Pieter Geyl

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Pieter Geijl PieterGeijl.gif
Pieter Geijl

Pieter Catharinus Arie Geyl [1] (15 December 1887, Dordrecht – 31 December 1966, Utrecht) was a Dutch historian, well known for his studies in early modern Dutch history and in historiography.

Dordrecht City and municipality in South Holland, Netherlands

Dordrecht, colloquially Dordt, historically in English named Dort, is a city and municipality in the Western Netherlands, located in the province of South Holland. It is the fourth-largest city of the province, with a population of 118,450. The municipality covers the entire Dordrecht Island, also often called Het Eiland van Dordt, bordered by the rivers Oude Maas, Beneden Merwede, Nieuwe Merwede, Hollands Diep, and Dordtsche Kil. Dordrecht is the largest and most important city in the Drechtsteden and is also part of the Randstad, the main conurbation in the Netherlands. Dordrecht is the oldest city in Holland and has a rich history and culture.

Utrecht City and municipality in the province of Utrecht, Netherlands

Utrecht is the fourth-largest city and a municipality of the Netherlands, capital and most populous city of the province of Utrecht. It is located in the eastern corner of the Randstad conurbation, and in the very centre of mainland Netherlands, and had a population of 345,080 in 2017.

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography by topic—such as the historiography of the United Kingdom, that of Canada, the British Empire, early Islam, and China—and different approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the development of academic history, there developed a body of historiographic literature. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties—such as to their nation state—remains a debated question.



Geyl was born in Dordrecht and graduated from the University of Leiden in 1913. His thesis was on Christofforo Suriano, the Venetian Ambassador in the Netherlands from 1616 to 1623. He was married twice, first to Maria Cornelia van Slooten in 1911 (who died in 1933) and secondly to Garberlina Kremer in 1934.

Early career

Geyl worked as a teacher at a gymnasium (grammar school) in Schiedam (1912–1913) before going on to serve as the London correspondent for Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant newspaper. During this time, Geyl befriended many influential people in Britain. In 1919 Geyl took up a professorship in Dutch history at the University of London, where he taught until 1935. In 1935, Geyl returned home to become a professor at the University of Utrecht.

Schiedam City and Municipality in South Holland, Netherlands

Schiedam is a city and municipality in the province of South Holland in the Netherlands. It is part of the Rotterdam metropolitan area. The city is located west of Rotterdam, east of Vlaardingen, and south of Delft. In the south it is connected with the village of Pernis by the Beneluxtunnel.

<i>Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant</i> Dutch newspaper

Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant was an influential Rotterdam-based liberal daily newspaper published between 1844 and 1970.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Historical sovereign state from 1801 to 1927

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.

In 1928 Geyl became correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, he resigned in 1936. In 1946 he joined the Academy again, this time as full member. [2]

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Society of scientists and institute

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences is an organization dedicated to the advancement of science and literature in the Netherlands. The academy is housed in the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam.

Wartime experiences

In 1940, Geyl wrote an article on how historians view Napoleon. It was due to be published in June 1940, but after the German occupation in May 1940, the publishers declined to publish Geyl's article out of the fear that comparisons could be made between Napoleon and Adolf Hitler. In September 1940, Geyl used his article for the basis of series of lectures at the Rotterdam School of Economics. In October 1940 the SD (Security Service) of the SS took Geyl hostage in retaliation for what the Germans alleged to be maltreatment of Germans interned in the Dutch East Indies. Geyl spent thirteen months at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Even after his release from Buchenwald, Geyl continued to be held by the Germans at a Dutch prison until he was finally released for medical reasons in February 1944.

Napoleon 18th/19th-century French monarch, military and political leader

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader of Italian descent who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was Emperor of the French as Napoleon I from 1804 until 1814 and again briefly in 1815 during the Hundred Days. Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over much of continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon's political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.

Adolf Hitler Leader of Germany from 1934 to 1945

Adolf Hitler was a German politician and leader of the Nazi Party. He rose to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and later Führer in 1934. During his dictatorship from 1933 to 1945, he initiated World War II in Europe by invading Poland in September 1939. He was closely involved in military operations throughout the war and was central to the perpetration of the Holocaust.

Sicherheitsdienst, full title Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS, or SD, was the intelligence agency of the SS and the Nazi Party in Nazi Germany. Originating in 1931, the organization was the first Nazi intelligence organization to be established and was considered a sister organization with the Gestapo through integration of SS members and operational procedures. Between 1933 and 1939, the SD was administered as an independent SS office, after which it was transferred to the authority of the Reich Main Security Office, as one of its seven departments/offices. Its first director, Reinhard Heydrich, intended for the SD to bring every single individual within the Third Reich's reach under "continuous supervision".

