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Max Kohnstamm, Champion of Europe

As a teenager, Max Kohnstamm (1914-2010) chose the pseudonym 'D.E. Cipio' ('I'm disappointing'). Because of his meager results at primary school, Max was always afraid to disappoint his parents, in particular his father, who held a professorship in both thermodynamics and pedagogics. Famous scientists including Albert Einstein and Paul Ehrenfest would sit regularly by the fireside in the Kohnstamm family's home. In spite of his apparent inability to learn at school, at home young Max imbibed the love of nature, the art of philosophy and debate, social engagement and many other aspects of civilization.

In 1933 Max started studying history at Amsterdam University, with N.W. Posthumus and Jan Romein among his teachers. He wasn't happy with the quality of the training and therefore threw himself into student life instead. In October 1938, he obtained a stipendium to spend a year in the US, a remarkable achievement in those days. During his stay in the US, the dissension and threat of war in Europe gradually became apparent to him. On 10 May 1940, while the German army was invading the Netherlands, Kohnstamm was taking his final history exam at home with professor Romein.

The Kohnstamm family had Jewish roots - according to the Nazi ideology of racism, Max and his brothers and sisters were 'half-Aryans'. They fully realized the danger they were in but refused to go into hiding. In January 1942, Max was arrested and interned as a hostage in camp Amersfoort. This was a retaliatory action for an attack that had been made on a Nazi organization of students. Together with famous academics from Amsterdam, including professor Romein, Kohnstamm suffered hunger and humiliations in the camp. After three months, he was sent as a 'civilian hostage' first to Haaren and then to St. Michielsgestel, in the province of Brabant, which was liberated in the autumn of 1944. Here too, he found himself in the company of statesmen and other prominent figures who would eagerly discuss the future of Dutch society.

After his liberation in September 1944, Kohnstamm tried to leave the painful past behind him and concentrate on the future. He joined the Partij van de Arbeid [Dutch Labour Party] and he started a family with his wife Kathleen Sillem. In May 1945, Kohnstamm was asked by Queen Wilhelmina to become her private secretary. At that time, he was thirty years old and had never had a proper job. Presumably Prime Minister Willem Schermerhorn, a fellow hostage of Kohnstamm in wartime, had recommended him to Queen Wilhelmina. Kohnstamm took care of the queen's correspondence and public relations and accompanied her at formal events.

After Wilhelmina's abdication in 1948, Kohnstamm assumed a function as a government adviser on Germany. He made an early plea in favor of a common European market that would accept Germany as a fully fledged partner. He strongly rejected prevailing ideas on annexation of German territory and indemnity claims.

This attitude made it easy for Kohnstamm to make contact with German political leaders, and by 1950 he was manning the Germany Office of the Dutch Department of Foreign Affairs. In that same year, the French politicians Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, Minister of Foreign Affairs, launched a plan to merge the coal and steel sectors in Europe and place them under a central authority. This so-called 'Schuman plan' resulted in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Kohnstamm was to become its first secretary in 1950, and Jean Monnet its president.

The supranational aspirations of 'Mister Europe' Jean Monnet clearly excited Kohnstamm. An integrated Europe was considered a necessary condition for peace, whereas borders between nations and people were sources of evil and war. The two men had become friends and combined forces to extend the common market for coal and steel to other sectors of industry. Monnet withdrew from the ECSC in 1955 and founded the Action Committee for the United States of Europe. In 1956, Kohnstamm joined this lobby organization, renouncing the office of Mayor of Amsterdam, which was offered him twice.

Monnet successfully initiated the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. In his book Europese Dagboeken (European Diaries), Kohnstamm, secretary of Monnet's Committee, meticulously describes the activities of the lobby for Euratom and EEC. Kohnstamm also joined the Bilberberg Conferences promoting Atlanticism and presided by Prince Bernhard. Furthermore, he worked for the World Council of Churches. After the break-down of the Monnet-Committee, Kohnstamm became president of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy from 1973 until 1981. In 1981 he established a second Action Committee for Europe in Brussels to advocate a healthy and powerful Europe. Monnet had died in 1979, but the elder statesmen Joop Den Uyl, Edward Heath, Leo Tindemans and Helmut Schmidt participated in Kohnstamm's committee. In 1989 he relinquished his position.

Archive and publications

The greater part of the Kohnstamm archive, testimony to his rich and colorful life, has been deposited at the IISH in 2009. It contains private correspondence, diaries and travel reports and extensive documentation used for publications. The documents drawn up as private secretary of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and his correspondence with members of the Royal Family are part of the archive at the IISH, but rules for consulting these files are laid down in the code of the Koninklijk Huisarchief (Archives of the Royal Family). The Institute's Reading Room ( intermediates in obtaining permission from the archive creator to consult specified files that are subject to an access restriction. The Historical Archives of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy holds the archives built up during Kohnstamm's functions at the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community and the Action Committee for the United States of Europe, mainly from 1952 - 1969.

Published documents from the Max Kohnstamm archive:

  • Nog is er geen oorlog. Briefwisseling tussen Max en Philip Kohnstamm (Amsterdam 2001)
  • Het land was ongelooflijk mooi. Brieven van An Kohnstamm-Kessler uit 1938-1939 aan haar zoon Max Kohnstamm in Amerika (Amsterdam 2001)
  • Brieven uit Hitlers Herrengefängnis 1942-1944 (Amsterdam 2005)
  • De Europese Dagboeken van Max Kohnstamm 1953-1957, red. Mathieu Segers (Amsterdam 2008)

Literature: Anjo G. Harryvan, Jan van der Harst, Max Kohnstamm. Leven en werk van een Europeaan (Utrecht 2008).

Text: Margreet Schrevel, 2010