The occupation of the Maagdenhuis in 1969 was the result of the increasing discontent among the student generation. The unrest started with the Provo movement in Amsterdam, which demonstrated against authoritarian governing structures and the rise of mass consumerism from 1965 to 1967. Provo became a symbol of the dissatisfaction among post-war youth. Pictures of the smoke bombs thrown during the wedding of the Dutch Princess Beatrix (1938) and her fiancÃ© Claus (1926-2002) went around the world.
Other Provo manifestations took place on Spui Square in the center of Amsterdam. Dutch students were greatly impressed by them. In other countries, similar movements popped up. Taking action suddenly became an option for people to show their anti-authoritarian ideals.
The Summer of 68
Internationally, the year 1968 was an important year in student protests. The year before, the Summer of Love had turned into a great anti-war movement. In 1968, the press images of the Vietnam War undermined the belief in authoritarian action even more. They showed the American Army in Vietnam burning down villages and crops, resulting in many casualties and famine. Consequently, American students started demonstrating on their college grounds. In Ohio, at Kent State University, the police opened fire on demonstrating students. In Mexico, a student demonstration aiming at democratizing the one-party state into a â€˜realâ€™ democracy, resulted in the Tlatelolco Massacre. The mass demonstration in Paris against Vietnam and the French president Charles de Gaulle (r. 1959-1969), combined with several strikes across France, ended in the collapse of the De Gaulle government. Again, the police acted violently against the demonstrators.
Baby Boom Voice
Moved by these historic events, the board of the University of Amsterdam had already engaged in the first discussions on democratizing its administrative structure. Small changes were made, but not for the students. The baby boom generation went to university, and the giant wave of students led to standardization: exams were not held orally anymore, classes became bigger. This was not what the students wanted. Consequently, they demanded joint decision-making and transparency on all levels.
Rector Guus Belinfante (r. 1968-1971) was not impressed by this call for democratization. Joint decision-making and transparency were empty slogans, he said. He soothed the students by saying that initiatives would be taken into consideration. But not all students were convinced by his statement.
The Empty Slogan
Motivated by the Rectorâ€™s rejection, the activist group The Empty Slogan was formed. Law student Paul Verheij was one of the leaders. He resigned his chairmanship of the Algemene Studentenvereniging Amsterdam (General Student Union Amsterdam, ASVA) after the Rectorâ€™s statement. With The Empty Slogan, he continued the protest and started mobilizing students again. Eventually, the Auditorium next to the Maagdenhuis was occupied. It became a place for discussion among students.
During the night of May 16 to May 17 1969, some twenty students crossed the alley between the Maagdenhuis and the Auditorium. They climbed through a window, followed by hundreds of students. The Maagdenhuis was occupied. An Occupation Council was formed, with Paul Verheij as chair. Pamphlets were distributed around Amsterdam proclaiming:
â€œThose who do not acknowledge these rights, are the enemies of democracy!â€
Organizing the Occupation
The occupation was well-organized. People were divided into groups with different tasks. One group had to prepare the meals, another one had to think of ways for supplies to be brought into the building. Others were responsible for keeping order inside the Maagdenhuis or for running the printing office. Later on even a pirate radio station was created.
Plans were developed for emergencies. In case the police broke in, the radio station had to be secured. More importantly people had to protect themselves against the police. Strategies for dealing with police violence and arrest were established.
Secrets and Pamphlets
The printing office in the Maagdenhuis was working overtime printing pamphlets. On the first day, confidential documents were found in locked desk drawers. These showed that the Rector did not trust the students in making any good decisions. In a pamphlet named â€˜Secret Secret Secretâ€™ the occupiers revealed this information to the public. Many more pamphlets and messages were printed, until there was not a single sheet of paper left in the entire building. In the meantime, the police were also mobilizing. They blocked the square, in order to isolate the Maagdenhuis from the outside world â€“ or so they thought.
