Willem Oltmans: the man who sued the state.

by Bertine Krol, 1 October 2004

Willem L. Oltmans

- listen to the audio portrait of Willem Oltmans in Dutch Horizons, 7´55

Willems laatste grote interview, door Theo van Gogh (Real breedband)

Willem Oltmans met NOVA in Irak (Real breedband)

Willem Oltmans, without doubt the Netherlands' most colourful and controversial journalist, succumbed to cancer at the age of 79 in his hometown Amsterdam on Thursday.

His critical stories and attitude towards the Dutch government and his friendly relationships with foreign statesmen of questionable repute earned him a name for being a troublemaker.

For decades hardly anybody took him seriously when he claimed the Dutch government had made it impossible for him to his job. But it turned out he was right. He found the documents to prove it and successfully sued the government. They finally settled and in 2000 Oltmans received net damages of 3.5 million euros.

In the mid 1950s Willem Oltmans fell from grace when he wrote a series of critical articles on the decolonisation of the Dutch East Indies. After Indonesia's hard-fought independence in 1949, the Netherlands refused to give up the nearby island of New Guinea as well. At a time when Dutch journalists rarely criticised the government, Willem Oltmans was an exception.

"In 1956 I met President Sukarno in Indonesia and I liked the guy, and befriended him", Oltmans told Radio Netherlands in an interview in November 1999. "I discovered that our decolonisation policy was a fiasco compared to that of the British and French. I wrote that Holland should give up Indonesia. Not part of it, but the whole thing, and remain good friends with Indonesia and Sukarno."

His outspokenness earned the tall, elegant Dutchman with the piercing steel blue eyes the reputation of a troublemaker and more. According to Oltmans, the Dutch government and particularly former foreign minister Joseph Luns - who went on later to become NATO's Secretary-General - were set on revenge and made working impossible for him. Newspapers and magazines were coerced into refusing stories from Oltmans, and it became hard for him to travel or live abroad.

"This sabotage lasted 46 years. It was pure hatred. Because everything I wrote in '56 turned out to be right!" Oltmans once shouted in his characteristic high-pitched voice, which he would raise by an octave when angry or excited. "It's a typical Dutch character trait of not being good losers."

However, Oltmans definitely wasn't an easy person either, and it's not hard to imagine how he ruffled the government's feathers. He certainly liked to hear himself talk and his arrogance put people off. He used to boast about his contacts with the royal family and called Queen Beatrix his friend. As children they shared the same governess.

Oltmans also claimed that the Queen personally interfered in the battle between the government and him. "In 1990, when I was living in South Africa, I finally got to see part of my own files, with the help of Queen Beatrix. I saw telegrams, all stamped ‘secret'. They tried to have me thrown out of the USA, to make me lose my job. I was called everything under the sun, from CIA agent to KGB agent, things that I have never been in my life! So I finally put my foot down and said, "I'm going to sue them. Everybody thought I would never win, but I did. Though it took eight years."

All settled
The Oltmans trial caused quite a stir. He even subpoenaed members of the royal family to testify on his behalf. Eventually, the minister of foreign affairs proposed an out-of-court settlement, and Oltmans agreed. He was awarded 15 million guilders, which, after tax, left him with the equivalent of more than 3.5 million euros. In 2001, at the age of 75, Willem Oltmans finally had the means to live comfortably again. Born into a wealthy family of Dutch industrials and old Russian nobility, his circumstances had been reduced as a result of his long feud with the government, but his newly acquired wealth allowed him to move from a humble one-room apartment to a luxury penthouse with a grand piano.

When interviewed once more by Radio Netherlands in May 2001, Oltmans made it clear he didn't regard his victory as rehabilitation. "No, it was a correction. I was not rehabilitated because there was nothing to rehabilitate! I was simply blacklisted by crooks, including foreign ministers. Now I don't give a damn anymore, I feel fine and I can last out my life in a pleasant way. I study the piano again, I have a Steinway. Money means nothing to me, but I have peace now."