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Meet researcher Constant Hijzen

Scientists of the faculty of Governance and Global Affairs research completely different subject, among which terrorism, cybercrime and migration. In the upcoming weeks we will give the floor to several of our very best researchers. In this episode: Constant Hijzen researches secret services.

What is the topic of your research?

‘The history of secret services in The Netherlands. As starting year, I chose 1912, when the “Investigative Bureau of Foreign Armies” was founded. An intelligence service, which collected data on intentions and capabilities of other European armies. The immediate cause: the threat of a European war (which, of course, actually did break out). From this military intelligence effort domestic security services developed. As end point I chose 1992, when the security service was re-invented under new leadership.’

What did you find?

‘In different eras, different actors tried to exercise influence over the security services and their activities. For much of the twentieth century, revolution and communism were perceived as the first and foremost threat to the Dutch democratic state. Only when the Iron Curtain fell, secret services started looking for a new legitimacy and modus operandi.’

Why is your research relevant?

‘Secret services tell us something about the tension between security and democracy. The main question: do we want an organization with undemocratic powers in the heart of our democracy, in order to protect the democratic state? What do we allow, where does it cross the line? Very relevant, even now.’

Surprises?

‘Some people see the BVD of the 1950s and 1960s as pretty clumsy. Undercover agents in brand new leather jackets, trying to mingle with activists. To a large extent, this image was cultivated in order to evade public attention. Actually it turns out that the level of operational professionalism was considered quite high. Thanks to British training and a close intelligence liaison with the United States, the Dutch mastered the craft rather well. The Americans praised the BVD for its professionalism, other partners did so too.’

Our image of the secret agents is largely shaped by films and spy novels. Is that image correct?

‘Fedora’s and rain coats …. Didn’t all men wear those in the fifties? Some books, films, and series are apparently quite credible, although what the main characters go through in one episode is more than some real-life ‘spies’ experience in a lifetime. One thing is definitely not true: because of their secrecy, we tend to think intelligence and security services have always been powerful and important. Not the case, at least not in The Netherlands. For most of the twentieth century, politicians and higher civil servants were not that much interested. The idea that policy and decision making should always be based on sound intelligence, was not the rule in Dutch politics.’

Want to read more about this research?

Read the Research booklet of the faculty of Governance and Global Affairs for free. In this publication, twelve researchers tell about their research.

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