Bread, Cigarettes, Sanitary Pads
On the second day, May 17, at 1:00 am, the police blocked all the entrances. At that time, the students realized they did not have enough food to continue the occupation. At 7:00 am a ladder was placed across the alley to the right of the Maagdenhuis. It formed an air bridge between a window of the Maagdenhuis and a window at the back of the University Auditorium, which could be accessed from the University Library through a garden. Later, socialist construction workers came to help and reinforced the feeble bridge.
The director of the library, Mr. Van der Woude, also sympathized with the students. When the police tried to enter the University Library, he sent them away saying: â€œThe students are here with my permission.â€
The occupation did not only bring students to action. A request for food and supplies was answered by many Amsterdam citizens who came with loaves of bread, bottles of milk and other needs. Grocery lists were passed on, one of which said: â€œWe need bread, cigarettes and sanitary pads.â€
Tear Gas and Water Cannons
The police tried to tear down the air bridge using water cannons and improvised grappling hooks. Finally, on May 20, the fifth day of the occupation, tear gas was thrown through the windows at 4 am, and a tow-truck took down the bridge. Towels were torn and wetted immediately, so people could keep on breathing despite the tear gas.
The occupiers were now supplied by a small cableway with a grocery bag. The police tried to shoot the supplies with a water cannon. New pamphlets were printed, still asking for provisions.
Â â€œAmsterdammers, the Maagdenhuis on Spui Square is still under siege. The police destroyed our air bridge and tried to smoke us out at 4 oâ€™clock this morning. We ask for your solidarity! This is only the beginning â€“ we continue our fight against the capitalistic authorities!â€Â
Pamphlet by the occupiers
Occupy your Children’s Study!
There was also a lot of opposition against the occupation. Neighbours complained about the noise and the unrest. The ASVA administration office was counter-occupied by students who disagreed with the occupiers. Many other students terminated their ASVA membership. A studentâ€™s father circulated a letter, claiming that the occupation was just criminal burglary:
â€œStudents! Use your wits and leave the illegally entered area. Donâ€™t do the dirty work of the Socialist Youth or the Communist Party of the Netherlands. Think of your future!!! Have you forgotten the â€˜Provoâ€™ misery??? Action asks for reaction!!!!!! Forbid your sons and daughters to engage in this dreadful action. The police and the government have to see how democracy is being trampled. You should take counter-action! â€˜Occupyâ€™ your childrenâ€™s study and room, until this action is aborted.â€
Outside the Building
Still, food had to be delivered. A procession of sympathizers from the Oudemanhuispoort, a university building nearby, started walking towards the Maagdenhuis. When they wanted to cross Rokin street, the police charged into the crowd. This violent quelling of the procession scared the occupiers: would they be next? Pamphlets were printed, claiming the Mexican Tlatelolco massacre had its Dutch successor. On the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, another street, the police acted harshly against the crowd as well.Â
The Free Maiden
The night before the food march, a pirate radio station De Vrije Maagd (The Free Maiden) was launched inside the Maagdenhuis. The occupiers screamed slogans through the ether. Through the windows, they heard the nearby crowd screaming the same slogans.
Scared by the police actions, the occupiers decided that the occupation had to maintain its non-violent nature. All the occupiers sat down in the hall of the Maagdenhuis, while the police broke a window and removed the barricades. The occupiers were dragged out through the front door. Immediately, the police went searching for the illegal radio installation. But it was already gone. The occupation was ended.
Trial and Error
After the occupation, most of the occupiers were released by the police with only a fine as punishment. The main organizers of the occupation were sentenced to jail. These Maagdenhuis Trials generated more demonstrations by other students. The main organizers faced one to eight weeks of imprisonment. Paul Verheij was one of them. However, Rector Belinfante was the first to say that the occupiers should not be punished. Public opinion and the House of Representatives thought this punishment was too strict as well. Consequently, the occupiers that were sent to prison got away with a fine as well. From this moment, the students were taken more seriously in decision-making on the university. Student Councils were established on the different faculties and transparency was recognized. Students became more active and started to play a bigger role in their university. Although the occupiers were punished, it still was an honour to have the Maagdenhuis Occupation on your criminal record.
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