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How Johan Huizinga sent the Nazis packing

In 1933, Leiden held a large international student conference. It was supposed to be a celebration of unity that would bring together the French, British and Germans. But when the Nazis showed their true colours, Rector Magnificus decided to intervene...

It is 11 April 1933 and the tension in the Senate Chamber of the Academy Building in Leiden is palpable. In the stately room on Rapenburg, two dignified gentlemen sit at the table. On one side is Rector Magnificus of Leiden at the time, Johan Huizinga. On the other is a blond German in his early 30s with a side parting and extraordinarily drooping eyes. This is Johann von Leers, the leader of a delegation of German students who have come to Leiden for a conference. The Dutchman across the table has summoned him to a crisis meeting.

Is it true, Huizinga asks, that Von Leers wrote the Juden Raus! pamphlet? And is it true that the pamphlet accuses the Jews of murdering innocent Christian children and using them for sinister rituals? Von Leers splutters that he did indeed write the pamphlet, but that he can no longer remember what exactly it says.

Expecting this answer, Huizinga has come prepared. He begins to read aloud from the pamphlet, ‘For hours on end, one can provide examples of Jewish ritual murders in which poor, innocent children are slaughtered and cruelly tortured by the Devil Jews. Mothers, ensure that the Jewish threat [...] is deported from the country!’

When Von Leers confesses that it was indeed he who wrote the pamphlet, Huizinga expresses his ‘deep revulsion and contempt.’ He requests that the German makes ‘no further use of the hospitality’ of the University. ‘As the meeting threatened to become unnecessarily awkward, he [Huizinga, ed.] brought it to a close, commenting that he could no longer proffer his hand to Von Leers,’ the notes say. Without shaking each other’s hand, the men part company, and the conference ends a day sooner than planned.

Johan Huizinga

Tense conference

The conflict between Huizinga and Von Leers was the unpleasant climax to a conference that was supposed to improve the relationship between various European countries: From 7 to 12 April 1933, Leiden was supposed to form the backdrop to a student conference with delegations from France, Germany and England. The conference was the initiative of the International Student Service (ISS), a transnational student association comparable with today’s AEGEE student association.

To say that the conference was necessary would be an understatement. Since Adolf Hitler came to power in January of that year, relations between Germany and the other great powers had rapidly deteriorated. ‘Today’s world does not appear to be very accessible to work that takes an international viewpoint,’ said Huizinga in three languages at the official opening of the conference. ‘It saddens us to say that this world is more nationalistic than ever. Everywhere, around every nation, fences have been erected, political ones, and I fear mental ones too.’

In these troubled times, ISS was thus trying to keep the dialogue open to increase ‘mutual understanding’ of one another’s views. However, the board regularly lost sight of the fact that this was a slippery slope: organising a conference with Jews and anti-Semites, for instance. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems surreal that the later victims had to publicly defend themselves against the racial ideology of their future executioners.

The German delegation made no attempt to conceal its fascist ideology at the conference. In their opening statement, the German students – led by Von Leers – cheered on the ‘indivisible whole’ of Germany under Adolf Hitler. Every Aryan individual had to contribute to the greater good: the grand future of Nazi Germany. And what the Nazis thought of their opponents had already become crystal clear by 1933. According to the students, communism was ‘an alliance [...] of savage humans and the international Jew, the apocalyptic threat of the Untermensch.’

About Johan Huizinga

Johan Huizinga (1872 – 1945) was appointed as Professor of General History at Leiden University in 1915. Four years later, he completed The Waning of the Middle Ages, in which he posits that formal courtly life in the Late Middle Ages was a defence mechanism against the coarsening of society. It won him world fame. Homo Ludens (1938) – Huizinga’s classic about humans as playful beings – was translated into many different languages. Almost 75 years after his death, Huizinga is an intrinsic part of Leiden. The building in which history and the classics are taught bears his name, and there is an annual Johan Huizinga lecture.

