Pieter Jelles Troelstra (1860-1930) – brief biography

Pieter Jelles Troelstra was born in Friesland in 1860. He studied law in Groningen, married Sjoukje Bokma de Boer, who later became known as a writer under the pseudonym Nynke van Hichtum. After a divorce, he later married again to a Sjoukje. In 1897 Pieter was elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the SDAP. The Troelstra family therefore went to live in the west of the country. Pieter was particularly committed to universal suffrage and social reforms. He was not only a politician but also a poet. He was also active in the field of journalism, including as editor-in-chief of the party magazine. In 1918, after the First World War, Troelstra proclaimed that revolution would also break out in the Netherlands. But he was wrong. He was always blamed for this ‘attempt at revolution’ throughout his career. Troelstra’s condition deteriorated in the last years of his life. He died in 1930; he is buried in The Hague.


  • Youth
  • Student in Groningen
  • Politics
  • Graduated
  • Lawyer in Leeuwarden
  • Towards social democracy
  • New activities
  • Sjoukje’s disease
  • First to Amsterdam then to Utrecht
  • Parliamentarians versus revolutionaries
  • Utrecht
  • Establishment of the SDAP in Zwolle
  • In parliament
  • Suffrage and social reform
  • Out and back in the Chamber
  • Railroad strike
  • Divorced and remarried
  • Win for the SDAP
  • Seat gain, but no government participation
  • First World War
  • The odds are turning
  • Constitutional revision and social unrest
  • Troelstra’s attempted revolution
  • No revolution, but tribute to the royal family
  • Parliamentary and revolutionary (1919-1923)
  • In recent years



Pieter Jelles Troelstra’s parents were of humble origins. Father did manage to get a job as a tax clerk in the municipality of Tietjerksteradeel. The son was born on April 20, 1860 in Leeuwarden. When Pieter Jelles was eleven, his mother died. After primary school he went to an office to receive further training; his father also gave him private lessons. Later, when the family settled back in Leeuwarden after living elsewhere, he attended high school and then grammar school. In Leeuwarden, father, whose political preference was for the liberals, also served on the municipal council and in the provincial council. He was also editor-in-chief and owner of the Friesche Courant . Moreover, he showed an interest in the Frisian language.

His son also enjoyed being involved in literature. Already in his early youth, at HBS and also in the following years, Pieter Jelles wrote poems, also in Frisian. And just like the father, the son had journalistic ambition. In 1881 his first collections of poems were published.

Student in Groningen

In 1882, Pieter Jelles enrolled as a law student at the University of Groningen. He became a member of the student corps Vindicat atque Polit . He held various positions within and outside the student body and remained active as a poet and publicist. One of his professors was the liberal Cort van der Linden, whom he would later encounter again in the political arena in The Hague.

At the annual student ball in 1885 he met the Frisian pastor’s daughter Sjoukje Bokma de Boer, who was there at the invitation of others. Sjoukje was born in 1860 and lived at home. In May 1885, Sjoukje and Pieter became engaged. In the same year, Pieter moved to Leeuwarden to complete his studies in peace and quiet in his parental home.


Halfway through his studies, Pieter became interested in politics. He was attracted to the progressive liberals and campaigned for universal suffrage. He was not yet a socialist at that time, but he did feel solidarity with the workers. He had long been interested in topics raised by socialists; in 1877 he had given a lecture to a group of young people about socialism. At that time he also showed that he had oratorical talent.


In April 1886, Pieter had returned to Groningen from Leeuwarden and started publishing a new magazine called ‘For hûs en hiem’. Sjoukje Bokma de Boer also published in it under the pseudonym Nynke fan Hichtum. Meanwhile, the time for graduation was approaching. On June 14, 1887, Pieter took his doctoral exams at the law faculty. He then settled again in Leeuwarden. In July 1888 he received his doctorate in law.

Lawyer in Leeuwarden

Also in 1888 he married Sjoukje and was sworn in as a lawyer in Leeuwarden. Less than nine months later the first child was born: a daughter, Dieuwke. It seemed like a happy family, but things were brewing indoors. Pieter Jelles did not fit into the pattern expected of him. For example, he did not want to become a propagandist for the Liberal party in Friesland and he did not join the Groote Sociëteit of which his father was a member. Moreover, he and Sjoukje formally distanced themselves from the church (Pieter had not been baptized, by the way).

Towards social democracy

As a lawyer, Pieter was increasingly confronted with social misery. He blames this misery on the lack of universal suffrage. All in all, Pieter moved further and further in the direction of social democracy. In the meantime, the socialist movement in Friesland was growing. On April 27, 1890, a congress and demonstration of socialists took place in Leeuwarden. Pieter was also there and that day was a turning point for him.

