“It’s not like either everyone in Germany was a Nazi or everyone in the Netherlands was part of the resistance”

Professor Martin Paul


 “I was quite anxious, going to a commemoration of Second World War victims as a German.” On 1 May 2011, Professor Martin Paul became president of UM. Three days later, on 4 May, he lay down a wreath on behalf of the university during the Remembrance of the Dead ceremony in Maastricht. He immediately felt welcome and was “taken in” by the atmosphere. “It was all about remembering, not about exclusion at all. Of course, it was a solemn event. There was a uniformed concert band – very Limburgish – and a men’s choir sang a German church song, giving it a cross-border touch. It was very special.” This month, Paul begins his third term as president of UM and he’s acting as guest editor of Observant. His theme: Europe.

To Professor Martin Paul, “Europe” is synonymous with “no more war”. It’s togetherness, equality in diversity, pro-“both-and”. “Former Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck said it in 2017 during his lecture at UM: we are both citizens of a national state and citizens of Europe. Europe isn’t uniform; our cultures are different, we have to respect that. But no country will make it on their own in this global context. Working together is a necessity.”

Indeed: the president of UM is pro-EU. Then again, he hasn’t exactly made a secret of this. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any criticisms of the EU. “You can’t say everything is going well. I personally wonder why the European Parliament has to meet in both Brussels and Strasbourg. Many others don’t understand the added value of this, either. Explain it or abolish it. Brussels’ bureaucracy is also incredibly opaque, as is the decision-making process to many people. Europe should cast a critical eye on itself: why do citizens have so much criticism? Decreasing the distance between citizens and EU institutions as much as possible and winning back their trust requires much better communication.” Of course, he’s concerned about nationalism in Poland and Hungary, xenophobia, intolerance, and the rise of populist parties in many member states. At the same time, “This is the best that Europeans could achieve. And above all, there’s also a lot that’s going well”, he says, pulling up a list of everything the EU has achieved on his tablet. A good example of this is the cooperation between European universities, he thinks: a European plan that’s being implemented from the bottom up, by people such as himself.

1958, Saarland

Born in 1958 in Saarland, located on the border between France and Germany, he’s part of the post-war generation. “I was the first in my family to go to university. At the beginning of the twentieth century, my family lived in poverty in an underprivileged neighbourhood. My maternal grandfather was a simple steelworker who later became a member of the Nazi Party. My other grandfather ran a construction company and had a rather low opinion of Hitler.”

His parents were children – ten and eleven years old – when the Second World War broke out in 1940.  “My mother kept a diary. After the war, my father, who was in secondary school, had to work as an interpreter for the Americans.” Unlike in many other German homes, the war wasn’t a taboo subject in the Paul household. “They talked very openly with me and my sister about the concentration camps, anti-Semitism, their Jewish friends who’d suddenly disappeared, the hunger and the bombings. They were very stricken by it and had to learn to live with everything that had happened. If we went to the Netherlands, they said: don’t tell them you’re German, it’s dangerous.”

Black and white

The open discussions at home contrasted sharply with the history lessons in secondary school, Paul recalls. “They stopped at WWll.” It motivated him to develop a nuanced understanding of this period by reading a lot about it. His own family history had already taught him that the world isn’t black and white. “My Nazi grandfather, the steelworker, worked with forced labourers from Poland and Russia. After the war, they protected him and his family when the Allied forces invaded Germany. Apparently, my grandfather had often given them food. This same ambivalence can be found in The Assault by Harry Mulisch, a fascinating book, very good. It wasn’t like either everyone in Germany was a Nazi or everyone in the Netherlands was in the resistance.”

It was only when Willy Brandt became Chancellor in 1969 that the way Germany dealt with history changed. “My parents liked him, voted for Willy Brandt. For me, it was the turn toward a new Germany. The silence surrounding the topic disappeared; Germany increasingly faced its own past. I’m a little proud of that.” 


Although he was born in 1958, Paul felt guilty – “Auschwitz, it’s just horrific” – about the past of his native country. The feeling disappeared when he got a Jewish girlfriend from Marseille in the early eighties, when he was in San Diego for a year to work on his PhD thesis. “Why do you feel guilty, she asked. You weren’t there, were you? Feeling guilty is pointless. Instead, make sure it never happens again. Think about the future. It almost felt like a relief to me.”


