For many years, Michiel Severein (69) served as a public prosecutor and judge in Leeuwarden. The PhD research he conducted in the decade gone by concerned the post-war trials of collaborationists.

How do you explain at
a party what your research
was about?

“I investigated how the Special Court of Justice in Leeuwarden dealt with the trials of the ‘wrong sector’, i.e., people who collaborated with our enemy. Was the court able to guarantee that people standing trial would receive proper administration of justice? To this end, I examined all 554 cases tried by the court. I came to the conclusion that the court, despite considerable political and social pressure, was able to ensure  that the people standing trial received a fair trial.”

Why did you wish to get a PhD?

“This may sound strange to you, but I wasn’t keen on getting a PhD at all. Others told me to do so. Initially, I wanted to write a book on this subject. I was born shortly after the war, and ever since my childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the German occupation and what happened afterwards. In Hengelo, where I lived, the city centre was accidentally destroyed in a bombing in 1944. As a child, I was still able to see the destruction and the newly rebuilt city. This childhood fascination and my interest in the administration of justice came together in this study.”

How will the world benefit from
your PhD thesis?

“That’s a very general question you’re asking me. ‘The world’, if that is indeed what you mean, will not benefit from it at all. If you are prepared to see it at a more modest level, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this study and this book will contribute to Dutch legal history. In addition, it is my personal belief that we can learn from history. If the Netherlands ever finds itself in another situation where there is great turmoil because a part of our population is seriously misbehaving, the method used by the Special Court of Justice in Leeuwarden will prove to be a good recipe.”

How did you celebrate the completion
of your thesis?

“When I put the full stop at the end of the final sentence, I only let out a very deep sigh. I did find the ceremony itself extremely impressive: the whole entourage and the cortège with the registrar, the members of the examining board and my two PhD supervisors. I was very honoured because a good friend of mine, who is a professor holding an endowed chair in Amsterdam, joined the cortège, wearing his Amsterdam gown. The procession looked fabulous. In the evening, I had a good chat about the whole experience with my friends and family while enjoying dinner at a good restaurant in Rotterdam.”

cover proefschrift Michiel Severein

The cover

“What you are looking at is a photo of the Court of Justice in Leeuwarden, taken in 1941. After the war, it accommodated the Special Court of Justice. In addition, it contains a political cartoon about the Minister for Justice, in which the cartoonist expresses the opinion that the administration of justice for special cases is taking far too long. Lady Justice is sitting a little unenergetically, the sword at her feet. The caption reads, ’14,000 prisoners are still awaiting sentencing. The law is getting tired.’”