New activities

Pieter’s new vision also required a new stage to manifest itself. He found this in De Sneeker Courant , which had editors of repute and thus enjoyed national prestige. In 1893 the magazine would be continued as a weekly under the name De Nieuwe Tijd . After some time the magazine moved to Amsterdam. In addition to his work as an editor, he also acted as a propagandist outside Amsterdam.

Sjoukje’s disease

His actions as a socialist propagandist had not done Pieter Jelle’s position as a lawyer any good. That caused financial concerns. In addition, there were concerns from his wife. In January 1891 he gave birth to a son: Jelle. It had been a long, difficult birth and had weakened Sjoukje so much that she could no longer cope with the situation physically and psychologically. Pieter now had to be at home more, which meant he could go out less. Sjoukje’s illness was experienced by Pieter as a burden and an obstacle to his activities.

First to Amsterdam then to Utrecht

Due to the relocation of the editorial staff of De Nieuwe Tijd, Pieter Jelles was forced to settle in Amsterdam with his family in 1893. In a short time it had developed into a city in full swing. In twenty years the number of inhabitants had grown from 280,000 to 440,000, including many workers, and the socialist movement was well represented.

Parliamentarians versus revolutionaries

The law practice in Amsterdam was not doing well and Pieter Jelles was soon in need of money. He received a little support from his sister Haukje and from political friend Floor Wibaut, but that didn’t help much. Moreover, he was opposed by the radical Social Democratic Union (SDB). The contradiction increased because the parliamentary movement (Troelstra et al.) wanted an extension of the right to vote and the left flank (the revolutionaries) of the SDB did not. The latter saw more in revolutionary overthrow of the existing society. Troelstra apparently foresaw that he might soon have to work for another newspaper, because he started a new magazine in Utrecht with financial help from a German businessman: De Baanbreker . The Troelstra family moved to Utrecht in November 1893.

A split within the SDB could no longer be prevented. The paths of the social democrats (with their magazine De Baanbreker ) and the revolutionary socialists (with their magazine Recht voor all ) diverged. Many members, including Pieter Jelles, left the SDB.


In Utrecht, Pieter Jelles Troelstra rented a building that served as a home and housed the editorial staff of De Baanbreker and the law firm. He was still active as a lawyer, especially when (in his opinion) injustice was done to the poor. Troelstra and his colleagues worked energetically. This provoked resistance from Orange customers, soldiers and students stationed in Utrecht. They did not hesitate to smash the windows of Troelstra’s home.

Establishment of the SDAP in Zwolle

In 1894, social-democratic electoral associations emerged in various places that were heading towards a new party. Numerous leaders from the SDB joined. On May 5, 1894, a manifesto appeared in the social-democratic magazines in which the right to vote was called a useful weapon in the class struggle. The manifesto was signed by twelve social democratic leaders from across the country, later called the Twelve Apostles. The old SDB was accused of having taken the anarchist path. Sunday, August 26, 1894 was the day that the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) was officially founded in the Atlas local in Zwolle. Initially there were only about 600 members. However, a national party magazine was created: De Sociaaldemokraat , based in Utrecht; Pieter Jelles also published in it.

In parliament

The elections of 1897 went well for Pieter Jelles: he was elected a member of the House of Representatives for the SDAP, together with HH Kol. They refused to take the oath and a special Royal Decree was needed to make the promise. In his maiden speech , Troelstra made an impassioned plea for universal suffrage. In the year that Pieter came to Parliament, the family moved to The Hague. During the budget debates in 1897, the Indian budget was also discussed. Both Troelstra and Kol (who had lived in the East Indies) criticized Dutch colonial policy and in particular the war in Aceh (which was waged from 1873-1914). He also severely criticized socio-economic policy and countered this with his socialist vision. His view of the royal family also differed from the large majority of the House. He thought Wilhelmina’s accession to the throne and the associated celebrations were a waste of money. He did not wish to take the oath of loyalty to the new queen, which is why he did not appear at the ceremony in the Chamber.

In 1899, a third SDAP member entered the Chamber: Jan Schaper from Veend am, an old comrade in arms of Pieter Jelles. He was the only one in the group with a working-class background. In 1909, Willem Vliegen came to Parliament, also a veteran, like the others, one of the twelve apostles.

Suffrage and social reform

The first point of the SDAP program was universal suffrage. In 1899, Troelstra submitted a motion to this effect, but it was rejected with 54 against and 30 in favor. And it goes without saying that the subject of social reforms was also high on the wish list. But that was also the case with other parties to a greater or lesser extent. Naturally, matters were also discussed in the party magazine, which was from 1900 onwards, with Troelstra as editor-in-chief: Het Volk ; the predecessor of Het Vrije Volk (the largest newspaper in the Netherlands around 1956). In the meantime, Troelstra had moved with his family to Haarlem, more central to his journalistic work in Amsterdam and his political work in The Hague.

