Hugo Grotius

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Hugo Grotius - Portrait of Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt , 1631.

Grotius' signature:
Hugo Grotius signature 1634.svg

Hugo Grotius ( Dutch Huigh or Hugo de Groot ; born April 10, 1583 in Delft , Netherlands; † August 28, 1645 in Rostock ) was a political philosopher , reformed theologian , legal scholar and early enlightener as well as a pioneer of the concept of tolerance in religious questions.

Grotius is considered to be one of the intellectual founding fathers of the idea of sovereignty , natural law theory and enlightened international law .


Grotius was born into a wealthy Calvinist family. He was considered a child prodigy who spoke fluent Latin and Greek at the age of twelve and wrote verses in Latin that were praised by scholars for their elegance and subtlety. At the age of eleven, Grotius studied at the University of Leiden , where he first completed the usual courses in the liberal arts . Here he was under the supervision and direction of the theologian Franz Junius . During a trip to France in 1599 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Orléans . Grotius was also able to impress at the French court. The French King Henry IV presented him there as "le miracle de la Hollande" and awarded him a gold chain with his portrait as a pendant.

Hugo Grotius and the book box , illustration by G. Sibelius, 1771

Grotius quickly made a career, was admitted to the bar at the age of 16, became advocaat-fiscaal (public prosecutor) of the states of Holland in 1607 and a pensioner (city syndicus ) of Rotterdam in 1613 . At the time, his homeland was in conflict with Spain and Portugal over sea trade with India. Because of this, Grotius published the book Mare Liberum in 1609 , which supports the Dutch desire for free trade at sea and justifies it legally. He supported the states of Holland in their conflict with Orthodox Calvinists and the governor Prince Moritz of Orange . Grotius published a number of pamphlets in the course of the fierce party struggles. In it he recalled that the aristocratic-republican constitution was the historically founded constitution of the Netherlands, and advocated the right of the state to decide on spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. These publications turned out to be fatal for him. After the Orthodox Calvinists had gained the upper hand in the conflict, Grotius was arrested in 1618 together with Johan van Oldenbarnevelt at the instigation of Moritz of Orange. Oldenbarnevelt was executed in 1619 and Grotius was sentenced to life imprisonment and a confiscation of his property in May 1619. In the verdict, Grotius was found guilty, among other things, of shaking religious conditions and of establishing and disseminating principles that were dangerous for the state constitution. He was then taken to Loevestein Castle for detention . His wife and children were allowed to accompany him there, and he was also allowed to continue his scientific studies. During his imprisonment he also began his most famous work, De jure belli ac pacis . He was also allowed to have books sent to him and to return them. He used this privilege to flee in March 1621: his wife Marie Reigersberg put him in the book return box, and so Grotius escaped disguised as a pile of theological books. Both the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Museum Prinsenhof in Delft claim to be in possession of the original book box.

Batavi Syntagma Arateorum

His escape finally took him via Antwerp to Paris , where he was received in an honorable and friendly manner. From 1622 he was dependent on an irregularly paid pension of 3,000 livres from the French king and was mainly active as a writer of theological, legal, historical and poetic works. Among other things, Grotius took up an old project during this time and made proposals for a reunification of the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations. At times Grotius was then in discussion as director of a newly founded academy in Friedrichstadt in Schleswig-Holstein; but the plans came to nothing. After the death of Moritz von Orange in 1625, the confiscation of his property was reversed in 1630, and in autumn 1631 he even returned to the Netherlands. His hopes of finding a more friendly environment for him, however, were disappointed; After the States General had offered a price for his arrest, he had to leave the Netherlands again the following spring. Hugo Grotius initially stayed in Blankenese ( Dockenhuden ) in 1632 , where he found refuge with his compatriot Julio de Moor . Today the Grotiusweg is named after him there. He then succeeded in moving to Hamburg (including living in the Holländische Reihe in Altona and in the street Grootsruhe in Hamm , which was later named after him ), where he stayed until 1634. After entering Swedish service, Grotius left Hamburg and served the Swedish Queen Christina as ambassador to France, so that he played a key role in the negotiations between Sweden and France as two of the main warring parties in the Thirty Years' War. His diplomatic activities are judged rather cautiously in the historiography. Over time, however, the decision to be released from his position matured in him, and in 1645 this was granted to him, subject to other use. After Grotius had been summoned to Stockholm by the Swedish Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna and discussions about his future position had remained inconclusive, he was shipwrecked in the Baltic Sea on August 17th on the return voyage. Having only escaped death with difficulty, he reached Rostock nine days later. At this point he was already seriously ill. Hugo Grotius died two days later on August 28, 1645.

Grotius lived in a time of intense tension between various Calvinist groups in the Netherlands, the Remonstrants and the Contraremonstrants , who represented opposing positions in the doctrine of predestination . Later he experienced the Thirty Years War up close. It is not surprising that much of his work revolves around the balance between denominations and deals with the question of a just war .


