Leiden Classics: Cleveringa’s protest
On 26 November 1940 Professor Cleveringa held his courageous speech protesting against the dismissal of his Jewish colleague, Professor Meijers. Cleveringa was arrested and the university was closed. Every year the university honours Cleveringa with a chair and meetings throughout the world.
Professor of Trade Law Rudolph Cleveringa was livid when he heard the disturbing news: all members of staff of the university were required to complete an Aryan attestation. The attestation included questions about their race. Anyone who refused to complete the statement would be dismissed. German forces had marched into the Netherlands on 10 May 1940 and just a few months later the Nazis announced a raft of anti-Jewish measures. On 21 November 1940, all Jewish workers were dismissed from their jobs. One of those affected was Professor Eduard Meijers, an internationally renowned Professor of Private Law. Meijers was not only Cleveringa’s mentor, but also a very good friend of his.
Cleveringa was shocked, and five days later, on 26 November, he delivered a protest address in the Academy Building, before a huge audience of supporters. He knew that he risked being arrested, and even had his suitcase packed and ready. In the over-full Great Auditorium he objected in clear legal language against the anti-Jewish measures that breached international law. According to eye witnesses, the law students greeted his speech with long applause and some were even moved to tears. The speech was followed by a strike among the students and the university was temporarily closed.
The following day Cleveringa was arrested and taken to the prison in Scheveningen. Later he was sent to the prison camp in Vught. He became a member of the Board of Confidential Advisers that coordinated the resistance. In April 1941 exams and tests could again be held, but most Leiden students had left for other universities; some played an active part in the resistance. Leiden University remained closed until the end of the war.
And, what of Cleveringa and Meijers? They survived the war, fortunately, and resumed their positions as professors in Leiden. Cleveringa became Rector Magnificus and was Honorary Supervisor in 1946 when Sir Winston Churchill was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. In 1953 Cleveringa himself was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the American government. The key figure in this piece of Leiden history died in 1980 at the age of 86. Thanks to his protest, his spirit lives on in the university.
The Cleveringa chair was established in 1970 by Leiden University in memory of Cleveringa’s courageous speech. It is a rotating professorship, which has been held every academic year since 1975 by a different Dutch or international scholar. The Cleveringa professor focuses on matters in the area of justice, freedom and responsibility. On or around 26 November, the Cleveringa professor delivers the Cleveringa Lecture in Leiden. This year’s Cleveringa professor is Canadian author, professor and former politician Michael Ignatieff. Around the same day, a whole range of Cleveringa meetings are held at locations in the Netherlands and throughout the world, thus strengthening and maintaining the bonds between Leiden and our international alumni.
(12 November 2013)