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Bridge builder

July 28, 2010
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U-M professor gathered the leaders and best in international law

On February 21, 1966, Professor Hessel E. Yntema died in Ann Arbor of injuries suffered in an automobile accident. He was 75, four years past retirement, still active in his beloved field of comparative law but eclipsed by younger scholars. So the memorials in European and U.S. law journals, though respectful, carried a whiff of condescension toward a crusty figure seen by the young as out of date:

Prof. Hessel Yntema

“He expected of others the same standard of courtesy and sincerity that he himself constantly gave, and when at times he failed to find it he was shocked and a little lost in an unfamiliar atmosphere.”

“…his courtesy, which was all his own … endeared him to all who had the pleasure and sometimes the difficulty of working with him.”

Photographs reinforced the impression that Yntema (pronounced INE-te-ma) was an antique. Severe high forehead, clipped gray mustache, jug ears, deep frown lines—it was the face of a scowling Dutch burgher, formal and disapproving, hardly the image of the fast-reforming American law establishment of the 1960s.

Now, at a distance of nearly 50 years, we can see how misleading that impression was. In fact, Yntema’s view of the law—as a discipline that must transcend international and cultural boundaries—foretold the future we now live in. Michigan Law’s reputation as a center of global legal studies was built on the foundation that he helped to lay.

Yntema grew up in a Dutch-American family that nurtured a thirst for learning. Eventually he would feel as much at home in Vienna or Utrecht as in the small towns of western Michigan where he came of age. After two years as a Rhodes Scholar, he earned a law degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. in political science at Michigan. He learned to read in French, Italian, German, and Spanish. He taught law at Columbia and Johns Hopkins before Dean Henry Bates, perceiving a need for more international expertise at Michigan as the world crisis of the interwar years deepened, lured Yntema to the Law School in 1933.

After early work in jurisprudence and conflict of laws, Yntema shifted to com­parative law, which enjoyed a resur­gence at mid-century thanks to emigrant scholars fleeing Europe and the growth of international cooperation after World War II. Here he made his major mark. He did not write a “big book” or think of a big new idea. He brought people togeth­er, publicized comparative law, and launched endeavors to promote it.

In the late 1930s, for example, Yntema learned that the German legal philosopher Ernst Rabel, deposed by the Nazis from the directorship of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, was penniless and out of work. Yntema persuaded the Law School to offer Rabel a home. The appointment of this thinker of global renown put Michigan Law on the European map. When it became known that Rabel’s four-volume masterwork, The Conflict of Laws: A Comparative Study (1945–58), had been written in Ann Arbor, the impression spread in Europe that this distant town in the American Midwest “was a happening place” in international and comparative law—a status it retains today, said Mathias W. Reimann, LL.M. ’83, Hessel E. Yntema Professor of Law at Michigan.

Rabel had been appointed as a research associate, not a teaching professor. Nonetheless, ambitious young Europeans were soon crossing the Atlantic to study comparative and international law under Yntema and his colleagues, William Warner Bishop and Eric Stein. Thus Yntema’s gesture of aid to Rabel turned out to be not only generous but canny. “It sustained us, in a way,” Reimann said. “It paid off hugely.”

Meanwhile, Yntema was writing letters and talking with colleagues in pursuit of what a friend called his “lifelong dream”—the founding of the American Journal of Comparative Law. In 1952 he was named the Journal’s first editor-in-chief (and staff of one), a post he held until his death. Around Hutchins Hall he was known as crotchety and slightly eccentric, a curmudgeon who talked too much. But in his office, and through extensive contacts in foreign centers of learning, he built the Journal into an international force, a home for cosmopolitan scholars who helped to break down the isolation of American law from the rest of the world. “His main significance was in teaching, documenting, stimulating, organizing,” a European colleague wrote.

“In the United States he was famous in this little circle of comparative law academicians and lawyers, but not a big name,” Reimann noted. “He was much more famous in Europe. He made most of his contribution to comparative law by making connections with Europe, by building bridges. Michigan, at the time, together with a couple of other schools—Columbia, mainly, and Chicago and Berkeley—was probably the leading place for a world view of law. Yale and Harvard at the time really weren’t all that interested. The others were still way behind. So Michigan, Chicago, Berkeley—that’s where people went. And Yntema laid a 15-year foundation block for that.”

Building further on that foundation, the American Journal of Comparative Law is again published at Michigan Law after a three decade exodus to Berkeley. Reimann is editor-in-chief.

James Tobin is an award-winning historian and author. Photo courtesy of John C. McCarthy, ’39. This article was originally published in the Spring 2010 edition of Law Quadrangle, the alumni magazine of the University of Michigan law school.

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