Groundbreaking works

In 1604/05, Grotius wrote De jure praedae ("On the right to award ") a legal opinion for the Dutch East India Company . It already contains the basic ideas of his later major work, but remained unpublished until 1868. Only one chapter was published anonymously in 1609 under the title Mare Liberum ("The Free Sea"). The Catholic Church immediately indexed Mare liberum because it undermined the papal world order . The polemic attacked the monopoly claims of the Spanish and Portuguese maritime and colonial trade , which threatened to limit the resources of the Dutch trading state to the point of waning. Here Grotius formulated a revolutionary new principle by declaring that no one could establish property in the seas ( res extra commercium ). As international waters, they are likely to be used by all nations for merchant shipping . England , too , fiercely competing with the Dutch for domination in world trade, opposed this idea and, with John Selden's Mare clausum, asserted extensive water sovereignty over the British Isles . Grotius' compatriot Cornelis van Bynkershoek affirmed ownership of the sea only for the range of the guns at the time. With this sensible restriction, the three-mile zone , Grotius' " Freedom of the Seas " should finally assert itself as the basis of modern maritime law .

Hugo Grotius

The debate had important economic implications. The Dutch Republic essentially supported the idea of free trade (but held on to the trade monopoly in nutmeg and cloves in the Moluccas ). In 1651, England banned the importation of all goods with the Navigation Act , with the exception of those on English ships. The law ultimately led to the first Dutch-English naval war (1652–1654).

Building on his unpublished first work, Grotius followed up with Inleiding tot de hollandsche Rechts-Geleerdheid from 1619 onwards . The text, published only in 1631, laid the foundation for a first convincing presentation of a national legal order . To this end, Grotius incorporated the entire existing common law . His liberal-humanistic interpretation of the corpus iuris civilis , made in the light of the - especially French-influenced - mos gallicus (also called: elegant jurisprudence) caused a sensation. What was also new was his reflective understanding of traditional law that was outside the Roman legal tradition. Since Grotius formulated his standards of value with a very personal note, the book is still considered a milestone for political and legal thinkers.

He transferred this procedure to De jure belli ac pacis (libri tres) (“On the law of war and peace”) and thus gained the reputation of being the founding hero of the more recent natural and international law. The book, published in Paris in 1625, is regarded as Grotius' masterpiece, which appeared in numerous editions in the 17th and 18th centuries. In it he calls for a supra-denominational and supranational international law , which he stripped of all moral theological approaches and traditions. Since international law was previously freely manageable law, which was not subject to any constraints and precisely for this reason, was also without binding authority, the difficulty for Grotius was the task of plausibly inferring that humanity as a whole was already subject to a natural law that bound it. First of all, the law that has to apply between peoples in times of war and peace is described. But since it had to penetrate the legal structures of the whole of humanity within the magna generis humani societas , its natural law was not based on hypotheses or axioms, but on the evidence of extensive human legal experience. Primarily this meant bringing together Romanistic , theological and humanistic legacies and subjecting them to the precepts of natural law in order to be able to justify his international law in a generally binding manner.

Legal environment and influences

In the context of the legally predominant scientific business of the usus modernus pandectarum , Grotius was for a long time considered the founder of profaned natural law and thus a pioneer of the law of reason . Even though in De jure belli ac pacis libri tres he used an old thought formula, which originated from medieval scholasticism , according to which certain principles of natural justice would apply even if God did not exist (etiamsi daremus, quod sine summo scelere dari nequit, non esse Deum aut non curari ab eo negotia humana ...) , he also made it clear in the same work that there is a natural religion framed by natural law: All human beings are therefore obliged, for example, to believe in a single, personal God - one thought , which Grotius explained in more detail in his theological works such as Meletius and On the Truth of Christianity . According to Grotius, further obligations of faith arise for those people to whom the divine revelation is made known, especially in the gospel. Such duties of faith based on natural law or divine law are not, however, directly enforceable. Accordingly, Grotius firmly refused a violent mission by non-Christians. He was an early advocate of equality- based tolerance .

Grotius, who was called "father of international law", one of the key founders personalities of international law , but is not the only one: many of his thoughts are also with the at Thomas Aquinas subsequent late scholastic Thomist idealists Francisco de Vitoria , Balthasar Ayala , Didacus Covarruvias and Francisco Suarez of the School of Salamanca . He recognized all of these as important authorities and repeatedly consulted them. The stressed and comprehensive compilation of the testimonies of the Spaniards, whose cultural radiance did not suffer from the liberation struggles , helped Grotius to help the idea of ​​natural law to a progressive breakthrough. When he finally cemented his reputation across Europe, the ius gentium was a household name and international law did not necessarily mean martial law .

