Cleveringa lecture by Timothy Snyder double hommage to Cleveringa

American historian Timothy Snyder balanced respectfully between extremes in his Cleveringa lecture on Monday 26 November: the extremes of large-scale historical explanation and absolute individualisation of the 14 million victims of Hitler and Stalin in Eastern Europe. He paid hommage to Cleveringa from both extremes.


Anyone who reads the famous speech delivered by Rudolf Cleveringa on 26 November 1940 in protest at the dismissal of his colleague Professor Meijers, will quickly realise that the lecture is largely about Meijers himself: the Professor of Civil Law dismissed by the German occupying forces because he was Jewish. Cleveringa explained his focus on Meijers as a person as follows: 

‘I believe it is appropriate at this point in time that we should again try to bring to mind who it is, that an authority resting on no other foundation than itself, can carelessly brush aside after thirty years of service; who it is whom we see forced to interrupt his work in this manner.’

Timothy Snyder, Cleveringa lecturer in 2012, cited these words. And he also named names. In the spirit of Cleveringa, he wanted to show who the people were who murdered the 14 million individuals in the 'Bloodlands', the area between Berlin and the Soviet Union, between 1933 and 1945. 

Adam Solski, Dobcia Kagan, Petro Veldii

These are not statistics, but real people: the imprisoned Polish officer who had to hand over his wedding ring, knowing that he was about to be shot. The daughter who wrote the parting words of her mother on the wall of the synagogue in the Polish village of Kovel. The starving Ukrainian farmer who lay down in the grave he had just dug himself rather than die in some random spot and be dragged away. At the end of his lecture, Snyder named these individuals, so that we should not forget them: Adam Solski, Dobcia Kagan and Petro Veldii.

Expansionist aspirations of Stalin and Hitler

Snyder, in his inimitable way, combines respect for every victim, for the worth of each individual source in every possible language, with large-scale historical explanations and comparisons. Arccording to Snyder, the explanation for the 'Bloodlands', the mass destruction by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union between 1933 and 1945, should not be sought in national histories, or contrasts between left and right, but in an overarching analysis of the expansionist aspirations of Stalin and Hitler and of the means they employed to impose their blueprint of the ideal society both at home and abroad.

Constitutional state as buffer

Snyder also paid hommage to Cleveringa in his comparative historical analysis, this time to Cleveringa as legal scholar. He emphasised the importance of the constitutional state - whatever form this may take - as a buffer against the unbridled extermination of particular groups in society. Snyder sketched the process of systematic destruction by Hitler of states and institutions, and demonstrated that the power of the Holocaust had free rein, particularly in those destroyed states: states with no foreign relations and where there was no check on the powers of the police. Snyder warned that this should be taken as a lesson. Dismantling existing states is no solution, but is rather a catalyst for uncontrolled violence.  

See also

Books by Timothy Snyder

Last Modified: 11-12-2012