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A hornets’ nest: Leiden University during the Second World War

‘That hornets’ nest in Leiden must be destroyed,’ said Dutch National Socialist Party member Robert van Genechten in November 1942. He was referring to Leiden University. Why this hatred? Emeritus Professor of University History Willem Otterspeer has written a book about Leiden University during the war that is based on unique personal archive material. ‘It was an exceptional university, under exceptional pressure, with a number of exceptional people who all had a role to play.’

You are already working on a series of four books on the history of the University. Why a separate book about the University during the war?

‘There are two reasons for this. First, while I was doing my research I happened upon a large University archive about the war years. I knew it existed, but didn’t know how valuable it was! It contains documents that were already collected during the war as well as interviews from the 1960s with people who played a large or small role in the war. These people are no longer alive, but their stories have been preserved. What is more, the archive proved to contain a huge number of autobiographical documents: memoirs, diaries, letters... People are writing about their experiences of the time, how they felt... It meant I could get very close to those times.’

A German roadblock on Rapenburg.
A German roadblock on Rapenburg.

‘A second reason is the exceptional position of Leiden University. Leiden was the first university in the Netherlands, which meant it served as an example to other universities and had gained international renown. There was a “myth” in Germany that Leiden was the most important university, the leading one. A certain Schwarz writes, for instance, “Leiden is the most important university in the Netherlands. The elite has always studied there. It is the intellectual stronghold of the Netherlands. If we succeed in Nazifying Leiden University, we will have the entire intelligentsia of the Netherlands on a leash.” This idea had taken root with the occupier, which meant Leiden University was given a kind of negative preferential treatment. Extra efforts were made to suppress it. All in all, you could say that Leiden was an exceptional university that was placed under exceptional pressure. And that a number of exceptional people all had a role to play.’

Who were these exceptional people?

‘The whole spectrum was represented: from heavy-duty collaborators to those who put up stiff resistance. By far the majority of the professors were, of course, somewhat moderate, unworldly – timid even– scholars, who did not feel even the slightest need to interfere in politics or the business of the occupier. But the Rector Magnificus of Leiden in 1940, Muller, for instance, was a real collaborator. He immediately called on the professors to obey the Germans. The professor of colonial law, Jaap Schrieke, was a real Nazi too. There were calls to impose the death penalty on him after the war.’

‘And there were a number of people who put up stiff resistance. The real hero in my eyes is law professor Ben Telders. He was unbelievably brave and a real fighter. Without him and his bellicosity the history of our university would look very different.’

Professor of International Law Ben Telders was a major source of inspiration for resistance on the part of Leiden professors.
Professor of International Law Ben Telders was a major source of inspiration for resistance on the part of Leiden professors.

Why do you think that Telders was a true hero? In our collective memory Rudolph Cleveringa is the main face of the resistance at Leiden University.

‘Telders was the first to come up with a resistance strategy for the University. This was based on the Hague Convention. This provided a very precise description of what an occupying force could and, more importantly, could not do. Germany had signed this at the end of the 19th century. Telders called on his fellow professors to constantly remind the Germans of the Convention, and to point out that they had to stick to their own rules. Contrived justice is how he put it. It drove the Germans crazy!’

So Telders was the one who inspired resistance on the part of the professors?

‘I found a very unusual pamphlet in the war archive. That pamphlet could even be the real reason why I wanted to write this book. Famous Leiden historian Johan Huizinga has a good theory about historical sensation or how you come into contact with the past. This is through things, through original documents. They let you travel through time: you hold them in your hands and a few centuries suddenly disappear. I had that with this pamphlet [see image, ed.].’

‘The pamphlet was written by Professor Schrieke. The Germans had asked him to set out a legal argument for why the Hague Convention no longer applied to the Netherlands under occupation. That is this pamphlet. And in the margins of this pamphlet are a whole bunch of comments and exclamation marks: these are notes made by Telders. He is furious about Schrieke’s argumentation and has added his comments. The extraordinary thing is that Telders wrote this when he was already imprisoned in Kamp Vught. Someone therefore smuggled this pamphlet into the camp, so that Telders could comment on it, and then managed to get it out of the camp again. Telders could get his message across to his colleagues after all. He was an important source of inspiration for the resistance at the University. Cleveringa, for instance, always said that he went to Telders for advice. And it was no coincidence that Schrieke wrote this pamphlet in opposition to Telders’ strategy.’

