Volume 14 Number 4
Heart and Soul for Europe
01 August 2001

Edy Korthals Altes shocked the Dutch establishment when he resigned from the diplomatic service to become an outspoken writer and peace activist. He tells Hennie de Pous-de Jonge why he did it.

Edy Korthals Altes has spent most of his working life as a Dutch career diplomat, serving in New York, Sri Lanka, Paris, The Hague, Bonn, Rome, Jakarta, Brussels and Poland before his appointment as Ambassador to Spain. So his voluntary resignation from the diplomatic service on an issue of principle in 1996 caused quite a stir. Yet he felt that he had no choice but to follow the voice of his conscience.

Since that time he has worked to open people’s eyes to the dangers that mankind faces, and to get people to do something about them. His latest book, Heart and soul for Europe—an essay on spiritual renewal*, written and published in English, with a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury, will come out in Dutch this summer.

In this book, as in numerous speeches at home and abroad, Altes points to three ‘time-bombs’ that could destroy life on earth: the nuclear threat, the ecological crisis and the growing gap between poor and rich that is leading to economic and social conflict around the globe.

‘The military can destroy life at a moment’s notice,’ he tells me. ‘The ecological issue and social tensions are long-term threats. We are so slow to see, that only a succession of crises will lead to things changing. This means more than the current events in cattle breeding. Our attitude to man, matter and nature needs to change. And here I am not speaking of superficial talk about norms and values, but about change that takes place when people are touched by the deepest dimension, by the religious dimension.’

At the time of our interview Altes has just completed an essay on the dangers of the militarization of space. He is Vice President of the Standing Commission on Disarmament and Security of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. He chairs the working group of this organization that deals with nuclear arms and space militarization. ‘It is utterly wrong to see missile defence as a protective umbrella,’ he states. ‘On the contrary, space militarization adds a fourth dimension (after land, sea and air) to war. This fuels the arms race. He who has absolute control over space, has absolute control over the world.’

Edy Korthals Altes joined the diplomatic service a year after graduating in economics from Rotterdam.

But even as a child he wanted to join the service, attracted by the prospect of travelling and encountering different cultures.

Two points strike you when you talk with him. First, his extensive knowledge of Europe and the world—not surprising in a diplomat—and secondly his profound faith, which evidently influences all he does and says.

Has he always been a believer?

‘Thanks to my mother, I became acquainted with the depths of faith from an early age. We also attended church. During my teens and student time there was a period in which I drifted away somewhat. But I owe a lot to my mother’s example. Though she had a very difficult life and was frequently ill, she lived her faith with great joy. As with the psalmists, weakness and strength were very close to each other for her. While I used books to seek faith theoretically, I saw through her that faith needs mainly to be lived.’

He acknowledges his debt as a student to the Dutch Christian Student Organization (NCSV). He learned that prayer, meditation and Bible reading were essential for people in the process of becoming intellectuals. His continuing focus on the confrontation between faith and science stems from that time.
Through most of his life as a diplomat Altes had no difficulty in reconciling his work with his Christian convictions. He was not often able to talk about his faith but it taught him to behave as a citizen of the world and to see the people he met as children of God. During his time as ambassador to what was then Communist Poland he adopted the habit of having a daily quiet time for Bible meditation, and his faith deepened. He got acquainted with a lively church whose members echoed his belief that faith in Christ was a reality to be lived day by day.

Yet in Madrid his faith and work clashed. In his book Man or puppet, Altes describes how he had been deeply worried for some time about the arms race. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (the so-called ‘Star wars’ programme) and the NATO doctrine of deterrence presented him with a dilemma—how could he continue to transmit the official Dutch point of view, which was favourable to these policies?

Altes says: ‘Following many months of internal struggle, considering the pros and cons of speaking out openly about the arms race, I had a dream that was so intense and clear that it stayed with me. I saw Christ in a church, high above the altar. Suddenly sawdust fell from the cross and I saw the living suffering Christ who asked me intensely: “And you, what did you do?” This dream changed my life.’

After this Altes lived through a few more months of internal struggle. He had discussions with colleagues, the minister of foreign affairs and especially with his wife Deetje, before he came to a conclusion. Deetje was of the opinion that no matter how difficult the decision would be, conscience should be the deciding factor. Eventually Altes published his views in an article in a leading newspaper. From his conversations with the minister he knew that publication would mean that he could not maintain his position as ambassador. Four years before he was due for retirement, he requested honorary discharge from the diplomatic service.

How did people respond? Official reactions from the ministry were negative. But some people within the service expressed sympathy or respect for his decision. Then there were those who, out of fear for their jobs, kept silent. ‘I had earlier sent my story to a number of colleagues and I still have an interesting collection of highly supportive letters from them,’ he adds. ‘But they did not want to express themselves publicly.’ He would like these letters to be published eventually because they show how thinking about major security issues changed among a wide range of people within the system. He also received hundreds of letters of support from young and old people outside the service, as well as a flood of invitations to give speeches.

After his dismissal, Altes was asked to join the Pugwash movement, an organization whose work for peace and security won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. Through this international work he became even better informed about weapons development. In 1987 the Dutch Council of Churches asked him to become Chairman of the International Cooperation division and he also served as international chief board member of the World Conference on Religion and Peace from 1994–99. He is still honorary Chairman of this body.

Altes is a true European. Through his years of service in Brussels he became well acquainted with European politics. It is therefore no coincidence that he chose the title Heart and soul for Europe for his book. It is a response to Jacques Delors’ urgent appeal in the early 1990s to all European religious leaders to give the continent heart and soul again. Unfortunately the religious leaders hardly took Delors’ challenge on board. Altes calls upon them to do so now. And not only the Christian leaders. He has great expectations of the other religions, especially the more than 20 million Muslims in Europe. A Europe without vision will increasingly get tied up in economic issues and technocracy, he argues. ‘Degeneration and disintegration are enormous. The question is what causes them and how matters can be resolved.’

Altes is not pro-Europe without conditions. He understands the objections in the UK and says that not everything should be decided in Brussels. A balance is needed between what we do together and what we do separately. He is in favour of the euro though he thinks that it was introduced too rapidly.

Edy Korthals Altes is deeply convinced of the need to work together with other religions. What does he say to Christians who believe that theirs is the only true faith because Jesus said: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’?

‘I subscribe to the words “the way and the truth and the life”,’ he says. He came to the conclusion that when you take the way—as he did in Madrid—you see something of the truth and come to life. For him this is based on encountering Jesus—‘a personal experience that will not leave me’. But Jesus was not exclusive. In the New Testament, maintains Altes, you can see that he wanted to bring liberation for all people in crisis, whoever they were.

He expresses his reluctance to speak of God, ‘because with my limited intellect I am unable to say something sensible. Therefore I leave a lot of space for the unspoken, and try to approach it with great reverence. In that wide understanding of God, I have to acknowledge that there is room for him to have revealed himself in different ways. Everywhere where truth is found, God can work.’

In conversations with people from other religions, he says, as you come closer to your own core you also come closer to the heart of what moves each human being. ‘In view of the challenges that we face in our time, we need each other very much.’

*‘Heart and soul for Europe’ by Edy Korthals Altes, published by Van Gorcum, Assen, the Netherlands, 1999.
Hennie de Pous-de Jonge