Centuries of academic activism: “To arms!”

Blog: Dorsman dives into university history

Strijd in Utrecht: Patriotten vs. Oranjegezinden. Eedsaflegging op het regeringsreglement op de Neude 1786. Bron: Wikimedia/Centraal Museum Utrecht
Battle in Utrecht: Patriots vs Orangists. Oath-taking at the Government House on the Neude 1786. Source: Wikimedia/Central Museum Utrecht

When a group of professors participated in the climate protest on the A12 freeway in their togas, some people frowned upon this. Is academia not supposed to be neutral? Do universities not stay out of political matters? Nothing could be further from the truth: politics have always been present in the university from the early beginning.

Riotous professor

Theoloog IJsbrand van Hamelsveld (1743-1812) door Reinier Vinkeles © Rijksmuseum
Theologian IJsbrand van Hamelsveld (1743-1812) by Reinier Vinkeles

Let's have a look at the so-called Patriot Era in the 1780s. Utrecht was a centre of agitation against the rule of the Oranje stadtholders. Armed so called free forces marched through the city. These were small volunteer armies, who were to defend the democratic achievements in the city in emergencies. The first professor in Utrecht who was appointed without permission from Prince Willem V was the theologist IJsbrand van Hamelsveld. He was a member of a free force, too, and even shouted the following from the lectern in the Dom Church: “To Arms! Arm yourselves! Dutchmen! Equip yourself to defend hearths and altars!

He also addressed the public while standing on a big snowball, which gained him the reputation of a dangerous demagogue. It did not last long. When the political tide shifted in 1787, he was fired and had to flee the city. His portrait was put up separately in the senate chamber with the caption that it was of a professor with “riotous and very infamous behaviour”.

Jurist Jan Ackersdijck (1790-1861) door Antonie Johannes Groeneveldt © Rijksmuseum
Jurist Jan Ackersdijck (1790-1861) by Antonie Johannes Groeneveldt

Against slavery and exploitation

But in the nineteenth century, too, taking a political stance was very normal. The lawyer Jan Ackersdijck spoke out against slavery. He even founded a magazine for it, and was supported in this by church historian and author Nicolaas Beets. Their colleague, the zoologist Pieter Harting, devoted himself to the South-African Boers, who he saw as being treated disgracefully by the British. And on top of that, Harting and his brother waged a political battle for mandatory lower education in the Netherlands.

Historicus Willem Kernkamp (1864-1943). Bron: Wikimedia/onbekende fotograaf
Historian Willem Kernkamp (1864-1943). Source: Wikimedia/unknown photographer

Kernkamp combined academia and journalism

So taking a political stance is no exception at the university. Back when the historian Willem Kernkamp was a teacher at the Utrechts Stedelijk Gymnasium, he already disliked the limits of historiography: they always only wrote about battles and big merchants, “never did they cross the threshold of a worker's home, or a proletarian's hovel.” Kernkamp became a professor in Utrecht in 1903, and always managed to combine journalism and academia.

Besides his work in Utrecht, he was also senior editor of the Groene Amsterdammer from 1920 to 1929 and commented on world events in a kind of column every week. He was early to realise the danger of fascism, which first manifested in Italy, and warned against it. And he reacted to what was happening in Germany too. Especially the “insane race theory” concerned him greatly. Which is why he openly took a stand.

In the peaceful Utrecht, too, protesting is a tradition.

Concerned about fascism

Willem Kernkamp wrote a foreword in the book Bruinboek van de Hitler-terreur in 1933, following the conviction of the political activist Marinus van der Lubbe for the fire in the Reichstag. That book took a strong communist stance and he was reproached for lending himself to this. But, he wrote, even if half of the content in this book is true, “what is happening in Germany is already bad enough.” And he was well informed, by the way: he knew exactly what was going on there.

Just a few examples of a long list of political stances by academics from Utrecht. And I am not even mentioning the students. In the peaceful Utrecht, too, protesting is a tradition.

Dorsman dives into university history

Out of the thousands of people who study and work at Utrecht University, fewer and fewer know anything about the history of this institution. We can do better than that. Leen Dorsman was a professor of University History until 1 August 2022. Each month on UU.nl, he describes something from the university’s long history that you would want to know or should know.