Jacques Presser

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Hans Kolfschoten, Louis Paul Boon, Hanny Michaelis & Jacques Presser (1967)

Jacob (Jacques) Presser (24 February 1899 in Amsterdam – 30 April 1970 in Amsterdam) was a Dutch historian, writer and poet, 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. Presser made a significant contribution to Dutch historical scholarship, as well as to European historical scholarship.

Early years[edit]

Presser was born in the former Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. His family was rather poor (his father was a diamond cutter), and his parents, who were secular Jews, had Socialist leanings. 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.

War-time experiences[edit]

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[edit]

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 controversies, 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. In 1966 he became member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[1] Presser retired from his job on 31 May 1969. He died suddenly on 30 April 1970.[2]

Historical contributions[edit]

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. Presser depicts him as a ruthless autocrat and the axis of a group of marauders: his marshals. Napoleon comes to the fore as the organizer of the first modern dictatorship, which became an example for all later dictatorships. The book also contains extensive chapters on 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.[3]

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. In 1956 Presser introduced the term 'egodocuments' as an umbrella term for texts in which he was especially interested: diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, interviews and personal letters.[4] Along with other great historians, such as Groen van Prinsterer, Robert Fruin, Huizinga, Pieter Geyl, L.J. Rogier, Jan Romein, Annie Romein-Verschoor and Arie Th. van Deursen, he can be counted as one of the greatest historians of the Netherlands in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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.


Historical works[edit]

  • 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 translations (by Christian Zinsser):
    • Napoleon: das Leben und die Legende. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1977. Zürich: Manesse Verlag, 1990, 1997. ISBN 3-7175-8156-2.
    • Napoleon: die Entschlüsselung einer Legende. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1979.
  • 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 (by Arnold Pomerans):
    • Ashes in the wind. The destruction of Dutch Jewry. London: Souvenir Press. 1968. 
    • The destruction of the Dutch Jews. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969.
    • Ashes in the wind. The destruction of Dutch Jewry. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1988. ISBN 9780814320365. OCLC 17551064. 
    • Ashes in the wind. The destruction of Dutch Jewry. Dr. Dienke Hondius (afterword). London: Souvenir Press. 2010. ISBN 9780285638136. OCLC 699863844. 
  • "Material Witness: The Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation", in: Delta, vol. 9, nr. 4, Winter 1966-1967, pp. 47–53
  • "Introduction to the English Language Edition", in: Philip Mechanicus, Waiting for Death, a Diary. English translation by Irene R. Gibbons. London: Calder and Boyars, 1968, pp. 5–12
  • "Introduction", in: L.Ph. Polak and Liesbeth van Weezel (eds.), Documents of the persecution of the Dutch Jewry 1940–1945. Amsterdam: Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep/Jewish Historical Museum, 1969 (2nd ed. 1979), pp. 7–12
  • "The Judenrat in the Netherlands". Imposed Jewish Governing Bodies under Nazi Rule. YIVO Colloquium, December 2–5, 1967. Rachel Erlich (preface). New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. 1972. pp. 54–64. OCLC 571685. 

Literary works[edit]

  • 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.
    • The Night of the Girondists. Foreword by Primo Levi. 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).


  1. ^ "Jacob (Jacques) Presser (1899 - 1970)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 30 July 2015. 
  2. ^ Biography of Jacques PRESSER
  3. ^ Ben Barkow, [1] (book review in the Jewish Chronicle, January 7, 2010).
  4. ^ Rudolf M. Dekker, 'Jacques Presser's Heritage: Egodocuments in the Study of History', in: Memoria y Civilización, vol. 5 (2002), pp. 13–37, 13-14, 17 note 14.

(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.

External links[edit]