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‘Cleveringa was more than a one-day hero’

In his biography about Professor Rudolph Cleveringa, Kees Schuyt adds to the image we already have of this famous Leiden professor. The overriding focus is generally on Cleveringa’s protest speech against the Nazis, while his later Resistance work carried much greater risks. And we also shouldn't forget that Cleveringa did not stand alone. ‘Without Telders there would be no Cleveringa.’ This was Schuyt's message in an extensive interview.

Anyone who interviews Kees Schuyt needs to be good at making choices. Almost every sentence he utters about  Cleveringa (1894-1980) is filled with telling anecdotes, detailed reconstructions and a mass of historical context, all of which are fascinating to recount: 'I have such a lot of additional information, you'll need to stop me at some point.' Schuyt (1943), professor of the Sociology of the Law, spent two years on the biography, but these two years were the culmination of half a century of preliminary work. He has been interested in the history of the Second World War since he was a student. 

The then 16-year-old Rudolph Cleveringa in 1910. Source: Groninger Achive

Why did you want to write a biography of Cleveringa?

‘I can answer that very simply: there previously wasn't one. I was amazed that almost eighty years after 1940 and almost forty years after his death in 1980, no biography had ever been written. I wanted to know about his life. Who was he? What was his life like before that protest speech? What happened after the war? Now I'm retired, I have enough time to devote to it. I put the idea to  Cleveringa’s daughter Hiltje, who gave me permission to search the huge family archive in Groningen. I also interviewd her around ten times. She has an excellent memory and can talk so eloquently about her father.'   

Could you give us an example?

‘She told me about how, as a ten-year-old girl, she came home from school on 26 November 1940 and found the house on the Rijnsburgerweg packed with people.  The whole room was filled with flowers and there were a lot of visitors. It was Professor Meijers (he lived ten doors away) who took Hiltje and her two sisters to one side. He explained that their father had done something "very momentous". The next day her father was arrested and sent to the prison in Scheveningen. It was to be eight months before she would see him again. These are just the kinds of domestic details that really reflect the atmosphere of the time. The idea of my biography was to bring about a shift in focus and fill out Cleveringa's public image. Obviously, the protest speech was important because of the message he sent out, including to the emerging Resistance movement: don't just sit there, waiting to see what the occupiers will do. But in my book I also point out that he was an excellent legal scholar and that, during the war, he did other things that were much more dangerous than this famous speech.’

The Board of Confidential Advisers in September 1945. Cleveringa is second from the right. On the far left is Willem Drees, who later became Prime Minister. Source: W. Drees 'Van mei tot mei'.

Such as?

‘In 1944 Cleveringa was again in prison, this time for seven months in Kamp Vught. Two weeks after his release he was approached by secret agent Robbert de Brauw on behalf of the government in London: we would like you to become a member of the Board of Confidential Advisers. Cleveringa could have said ‘No’, given all that he had already experienced. He was being asked to help, in secret, with the preparations for liberation. He said 'Yes', and so for the first time became part of the underground Resistance, an illegal movement. If he were discovered, the punishment for this kind of Resistance work was execution. From that point onwards, he went into hiding in Wassenaar and after that in The Hague. Until the end of the war he met with the trustees, including Willem Drees who later became Prime Minister. Cleveringa gave legal advice on such issues as the dismissal of all the officers of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands, and prepared the rapid return of the Secretary-Generals and other senior officials who had been dismissed during the occupation. He wrote the new Police Act, which was much needed, since the police had become part of the occupying force. He also wrote the text of the proclamation of Liberation Day, that was displayed on important buildings throughout the Netherlands on 6 May 1945.'  

‘After the war he returned to Leiden where he was appointed Rector Magnificus in September 1946, somewhat unexpectedly. Earlier that year Clevering had been Honorary Supervisor for Sir Winston Churchill. He was also given important positions outside the University, such as chair of the Jurisdiction Division of the Council for the Restoration of Rights, which was tasked with ensuring that all the possessions that had been confiscated were returned to their rightful owners, Jewish and others. He worked incredibly hard to achieve this. And he was twice a member of the Council of State. My book adds a lot of information that very few people still know, but that was actually not that difficult to find. I just did my homework and put everything in chronological order to make it easier to understand his life.'

Churchill received an Honorary Doctorate in Leiden on 10 May 1946. Cleveringa, who is walking beside him, was his Honorary Supervisor. Source: Groninges Archive.

What did you find particularly remarkable?

'I want to stress that Clevering didn't act alone. My point is that without Ben Telders there would have been no Cleveringa. This Professor of International Law was very active politically and had already openly protested against the Nazis on several occasions. Cleveringa made grateful use of the building blocks that Telders provided for the protest speech, such as objections on the basis of international law. You could also say that this pair would never have been there without their older colleagues Meijers, Van Oven, Van Eysinga and younger ones such as Van Bemmelen and Boeke. These actions arose from an alert and strong academic community with a collective conscience. And that wasn't only after 1840, but from as early as 1933.'   

What was your aim in writing the book?