He took her words to heart. The Second World War is a topic he frequently touches on in his speeches at UM. And when a discussion arose about Peter Debye, the only Nobel Prize winner from Maastricht, after whom the Edward Hustinx Foundation named a prize that was being awarded to UM, he was, in his own words, “very correct and fair, not strict. Debye wasn’t a Nazi, that’s clear, but he did send his Jewish employees a dismissal letter in the war and signed it with Heil Hitler. People say he didn’t have a choice, but I have examples from Berlin [before he came to UM, Paul was dean of the School of Medicine and vice-president of the Charité Medical Centre] of professors who didn’t sign. You did have a choice: it was a brave choice. After the war, Debye never commented on the matter either. I’m not more critical than the Dutch, but I have a lot of experience with these kinds of things because of my time in Berlin. I followed the German line of thinking: it was a prize for young people, and to accept it you have to be of irreproachable behaviour. It’s about being a role model.”


The words of his Jewish girlfriend always at the back of his mind, he’s also committed to the EU. “I vote pro-EU, as president of UM I’m committed to a European university (YUFE), to an association of young European universities (Yerun), to Maastricht University Campus Brussels, to EU-related programmes at UM.” If it’s up to Paul, UM will soon become the Dutch university for all things Europe, not only because of its location and the Maastricht Treaty, but also especially because of the many EU-related study programmes and the International Classroom. There’s a reason why he hopes to bring the European network (YUFE) to Maastricht. “Just like Wageningen University, we have a Certificate of Quality in Internationalisation. This sets us apart from the rest. We also focus on plurilingualism: native language, the English language and a third language. We already offer German and French language courses. My vision is that graduates of a European university will speak not two, but three languages.” But its EU-centricity doesn’t mean UM is turning its back on the rest of the world, stresses Paul. Far from it.


I want to bring people together. I love people, wherever they’re from. I just can’t wrap my head around all these conflicts we have in the world. I bemoan people’s current tendency in our society to think ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’. We run each other into the ground because our opinions differ, forgetting that there’s a difference between opinions and facts.

“Our society is becoming very one-sided. It’s full of strongly expressed views. Sometimes I think it’s more powerful to say: I’m not sure, I’ll look into it. That’s also the role of universities: you have a hypothesis and you investigate it. People often say that researchers should listen to society, but it’s the other way around as well. It works both ways. Researchers must offer an alternative to fake news. Listen to the facts and respect evidence from research.”

On the other role of universities, education: “We must teach our students why it’s so important to treat each other well, why tolerance and respect for other opinions are important competencies. We also have to listen to people who think differently about things. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Forum for Democracy. But no one should be excluded; at a university, everyone should be able to say what they think, as long as they respect the rules of the game. Debates get to be heated. I like being right, but I also like being convinced. I shouldn’t want to be right all the time.” And, last but not least: “We must teach our students that they should rely on facts and that learning is a lifelong process. I’m still learning; I look up new Dutch words every day. I google them. I practice with them, read about them. It gives me a thrill.”

Beginning his third term as UM president: Martin Paul, Observant guest editor

He’s a German national who studied in his native country and the US, is at the head of a Dutch university, works in close cooperation with universities abroad, was involved in the creation of Campus Brussels, dreams of a European university and has a strong historical consciousness. Is it any wonder that Observant’s guest editor of this week, Professor Martin Paul, whose third term as president of UM begins this month, chose this particular theme for ‘his’ issue? You guessed it: Europe.

Europe is what this issue, in the week of the European elections, is all about. It’s about the achievements, the threats, but also the criticisms of the EU in 2019. University College students and ‘their’ Professor Teun Dekker explain how education contributes to European citizenship. Professor Mathieu Segers engages in a debate with Ruud Burlet, the political leader of Eurosceptic party Forum for Democracy in the Parliament of Limburg. A Syrian student in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, who fled to Europe on a rickety boat, emphasises the luxury of living in a country without war. And of course, the issue includes a personal interview with Martin Paul, in which he talks at length about the Second World War, guilt, Maastricht, ‘no more war’ and – last but not least – the European university of his dreams. Enjoy!

This article is part of a special about Europe with Martin Paul, President of Maastricht University as guest editor-in-chief.

“It’s not like either everyone in Germany was a Nazi or everyone in the Netherlands was part of the resistance”