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'Cleveringa’s protest teaches us the value of a strong community’

What can we learn from Cleveringa’s courageous protest speech? ‘Without imagination and a strong community, people do not stand up for one another,' says Cleveringa Professor Michael Ignatieff in his lecture on 26 November.

What motivated Cleveringa?

In a crowded Great Auditorium, Canadian author and human rights expert Ignatieff recalled the 'unforgettable civic courage' shown by Professor Rudolph Cleveringa exactly 73 years previously in that same hall. Without regard for his own life, he stood up to the Nazis and delivered his speech protesting against the dismissal of his Jewish colleague Eduard Meijers. Ignatieff is curious about what motivates a person to carry out such a courageous act. Is it a neurologically instinctive reaction? Or is it a rational consideration of moral principles? An influential school of psychologists favours the first option: morally inspired acts are the physical result of biochemical processes. These in turn are the consequence of a lengthy evolutionary process that leads us to show courage under threat.

Michael Ignatieff

Imaginary theatre

Cleveringa later explained that in the weeks before his protest speech he suffered from constant stress, that he did his best to shake off. But Ignatieff believes that the Darwinian explanation does not apply here. 'It was safer for Cleveringa to say nothing, but instead he put his own life in jeopardy.' Ignatieff believes that Cleveringa's act was the result of his imagination. 'When faced with a moral crisis we have to decide which values are most important to us. We can think of our imagination as a theatre, where we can choose for ourselves who sits in the audience.' 


Leiden was his life

Michael Ignatieff meets with Cleveringa's daughter, Mrs. H. ten Kate-Cleveringa

The decision by the Nazis to remove Meijers forced Cleveringa to choose his 'audience'. That certainly included his wife; we know that he consulted her about his intention to make this speech, and that she gave him her blessing.  He was concerned about what would happen to his three daughters if he were arrested. 'But he was even more concerned about what they would think of him if he said nothing.' Besides his family, Cleveringa's colleagues were also part of the jury that held sway over his conscience. 'Leiden was his life. His closest colleagues and friends were all members of this community. He had been a student of Meijers, now he was his friend and dean.'

An obligation towards the whole institution

Cleveringa felt an obligation not only towards Meijers but also towards the whole institution, according to Ignatieff. The protest speech was the result of a joint decision taken during a faculty meeting. Professor Ben Telders, who had neither a wife nor children, offered to read the speech. But Cleveringa felt that as dean, he should bear the responsibility himself.

Students in front of the Academy Building after Professor Cleveringa's speech.

Most people offered no resistance

But that was not the whole picture, says Ignatieff. There were few universities in Europe where professors gave similar speeches. In the Netherlands, too, the majority of the population offered no resistance; there were even some who were German sympathisers. This was partly out of opportunism because they had no confidence that there were any other options in the foreseeable future. Cleveringa stated publicly that he believed that Meijers would be reinstated. 'He was able to imagine a future without tyranny, which made his protest meaningful. And he was aware that he worked for a university that owed its existence to the resistance against Spanish invaders, and that the motto of his university was: Bastion of Liberty.  

Would we do what Cleveringa did?

What lesson can we learn from Cleveringa’s courageous act, Ignatieff is keen to know. 'Meijers was defended because he was a professor in a community that was proud enough to stand up for itself. The protection of the vulnerable depends on safeguarding civic rights. And, above all, on the close ties within communities and between friends. The only true way to honour Cleveringa is to ask ourselves when we leave this hall today:  Would we have done what Cleveringa did?' 

What are Micael Ignatieff's other activities in Leiden?

27 November 2013

  • Meeting with Dutch MPs in the Academy Building
  • Lecture at the launch of LeidenGlobal in the National Museum of Ethnography

28 November 2013
Masterclass in Advanced Public International Law in  the Kamerlingh Onnes Building


See also

On the orders of the German occupying forces, in November 1940 all 'non-Aryan' staff were dismissed. Cleveringa's protest speech prompted a strike by the students, afterwhich the Nazi's closed Leiden University. Meijers and Cleveringa survived the war and returned to the university once the war was over.

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