In 1945 Geyl became the chair of history at the University of Utrecht. In his opening address, he called for his students to disprove political and cultural myths that could lead to movements like National Socialism. Geyl was a critic of the Sonderweg interpretation of German history that argued that Nazi Germany was the inevitable result of the way German history developed. In particular, Geyl defended the German historian Leopold von Ranke against the charge of being a proto-Nazi.

National Socialism, more commonly known as Nazism, is the ideology and practices associated with the Nazi Party – officially the National Socialist German Workers' Party – in Nazi Germany, and of other far-right groups with similar aims.

Sonderweg identifies the theory in German historiography that considers the German-speaking lands or the country Germany itself to have followed a course from aristocracy to democracy unlike any other in Europe.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life via the Gleichschaltung legal process. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Geyl's historical outlook

Geyl was best known as a critic of the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who seemed to maintain that he had discovered "laws" of history that proved how civilisations rise and fall. Geyl often debated Toynbee both on the radio and in print. He accused Toynbee of selective use of evidence to support pre-conceived notions and of ignoring evidence that did not support his thesis. In addition, Geyl considered Toynbee's theory to be simplistic, ignoring the full complexity of the past; he regarded Toynbee's theory of "challenge and response" to explain historical change as too loose and a catch-all definition. Finally, Geyl was opposed to Toynbee's apparent claim that Western civilisation was in terminal decline.

Geyl was noted for challenging the then-popular theory that the historical separation of the Dutch and the Flemings was a result of "natural" causes. Geyl claimed that there was a "Greater Netherlands" history and that the Dutch and Flemings only separated during the Eighty Years' War (better known as the Dutch Revolt in the English-speaking world) against Spain in the 16th century. Geyl argued that the revolt failed in the south not because of political, cultural or religious differences, but only because the geography in the north with its lakes, bogs and rivers favoured the rebels and the geography in the south with its flat plains favoured the Spanish Army. Had it not been for the accident of geography, Flanders would have been part of the Dutch Republic. Geyl expressed his ideas in a series of articles and in his main work, De Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Stam (1930–1959, unfinished). In concomitance with his historical ideas, Geyl actively supported the Flemish movement, even not favouring Dutch-Flemish irredentism. [3]

Geyl's work has been criticised for not taking into account the unifying force of administrative and economic developments after the separation and for sometimes drawing artificial boundaries based on language alone; on the other hand, it has been praised for its refreshing approach to the Dutch Revolt, which was in marked opposition to the then-current nationally oriented, almost finalistic view on Dutch and Belgian history as represented by P.J. Blok and Henri Pirenne. [4]

Geyl was also noted for arguing that the House of Orange and the Dutch people were often in conflict, especially during the 18th century. Geyl accused William IV of Orange of using the uprising of the Doelisten (a group of Amsterdam burgers) against the ruling elite to seize power for himself in 1748. Another revisionist claim made by Geyl was that the marriage of William of Orange (later stadtholder Willem II) to Mary Stuart was the main cause of the first Anglo-Dutch War in the 17th century. [5]

Napoleon For and Against was an account of how French historians of different ages and views have regarded the French emperor. From Napoleon's time to the present, French historians have presented Napoleon as either a Corsican adventurer who brought death and destruction to France or as a patriotic Frenchman who brought glory and prosperity. Geyl used his book to advance his view that all historians are influenced by the present when writing history and thus all historical writing is transitory. In Geyl's view, there never can be a definitive account for all ages because every age has a different view of the past. For Geyl the best that historians could do was to critically examine their beliefs and urge their readers to do likewise. Geyl felt that history was a progress of "argument without end", but did not feel that this meant that an "anything goes" interpretation of history was acceptable.


Geyl died on 31 December 1966 in Utrecht.

Published works


  1. In Dutch officially spelled as Geijl.
  2. "Pieter C.A. Geyl (1887 - 1966)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  3. P. van Hees, "Pieter Geyl (1887–1966)", in P.A.M. Geurts and A.E.M. Janssen, Geschiedschrijving in Nederland. Deel I: Geschiedschrijvers (The Hague 1981), 331–347, esp. 333: "Een irredenta-politiek heeft hij echter altijd afgewezen."
  4. P. van Hees, "Pieter Geyl (1887–1966)", in P.A.M. Geurts and A.E.M. Janssen, Geschiedschrijving in Nederland. Deel I: Geschiedschrijvers (The Hague 1981), 331–347, esp. 337
  5. See G. van der Plaat, Eendracht als opdracht. Lieuwe van Aitzema's bijdrage aan het publieke debat in de zeventiende-eeuwse Republiek (2003), pp. 116–117.

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