The Van Liempt affair
A dream promotion turned nightmare
The background of the Van Liempt affair
On May 8, Ad van Liempt, a well-known Dutch historian specialising in the Second World War, received his PhD for his thesis on Albert Gemmeker, commander of Kamp Westerbork in the war. Gemmeker was responsible for the deportation of many Jews to the concentration camps.
Shortly before the ceremony, however, several prominent figures had complained in the national press about Van Liempt’s ethics over the course of his career. He was accused of stealing ideas, violating agreements with colleagues, and plagiarism.
Self-appointed research journalist Bart Droog made an official complaint to the CWI, the committee for academic integrity of the RUG, in August 2019. He accused Van Liempt of plagiarising and falsifying information in his thesis.
After five months of deliberation, the CWI announced its verdict on December 20: Van Liempt had not violated scientific integrity. There had been no plagiarism or falsifications. However, he had been careless in several instances. In some places, more citations would have been in order, and he had at times paraphrased sources too loosely.
The university board announced it agreed with the CWI verdict, but that it wanted a discussion in the Committee of Deans about ways to prevent this from happening again.
On January 7, Bart Droog announced he was appealing the CWI decision at the LOWI, the Netherlands Board of Scientific Integrity of the association of Dutch universities VSNU.
Doeko Bosscher still remembers that fateful e-mail. On December 10, 2018, he was reading a column by Frits Barend on the Jewish news website Jonet. Barend wrote about the Boetzelaer affair concerning the book Oorlogsouders (War Parents). Author Isabel van Boetzelaer had written a book full of historical inaccuracies, in an effort to explain away her parent’s Nazi past. Barend also lashed out at war historian Ad van Liempt, who’d praised the book when it was first published.
Bosscher felt this wasn’t fair. He knew Van Liempt from Memorial Centre Camp Westerbork – where he had a position on the Supervisory Board and Van Liempt was on the Advisory Board – and also as a promoter. Van Liempt had been working on a thesis about camp commander Albert Gemmeker. He was hoping to get his doctorate in May 2019.
‘It’s true that Ad made a wrong judgement call’, says Bosscher about the Oorlogsouders affair. ‘But it says nothing about the man’s character or political views. He made a mistake, but you can’t interpret a judgement call as a lack of integrity.’
He wrote Barend an e-mail to defend Van Liempt. ‘Van Liempt made a wrong judgement call exactly once in his life, when he thought the account of Isabel van Boetzelaer’s family was credible’, Bosscher wrote. This one mistake pales in comparison to his unremitting drive to expose the Nazis’ murderous intentions’, Bosscher wrote. ‘Ad van Liempt is as reliable as they come.’
It was the fuse that lit a powder keg. Three months later, when Bosscher and Barend met during a lecture at Camp Westerbork, Barend told the professor in private how much his e-mail had affected him. In fact, he’d been affected so much that he’d written an accusing op-ed that would be published by a national newspaper. ‘I caused that. If I hadn’t said that Ad van Liempt had integrity, Barend would never have written that’, says Bosscher.
Van Liempt, his thesis supervisors Bosscher and Hans Renders, as well as the RUG have been caught in the mess caused by the accusation for a year now. Dutch newspaper Het Parool published the opinion piece by Frits Barend, accusing Van Liempt of showing off with someone else’s work. The piece was undersigned by various people, including writer and artist Chaja Polak, retired professor of sociology Lodewijk Brunt, and sports journalist Max Dohle.
Ad van Liempt is as reliable as they come
Bosscher went to Van Liempt with his tail between his legs. ‘I was ashamed’, says Bosscher. ‘Ad was in trouble and he never would have been if I hadn’t said anything. At the same time, I didn’t want to be ashamed of paying him a compliment.’
Van Liempt, says Bosscher, was matter-of-fact about the issue. ‘Even if you hadn’t said anything, Frits would’ve found something against me.’
One thing is certain: Barend had a bone to pick with Van Liempt. In 2012, during a lecture by Van Liempt on sports in the war, Barend heard Van Liempt using several quotes that sounded a lot like a series of articles he and Henk van Dorp had published in news magazine Vrij Nederland in 1979. ‘I thought I was going crazy’, says Barend. ‘His opening quote, and all the ones after that were straight from Vrij Nederland!’
Van Liempt says this isn’t true. ‘It was a little speech in which I quoted from Het Spoor Terug, a radio show by Marnix Koolhaas. He’d provided me with the transcripts and gave me permission to quote it. It wasn’t my show.’ But Barend didn’t believe him. ‘It was theft, pure and simple’, he says.
He’d already let it go, says Barend, but then he received a phone call from someone called Maarten van Voorst tot Voorst. ‘He was like, you also had a run-in with Ad van Liempt, didn’t you?’
