PhD Defence Milan van Lange: Emotional Imprints. A Computer-assisted Analysis of War-related Emotions in Dutch Parliamentary Debates, 1945–1989

De oude vergaderzaal van de Tweede Kamer (1980). Bron: Wikimedia/Croes, Rob C./Anefo
The old conference room of the 'Tweede Kamer' (1980). Source: Wikimedia/Croes, Rob C./Anefo

More than 75 years after the liberation, it is considered inconceivable, or at least socially undesirable, to think, speak or write about the Second World War without some form of emotional expression. That there is a link between emotions and war is obvious. But this link has become so self-evident in the historiography of post-war dealings with the consequences of the Second World War in the Netherlands that it is hardly ever given explicit attention. Historian Milan van Lange studied developments in the role of emotions in post-war political dealings with the consequences of war. He will receive his PhD from Utrecht University on 10 December 2021.

By using computer-assisted text mining to identify emotional expressions in thousands of digitised historical sources, Van Lange analysed not only whether emotions played a role, but also how they were expressed in parliamentary debates about people who experienced the long-term effects of war: in addition to various groups of war victims, he also looked at the treatment of former collaborators and war criminals, and the former resistance. 

Concealed suffering?

“About the post-war political treatment of, for example, war victims, it has often been said in later times that the suffering of these victims was more or less concealed for a long time. The fifties are usually characterised as the period of silence in which emotions were barely expressed and played a marginal role,” says Van Lange. “That period is strongly contrasted with the ‘rebellious 1960s and 1970s’ as a period of far-reaching ‘emotionalisation’ of society. In those days, the expression of emotions in public space became more common, according to the literature.”

“Emotions in war-related debates are of all times, although the way they are expressed and used has changed.”

In debatten speelden emoties een grote rol 

“Als je kijkt naar de concrete sociale wetgeving voor specifiek deze groep, is de politieke aandacht voor en ondersteuning van oorlogsslachtoffers in de jaren vijftig vanuit een hedendaagse blik wellicht wat summier.” Dat verregaand overheidsingrijpen in naoorlogs lijden van slachtoffers nog niet plaatsvond, betekent echter niet dat hier geen oog voor was. “Het klopt dat uitgebreide overheidssteun voor oorlogsslachtoffers pas in de vroege jaren zeventig op gang kwam. Dit wordt vaak gewijd aan het idee dat er, in tegenstelling tot eerder, toen wél ruimte kwam voor de emoties van oorlogsslachtoffers in het publieke en politieke debat. In mijn onderzoek kijk ik daarom niet naar de invoering van wetgeving zelf, maar naar parlementaire debatten. Het zijn de discussies die ten grondslag liggen aan wetgeving. Wat ik in mijn onderzoek heb gezien is dat er in de debatten in de Eerste en Tweede Kamer in de vroege jaren vijftig wel degelijk veel te doen was over slachtoffers van de Tweede Wereldoorlog en hun lijden. En emoties werden vaak geuit, en speelden in al die debatten een grote rol. Emoties in oorlog gerelateerde debatten zijn van alle tijden al veranderde de manier waarop ze werden geuit en ingezet wel.”

Emotions played a major role in debates 

“If you look at the practical social legislation for this group specifically, the political attention for, and support of, war victims in the fifties is perhaps somewhat scant from a contemporary perspective.” However, the fact that far-reaching government intervention in the post-war suffering of victims did not yet take place does not mean that there was no consideration for it. “It is true that extensive government support for war victims only began in the early 1970s. This is often attributed to the idea that, in contrast to earlier times, there now was room for the emotions of war victims in the public and political debate. In my research, I therefore do not look at the introduction of legislation itself, but at parliamentary debates. It is those debates that form the basis for legislation. What I have seen in my research is that in the debates in the Eerste and Tweede Kamer in the early 1950s, there was a lot of talk about victims of the Second World War and their suffering. And emotions were often expressed, and played a major role in all those debates. Emotions in war-related debates are of all times, although the way in which they were expressed and used did change.”

Personal suffering

In the late 1940s and 1950s, for instance, parliamentarians often spoke about the war from their own experience, according to Van Lange. “In the debates, they often brought up emotional examples from their own environment to emphasise the seriousness of the matter. You see this change in the 1960s and 1970s. The personal descriptions of suffering made way for general descriptions or assessments of emotions. Specifically, a parliamentarian in the 1950s would talk about the miserable conditions in which a cousin from Zandvoort lived, and twenty years later he would talk about the grief that was still being felt in society. The kind of language becomes more distant as time goes on: it remains emotional but it becomes less personal.” No longer describing suffering in emotional terms, but talking about emotions (of other people) became more common.

Political framework

But where did the aforementioned idea of ‘silence’ or ‘contained emotions’ in the first fifteen years after the war come from? “The idea that there was no consideration for suffering and no room for emotions in the period immediately after the war is a frame that politicians used in the 1970s to push through new, more comprehensive legislation for war victims,” states Van Lange. This image was widely echoed, because it fits well with our later assessment of legislation from that time. “The intervention of politics in the lives of, for example, war victims, was initially aimed primarily at material damage. But we should also remember that all sorts of social legislation that we now take for granted was only introduced in the 1950s. In earlier debates, suffering was indeed recognised, but for politicians it was simply not a policy area at the time.”

In researching emotions in history, one balances on the edge of what is knowable.

Examining historical emotions

For a historian, researching historical emotions is not easy. “There is very little left in the present of historical expressions of emotion. Television was not yet commonplace in the 1950s, and the early political debates that I have researched were usually not filmed. We only have the verbatim transcripts. I still wanted to investigate this emotionality, even though the intonation, flying saliva and hand gestures are missing. What remains is emotion expressed in language. To investigate this, I used word lists from computational linguistics and psychology to be able to use a detached measurement method independent of my own interpretation.”

Making emotion measurable in language

“With emotion-mining I was able to identify and measure emotional language in the sources. This produces graphs with ‘scores’ that indicate how emotional language is in the minutes of a particular parliamentary debate, or in a collection of documents from a particular period. I compared these results with my own interpretation as a historian. I saw similarities but also some differences. I did not see the contrasting picture of ‘emotionalisation’ in the 1970s versus the supposed holding back of emotions in the 1950s, for example; the amount of emotion in language remained relatively stable between 1945 and 1989.”

Scores van parlementaire debatten op negatieve emotionele taal. De grijze punten geven de gemiddelde score per dag weer, de zwarte lijn het voortschrijdend gemiddelde over de periode 1945-1989.
Scores of parliamentary debates on negative emotional language. The grey dots represent the average score per day, the black line the moving average over the period 1945-1989.

How we deal with war and emotions

“What these developments mean for our image of the political treatment of war and emotions required further study. For example, I discovered that whereas emotions were described in many different terms in the 1950s, in the 1980s they were often only referred to as ‘the emotion’, but were no longer specified in any more detail. I am reminded of the words uttered by the chairman of the National Committee 4 and 5 May, Gerdi Verbeet, in 2021: ‘the further we get away from the war, the more careful we have to be’. To me, this statement indicates a development in which not only naming war-related emotions, but also referring to the war itself has become an expression of emotion. Although my research focuses on the period of the Cold War (1945-1989), you can see that the developments in our dealings with war and emotions never stagnate.”

Start date and time
End date and time
PhD candidate
Milan van Lange
Emotional Imprints: A Computer-assisted Analysis of War-related Emotions in Dutch Parliamentary Debates, 1945–1989
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. I.M. Tames
Prof. Y. Nakano
Dr R.D. Futselaar