Interview with Prof. Dr. Henk Nellen on the occasion of the launch of his book Hugo Grotius. A Lifelong Struggle for Peace in Church and State, 1583-1645, Leiden, Brill, 2014.
The book launch took place last Friday November 21, in the Great Hall of Justice in the Peace Palace and was organized by the Huygens Institute (The Hague) and the Peace Palace Library, famous for its extensive Grotius Collection. The event also marked the retirement of Professor Nellen as senior staff member of the Huygens Institute and as Professor of the Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Approximately 300 people watched Dr. Nellen present the first copy to H.E. Judge Kenneth Keith, the New Zealand Judge of the International Court of Justice. In his word of thanks, Judge Keith elaborated on and paid tribute to the importance of Grotius’ thoughts on international law for the ICJ.
The other speakers, his colleagues, praised Henk’s kindness and modesty, and praised him above all as a true scholar, dedicated to his research on Grotius for so many years. They surprised him with a Liber Amicorum In vriendschap en vertrouwen, cultural-historical essays about confidentiality.
Seven years ago, April 2007, the Dutch version “Hugo Grotius. Een leven in strijd om de vrede, 1583-1645” (Amsterdam, Balans, 2007) was launched at the same location. The success of this prizewinning biography was immense (1). An English translation, masterfully executed by Chris Grayson was a matter of time (and money).
Dr. Nellen (1949-) studied History from 1968 to 1974 at the Catholic University (Radboud University) of Nijmegen. In 1980 he was awarded his doctorate by the Catholic University of Nijmegen for his PhD thesis “Ismael Boulliau (1605-1694)”, on the network of correspondents of this 17th-century French scholar.
After a short career as a history teacher, he was appointed head of the Grotius Institute at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science. In 1992 this Institute became part of the (Constantijn) Huygens Institute. Since then, Henk Nellen continued to work there as a senior researcher. He was co-editor of vols. xiii-xvii of the “Briefwisseling van Hugo Grotius, 1990-2001 (The Hague, Rijks Geschiedkundige Publicatieën, 1990-2001).
From September 2009 Henk Nellen held the Dr. C. Louise Thijssen-Schoute Stichting Chair in the History of Ideas in the Early Modern Period at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Nellen is a member of the Board of Grotiana, a foundation for the promotion of the publication of Hugo Grotius’ work, which publishes a journal “Grotiana”. In this book of 827 pages, including 19 chapters, a lengthy biography of 41 pages, plus an exquisite Illustration section, Nellen presents a critical-interpretative biography, mainly based on the voluminous correspondence of Hugo Grotius.
“This huge amount of letters (for the years 1594-1645 about 7725 letters from and to Grotius have been preserved, provided an excellent source to get in touch, quite physically, with his thoughts, mindset, ideas. I got attached to his handwriting. When writing an official letter, his handwriting was neat, easyly readable, when writing to his family it showed some haste and when writing for himself it was barely readable. It revealed something of his personality, the emotions of a rather reserved, formal man, not showing his emotions easily and gave an insight to his thinking about friends, foes family, political conflicts and other business. It is vital to preserve these letters with the utmost care, as it is our direct connection with the past”.
“It shows his relentless struggle for justice, for himself as well as for the whole community of mankind. He failed to see the conflict between politics and law and paid a heavy price for it.”
“He was an exceptional person, a child prodigy. He was called the “Dutch Oracle”. A “homo universalis”, all the facets of his ideas about law, theology, politics, philosophy have inspired or angered his contemporaries, stimulated research for centuries (Pufendorf, Leibniz) and reached us in the 20th century, influencing present-day topics like human rights, piracy, law of the sea etc. And still he inspires scholars all over the world to study his thoughts”.
“Even after so many years of being involved with Grotius, our relation will not end now that the biography has been written. Grotius will be on my mind. The richness of his thoughts keeps me fascinated”.
“I travelled in his “footsteps”. From his birthplace Delft, to many places where he lived. Antwerp, Loevesteijn Castle, where he was imprisoned, Paris, his city of exile and the place where he wrote his famous “De Iure Belli ac Pacis” in 1625, Hamburg and Stockholm. Only Rostock, where he died after being shipwrecked, is still on my to-do list. Everywhere in all the libraries and archives I visited, the staff was always eager to assist me in my research”.
Both biographies, the Dutch and English version, will be shelved in the PPL Grotius-collection not far from the first biography by Caspar Brandt and Adriaen van Cattenburgh, “Historie van het leven des heeren Huig de Groot, beschreven tot den aanvang van zyn gezantschap wegens de koninginne en kroone van Zweden aan ‘Hof van Vrankrijk en vervolgt tot zyn doodt, met een aanhangsel der zelve historie”, (Dordrecht en Amsterdam, 1727), 17 chapters plus Aenhangsel en Bladwijzer.
Without doubt, Hugo Grotius. A lifelong Struggle for Peace in Church and State, 1583-1645 will be a vital source of information for Grotius-research and, just like the works of Grotius, it will be translated into many languages.
1.) Literaire Witte Prijs by Sociëteit de Witte (The Hague in 2008); Henriette de Beaufort-Prijs by the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde (Leiden in 2010)