Witness to Change. The Domestic Security Service and the Global 1980s

Danny Pronk

The 1980s was a decade of unimaginable change. At its start, dictatorships across the world appeared stable, the state was still seen as having a role to play in ensuring people’s wellbeing, and the Cold War seemed set to continue long into the future. However, by the end of the decade, dictatorships had fallen, globalization was on the march and the opening of the Berlin Wall paved the way for the end of the Cold War. From a period in modern history that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 forebodingly designated as a “dangerous decade”, the 1980s ended up a decade in transition, as the global order established after 1945 broke down and a new, globalized world order emerged. In the Netherlands, perceptions of the international environment were completely structured by the Cold War. The fight against communism was the primary reason its Domestic Security Service (BVD) had evolved into a relatively large, financially sound, and bureaucratically and politically firmly established secret service. During the 1970s, the character of the BVD had already changed markedly, because new threats arose. Student activism came to the fore, followed not much later by the rise of terrorism. However, at its core the BVD was still protecting Dutch democracy from its one true enemy: communism. Due to this way of thinking, the service became increasingly estranged from its international political environment between 1980 and 1989. At the time, the Foreign Policy Department (SBP) of the BVD was a bit of an odd man out. Officially, the BVD had no tasking abroad. The core task of the SBP was "to study international phenomena and developments that could threaten the democratic legal order, the security, or other important interests of the State". As Minister Van Dijk told the House of Representatives on 6 November 1985, the SBP was not undertaking intelligence-gathering activities abroad, but rather processed data from open sources and from foreign relations. The reports of the SBP dealt with international developments, facts and backgrounds, which were considered to be of direct or indirect relevance for the internal security situation in the Netherlands. The question is what kind of insights these reports give into whether the BVD, in the shape of its Foreign Policy Department (SBP), was able to foresee the world-wide political changes taking place in the last decade of the Cold War. For instance, charges that the BVD was completely oblivious to the deteriorating economy and corroding societal conditions in the Soviet Union that set the stage for the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, have taken on the aura of conventional wisdom in the Netherlands. However, in the period 1980-1989, the SBP did report such global topics as AIDS, acid rain and nuclear war, ideological changes taking place in the socialist east, protests against nuclear weapons and for democratic governance, global environmental worries, and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Sylwia Szyc