Prof. dr. Beatrice de Graaf
Prof. dr. Beatrice de Graaf

Historian Beatrice de Graaf is well known for her radio and TV appearances in which she comments as a researcher on the hot topics of terrorism and security. Out of the public eye, she enjoys exploring archives in search of historical documents that give insight into security policies through the centuries. Her ERC research focuses on international cooperation within Europe. The joint security policy began earlier than many people think: the professor and her team are presently investigating the 19th century.

"Up to now, the start of World War One has been regarded as the point where international cooperation in the area of security began," says De Graaf. "However, we are studying forms of 19th-century international cooperation against security risks, such as control of the Rhine and the Danube, or campaigns against anarchy or piracy. Our research also focuses on the joint European Commission for Syria that established a humanitarian mission in the 19th century to protect the Christians in the region, with a police force led by both European and Ottoman administrators."

Her international research team gathers information from many public and private archives. De Graaf shows photographs from archives of the Dutch Royal House: "Look, here is a letter from William I to his mother. We have also discovered documents from the battle against piracy (1816-1818) and about the prosecution of anarchists later in that century." The historian is concerned about the loss of 'minority language' programmes in university education: "Who will be able to translate Ottoman Arabic then? Or the old-German in the Prussian archives; at the moment I work with a retired couple who know how to decipher all those squiggles. But in the future?"

Divergent views

Her interest in the subject of conflict and security began at an early age. De Graaf grew up in Putten, where in 1944 almost 700 men were deported to German concentration camps. "Later, during my internship in a concentration camp museum when I was 19, I saw just how divergent the views on justice and injustice were. Some people saw General Christiansen – the commander of the German Wehrmacht in the Netherlands – as a hero, primarily because of his prowess during World War One. Most people, however, wanted to honour the memory of the deceased concentration camp prisoners."

De Graaf investigates how the government deals with threat and the associated fear. "Security policy draws lines, for example between those you are protecting and the world outside, between 'high-risk groups' and 'decent citizens’. It involves the government exercising its monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force. What are the boundaries of the constitutional state, and how flexible are they?"

Perception of threat

"We paint a picture of the collaborative network as well as the perception of the threat, with intervention from the police and the army. How do perceptions of danger lead to institutionalised practices, what norms and legislation become anchored in this way? Technological progress also plays an influential role: the invention of the telegraph, photography and dactyloscopy, for example, meant that much more information was available." This wide approach requires good coordination. "My research team meets weekly."

The past and present, fundamental and applied research all overlap for De Graaf. "Having been involved with the Centre for Terrorism and Counter-terrorism for many years, mainly carrying out applied research, I really wanted to surround myself with real historians again. Now I am able to combine the ERC research with smaller, topical projects, for example on ex-prisoners with a jihadist background. Or women who travel from the West to fight in Syria. This combination really works for me. Scholars take inspiration from current events, but if you only carry out applied research, there comes a time when the creativity of fundamental research dries up. You need to feed it."

Written by: Youetta Visser