Historical documents reveal University’s opposition to Nazis

This is the inaugural blog post of the School of Law at the University of Aberdeen. As noted in our “About” page, this blog will showcase a variety of material, whether that is a work in progress, some published output, participation in a seminar or a conference, or anything that a news item on our website will not quite do justice to.

This post falls into the latter category. Recently, some fascinating minute books of the Faculty of Law (the precursor to our School of Law) resurfaced, leather bound and beautifully hand-written.

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Old documents of this nature have a certain curiosity value, but the minutes for the period from 7 December 1938 to 22 February 1939 are remarkable. The minutes reveal that the School of Law received correspondence from the Faculty of Law at the University of Amsterdam. That Dutch Faculty of Law did not have the North Sea keeping it a relatively safe from Hitler’s gathering military might and that Faculty wanted to highlight “with sorrow and dismay” that people were “being persecuted and tormented on account of their faith race or political convictions”, with a particular mention for the “so-called concentration camps”.  The Faculty of Law at Amsterdam sought support from “all Faculties of Law in the British Empire, United States of America, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland”: the Faculty of Law, with the concurrence of the Principal of the University, unanimously supported their resolution.

The minutes imply that Aberdeen was not alone in receiving correspondence, and this resource and this post from Berkeley Law show that this was indeed the case. Beyond that, no other information is available at the School and no warranty is given as to the veracity of the minutes (although we have no reason to doubt them).

What difference did the stance of the Faculty of Law at the University of Aberdeen make? At one level, precious little. Hitler’s Germany looked east to Poland, then west to the Netherlands, and the rest is history. Not only that, the North Sea did not exactly keep Aberdeen entirely safe: the writer of this blog lost his great-grandfather to a German bombing raid on the city. Be that as it may, it is heartening – even just slightly – to note that the University was not completely inactive in the face of the challenges of the time. In fact, there is a certain resonance with the University of Aberdeen’s “Shining Lights” Scholarship Fund, which aims to support those who have refuges status (as reported on the BBC).

It seems fitting to give the final words of this blog over to the minutes themselves, which are transcribed below.

Blog by Malcolm M. Combe

7 Dec 1938

At a special meeting of the Faculty of Law held on the 7th day of December, 1938.

Present: Professors Taylor (Dean of the Faculty) and Morrison, Mr Esslemont, Mr Masson and Mr Mackinnon. The Principal was also present by invitation of the Faculty.

Minute Approved

The minute of meeting of 23rd November 1938 was read and approved.

Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam

A telegram of date 30th November, 1938 was submitted from the Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam.

After discussion, it was agreed to report to the Senatus as under:-

Intimating that the Faculty of Law had received the following telegram from the Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam:-

371 6.6.6.1843 30 Amsterdam 179

R.P 2/- Faculty of Law University of Aberdeen        30:11:38

The Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam invites you kindly to inform them by telegram before December ten whether your Faculty of Law would be willing to second the following resolution this invitation has been wired today to all Faculties of Law in the British Empire, United States of America, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland:- “The Faculties of Law of the Universities mentioned below noting with sorrow and dismay that in some countries innumerable people are being persecuted and tormented on account of their faith race or political convictions and that particularly in the so called concentration camps innocent people are without legal procedure subjected to inhuman treatment considering that the basic principles of justice are thus insufferably violated, voice their protest against this violation in view of their duty to uphold the principles of justice and the rights of man, appeal to the conscience of mankind to support them in this protest and decide to publish this resolution and to communicate it to their respective Governments” and that the Faculty with the concurrence of the Principal has sent the following reply:- “Faculty of Law University of Aberdeen unanimously support your resolution.

Thereafter the Secretary was instructed to send a copy of the reply to the Faculties of Law of the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and to enquire what steps they propose to take with a view to publishing the resolution and the action taken by them and to suggest that, if they concur a joint communication should be sent by the three Faculties of Law of the Scottish Universities to the leading newspapers in the country and that a joint communication be sent to the Government.

At the next meeting on 25 Jan 1939

Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam

In answer to the remit of 7th December, 1938, the Secretary reported that he had sent copies of the Faculty’s reply, regarding the resolution of the Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam, to the Faculties of Law of the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The University of Glasgow replied that it did not propose to take any action as no telegram was received by it. The University of Edinburgh replied that it had sent the following telegram to the Law Faculty, Amsterdam – “Telegram received, sympathise but deprecate action on these lines at this time” and stated that it was not proposed to take any further action.

Thereafter the Secretary submitted a copy of the resolution together with a list of the Universities (a) who had seconded the resolution and (b) who had adopted the resolution.

It was agreed to communicate the resolution to the Government and it was remitted to the Secretary to ascertain from the Secretary of State for Scotland as to whom the resolution should be addressed.

It was further agreed that when the Secretary had ascertained as above, copies of the resolution be published in the “Scotsman”, “Glasgow Herald” and “Aberdeen Press and Journal”.

22 Feb 1939

Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam

In answer to the remit of the Faculty of 25th January, 1939 anent the Resolution of the Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam, the Secretary reported that he had received a letter of 30th January, 1939 from Mr C C Cunningham of the Scottish Office Whitehall, intimating that it would be quite appropriate to communicate the Resolution to the Secretary of State for Scotland and he saw no strong objection to sending it to the Prime Minister if so preferred.

After discussion the Faculty resolved to send copies of the Resolution to the Prime Minister and to the Secretary of State for Scotland with the following covering letter approved by the Faculty:-

Sir

I have the honour to send you herewith copy of a resolution which has been adopted amongst Law Faculties, by the Faculty of Law of the University of Aberdeen.

I am directed to state that the Senatus Academicus of the University of Aberdeen has also approved of this resolution and of its being forwarded to you.

I have the honour to be, Sir

Your obedient Servant

Secretary

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