The power of testimony of the holy scriptures and the old church fathers exerted a strong influence on Grotius . The moral theological traditions of the early church had a direct impact on him , to which he, as a self-confessed Remonstrant , saw himself more closely connected than at least the strict Calvinism . In doing so, he distinguished himself from the British Thomas Hobbes , whose English tradition led him through Descartes to questions of the nominalism dispute . Grotius was also an excellent expert on Roman law . On the one hand, he established its exemplary character in the ancient world ported to Rome ; but he also found it in the later doctrines, as well as the ethical-moral topoi of the Stoa and in the platonic skepticism of the universal expert Cicero .


Luis de Molina , Leonhardus Lessius and the German legal scholars Samuel von Pufendorf , Christian Thomasius and Christian Wolff built on Grotius' natural law approach . Its influence on civil law approaches that were later discussed in the context of the BGB is not negligible. For example, he developed insights into error law problems that were later dealt with by the so-called "explanatory theory"; it has long been assumed that this was brought into the world by the late pandectists in the 19th century . In internal discussions on ius divinum and ius civile, he also addressed questions that were later taken up on the origin, content and transfer of property or on contractual justice and marriage , so that they would also be applicable to times of war. To this end, he borrows from the ancient Roman sacred law of the priests' colleges of the fetials ( ius in bello ).

For the Christian doctrine of faith (dogmatics), Grotius was an important champion of moderation and tolerance. During the two and a half years in the dungeon at Loevestein, he wrote the text De veritate religionis Christianae among important legal works , in which he outlined a religious world without theological issues and subtleties; Translated into numerous languages, the work has seen more than seventy editions. Even after his escape from the dungeon, Grotius continued to work in a moderating way up to the famous "Annotationes" of 1641.

His autographs are kept in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library , among others . There is a bust of him in the Walhalla near Regensburg.

Fonts (selection)

Commemorative coin from 1995, 925 silver, 25 ECU
Annotationes ad Vetus Testamentum , 1732
  • Adamus exul (The exiled Adam; tragedy). The Hague 1601.
  • De republica emendanda (On the improvement of the republic; Hs. 1601). Published in The Hague 1984.
  • Parallelon rerumpublicarum (comparison of constitutions; Hs. 1601–1602). Published in Haarlem 1801–1803.
  • De Indis (About Both India; Hs. 1604–05). Published in 1868 as De Jure Praedae
Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty. Ed. Martine Julia van Ittersum (Liberty Fund, 2006).
  • Christ patiens (The Passion of Christ; Tragedy). Suffering 1608.
  • Mare Liberum (The Free Sea; from Chapter 12 of De Indis ). Suffering 1609
The Free Sea. Ed. David Armitage (Liberty Fund, 2004).
  • De antiquitate reipublicae Batavicae (About the Age of the Batavian Republic). Suffering 1610
The Antiquity of the Batavian Republic. Ed. Jan Waszink and others (van Gorcum, 2000).
  • Meletius. (Hs. 1611).
  • Annales et Historiae de rebus Belgicus. (Annals and History of Belgium; Hs. 1612). Published in Amsterdam 1657
The Annals and History of the Low-Countrey-warrs. Ed. Thomas Manley (London, 1665).
  • Ordinum Hollandiae ac Westfrisiae pietas (The piety of the estates of Holland and West Friesland). Suffering 1613
Ordinum Hollandiae ac Westfrisiae pietas (1613).
  • De imperio summarum potestatum circa sacra (On the power of rulers in religious matters; Hs. 1614–1617). Published Paris 1647
De imperio summarum potestatum circa sacra. Ed. Harm-Jan van Dam (Brill, 2001).
  • De satisfactione Christi adversus Faustum Socinum (On the atonement of Christ against Faustus Socinus ). Suffering 1617
Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione Christi. Ed. Edwin Rabbie (van Gorcum, 1990).
  • Inleydinge tot de Hollantsche Rechtsgeeertheit (introduction to Dutch jurisprudence; written in Loevenstein). Published in The Hague 1631
The Jurisprudence of Holland. Ed. RW Lee (Oxford 1926).
  • Bewijs van den waaren godsdienst (proof of true religion; didactic poem). Rotterdam 1622.
  • Apologeticus (defense of the acts that led to his arrest). Paris 1922.
  • De jure belli ac pacis (On the right of war and peace). Paris 1625 (2nd edition Amsterdam 1631)
The Rights of War and Peace. Ed. Richard Tuck (Liberty Fund, 2005).
  • De veritate religionis Christianae (On the truth of the Christian religion). Paris 1627. (Latin prose version of the didactic poem Bewijs van den waaren godsdienst from 1622).
The Truth of the Christian Religion. ed. John Clarke (Edinburgh, 1819).
  • Sophompaneas (about Joseph and his brothers; tragedy). Amsterdam 1635.
  • De origine gentium Americanarum dissertatio (dissertation on the origins of the American peoples). Paris 1642.
  • Via ad pacem ecclesiasticam (The road to religious peace). Paris 1642.
  • Annotationes in Vetus Testamentum (Notes on the Old Testament). Amsterdam 1644.
  • Annotationes in Novum Testamentum (Notes on the New Testament). Amsterdam / Paris, 1641–1650.
  • De fato (on fate). Paris 1648.