The pamphlet in which Jaap Schrieke argues that the Hague Convention no longer applies to the Netherlands under occupation. The pamphlet was smuggled into Kamp Vugt, so that Ben Telders could add his comments.
The pamphlet in which Jaap Schrieke argues that the Hague Convention no longer applies to the Netherlands under occupation. The pamphlet was smuggled into Kamp Vugt, so that Ben Telders could add his comments.

What was the German response to such resistance?

‘The fight intensified after Cleveringa’s address and the closure of the University in particular. It was brought to a head by a certain Robert van Genechten. In a speech, he said that “the hornets’ nest in Leiden” had to be destroyed and that he would be the one to do so. He set his sights on the Faculty of Law, which was fighting him tooth and nail. Professor Kranenburg being sacked was the final straw. He was criticised for not having focused on certain measures taken by the occupier in an academic book, but this went down the wrong way: it was seen as interfering in academic work. A line in the sand had been drawn. A large number of professors resigned en masse, which resulted in the definitive closure of the University.’

In your book, you call these professors ‘good’ – and other ones ‘bad’. It’s not so common to write about the war in terms of ‘good’ and ’bad’ anymore...

‘That’s true, because you then lose your focus on the big majority in the middle, the ‘grey mass’. But I found it useful not to sidestep the discussion about what constitutes good and bad in this book because not accepting the dictates of the Nazis is so inherent to academic ethics. If you adhere to academic standards, it is almost impossible to agree with Nazification. And I think that anyone who took academic ethics seriously could do little else than put up some form of resistance. Perhaps not to the extent that Telders did because we’re not all destined to be heroes. But you can resign, particularly if you appreciate that at that time the University was very much selling itself as a moral community.’

‘In that light, therefore, I’m not particularly positive about the role of the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory at the Faculty of Science. This stayed open during the war, the scientific work continued and they invited German scholars to join them. I do understand that as a scientist you don’t want to stop doing your research – particularly if you consider the laboratory's international reputation and the groundbreaking work that was being done at that time. But in my eyes they let “small science,” their own work, take precedence over the greater scientific or university ideal.’

Resistance groups

‘I wondered how it could be that so many more professors in Leiden put up resistance than in other universities. I can now give a very detailed answer to that question. A select group of professors, very much inspired by Telders, met in the summer of 1940. Together they formed the group de Kleine Krans. The group had two aims. The first was to keep up the momentum of the resistance to Nazi Germany and the second was to decide what shape the University would take after the war. They had enormous plans for this, which they recorded in fantastic reports and analyses. But to begin with, resistance during the war was most important. And the main challenge was how to convert a radical minority – themselves – into a motivated majority. They set up a second group, de Grote Krans, whose focus was on discussion. This was for their doubting colleagues, to pressurise them to join in, by pointing to their academic ethics – “You didn’t become a physician to promote racist theories. You didn’t become a law professor to support injustice” – and threatening them with social exclusion. In the words of dermatologist Siemens: ‘We frighten them into becoming brave.’

This view of the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory, and the significant role of Telders as a proponent of the resistance, are two surprising stories from you book. Did you come across other such surprises?

‘I came across lots of nice examples and new insights, such as the story of de Kleine Krans and de Grote Krans [see box, ed.]. But what is unique about this book is that you see the world through people’s own eyes. It’s easy to find most of the events – in official University or government documents. But the great majority of memoirs, letters and other autobiographical documents make it possible to look inside the heads of the main players. Cleveringa, Flu, Siemens, Van Oven: for all these professors I was able to write not just about their actions, but also their thoughts at the time. That is of huge value, not just to a historian but to us all!’

Text: Marieke Epping
Images: Willem Otterspeer/Uitgeverij Prometheus
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The Hornets’ Nest

Willem Otterspeer, Emeritus Professor of University History, had already spent years working on a comprehensive history of Leiden University. He had reached the fourth and last part of ‘Groepsportret met dame’, which spans the period from 1875 to 1975 and includes the Second World War. The remarkable stories and unique archive material made him decide to write about the war years in a separate book: Het Horzelnest. The book will be presented on Alumni Day on 16 February. Het Horzelnest, Prometheus Books, ISBN 9789044638561.

Leiden professors on marksmanship training in the dunes at Katwijk.
Leiden professors on marksmanship training in the dunes at Katwijk.
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