Dries van Agt in zijn werkkamer
Dries van Agt in zijn werkkamer

In memoriam: Dries van Agt

Radboud alumnus and former prime minister Dries van Agt passed away on Monday 5 February at the age of 93. He passed on together and hand in hand with his wife Eugenie van Agt-Krekelberg, also a Radboud University alumna, in their hometown of Nijmegen.

Andreas Antonius Maria (Dries) van Agt was born in Geldrop on 2 February 1931. He obtained his gymnasium diploma from the Augustinianum in Eindhoven in 1949. Afterwards, after some urging by Professor of Commercial Law Joop Jurgens, Van Agt went to the Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen to study law. Van Agt said in a letter submitted on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Faculty of Law: "For a long time I was in doubt about which study and at which university. The Nijmegen professor Jurgens, who was a family friend of my parents, finally took me by the sleeve, brought me to Nijmegen and enrolled me in the Faculty of Law. Since then I have been telling emphatically, to whoever will listen, how delighted I am with that choice of study, not to say in seventh heaven." So Van Agt began his law studies. During the first year he lived with the family of professor Jurgens, in a mansion at Sint Annastraat 170. Later, he occupied a room in a student house above the mensa, at Oranjesingel 3.

Dries van Agt met zijn vrouw in de woonkamer

Student life in Nijmegen

At the beginning of his studies, Van Agt joined the Nijmegen Student Corps Carolus Magnus. He experienced the humiliation he had to endure during the fraternity hazing as a horror. At Carolus, where he soon became known as a gifted speaker, he met his later wife Eugenie Krekelberg, also a law student. They simultaneously served on the corps' senate in 1951-1952 and together, as abactus primus and abactis secunda, looked after the secretariat. 

The then praeses of Carolus Magnus, Fons van der Stee, would later become an important political ally of Van Agt. Among other things, he was minister of agriculture in the Den Uyl cabinet (in which Van Agt was justice minister and deputy prime minister) and minister of finance in the Van Agt I and II cabinets. Van Agt himself also held the position of praeses at Carolus Magnus, in the 1952-1953 academic year. He seized that opportunity to implement a major structural change in the corps, including fraternity hazing on a voluntary and equal basis. His ideas were decidedly progressive.

In his own words, Van Agt experienced attending lectures as "an intellectual delight". Professors Charles Petit (civil law) and Dick van Eck (criminal law) in particular stimulated Van Agt's legal curiosity in the lecture halls and instilled in him a love for the subject. He graduated cum laude in 1955. After his studies, Van Agt went to work in a law practice in Eindhoven.

Back and forth between The Hague and Nijmegen

Again on the advice of professor Joop Jurgens, Van Agt moved to The Hague to work as a government official: first at the Ministry of Agriculture, later at the Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, Van Agt married Eugenie Krekelberg in 1958. They later had a son and two daughters. After eight years of civil service, Van Agt returned to Nijmegen as a lecturer at the Katholieke Universiteit. Not much later and much to Van Agt's surprise, Professor Wim van der Grinten asked him to advance to the position of Professor of Criminal Law, following the sudden passing of Van Agt's predecessor and source of inspiration Dick van Eck. "To my enormous surprise and joy, I was appointed his successor. Teaching went well for me, I got on well with the students." Van Agt was known among students as an impassioned, eloquent and approachable teacher.

After three years of working at the law faculty, Van Agt left Nijmegen for The Hague to become minister of justice for the Katholieke Volkspartij (KVP) in the Biesheuvel cabinet. A dream job for Van Agt, although he left the university with some feelings of guilt: "Unfortunately, I had to leave my professorship after only a few years, long before I had redeemed the credit inherent in my appointment. During the formation of the Biesheuvel cabinet, I had earlier declined the offer to become minister of culture, recreation and social work, indicating that justice would suit me better. But that post became available as if by magic on the very last day of the formation. For many years, I had served that department as chief official and had become attached to it. There I would be able to put my knowledge acquired at university to the best use."


Van Agt was known as a politician keen to downplay his own importance, one who did not actually feel quite at home in political The Hague. He had his heart on his sleeve and stood out in particular for his self-mockery and his archaic use of language. Van Agt was minister of justice in the Biesheuvel I, Biesheuvel II and Den Uyl cabinets. In the latter cabinet, he was also deputy prime minister. As justice minister, Van Agt was at the centre of several political crises, including the case over the early release of the 'De Drie van Breda' and the failed arrest of millionaire Pieter Menten. As outgoing justice minister, he was also involved in the termination of the Moluccan train hijacking near De Punt that left several people dead; a burden he says he carried with him for the rest of his life.

Party leader and prime minister

In 1976, Van Agt was elected as the CDA's first leader: the confessional parties KVP and ARP participated in the Parliament elections as a joint list for the first time. Although the PvdA won the most number of seats in the May 1977 elections, a second Den Uyl government did not get off the ground, partly due to tensions between the PvdA and the KVP from the previous cabinet. After a formation period led by Willem van der Grinten, Van Agt, encouraged from the sidelines in newspaper De Telegraaf by Frans Duynstee, then managed to form the Van Agt I cabinet on behalf of the CDA in cooperation with Hans Wiegel's VVD.

In the 1981 elections, Van Agt's CDA became the largest party. He formed cabinet Van Agt II with Joop den Uyl's PvdA and Jan Terlouw's D66. However, the cabinet fell within a year, partly due to pre-existing tensions between Van Agt and Den Uyl. The cabinet continued its course as the Van Agt III rump cabinet until 4 November 1982, with only the CDA and D66 as participating parties. After the 1982 elections, Van Agt had the opportunity to become prime minister again in a coalition cabinet with the VVD. However, to the surprise of many, he decided to withdraw. 

Political life in The Hague, away from his wife and children who stayed behind in Nijmegen, was hard on him. In the letter sent in, he described his wife Eugenie's sacrifices in that context: "From June 1971 to November 1982, Eugenie managed the family on her own and brought up the children on her own: a heroic achievement, although she doesn't see it that way herself. When I was sometimes in deep trouble, like during the dramatic Parliamentary debate on 'de Drie van Breda', Eugenie climbed into her car and drove in the night to the battlefield in The Hague to encourage me: matchless bravery!"

After The Hague

After his political career in The Hague, Van Agt became Queen's Commissioner in Brabant. He then served as an EU delegate in Japan and the United States. Back in the Netherlands, Van Agt settled back in Nijmegen, where he lived until his passing.

Van Agt's views shifted more to the progressive side of the political spectrum later in life. For instance, he became a strong advocate for the Palestinian cause and felt less and less at home politically in his party the CDA. In 2021, he renounced his membership of the party. He did so "with a heavy heart", he wrote to the party leadership, but he finds it "incomprehensible that the CDA continues to turn its head away from the immense suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people".

Until an advanced age, Dries van Agt showed great commitment to our university and the law faculty in particular. As long as his health permitted, he felt connected to the academic community. He was a frequent and welcome guest at academic celebrations and alumni meetings: "The faculty now. I have a cordial contact with it, often come to events and lectures, including inaugural resignations and promotions. Nostalgia and gratitude are what keep this affection going."

In recent years, the Van Agt couple's health fell. Dries van Agt and his wife Eugenie Van Agt-Krekelberg chose to take the reigns and step out of life together.

Dries van Agt met zijn vrouw

Photos by Niek Tönissen.

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