Farewell to the Quintessential Editor: Frits Niessen (1936-2020)
It is with deep regret and profound sadness that we inform you that Ons Erfdeel vzw former deputy editor-in-chief, Frits Niessen, has passed away. He was associated with the organisation for almost sixty years. Niessen was fully committed, tenacious, always focused on the bigger cause and completely devoid of selfishness.
Frits Niessen (Raamsdonkveer, b. 1936) first contributed to Dutch-language magazine Ons Erfdeel in 1957, shortly after it was founded. He started out as a member of the editorial staff, and soon became part of the core editorial board, alongside editor-in-chief Jozef Deleu. In 1977, he was appointed deputy editor-in-chief of not just Ons Erfdeel and Septentrion, but also of bilingual yearbook De Franse Nederlanden/Les Pays-Bas Français, as well as, from 1993 onwards, of English-language yearbook The Low Countries. He was jointly responsible for many other publications.
Frits Niessen in 2016
Throughout all those years, Niessen was involved in every important decision taken in-house. Apart from bearing witness to ongoing developments, he also profoundly affected them. One day, someone should chronicle how, for many decades, he worked perfectly in tandem with Ons Erfdeel vzw founder and former editor-in-chief Jozef Deleu. After Deleu’s departure in 2002, Frits Niessen continued to demonstrate the same fervour. At the end of 2016, he resigned as deputy editor-in-chief.
Frits Niessen trained to be a teacher and then went on to study Dutch in Tilburg, North Brabant. He spent years teaching Dutch, including at a pedagogical academy. His students remember him as an inspirational and enthusiastic teacher. Between 1980 and 1994, Niessen occupied a seat in the Dutch House of Representatives as a member of social-democratic Partij van de Arbeid. There, he mainly focused on cultural matters. Together with Aad Nuis (a member of left-leaning, liberal D66) and Marten Beinema (a member of Christian Democrats CDA), he profoundly influenced Dutch cultural policies. In 1985, he fiercely interpellated Minister Brinkman about his refusal to present Hugo Brandt Corstius with the P.C. Hooft Award, an important literary lifetime achievement award. In 1989, he successfully prevented a first attempt to close down the Institut Néerlandais in Paris.
In 1985, Frits Niessen fiercely interpellated Minister Brinkman about his refusal to present Hugo Brandt Corstius with the P.C. Hooft Award, an important literary lifetime achievement award. © Nationaal archief
Niessen acted as president of various cultural organisations, e.g. the Zuidelijk Toneel in Eindhoven and the Stichting Lambertuskerk (Lambertus Church Foundation) in his native village of Raamsdonk. He belonged to the board of the Nederlands Literair Productie- en Vertalingenfonds, which is now known as the Nederlands Letterenfonds (Dutch Foundation for Literature). Moreover, Niessen was a member of the Interparliamentary Commission of the Taalunie (Dutch Language Union), which he also chaired, and together with Hugo Weckxs, he presided over the Commissie Cultureel Verdrag Vlaanderen-Nederland (CVN; Commission Cultural Convention Flanders-The Netherlands).
‘Passionate control freak’
During his initial decades as an Ons Erfdeel editor, he contributed many articles on topics such as literature, cultural politics and the Flemish Movement. In later years, Frits would write less for our publications – after all, he had been doing so extensively for years –, but up until 2016, he remained the perfect editor, arriving right on time for every editorial meeting, always bringing a truckload of ideas. Those editorial suggestions were proof of his wide cultural and societal interests. Being a generalist, he embodied what could be considered the quintessential editor: always open to debate and never clutching on to a hidden agenda, well-prepared and tenacious if necessary, and accommodating when decisions were finally made. His book reviews reveal he was an attentive, critical reader, who remained thoroughly unimpressed by technical jargon or fashionable overly intellectual mumbo jumbo.
Being a generalist, he embodied what could be considered the quintessential editor: always open to debate and never clutching on to a hidden agenda
On leaving CVN as co-chairman in 2006, Niessen was made a Commander of the Order of the Crown. Nine years prior, he had already received the Visser-Neerlandia Award. This award is presented by the Algemeen-Nederlands Verbond (General Dutch Alliance), an organisation that fosters cultural collaboration between the Netherlands and Flanders. He was awarded this prize for forty years of ‘individual merit’ in the field of Dutch language and culture. Then secretary of state Aad Nuis called him a ‘passionate control freak’ in his laudation. Nuis demonstrated how Niessen served as a bridge between the North and the South, commenting ‘To a Northerner you are a true Southerner, a Brabanter. Flemish people, however, could interpret your punctuality and tenacity as proof of Dutch brashness. I suspect you are part of both of those worlds and have taken root in both as well.’
Firm but fair
In the 1957 letter written by the ‘Northern Netherlands youngsters’ as they joined Ons Erfdeel, these twentysomethings promised to ‘enthusiastically dedicate themselves to this important cause.’ ‘This cause’ refers to the aim of the magazine and, according to the signatories, that goal was the ‘interconnectedness of being a general Dutchman.’ Dutch Brabanter Niessen, who fell in love with Flanders like no other, which enabled him to address it with plenty of background knowledge and – if need be – with a firm but fair tone, has maintained that enthusiasm for nearly six decades. He was fully committed, tenacious, always focused on the bigger cause and completely devoid of selfishness.
Looking back, Niessen’s efforts and influence have proved to be invaluable and extraordinary for the development of the Ons Erfdeel vzw publications and this cultural institution itself.