fifteen years, making full use of the vast archives of the Dutch Institute for War Documentation. The resulting work was a big best-seller in the Netherlands when it was published in 1965. It still is the main reference work on the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands under German occupation. A British edition came out in 1968 and an American edition in 1969.
Presser made a very significant contribution to Dutch historical studies. His book on the Revolt of the Netherlands against Spain (1568-1648) - first published in 1941, a second print in 1942 which was soon prohibited by the German occupier - was reprinted another four times after the Second World War. Along with other great historians, such as Groen van Prinsterer, Robert Fruin, Huizinga, Pieter Geyl, L.J. Rogier, Jan Romein, and Annie Romein-Verschoor, he can be counted as one of the greatest historians of the Netherlands.
Besides historical work, Presser also wrote works of literature. His book The Night of the Girondists, based on his war time experiences, received literary prizes, and became an international best-seller. Set in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, the leading character of this book is an assimilated Jewish teacher collaborating with the Nazis. His job was to select Jews for transportation to Auschwitz; later he realises that, as a Jew, he was also bound to share the fate of those he had sent away.
Presser also wrote poetry, and even ventured into the area of crime fiction.
- Das Buch "De Tribus Impostoribus" (Von den drei Betrügern). Amsterdam: H.J. Paris Publisher, 1926 (doctoral dissertation, with the highest distinction, written and published in German).
- De Tachtigjarige Oorlog [The Eighty Years' War]. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishers, 1941 (under ps.), 1948 (3rd ed., under his own name; 6th ed. 1978).
- Napoleon: Historie en legende [Napoleon: History and Legend]. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishers, 1946 (7th ed. 1978).
- (German translation) Napoleon: das Leben und die Legende. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1977. Zürich: Manesse-Verlag, 1990, 1997.
- Amerika: Van kolonie tot wereldmacht [America: From Colony to World Power]. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishers, 1949 (4th revised ed. 1976, with a chapter on the period 1965–1975 by Dr. Rob Kroes).
- Historia hodierna [Contemporary history]. Inaugural lecture. University of Amsterdam, 2 October 1950. Leiden: E. J. Brill Publishers, 1950. Reprinted in: Uit het werk van dr. J. Presser [collection of 32 essays by Dr. J. Presser, written between 1929 and 1969], Amsterdam: Athenaeum, Polak & Van Gennep Publishers, 1969, pp. 209–225.
- Ondergang. De vervolging en verdelging van het Nederlandse Jodendom 1940–1945 [Extinction. The Persecution and Destruction of Dutch Jewry, 1940–1945]. The Hague: Staatsdrukkerij/Martinus Nijhoff, 1965, 2 vols. (8th ed. 1985).
- English translations:
- Ashes in the wind. London: Souvenir Press, 1968.
- The destruction of the Dutch Jews. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969.
- Ashes in the wind. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.
- Ashes in the wind. London: Souvenir Press, 2010, with an Afterword by Dr. Dienke Hondius.
- De Nacht der Girondijnen [The Night of the Girondins] (1957, many reprints, translated into many languages)
- English translations:
- Breaking Point. Cleveland/New York: The World Publishing Company, 1958; reprint as pocket by Popular Library, 1959.
- Night of the Girondists. London: Harper Collins, 1992.
- Orpheus en Ahasverus [Orpheus and Ahasveros. Poems]. Amsterdam: Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 4th, augmented ed., 1969.
- Homo submersus [Man in Hiding] (A novel in the form of a diary by a Jew in hiding). Amsterdam: Boom Publishers, 2010 (originally written in 1943-1944).
(Dutch and German Wikipedia articles on Presser were used as main sources for this article.)
- Dr. Wijnaendts Francken Prize in 1946 for his book Napoleon. Historie en legende (Napoleon. History and Legend)
- Lucy B. and C.W. van der Hoogt Prize in 1957 for his book The Night of the Girondists
- Knighthood, and membership of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).
- The Remembrance Award in 1969 from the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations.