Remembrance Day

‘Joan Muysken’s humanity as Rector in times of war can serve as a source of inspiration’

In the brief period that Joan Muysken was Rector of the then TH Delft (TU Delft’s predecessor) during the war, he defied his superiors, an action that cost him his life. On 3 May, TU Delft’s historian Abel Streefland remembered his courage and his humanity in the lecture below.


While walking across campus you are bound to have walked along the lane north of the Jaffa cemetery, the bit of green between Architecture and the Built Environment and the Immanuël Church. This is the Muyskenlaan. Named after Joan Muysken who risked his life for the Technical College Delft (Technische Hogeschool Delft or TH Delft in Dutch, Eds.), the predecessor of the TU Delft TU Delft.

As one of the rectors during the Second World War, he played an important role In the community of the Technical College. The choices that he faced were terrible and were ultimately fatal for him. His name is included in the remembrance plaque in the Aula next to the entrance to the restaurant.

Offspring of a family of engineers

Joan Muysken was nearly 46 years old when the Second World War reached the Netherlands. As an offspring of a family of engineers, Muysken studied Mechanical Engineering from 1912 to 1917. He worked in Sweden and the USA for a while before continuing his career at Werkspoor, the railway company, where his father – who was also a TU Delft engineering alumnus – was the Director. He himself reached the position of Technical Sub-Director.

Despite doubts as to whether he was or was not pro-Germany, his nomination was accepted

In 1932 Joan became Professor of Mechanical Engineering. When the War broke out, and Germany occupied the Netherlands, he knew the Technical University very well. He started taking on administrative tasks and was appointed Secretary of the Board of Curators alongside Rector Henk Dorgelo in 1942. For information, the Technical University was managed by two bodies. The Academic Senate was responsible for education and science and was led by the Rector Magnificus. The Board of Curators managed the University itself and was led by a President Curator and a Secretary. In practice, the daily management was in the hands of the Rector Magnificus and the Secretary of the Board of Curators. In this case Dorgelo was the Rector and Muysken the Secretary. By tradition, the person fulfilling the Rector’s position changed every year with the Secretary moving to the position of Rector.

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Iemand fietst langs een straatnaambordje van de Muyskenlaan.
(Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)
Christian Scientist

In appointing Muysken as Secretary in 1942, President Curator Evart van Dieren had his doubts about whether the appointment would be accepted by the German authorities. After all, both Muysken’s mother and spouse were American. He was also a Christian Scientist, a popular denomination in the United States at the time. Despite this background which may not be considered as pro-German, his nomination was accepted and he took office along with Dorgelo on 13 April 1942.

The ‘Nazification’ of higher education would be done gradually

A contributing factor may have been that the German occupier preferred to leave the universities alone to carry out their business as best they could. The ‘Nazification’ of higher education would be done gradually. This involved a process of giving a little and taking more and more. While Jewish employees were fired in the first years of the war, the University continued its work as best it could.

Razzias on students

In 1943 the Technical College entered more dangerous waters. Muysken was the Secretary at the time. After a series of violent resistance activities by groups of students, students became subjected to razzias which eventually led to universities being closed. The occupier then enforced the signing of a declaration of loyalty if students wished to continue studying. In signing the statement, the students pledged to uphold the occupier’s laws and not carry out any potentially inflammatory actions. If they did not sign, the young adults were taken to labour camps in Germany. About one quarter of the students at Delft signed it. To be precise, 779 of the 2,906 students signed, which is more than 26%. The national average was much lower at 14%.

Why a relatively higher number of students at Delft signed is often attributed to the role of the Senate. As the only university administrative body in the Netherlands, it advised students to sign in the hope that the Technical College would continue to function as close to normal as possible. It was also thought that the German occupier would not act too quickly or harshly.

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Portret van Joan Muysken
Joan Muysken. (Photo: Unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Put to work in Germany

That turned out to be a naive assumption. On 4 May 1943 the Germans confiscated the Technical College’s cartotheek (register) containing the names of everyone registered and a record of those did and did not sign the declaration of loyalty. The next day it was announced that all male students who had not signed the declaration had to report for work in Germany on 6 May, the following day. Anyone refusing to do so not only risked punishment, but were threatened with reprisals against their parents. Between 800 and 900 Delft students reported for transport to Germany – one third of the student population. One of the places they were put to work was Kraft-durch-Freudewagens-Stadt, which later became the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg. Those who did not sign and did not report, either went into hiding or found illegal work. Most left Delft.

The efforts made to keep the Technical College open were legitimate

Much is written about the issues surrounding the declaration of loyalty – see the references at the bottom. The efforts made to keep the Technical College open were legitimate as highly educated engineers were badly needed. But it also brought difficult choices at all levels of the organisation. After the war, the moral considerations facing those at the top of the university were viewed as debatable, opportunistic and naive. The Minister rapped the knuckles of the Senate hard for ‘a lack of strength and pride against the occupier’. The Technical College learnt from this and changed right to its core. Studium Generale, for example, was established immediately after the war as a response to the debatable moral decisions taken during the war and the gap between professors and students which had grown larger.

Change of Rector

Back to Muysken. The Technical University was reopened on 1 June 1943 for the remaining quarter of the students who had signed the declaration. This was done by Rector Dorgelo who followed the orders of those higher up. He continued to strive for a continuation of the education, in part because he was afraid of reprisals should he refuse. After the summer holidays the Rector changed and Joan Muysken became Rector of the shattered but still functioning Technical College in September 1943. Muysken had urged the students to sign the declaration of loyalty before when the Senate issued its advice. But he did see that a time may come in which it would be justified to close the University in order to uphold its honour.