Out and back in the Chamber

In 1901 there were parliamentary elections again. Troelstra, who represented the Tietjerksteradeel district in the Chamber, now had to compete against the anti-revolutionary Rev. AS Talma. He also stood for election in other districts, but he mainly campaigned in Friesland. That couldn’t prevent him from losing to Talma. Nevertheless, the SDAP doubled its number of seats from three to six. For Troelstra, this not only meant a loss of seats but also a loss of income. In addition to this loss of income, Pieter and Sjoukje were constantly struggling with money worries. Pieter often had to rely on friends (such as Wibaut) for financial assistance. Sjoukje continued to struggle with her health. However, she had started writing more in Haarlem, for children. Her first Dutch children’s book was published in 1897. Her best-known book was: Afke’s Tiental from 1893.
In the autumn of 1902, Pieter managed to take the place of a departing party member in an Amsterdam district and was thus re-elected to Parliament .

Sjoukje’s health continued to cause concern. They decided to return to The Hague and rent cheap rooms there in order to save money for their children Jelle and Dieuwke’s education at boarding schools in Germany.

Railroad strike

Around 1900 there was a lot of unrest among the workers, including many strikes. In 1903 there was a railway strike. The government with Abraham Kuyper as prime minister took tough action and introduced coercive laws. Troelstra supported the strike but did strive for reconciliation, which earned him the accusation of equivocation. However, in the aftermath of the strike, it was decided to separate the positions of political leader and editor-in-chief of Het Volk . Pieter Lodewijk Tak now became the new editor-in-chief.

Divorced and remarried

Sjoukje seemed the ideal partner for Pieter, they had converted to socialism together, were both interested in literature and were both conscious Frisians. Sjoukje had always supported Pieter in everything and had always remained loyal to him, even in bad times. Sjoukje was often mentally ill. Pieter therefore often respected her and he increasingly had the feeling that she could not give him the support he wanted, that she was a burden to him and that she was alienating him. In 1907 they divorced.
Pieter’s father died in 1906. He left his children a considerable fortune. Pieter was now able to pay off his old debts and he also succeeded his father as director of an insurance company, which doubled his annual income.

Sjoukje Oosterbaan had already been living there for two years as a maid. In practice she was the housekeeper who was in charge. Pieter was in love with her and married her in 1908. In her he found the woman who offered what he needed: a mistress, a loyal support, a good conversation partner and a caregiver when his physical strength diminished.

Win for the SDAP

In 1905, Pieter Jelles Troelstra lost his grip on the party board and did not regain the editorship of /Het Volk/. Moreover, a majority orthodox party board had been elected; David Wijnkoop was her foreman. The developments in Russia (the uprising in 1905) served as a divisive factor within the SDAP. At the party congress in 1906, the Marxists (the orthodox) suffered a defeat and Troelstra returned to the party board. The SDAP made significant gains in the municipal and state elections of 1907. In 1909 Wijnberg and his supporters left the SDAP and founded the Social Democratic Party (later the Communist Party). That strengthened Troelstas’ position in the SDAP.

Seat gain, but no government participation

During the 1913 elections, the SDAP gave priority to the introduction of universal suffrage, but they were also willing to cooperate in the introduction of social legislation if it met certain minimum requirements. Other points apparently also appealed: the party jumped from 7 to 18 seats! Now the party was faced with the question: to co-govern (in a coalition) or not? A socialist leader now also visited Queen Wilhelmina. He recommended her a cabinet of liberals supplemented with ministers from Christian parties. That did not happen, but a Cort van der Linden cabinet did. Troelstra had therefore ensured that socialists did not participate in the formation of the cabinet, which was greatly resented by his fellow party members Vliegen and Schaper, among others. (In 1939 the Socialists would provide a minister for the first time.)

First World War

From his first appearance in the House of Representatives, Troelstra had turned against the war budgets and did not believe that a small country like the Netherlands could defend itself on its own if it were attacked by a large neighboring country. Moreover, those who wanted real peace had to fight capitalism. But in the summer of 1914, the First World War began with the attack in Serajewo on the Austrian heir to the throne and his wife, and the Dutch government decided to mobilise. Troelstra also supported the mobilization and the maintenance of neutrality. He acted as a mediator between the socialist parties of the warring countries and toured Europe to that end. But he did not achieve much. The office of the Socialist International moved from Brussels to The Hague. When Troelstra also became vice-chairman of the House (he was already party leader of the SDAP), it all apparently became too much for him: he had a breakdown, probably a stroke and had to take a rest. He was out of action for almost a year. He then took part in a peace conference in The Hague.

The odds are turning

In 1917, fortunes turned: revolution broke out in Russia, which led to the country eventually abandoning the fight against Germany, and Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare brought America into the fight. And there was another peace conference of the Socialist International, this time in Stockholm. Troelstra attended; his wife accompanied him. But that conference was not successful: the differences between the different countries proved impossible to bridge.

