Drees, Willem (Netherlands)

Reference work entry


Willem Drees was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a decade (1948–58), and his four successive terms witnessed at least four major political developments including problematic decolonization, economic reconstruction, the augmentation of a comprehensive welfare state and the first step towards European integration in the formation of Benelux.

Early Life

Drees was born in Amsterdam on 5 July 1886. He was educated at Commercial School, Amsterdam and began his political career in 1907 as an official parliamentary stenographer, having become a member of the Social Democratic Party in 1904. He was elected to The Hague city council in 1913, and in 1919 he was appointed Alderman of the City of The Hague, an office which earned him considerable prestige and which he carried until 1933. In that same year Drees was elected to the Lower House of the Estates General, and in 1939 he rose to become the leader of his parliamentary party and one of the first two socialists to secure cabinet office in the Dutch Parliament.

In 1940 Drees was imprisoned for attempting to ferment opposition to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. He was released after a year, and returned to the resistance movement, acting on behalf of Dutch government which was in exile in London. He chaired the Fatherland Committee which prepared the country’s course of action should German rule end.

Career Peak

When the Netherlands was liberated, Queen Wilhelmina invited Drees and Willem Schermerhorn to form the first post-war cabinet, and he was Minister of Social Affairs from 1945–8. In 1946 Drees and Schermerhorn founded the new Labour Party (Partij van den Arbeid). Drees was highly instrumental in the introduction of a temporary Old Age Pensions Act, and the legislation increased his popularity with the electorate, contributing to his appointment as Prime Minister on 6 Aug. 1948. He was to retain the office for four consecutive terms, and presided over a coalition of his own Labour Party and the Catholic People’s Party.

The beginning of his tenure was marred by the outbreak of hostilities between the Dutch colonial authorities and Indonesians battling for independence. In 1949 Drees and his government partially capitulated to Indonesian demands, and recognized the United States of Indonesia as a partner in a federation. Indonesia finally dissolved this alliance in 1954. Whilst in power Drees ushered the Netherlands into NATO, the Western European Union and the European Economic Community. He also played a significant role in the creation of Benelux. His decade of leadership was brought to an end by a Cabinet dispute over tax proposals, and he reigned on 12 Dec. 1958.

Later Life

Following his official retirement from politics he was made an honorary Minister of State, and the Labour Party awarded him a permanent position on its Executive Council. Drees was unhappy with the new policy direction of the party he helped to create, and he renounced his membership as a result. In his later life he became an astute political commentator, publishing numerous books and articles until his death on 14 May 1988.

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