‘The main question was: where did Cleveringa get his courage from? I wanted to relate thart to his upbringing and his training as a lawyer. It was mainly the infringement of moral and legal principals that he and the others were protesting about. But, like many others, he could have put his head in the sand. Cleveringa himself gives the answer to this question in his memories of the time he spent in prison in Scheveningen. First he wrote that he was motivated purely by civil duty. I am the dean, someone is being removed from my university and I am duty bound to see that the teaching continues. Second, the moral obligation to say: what is happening here is morally and legally unacceptable. “This has to be stopped," Teldes wrote in his letter to the President of the Supreme Council, Lodewijk Visser, who, just like Meijers,  was to be dismissed. The same text appeared in the Leiden Senate protest, also written and spoken by Cleveringa. Third, his personal gratitude towards his supervisor Meijers. Fourth, and for me this is just as interesting: as a professor, I have to set a good example for  my students, who I am responsible for educating.'  

‘This civic duty came out of a meeting - without Meijers - on 23 November 1940 of the Law professors at Cleveringa's home. Two professors (NSB member Schrieke and Van Iterson) were kept out of the meeting. The question was: what are we going to do if Meijers is suspended? Should we protest as a group or personally? Will the Rector speak on behalf of the whole University or will the Dean speak on behalf of the Law Faculty? As we know, Telders offered to give the address because he had no family. Cleveringa halted the meeting and went upstairs to his wife Hiltje. She supported her husband and Cleveringa rejected Telders'offer: no, I am the dean and it is up to me to set the right example. After the speech, the students went on strike. The Germans were afraid the students from other universities would follow suit, so they closed the University and arrested Cleveringa because he had too much influence. But now we are talking about 26 November again. My aim with this biography was not to concentrate on just one day and to talk about the many other things he did.'  

Eduard Meijers in front of the Academy Building.

How did you construct the subsequent period?

‘In his memoirs Cleveringa gave an account of the time he spent in prison, so we know exactly how that went. What have I done wrong, he asked during his trial. I have advised students to remain, and I gave a farewell lecture, which is standard practice when someone leaves.  In prison he met up with former students who had graduated under him. He started with two to a cell, with a police officer from Arnhem, which was a blessing for him. As you can imagine, it was very hard for someone who came from such an upper-class environment to suddenly find himself in a prison cell. The police officer taught him the ins and outs of 'organising' things that was necessary 'to build solidarity among the prisoners.'  

Ben Telders

‘Telders was also in Scheveningen prison but it was not until four months later, on 2 April 1941, that they met up for the first time. Telders was considered to be much more dangerous than Cleveringa; he was fiercer in openly countering the German occupiers. In 1944 Cleveringa and Telders came across one another again on 15 January, this time in the prison camp in Vught. They jokingly asked themselves: who is Stanley and who is Livingstone? For more than six months they were together in that camp. They talked a lot about the politics and the legal order they wanted to rebuild after the war. Cleveringa was released but Telders was not, due to his "politically undesirable" ideas according to the Nazis. On 5 September 1944, the day before Dolle Tuesday, he was put on transport to Sachsenhausen and then to Bergen Belsen. He died there from typhus nine days before the camp was liberated. It was a highly dramatic moment. Many people had been convinced that the politically engaged Telders would lead the post-war Netherlands.' 

Will your next book be a biography of Telders?

‘That question does set me thinking. In any event, he would certainly deserve it, just like Meijers who also doesn't have a decent biography yet. I hope my book is an incentive for others. Do more with Leiden's history'.

In February this year, Leiden historian Willem Otterspeer will publish a book about the University during the Second World War.

'Yes, I spoke to him during my research. Many of the archives I needed were literally in his office in the Academy Building. I am very curious to find out what his book will be like. He sometimes jokingly said to me: You have it easy, you only have to describe one life. And I would reply: Yes, but that is a period of 86 years. That period of yours lasted five years.'

Did any surprising things come to light while you were writing?

‘It's mainly the unusual details, such as why Meijers was put on a transport and how his former student, lawyer Lucy van Taalingen-Dols, managed to prevent this at the last minute. Sometimes I also found something special that was quite easy to find. In the UB archive, for example, I found a double interview from the 1945 Belgian newspaper De Spectator. It was an interview with Cleveringa and Meijers, who had just returned from Theresienstadt on 25 June. The former colleagues speak to each other for the first time after four years and they don't know what has happened. Cleveringa then remarks: I don't know how my speech has been distributed so widely. I only had one copy and I had to hand it over to the Attorney General. Then Meijers tells him that the students were so clever as to retype the speech. A professor had borrowed the text and they quickly made a number of copies. They also discuss together what had happened to Telders. It really is a wonderful and touching double interview, which has been in the University Library for years unread.'

Cleveringa at the age of 78. Groningen Archives.

'I hope my book will add to the existing image of a one-day hero. I point out all those other moments. My admiration for his courageous performance in November 1940 has remained, but my appreciation for the person and his attitude to life has increased enormously. He was also just a very nice person. I now understand better how he came to his actions. Throughout his life he was guided by the values of freedom, justice and truth. These three values are fully addressed in my book, which has become a serious but topical life story.'


Banner photo: Monique Shaw

Text: Linda van Putten
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