Van Voorst, who was personally interested in the role of the nobility during the Second World War, had just found out about the inaccuracies in Isabel van Boetzelaer’s book Oorlogsouders. Her father, who she’d portrayed as a ‘small-time NSB member’, had been an active Jew hunter. And Van Liempt had praised and recommended the book.
All this reignited Barend’s anger. Van Liempt may have distanced himself from the book and called it ‘the low point of his career’, but Barend felt he was way off the mark. ‘Of his career?!’ he fulminates. ‘It’s not even about him! It’s about the victims. He never even publicly apologised for it.’
I thought I was going crazy. The quotes were straight from Vrij Nederland
After that, the matter could no longer be contained. Whether he’d meant to or not, Van Liempt had made enemies during his career, and these enemies had started talking to each other. One of them was historian Regina Grüter, who had shared her research on the Red Cross in the war with Van Liempt. Due to a change in scheduling, his commemorative book was published before her work, which received little attention. Another was sports journalist Max Dohle, who claims that Van Liempt violated collaboration agreements, causing his biography on athlete Foekje Dillema to lose its newsworthiness.
‘Unsportsmanlike behaviour’, Chaja Polak says. ‘So many people have accused him of it; there has to be some veracity to it.’
More importantly, the attacks weren’t just limited to criticism; some people were saying Van Liempt had some peculiar opinions on the war. Did the fact that Van Liempt didn’t immediately distance himself from Oorlogsouders mean he was actually supporting Van Boetzelaer’s actions? Was he trying to justify what the “perpetrators” had done? ‘I really looked up to Van Liempt’, says Polak. ‘The fact that he was promoting this book was so offensive. I couldn’t handle it.’
For Polak, whose father was murdered in a concentration camp, this case is very important. Van Liempt is an authority on the Second World War, she says. He is opposed to using the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’. That is a dangerous inclination. ‘When he says something, people take it to be truth. That’s an enormous responsibility.’
Even the famous historian Rudolf Dekker published a book in which he accused Van Liempt of whitewashing. He called the work a ‘case study’, but it reads like a personal attack on Van Liempt.
Van Liempt vehemently denies the accusations. ‘That’s flagrant nonsense. In all my books on Jew hunters and war criminals, I’ve never condoned anything. I’m interested in the perpetrators’ background and motives, but I always stayed away from anything that looked like condoning or “whitewashing”’, he says.
I wanted to protect the RUG from damage to its reputation
Maarten van Voorst
Bosscher also emphasises that Van Liempt concurs with the current interest in the perpetrators’ motives. Not even Chaja Polak is claiming that Van Liempt is trying to explain anything away. ‘But around the time of Oorlogsouders, he was facilitating it.’
While this discussion was reaching its peak, Bosscher was writing his e-mail to Barend, who then decided that ‘if even a historian as honourable as Bosscher says that this man has only ever made one mistake but is amazing otherwise, I will write an article about that.’
At this time, it wasn’t even that big an issue. But when Van Voorst wrote an opinion piece for Dagblad van het Noorden, where he questioned whether Van Liempt should even receive his doctorate. ‘My main intention was to protect the RUG from potential damage to its reputation’, says Van Voorst. ‘I’m worried that the supervisors and the RUG are putting their good reputation at stake.’ The RUG, Van Voorst says, should have delayed the promotion and investigated the allegations.
But Renders and Bosscher says this wasn’t even possible. After all, the accusations weren’t related to the academic integrity of Van Liempt’s work. ‘You have to realise that the university and myself had been getting e-mails saying the thesis was plagiarised since January’, says Renders. ‘But the book hadn’t even been published yet!’
Concerning the actual quality of the thesis, this is guaranteed by the work of his supervisors, the supervisory committee, and a reader committee.
Enter poet and self-proclaimed investigative journalist Bart Droog from the Groningen village of Eenrum. While Droog is mainly known for his poetry, he’s also interested in falsifications of Hitler’s paintings.
Droog smelled a scandal.
He says Van Liempt’s defenders were ‘lying’. Moreover, if Van Liempt had plagiarised in the past, Droog figured, he probably did so for his thesis as well. He started his own investigation, talking to the parties involved, like Frank van Riet, who wrote the book De Bewakers van Westerbork (The Guards at Westerbork), or Lotte Bergen, who turned her bachelor thesis into the short work Albert Konrad Gemmeker: Commandant van Westerbork. Historians who believed that Van Liempt was drawing too much from their work. ‘They felt like Van Liempt had stolen from them.’
Droog became increasingly convinced that this was a case of ‘serial plagiarism’. ‘One book strongly resembling another is suspect’, he says. ‘That’s what’s happening in Van Liempt’s thesis.’