Constitutional revision and social unrest

In the Netherlands, a constitutional revision was achieved in 1917 under the government of Cort van der Linden, the so-called pacification of 1917. In short, these yielded financial equalization of education for the right and universal suffrage for the left that Troelstra had campaigned for so long. However, the results in the social field were poor. At the election congress in February 1918, Troelstra appeared to have been radicalized by the war experiences. The constitutional revision had still been a civil action. Now the phase began in which socialist society had to be realized.

Although the Netherlands had stayed out of the war, the living situation was poor for many people. There was high unemployment and food was scarce and expensive. There had been spontaneous protests and riots. Moreover, a revolution had broken out in Germany. All this made Troelstra convinced that a radical revolution was possible. In the elections in July 1918 there were two big winners: The Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP) and the SDAP with 22 seats.

Troelstra’s attempted revolution

There was dissatisfaction in both the barracks and the fleet in Den Helder about poor nutrition and brutal treatment of lower-ranking soldiers by the leadership. The food supply in the country remained a problem. On October 25, 1918, a riot broke out in the Harskamp army camp when leave was canceled. There were no casualties, but there was unrest in the country. In Rotterdam, dock workers discussed forming a workers’ and soldiers’ council. Troelstra attended a meeting of SDAP and NVV (Dutch Association of Trade Unions) in Rotterdam and stated there: the working class in the Netherlands is now seizing political power. Tuesday, November 12 was the decisive day, it now had to be seen in the House of Representatives whether he would repeat the revolutionary words of the day before. And indeed, Troelstra announced the revolution (without consultation with faction and party management), but the House, with the exception of the communists, condemned the call for revolution. However, the government was prepared to reform and import food from abroad. A few days later, Troelstra showed that he had gone too far.

No revolution, but tribute to the royal family

Although there had been no real revolution, the counter-revolution was in full swing. Activities were organized everywhere in support of legal authority. Troelstra realized that this could mean the end of his political career and he felt like a broken man. On his behalf, Schaper stated that the SDAP was pursuing reforms through parliamentary channels. At a conference of SDAP and NVV on November 16, Troelstra received a minute-long ovation. In a speech he did not show any real distance from his attempted revolution, but rather a half-hearted repentance (according to Piet Hagen in his biography). In any case: Troestra’s threat of revolution brought the SDAP into isolation that lasted 20 years.

And in the meantime, Protestant Christian and Catholic Netherlands came together to speak out against the revolution. For example, there was a national tribute to Queen Wilhelmina, Prince Henry and Princess Juliana on the Malieveld in The Hague. The procession passed through the city for an hour and a half. Tributes were also paid to the royal family elsewhere in the country.

Parliamentary and revolutionary (1919-1923)

Since there was a threat of a split in the SDAP, the party’s board was committed to promoting unity. Troelstra had written an article in De socialist Gids , his party’s scientific magazine. In it he defended his two-track policy: parliamentary and revolutionary. Troelstra won the argument within the board, received the most votes at a conference in April 1919 and returned to Parliament. Unity was restored. And the municipal elections that year were a success. Nationally, the number of aldermen increased from 10 to 87. Moreover, in 1919 the Chamber accepted active women’s suffrage. Now that Troelstra was a Member of Parliament again and director of Neerlandia and received a salary from Het Volk , he could move to a larger home. He moved into a spacious building in Scheveningen. A maid also came and he appointed a private secretary.

In 1922 Troelstra started his last election campaign. He did his best, but the party lost two of the 22 seats; possibly 1918 was still bothering him. He was successful in 1923 when, together with other parties, he managed to torpedo the Fleet Act, which was supposed to make it possible to strengthen the fleet (particularly for the benefit of the Indies).

In recent years

In recent years, Troelstra’s condition, which was not strong anyway, deteriorated further. In 1924 he held his Swan Song in the House of Representatives. In 1925 he resigned as editor-in-chief of Het Volk. At the beginning of 1925, the man who had led the labor movement for three decades was given a dignified farewell with a tribute. In 1926, the foundation stone was laid for the holiday and conference resort Troelstra-oord on the road between Beekbergen and Loenen. The last time Troelstra attended a demonstration was in September 1926 when there was a demonstration for disarmament in The Hague. Troelstra devoted the last years of his life to writing his Memoirs , a monumental autobiography. While working on this, he suffered a stroke in 1927, which left him paralyzed on the right side. With the help of a secretary he continued the work. At the end of 1929 he started work on the fourth (and final) part. Shortly after his seventieth birthday, on April 20, 1930, he suffered a breakdown from which he would never recover. He died in his sleep on May 12. He was buried at the general cemetery in The Hague.

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