Muysken went in search of a way to suspend the teaching

In the three quarters of a year that he was Rector, from September 1943 to June 1944, the Technical College stayed open and lessons were given to the group of signatories. But messages were received about the difficult circumstances the students in labour camps in Germany had to endure. Some professors, including Muysken, sent food parcels to Germany and organised the exchange of letters in which professors were paired with students. Muysken became more and more affected by the fate of these students, in part because his two sons, Pieter and Thijs, were also put to work in Germany. The brothers and the son of Delft Professor Kluyver ended up in Nienburg an der Weser. They were part of a group of 190 students, including 84 from Delft, that were forced to work in the Adolf-Thies-Apparatenbau factory. This was an old glass factory that was converted into an aircraft repair company. They were relatively well looked after, but had to work long hours. The nights gave little relief because of the continual risk of bombing.

Lengthy discussion

In part because of the message that he received from his two sons, in the spring of 1944 Muysken saw that the education in Delft could not continue under these circumstances. On 15 May, Muysken and the rectors of Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam urged Jan van Dam, the General Secretary of the department of Education, Science and the protection of Culture to suspend higher education in its entirety. But on the advice of Van Dam, they withdrew their letter in the end. Muysken went in search of another way to stop the teaching, but it was not easy. He had the help of a group of professors who were secretly looking for ways of resistance – the so-called Hooglerarencontact (professors contact) – that included Willem Schermerhorn, a professor in Delft and later Prime Minister. In the end, Muysken decided to put it to the Senate that the education should be suspended.

The Senate deplored the fact that he had advised students to sign the declaration of loyalty

On 19 June 1944, 13 days after the Allies invaded France, the Senate was surprised during their meeting by Muysken’s question of whether the education should still go ahead. He himself thought not. The declaration of loyalty had caused deep divisions among the students and damaged the bond between teachers and students. He believed that the Senate had to take action. He said that “The teaching that we are giving is hardly academic level anymore”. With 31 votes for and 15 against, the Senate adopted the proposal to send Van Dam a letter requesting that the teaching in Delft be suspended. After a lengthy discussion, it was also decided to inform the students accordingly.


Three days after this meeting, the text of the decision was stuck to the boards in the buildings of the Technical College. The Senate also stated that it deplored the fact that it had advised students to sign the declaration of loyalty in April 1943. The expectation that the majority of students would sign it did not happen and the Technical Collage now had to ask General Secretary Van Dam to put limits on the work of the university and to suspect the teaching at the end of the academic year until the circumstances had improved.

The underground newspaper De Geus onder studenten (‘the resistance fighter among students’) newspaper received this decision jubilantly. ‘Delft has finally stepped away from the politics of compromise and is saving what can be saved.’ But among the remaining students at Delft – those who signed the declaration of loyalty – the Senate’s decision led to unrest. Many of them gathered, with fear written all over their faces, in front of the boards to read the message. They had signed so that they could continue to study, and now they were not able to do so.

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de herdenkingsplaat van Wenckebach in de TU Delft Aula
The remembrance plaque designed by TU Delft Professor Ludwig Oswald Wenckebach in the Aula. (Photo: Peter Rothengatter, HetFotoAtelier)

The German occupier responded angrily to the request. A couple of months prior to this the Chief of the Higher Education Department had said that, compared to other universities, the Technical University was exhibiting exemplary behaviour. And now this. The response from the department of Education, Science and the protection of Culture was not long in coming. On 23 June 1944, one day after the notices were posted, Van Dam decisively rejected the proposal. Muysken was arrested in his house that same day.

Muysken was deported to Germany

On 1 August 1944, the German Obergericht (High Court, Eds.) sentenced him to one year of prison. The main accusation was making the decision known as, according to the prosecutor, the purpose of doing so was to create unrest among the students. This was unacceptable, especially after the Allied invasion of Normandy. Muysken was deported to Germany.

In the prison at Siegburg, an engineer called Piet de Lint was surprised and wrote about his old teacher Muysken in his diary. ‘He stood before me unchanged, exactly as he was when he last left the stage. Unchanged, at least as a person, his mind was the same, but his clothing and appearance were so very changed that I doubted for a second if it really were he. But it really was Prof. Muysken. He stood before me in a grey shabby jacket, dirty white trousers, clogs. He looked in poor shape, thin, but his dark eyes showed the same quiet energy that I knew from before, his face still had the boyish features and his attitude still expressed the same modesty as before.’

Seriously ill

In connection with the ground gained by the allied forces, Muysken was moved from the prison in Siegburg to one in Landsberg in February 1945. The bad treatment here affected his health seriously. He was seriously ill when he was freed by the Americans. After a journey beset with difficulties, he arrived in Delft where he died on 11 August 1945, not long after he arrived.

He is remembered in this article. The difficult decisions and considerations that he had to endure are almost unimaginable. He had to perform his job in a terrible, imposed system of fear and pressure. That he ultimately decided to speak out to his superiors, which cost him his life, deserves admiration. And his humanity as a father and a father figure for professors and students can also serve as a source of inspiration.

The next time you walk along the Muyskenlaan here on campus, will you think of him?

This text is a slightly adapted and translated version of a speech given in Dutch at the Remembrance Day celebration in the Aula of TU Delft on 3 May 2024.

  • Baudet & Makkink, De Lange Weg naar de Technische Universiteit Delft, SDU Uitgeverij, Den Haag, 1992.
  • Sinke, Loyaliteit in Verdrukking, Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum, 2012.
  • Van Woerkom, Joan Muysken (1894 – 1945), in: Hertz Newsletter 2020-04, juli 2020.
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