How a Flemish Franciscan rescued philosopher Edmund Husserl’s archive from Nazi Germany

How a Flemish Franciscan rescued philosopher Edmund Husserl’s archive from Nazi Germany

What do Stein, Heidegger, Levinas, Sartre, Ricoeur and Derrida have in common? The Jewish German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), whose archive was rescued by a Flemish Franciscan, Herman Leo Van Breda. Journalist and author Toon Horsten reconstructed the life of his distant family member and with it wrote an unexpected shadow history of the continental philosophy of the twentieth century.

_by Luc Devoldere


After Husserl’s death in 1938, it was discovered that the archive consisted of 40,000 pages, written in a strange shorthand, Gabelsberger, which few people could decipher. The philosopher’s legacy was not safe in Hitler’s Germany.

A few months aftert he philosopher’s death, the young Father Herman Leo Van Breda knocked unannounced on the widow’s door in Freiburg im Bresgau, dressed in a brown habit. He wanted to write his PhD dissertation in Leuven on the phenomenologist. Little did he know then that this visit would set his life on a definitive track. 

Once there he saw how large the archive was and the idea probably took hold then and there of smuggling the entire legacy out of Germany and housing it in Leuven, setting up an archive aimed at the transcription, unlocking and critical editing of the texts, a full-blown study and research centre. It could reasonably be termed a life’s work, a mission which would at times become an obsession.

The young priest won the trust of the elderly widow Malvine, and travelled alone by train with the hundred kilos of manuscripts in three suitcases to Berlin. The Belgian embassy was to send the legacy by diplomatic post to Leuven. The suitcases arrived in November 1938.

In 1939 the library of 2,700 books was also brought over, along with a container of furniture. Van Breda then brought Malvine herself to Leuven, where she waited out the war in an abbey, remaining forever grateful to the priest.

When war broke out, the Franciscan evacuated the archive from the university library and had the 40,000 pages housed at various secret locations, all just in time, because, as in 1914, Leuven’s library was burnt down. The container of furniture was less fortunate in its fate. It was bombed in the Port of Antwerp. Van Breda found only the urn of the philosopher’s ashes in the ruins.

In 1942 Van Breda was awarded his PhD in Leuven summa cum laude. However, he never became an original thinker and turned out to be a mediocre teacher. All his energy went into the archive and unlocking Husserl’s manuscripts. He enlisted the help of the Jewish Austrian Strasser couple who were in hiding in Mechelen. Over twenty-five months they transcribed thousands of pages. When their child was born the priest himself went to buy baby clothes and a cradle.

After liberation Van Breda again went in search of money. The recently founded UNESCO was bombarded with applications for support. Philosopher Merleau-Ponty wrote a warm letter of recommendation.


Existentialism’s founding father

In 1950 the first part of the collected works, the Husserliana, was published through Martinus Nijhoff in The Hague. Malvine saw the first copy before her death.

In this sense the 1950s were the archive’s finest hour, and the priest’s too. The existentialists were in fashion and Husserl was known as their founding father. The priest’s reputation was set in stone. In 1965 he received the commemorative medal at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

In the 1960s, when Leuven’s university was on the verge of splitting, Van Breda feared that the archive would also be split. Fortunately it escaped that fate, since it had always been an independent entity within the Higher Institute for Philosophy.

Van Breda’s identity became increasingly bound up with the archive. He more or less lived there, only returning to the nearby abbey on Vlamingenstraat to sleep. He lost interest in what was going on in philosophy at the time. When Jacques Derrida gave his famous lecture on Nietzsche’s style in 1972 in Leuven (Une Question du Style), based on the philosopher’s phrase, ‘I have forgotten my umbrella,’ he strode out abruptly, stating that this ‘literature’ had nothing more to do with philosophy.

In 1974 the tennis-playing, chain-smoking and drinking priest died. Levinas knelt by his open grave and sprinkled sand over the coffin in accordance with longstanding Jewish custom.


Shadow history

Author and journalist Toon Horsten came across Van Breda’s story when he saw a photo of his grandmother with her favourite cousin, a laughing priest.

He reconstructed the life of that distant family member and with it wrote an unexpected shadow history of the continental philosophy of the twentieth century.

He does not offer any philosophical exposés on the phenomenology of Husserl himself, but puts the reader on the track of the ‘Menschliches Allzumenschliches’ of a series of philosophers who crossed paths with the phenomenologist.

One of these was Edith Stein, Jewish philosopher and Husserl’s first assistant, who converted to Catholicism, entered the Carmelite order, was gassed at Auschwitz and canonised as a saint by John Paul II. Van Breda wanted to help her go into hiding, but the devoted nun decided to sacrifice herself. Van Breda eventually also brought her manuscripts, battered and almost lost in the war, to Leuven.

Another example was Heidegger, in whom Husserl saw his successor. In 1919 Heidegger saw an assistantship as a good career prospect, but he went on to follow his own path, becoming rector in Freiburg in 1933 and a month later joining the NSDAP. He missed Husserl’s funeral, later claiming he had been ill. At the end of his life he asked the Leuven philosopher Samuel IJsseling about Van Breda’s wellbeing. You get the impression that he was a little jealous of Husserl for having found a Van Breda to take control of his legacy.

Van Breda ensured that Levinas’ Totalité et Infini was published. Levinas, who introduced Husserl to the French language region, remained forever grateful.

The priest did not hold Sartre in particularly high regard but still sought him out in Paris, as the existentialists had made Husserl famous. Sartre’s housemate Simone de Beauvoir refused to shake the Catholic clergyman’s hand.


Entrepreneur and networker

What image emerges of this Franciscan? More a manager than a thinker, an entrepreneur and networker, fundraiser and hustler, a monomaniac go-getter and dare-devil, a diabetic (his colleague always had to carry a sugar cube to stop the priest from ranting and swearing in a crisis), a big ego, a hero and opportunist who sat on his archive like a mother hen, but always focused on the matter in hand, the unum necessarium, a Franciscan who did not see himself as bound by the regulations of his order but kept his eyes on the gospel.

What happened to the archive after Van Breda’s death in 1974? Phenomenology slowly but surely disappeared from the centre of philosophical attention. Let’s say it went out of fashion. Husserl wanted to rescue philosophy as a science and may have been the last to believe that.

The year 2005 saw the death of the last great phenomenologist, Paul Ricoeur, for whom Emmanuel Macron had worked as an assistant.

The Husserl archive has become a historical archive. Nevertheless it put Leuven’s Higher Institute for Philosophy on the map for decades. Meanwhile 42 parts of the Husserliana have been published. Around 15 percent of the handwritten manuscripts have yet to be transcribed.

Digitisation is in the pipeline, but will there be another enlightened despot to take action?


Toon Horsten, De pater en de filosoof. De redding van het Husserl-archief (The priest and the philosopher. The rescue of the Husserl archive), Uitgeverij Vrijdag, Antwerp, 2018, 293 pages.

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