Monday, December 9, 2013

Travelblog to do list: Leyden (Leiden), the Nedtherlands

I have not yet been to Leyden in the Netherlands. Leyden is the home of Holland’s first University, a renowned place of higher learning. Among the brilliant minds associated with the University are several members of the royal family, and Rene Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Hugo de Groot (Grotius), Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Nobel Laureate Hendrick Antoon Lorenz, Myles Standish, Rembrandt van Rijn, film director Paul Verhoven, and lawyer and founding citizen of New Amsterdam Adriaen van der Donck, just to name a few. Leyden is also a place of huge historical significance. The Dutch revolt against Spanish rule was in its relative infancy and in serious danger of being strangled in its crib. After losing Haarlem to a Spanish siege, William the Silent could not afford another defeat of that magnitude, otherwise the movement, its hopes for political and expressive freedom, and William’s own career, would disappear. It was late summer, 1574, and Spanish forces had surrounded and besieged the city of Leyden. Leyden under siege became a desperate place. Relieving it became William’s prime objective. The Spanish were firmly entrenched; the citizens of Leyden faced starvation. Two years earlier Dutch forces delivered the town of Alkmaar from a similar siege by opening the dikes and flooding the Spanish encampments under three feet of water. William decided that strategy was the only tactic that would work for Leyden, but the strategy was far more complicated here. The people in the areas that would be flooded had to agree, and did. The water would have to cross twenty miles of lowlands with natural barriers along the way. The water had to be at least two feet deep for even the lightest barges to navigate to the city gates with soldiers and supplies. Plus, it was summer: the weather and the winds would not be favorable. William thus went all in. At first the flood waters refused to cooperate, and the Spanish troops kept Dutch forces in check. But at last the elements aligned. The Spanish soldiers, waste deep in water, panicked and abandoned the siege. Leyden was relieved. The war of liberation would go on for 75 more years, but, in a very real sense, the independent Netherlands was established for good. Such an important event deserved a monument to commemorate it. William fully understood the significance of his victory. But he did not want an obelisk or statue that might crumble in time and did nothing to further his personal goals and hopes for his country. Instead, he encouraged the establishment of a living symbol of a free Holland and the freedom of thought he so deeply believed in: the University of Leyden. One of the first things the Nazis did upon invading Holland in 1940 was to close the University. It was a center for Jewish studies and a hot bed for resistance against the new invaders, as well as an historic symbol of Dutch tolerance and freedom. The University reopened immediately after liberation. Walking down its corridors, where so many great minds flourished, would be a great joy and an honor.

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