Editions and translations

  • Edwin Rabbie (Ed.): Hugo Grotius: Ordinum Hollandiae ac Westfrisiae pietas (1613). Critical Edition with English Translation and Commentary. Brill, Leiden 1995, ISBN 90-04-10385-6 .
  • Guillaume HM Posthumus Meyjes (ed.): Hugo Grotius: Meletius sive De iis quae inter Christianos conveniunt epistola. Critical Edition with Translation, Commentary and Introduction. Brill, Leiden 1988, ISBN 90-04-08356-1 .


  • Andreas H. Aure: The secularized and subjectified concept of natural law in Hugo Grotius. In: Forum Historiae Iuris. February 13, 2008 ( full text ).
  • Willem Jan Marie van Eysinga: Hugo Grotius, a biographical sketch , translated by M. Plemp van Duiveland, with a foreword by Werner Kaegi ; Schwabe Verlag, Basel 1952, 140 pages.
  • Christian Gizewski: Hugo Grotius and ancient international law. In: The State. 32 Volume 1993, Issue 3, pp. 325-355 ( full text ).
  • Hasso Hofmann : Hugo Grotius. In: Michael Stolleis (Ed.): State thinkers in the early modern times. CH Beck, Munich (3rd edition) 1995, pp. 52-77, ISBN 3-406-39329-2 .
  • Arthur Löwenstamm : Hugo Grotius' position on Judaism . Wroclaw 1929.
  • Stephan Meder: Legal history. An introduction . 6th edition. Böhlau Verlag, Cologne u. a. 2017, ISBN 978-3-8252-4885-7 , pp. 265-267.
  • Florian Mühlegger: Hugo Grotius. A Christian humanist with political responsibility (= work on church history; vol. 103). De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2007, ISBN 978-3-11-019956-7 (also dissertation, LMU Munich 2004).
  • Edgar Müller: Hugo Grotius and the Thirty Years War. For the early reception of: De Iure Belli ac Pacis. In: Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis. Vol. 77, Leiden 2009, ISSN  0040-7585 .
  • Henk JM Nellen: Hugo Grotius. A lifelong struggle for peace in church and state 1583 - 1645. Brill, Leiden 2015, ISBN 978-900-427-436-5 .
  • Christoph A. Stumpf: The Grotian Theology of International Law. Hugo Grotius and the Moral Foundations of International Relations . De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2006, ISBN 3-11-019120-2 .
  • Ralph TuchtenhagenGrotius (de Groot), Hugo. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 17, Bautz, Herzberg 2000, ISBN 3-88309-080-8 , Sp. 505-508.
  • Erik Wolf : Great legal thinkers in German intellectual history . 4th edition. Mohr Siebeck, 1963, ISBN 3-16-627812-5 , pp. 253-310.

Web links

Wikisource: Hugo Grotius  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Hugo Grotius  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Horst Beckershaus: The Hamburg street names - where they come from and what they mean. 6th edition. CEP European Publishing House, Hamburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-86393-009-7 , p. 137.
  2. ^ Hugo Grotius in Hamburg. Hamburg Judges' Association, accessed on January 15, 2016 .
  3. a b c d e f Franz Wieacker : History of private law in the modern era with special consideration of German developments . 2nd Edition. Göttingen 1967, DNB 458643742 (1996, ISBN 3-525-18108-6 ). Pp. 287-301 (288 f.).
  4. Martin Rath: Hugo Grotius - child prodigy birthday. Legal Tribune Online , April 7, 2013
  5. a b Uwe Wesel : History of the law: From the early forms to the present. CH Beck, Munich 2001, ISBN 978-3-406-54716-4 . No. 246 (p. 369).
  6. Eric Hilgendorf. In: Legal Training. 2008, p. 761 (764).
  7. ^ Jan Dirk Harke : Roman law. From the classical period to the modern codifications . Beck, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-406-57405-4 , § 3 no. 1-4.
  8. Martin Schermaier : The determination of the essential error from the glossators to the BGB (= research on the modern history of private law. Volume 29). Böhlau Verlag Wien / Köln / Weimar 2000, section 10, The error law discussion between the theory of explanation, trust and will , p. 537 ff.
  9. ^ Willem Jan Marie van Eysinga: Hugo Grotius, a biographical sketch , translated by M. Plemp van Duiveland, with a foreword by Werner Kaegi ; Schwabe Verlag, Basel 1952, pp. 75–76.