According to AfD, the party chose this person because Erasmus saw the ‘errors of his time’ and ‘tried to correct these’, but using this argument you could choose almost any name. The humanist Erasmus is not in keeping with the xenophobic AfD and the party knows that. Choosing his name mainly appears to be a provocation which has certainly been successful considering the controversy this has created in Germany.

The AfD’s extraordinary choice raises the question of who actually owns the name ‘Erasmus’. Not Rotterdam, the city that identifies with this philosopher, nor Erasmus University, which is named after him. Erasmus does not even belong to the Professor of ‘Erasmian Values’, the chair I hold. I’ve had to disappoint journalists who called me to ask whether I could ‘ban’ the AfD’s choice. At ESPhil, we can, however, look at how such processes of appropriation take place. We can do this in the new Erasmus of Rotterdam Research Centre, where we investigate how the name of Erasmus is used and which values are attributed to this versatile thinker.

Our country’s three biggest cities identify with our three greatest philosophers. Amsterdam likes to present itself as the city of freedom and Spinoza is often mentioned in this context; a choice you could question when you realise that this philosopher didn’t believe in freedom of choice at all and was also banned from the city early on. The Hague sees itself as the city of international law and is home to institutions including the International Court of Justice, of which Hugo de Groot is said to be a symbol. That’s also a debatable choice as in his philosophy of law he mainly defended Dutch trade interests. He was also captured by the House of Orange and had to flee the country in a book chest.

I don’t want to step on any toes unnecessarily, but is Rotterdam doing any better with Erasmus? Erasmus said he was ‘from Rotterdam’ but he only lived here briefly, as he left the city as a boy and never returned. Gouda or Deventer, where he went to school, or Leuven or Paris, where he taught, and especially Basel where he spent the latter years of his life, could rightly lay claim to Erasmus. And the Germans can do that too as nowhere was Erasmus more praised than in German territories, where many saw him as a ‘German’ thinker. But Erasmus can’t be appropriated so easily, certainly not by a political party. Perhaps the AfD will also realise this when they immerse themselves in the thinking of Erasmus.

Ronald van Raak column – Levien, Pauline

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