He put together a file of nearly five hundred pages, covering hundreds of ‘issues’. ‘I presented it to Ad van Liempt in August and gave him a week to respond.’
But Van Liempt did not, in fact, respond at all. ‘That’s strange. He’s an academic, he should stick with the behavioural code. You’d expect him to respond to criticism.’ Droog was also annoyed that Renders wasn’t responding to his e-mails. ‘Bosscher initially responded, but after a while he stopped, too.’
One book strongly resembling another is suspect
Bosscher: ‘Droog e-mailed when I was just about to leave for Schiermonnikoog to celebrate my 70th birthday. He asked me to make notes on his 500-page file in just 24 hours. I explained to him that I couldn’t do that.’
In the meantime, Van Liempt withdrew from his role as interviewer at the Sobibor commemoration in Amsterdam. Bosscher, as a precaution, gave up his work for Westerbork and the Nicolaas Mulerius Fund. Renders kept getting messages from Dutch and international contacts who said they were being contacted about the ‘affair’. Droog even published a separate file on Renders on his website, accusing him of self-plagiarism.
Droog also e-mailed the RUG’s confidential adviser, trying to get a response: ‘They turned me away, without telling me where I was supposed to go for answers.’ Eventually, through some googling, he found the Committee on Academic Integrity and sent them a message. ‘They e-mailed me back saying they’d be processing my complaint’, he says. ‘I hadn’t even really meant my message as a complaint. But suddenly I was subject to confidentiality and everything.’
He acknowledges that he could have retracted his message to the committee. ‘But I was so happy that they were taking me seriously.’ He was also confident in his case: the RUG says on its website that using something without giving credit constitutes plagiarism. ‘To me it was an open and shut case.’
But that changed when he went to the hearing. The committee, says Droog, was being taken for a ride by Renders and Bosscher, as well as by historian J.C.H Blom, whom the trio had brought in as a quotation expert.
The fact that Van Liempt’s book physically resembled that of Lotte Bergen – both have a portrait, albeit a different one, of Gemmeker on the cover – did not violate academic integrity, the committee judged. The fact that Van Liempt used the German word ‘Rassenschande’ just as Van Riet, did not constitute plagiarism, as the word was not uncommon. Referring to sources rather than the books who had also used these sources, also didn’t turn out to be plagiarism.
In the end, the integrity committee proclaimed that Bart Droog had unearthed 38 instances of carelessness, with the most important one consisting of a misquote from an e-mail by Canadian historian Ryan Stackhouse. Some parts of his book could have benefited from citations, and Van Liempt occasionally misspelled some names. But he’d never violated integrity.
‘It’s suspect’, says Bart Droog. ‘This verdict basically allows anyone to plagiarise.’ Frits Barend: ‘It’s like a baker judging his own bread. 38 instances of carelessness?! That’s ridiculous!’
The committee kept a straight face when presented with claims that were clearly nonsensical
Klaas van Berkel
Even RUG board president Jouke de Vries announced that he wanted to discuss the ‘carelessness’ with the Committee of Deans.
Was he right to do so?
No, says Klaas van Berkel, who Bosscher had asked for his opinion as a member of the Royal Netherlands Society of Arts and Sciences and therefore the most highly regarded historian at the RUG. Not that the book is perfect; Van Berkel criticises the lack of a proper research question and the fact that Van Liempt doesn’t discuss the existing literature on the subject. ‘Most historians would probably judge that more harshly than the committee did’, he suspects.
He does praise the committee for how seriously it took Droog’s complaint. ‘Even when the complainant’s claims were clearly nonsensical (a conclusion without a note apparently automatically meant it was plagiarised), the committee kept a straight face and calmly argued that these were rarely cases of plagiarism or anything of the sort.’
Van Berkel would have liked to see the committee try and figure out the red thread in the complainant’s accusations. He says the complainant ‘clearly acted with prejudice and malice’ and was using ‘a definition of plagiarism that almost no one else uses’.
Besides, says Van Berkel, if you study a book as closely as Droog did, you’ll always find things that are less than perfect. What about the verdict of carelessness? He understands why the committee said the thesis could have benefited from more citations. ‘If only to head off unkind readers like Droog. But even if Van Liempt had provided more citations, it wouldn’t have mattered. You can’t do anything about unkind or malicious readers.’
Bart Droog doesn’t care. Last week, he announced that he wasn’t satisfied with the Groningen integrity committee’s verdict and that he’s appealing the case with The Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (Landelijk Orgaan Wetenschappelijke Integriteit, LOWI).
To be continued.
The interviews with Bart Droog and Doeko Bosscher took place before Droog submitted his appeal to LOWI.