Johann von Leers

Discussing the ‘Jewish question’

The Germans’ opening statement did not give cause to end the conference prematurely. The French and English delegations politely responded with a return move, as if this were a game of chess. The French students, in particular, showed that they were for a different Europe. They believed the problems of the time would only be solved with a ‘new international legal environment with compulsory arbitration’ and ‘an international parliament [...] in which all states relinquish part of their sovereignty.’ Their pamphlet reads as the genesis of the European Union, the United Nations or the International Court of Justice, proposing ideas that the rest of the world would only be ready to countenance after years of war and genocide

Despite these hopes and dreams for the future, what stands out is the extent to which the delegations sometimes went along with the German idea of a Jewish conspiracy. This was particularly evident on Sunday 9 April, when the organisation had tabled a discussion on the ‘Jewish question.’ The leader of the English delegation, Claude Guillebaud, said he believed that antisemitism had been caused by too many Germans having been replaced in important positions by Jews. These Jews had managed to penetrate the worlds of art, journalism and law, ‘in part because they are very talented and in part because they are satisfied with less.’ His analysis is said to have met with much agreement.

A few months after the awkward end of the conference, Von Leers could be found boasting of his achievements in Leiden, ‘As the days went by, it became possible for me and my colleagues to [...] gain more of a foothold and foster a greater understanding of the position of Germany. This went so far that the honourable Professor Guillebaud gave an excellent presentation on the Jewish question in Germany, in which he spoke with much regard about the high ideals of the national revolution [something that Guillebaud later denied, ed.].’

And the Dutch students? They thought that ‘their’ conference had been a resounding success. Vinculum student paper wrote, ‘We took leave of one another, understanding somewhat more about the people and problems in the world, having made friends with young people and convinced that we had had a good time together.’ At that point, the student reporter obviously wouldn’t have known what had taken place behind the closed doors of the Senate Chamber.

Newspaper article in Het Vaderland, 9 April 1933 (click to enlarge)

What motivated Huizinga?

Which brings us to the question of why the German delegation only expelled once Von Leers’s pamphlet had come to light. The ‘Jewish question’ had already been openly discussed, after all. Why was an opening statement about the ‘apocalyptic threat of the Untermensch’ acceptable but a pamphlet about the ‘Jewish devil’ not? And how should we view the role of Rector Magnificus Johan Huizinga?

Huizinga was a conservative liberal who strongly believed in the leading role of the elite. Only the upper echelons who, through wealth, birth or intellect stood out from the masses, could properly govern a country. Their good manners, decency and propriety were the only counterbalance to ‘the barbarism of the masses’ as he put it. Huizinga was no fan of parliamentary democracy, in which power shifts from the elite to the ‘demos,’ the people, and made no secret of this.

But nowhere was the barbarism of the masses given clearer and stronger expression than in fascism. In 1933, not only did Hitler come to power but so too did the rotten underbelly of the German nation. Many of the social, cultural and academic elites proved unwilling or unable to take on the role of leader and stave off the crisis. Huizinga, therefore, was offended in the main by Von Leers using pseudoscience to validate racism. He had not expected a fellow academic – from the elite that Huizinga so admired – to lower himself to such a questionable level.

‘Huizinga was not a person to choose sides. He wasn’t one to man the barricades. It must have been difficult for him to take action against Von Leers,’ writes University historian Willem Otterspeer in his book Huizinga before the Abyss. This makes it even more surprising, says Otterspeer, that the respectable, conflict-avoidant Huizinga did decide to speak out so openly against Von Leers’s racist lies. ‘April 11 1933 was the day. To defend the honour of the University, which represented so many of his ideals, Huizinga took action.’

On 18 September 1933, Huizinga passed on the Rector’s baton to his successor. In Pieterskerk he reflected on the turbulent months behind him, ‘To enjoy the freedom to remain true to its calling, a university must apply its own standards to determine its duty and honour. And [a university] will believe that on occasion action is required that simply serves to defend the hallowed ground on which it stands.’

Could he sense what was about to happen? It would certainly seem so. On 8 March 1935 – still over four years before the outbreak of the Second World War – Huizinga gave an almost prophetic speech in Brussels, which he later reproduced in his book In the Shadow of Tomorrow. ‘We live in a demented world,’ he said. ‘And we know it. It would not come as a surprise to anyone if tomorrow the madness gave way to a frenzy which would leave poor Europe in a state of distracted stupor, with engines still turning and flags waving in the breeze, but with the spirit gone.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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Centenary of The Waning of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga completed his masterpiece The Waning of the Middle Ages exactly 100 years ago. On 19 November, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) is holding a symposium [in Dutch] on the influence of Huizinga’s magnum opus

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