Hans Renders Photo by Reyer Boxem

Hans Renders and the Biography Institute

The rest is silence

Hans Renders Photo by Reyer Boxem
It took historian Hans Renders nearly twenty years to build his Biography Institute from the ground up. But now that he’s retiring, there’s no one to succeed him. ‘That surprised me.’
19 June om 12:02 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 June 2024
om 12:02 uur.
June 19 at 12:02 PM.
Last modified on June 19, 2024
at 12:02 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

19 June om 12:02 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 June 2024
om 12:02 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

June 19 at 12:02 PM.
Last modified on June 19, 2024
at 12:02 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
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‘Really weird’ is how Hans Renders would describe the way he’s leaving the university. 

He also thinks it’s ‘rude’. 

It took him twenty years to create the Biography Institute at the UG. Under his leadership, the institute produced around thirty biographies, which also served as the authors’ PhD theses. He also organised research classes for anyone who was interested and published countless theoretical articles. Someone was supposed to take up his mantle, he says. He was promised as much, repeatedly, eighteen months ago. 

‘As well as just a few months ago’, he says. ‘I was visiting Jouke de Vries and he asked me if they’d found a successor for me yet. I said they hadn’t, so he grabbed a piece of paper, wrote something on it, and told me he’d call me the next week’, says Renders. He shrugs. ‘I never heard from him again.’

Any questions he asked remained unanswered. Emails he sent to the arts faculty’s council received no response. June 8, his last day, was slowly getting closer. ‘The only email I got was from the IT department’, he says. ‘All they said was that the Biography Institute’s official email address was going to be discontinued. That was surprising, to say the least.’


He doesn’t want to be bitter, and he’s not complaining, he says. After all, the university gave him so much. He was able to set up his institute and got all the support he needed. He had a beautiful office that looked out over the Oude Boteringestraat, with bookshelves along the wall filled with the great number of books produced at the institute. ‘I’m really grateful for that.’

They did a profile, I gave them a list of names

But why didn’t they just thank him and tell him they were pulling the plug? ‘I wouldn’t have liked it, but that’s how things go sometimes. It’s not like I have a problem with authority. But people were working on it, they did a profile on the institute, I gave them a list of names… I don’t understand why they lied to me.’

The once overflowing bookshelves in his office are now empty. He will continue to supervise a few of his current PhD students, but he found new supervisors for the rest. ‘I’m not going to work harder during my retirement than before’, he grins.

When contacts or foreign organisations ask him what’s going to happen to the institute, he can’t answer them. ‘I can only be honest with them’, he says. ‘I simply don’t know. When it comes to the faculty, they’re just silent.’

Academically sound

Renders, who started his career as a literary critic and journalist, came to the UG in 1998. He got his PhD for his biography on writer and poet Jan Hanlo and became a lecturer in the journalism department. He quickly realised there was no theoretical education on how to write a proper, academically sound biography. ‘There were just two little books’, he says. ‘One by Jan Romein from 1946 and one by Sam Dresden from a decade later. These were the only two texts they referred to. But there wasn’t anything that would help people write a biography that wasn’t just a really long Wikipedia article.’

In the meantime, he was being hounded by people who wanted to write biographies as their PhD thesis. Renders realised there was an opportunity there. ‘I decided to really focus on teaching theory.’

A good biography allows us to look at history from the side

A good biography, he says, is a beautiful piece of historic writing. ‘It allows us to look at history from the side.’

You focus on one person, on a single aspect that you get to the bottom of. That can lead to new insights about history as a whole. In the end, he says, people read biographies to learn more about the themes in these people’s lives. ‘It’s about the tension between a person’s uniqueness and representativeness compared to the context.’

One example is Nigel Hamilton’s biography on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was usually outshined by Churchill when it came to military successes, but that’s mainly because Churchill wrote his own memoirs and Roosevelt died in 1945. ‘However, Hamilton found out that in the middle of the war, Roosevelt flew to Casablanca to talk to the military staff and determine the strategy for the rest of the war. He was the only president at the time who did so. That makes us see him in a completely different light.’


The way biographies use sources is also an opportunity. ‘It’s a way of breaking with the hierarchy of sources that historians tend to use.’ Biographers ideally use ego documents and oral history, with regular history being of secondary importance. 

But not every book about a person is a biography. Many people are simply obsessed with a particular person and want to write a book about them. ‘That has nothing to do with writing a proper biography’, Renders argues. 

I’m proud of what we created here

It’s one of the reasons he’s often expressed criticism of athletes’ biographies. These are often written by fans and therefore bear no resemblance to biographies. A true biography must look critically at its subject. Any story the author tells must have a solid foundation. 

Take Pieter Jelles Troelstra, for instance. ‘A lot of social democrats write biographies on social democrats, who they consider to be truly representative of the movement. But if you start the process with preconceived notions, you’ll always find something to support them in your sources. I always tell people to flip the script. Was Troelstra truly that representative of social democracy?’

It turned out, he wasn’t. Then there’s Abraham Kuypers, the front man for the austere reformed movement, who turned out to always stay in fancy hotels. You have to ask yourself what this means. Because he became party leader, while others, who perhaps represented the movement better, didn’t.


These modern biographies, which include notes and theoretical justification, are very popular in bookstores. ‘They’re barely edited.

Publishers used to think that readers would give up if you bothered them with too many details. But Renders thinks they underestimate their readers. ‘Don’t you think that someone who takes four days to read a book about a single person that they paid 40 euros for would want to know where the information comes from?’

Sometimes, as in the case of the biography of Helene Kröller-Müller, whose art collection formed the basis for the famed Kröller-Müller museum, these books become downright bestsellers. ‘To be fair, I think that’s one of the best biographies to come out of the institute’, says Renders. 

But now it’s time for him to say goodbye to all the work he did over the past few years. No more Biography Institute, no more consultations from abroad, no more guest lectures, and no successor to show the ropes. ‘But I’m keeping my head up’, he says. ‘I’m proud of what we created here.’

There is other work that he’s not retiring from, such as the biography column in Met het Oog op Morgen, the biographies he writes about in newspaper Het Parool, and his spot on the jury for the Libris Geschiedenis Prijs. There’s also an archive that needs tidying up. 

What else? ‘I think I’ll go and write another book’, he says. ‘I’ve given myself time off until January 1 to figure out what it will be about.’

Response from Thony Visser, Faculty of Arts dean

‘Over the past twenty years, Hans built the Biography Institute from the ground up. He’s responsible for countless publications and a great number of biographies. He’s been absolutely amazing and we are grateful to him.

We understand that it can be difficult for people who are leaving to realise a successor hasn’t been found yet. Considering the UG’s and the arts faculty’s financial position, I have to be honest and say that for every case, we have to figure out if and how we can fill a position and how we can embed it in the faculty. But the intention to find a fitting successor for Hans hasn’t changed.’