Double Dutch, part 1: the ups and downs of a very flat country

14 August, 2003
CULTURE: Double Dutch, part 1
The ups and downs of a very flat country

About a decade ago now, the Libertarian Alliance published a provocative, individual and poignantly memorable little essay titled A Weekend in Amsterdam: One Libertarian’s Experience of Freedom. In it, Danny Frederick provided a sort of ‘what I did on my winter holidays’ narrative — the answer, in this case, involving plentiful beer, soft drugs, pornography and encounters with prostitutes, all described in some depth, backed up with helpful legal and topographical information, occasionally funny, often illuminating. The memorable part, though, lay less in the detail, colourful though much of it was, than in the conclusion, summed up so very neatly in that possibly Mickelthwaitean title: which is to say, in the assertion that Amsterdam — the Amsterdam of the Zeedijk and the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, that is, of the ‘brown cafes’ and the red-velour-curtained windows — is where abstractions like ‘tolerance’, ‘freedom’ and ‘self-actualisation’ actually lead us. And although, given his own taste in holidays, Danny didn’t mention gay marriage or voluntary euthanasia, he might well have done, because these, too, would have gone towards elaborating this vision of libertarian aspiration made flesh. Amsterdam, in other words, is — according to Danny — that ultimately significant actual thing: it is what individual liberty looks like in practice.

Having spent a couple of days in Amsterdam last week, memories of this pamphlet crossed my mind more than once. Not least, it was hard not to smile at the disparity between Danny’s Amsterdam and my holiday destination — an Amsterdam of stately seventeenth-century townhouses flanking tree-lined canals, old brick reflected in tranquil water, trilling bicycle bells and unflappable good manners, the long cool galleries of the Rijksmuseum, breakfasts at the Amstel and dinners in elegantly laid-back restaurants, gossip with drivers and gallery attendants, the unspeakable language and, of course, the boundlessly likeable, English-speaking Dutch. Virtually all the prostitutes, beer and smoking I encountered was taking place in seventeenth century paintings. The most exciting freedom I experienced was the chance to spend a good five minutes alone with both Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ and his ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, unencumbered by the inconvenient proximity of my fellow tourists.

But of course any good libertarian would have a quick answer to such a disparity. His point would be, reasonably enough, that my own successful holiday in no way invalidates Danny’s, and vice versa. ‘Indeed,’ the alert Good Libertarian might say, ‘this just goes to show how well individual freedom actually works! Freedom leads ineluctably to diversity, variety and the satisfaction of all possible sorts of needs. You can have your cake — be it dodgy spacecake with a side-order of mushrooms or the Amstel’s siropwaffel — and eat it too! And so can Danny! Isn’t freedom admirably made, offering something for everyone in this, the best of all possible libertarian worlds?’

Of course I have some sympathy with this sheer flexibility, the convenience of this ready-made argument. Still, as with many things libertarians say, while it is evidently true at one level, at the same time I can’t help noticing that it misses more important points than it addresses. Not least, Amsterdam is not ‘free’ in the simple, schematic yet celebratory sense in which people like Danny deploy the term. By this, I mean not just that state regulation — of drugs, of sex, of much else — thrives in the Netherlands, although unfortunately that happens to be true, and incidentally becomes truer by the moment with every incursion of European Union directives. The more interesting point, though, is something different. It is simply that what Danny and thousands of British tourists appear to love most about Amsterdam — its whole atmosphere, as well as the individual little ‘freedoms’ it so obviously supports — is in fact the vine-ripened historical fruit of the Netherlands’ status as one of Europe’s most conservative, managerial, conformist societies. Most explicitly, indeed, from the Dutch point of view, it is little more than a pragmatic trade-off in order to buy something very different virtually everywhere else. Although efforts to shape the Netherlands into a liberal utopia are real enough, in large part they have taken place in the fields of history, travel writing, criticism — anywhere but real life. So I am free to make my own Holland, and Danny can make his, whereas the happy people of the Netherlands are free to live in another place altogether. How these activities coexist, and sometimes conflict, will be the subject of this three-part ERO essay.

What the Netherlands are not
There is something about the business of dealing with national stereotypes that appals me with its teleological mendacity, its intellectual wooziness, its sheer sloppiness. It never works. It’s embarrassing and silly. So let us take it as read, shall we, that every country is made up of individuals, only some of whom will ever behave in particular ways in the face of particular situations, at least in such a manner that the crude identifying labels can ever be made, however hard one tries, to stick? But at the same time, if the concept of ‘nation’ means anything (libertarians of squeamish disposition should stop reading now), then that ‘something’ surely has a lot to do with the sort of historical experiences that have seeped through from national myth and legend to their presence felt, however variously, in the individual psyche. And for that reason, aside from anything else, it is perhaps worth considering what has influenced the Netherlands during its relatively short history. And much of that, it must be said, is best defined through what it is not.

The Netherlands as we know them were born out of a bad war with Spain — not so long ago either — that sometimes looked like an imperial war, sometimes like a trade war, sometimes like a religious war and often like a civil war — a war that lasted for a century, scattering populations, breaking down aristocratic lineages, re-shaping confessional identity and in the case of Amsterdam, ensuring the sort of civic autonomy seen in few other places and pointing the attention of the Netherlands not back towards Europe, but instead towards the sea, new markets and new imperial horizons. Few countries have ever had their crises of national autonomy, faith, commercial vitality and domestic governance telescoped so sharply into such a short period. By the time that the martyred William the Silent’s magnificent tomb had achieved stature as one of northern Europe’s prime tourist attractions, the message to be taken from these crises was clear. The United Provinces were not Spanish, were not Catholic, and — although one has to wait a while for this — were not all the other things (absolutist, sclerotic, unfit for industrialism, you can make the list as easily as I can) that Motley, Weber & Co saw as encoded in ‘Spanish’ and ‘Catholic’. Needless to say, in their worlds, and perhaps the worlds of seventeenth century lowlanders as well, this was very much a Good Thing.

Out of that time of crisis, of course, came the Golden Age of the Netherlands. The Golden Age was without doubt the Netherlands’ great formative moment — providing a moment that would, in subsequent centuries, come to be formed into many different things, only some of them violently contradictory. For the people who actually lived through these times, there was perhaps too much to do to provide didactic exegesis for other times and places. By the time that time they were able to afford the luxury of nostalgia, most of their efforts seem to have turned to trying to paint more like the Italians or, better still, the French — this, notwithstanding a series of demoralising conflicts with the armies of Louis XIV in which the Dutch ‘plucky underdog’ thing must have begun to wear tiresomely thin. There were sea victories against the English, there were new colonies, there was a proverbially large amount of money squirreled away somewhere in Amsterdam’s famous bank, but there may also have been, eventually, a palpable and growing sense that something had been lost. And so for centuries, historians, politicians and moralists have looked backward, seeking that fugitive quality that had made Amsterdam and the Netherlands great. Could it be recaptured? Could the Netherlands, having lost their Dutchness in search of a chimera, retrieve it again? And if they could not, perhaps someone else would?

Yet on the other hand, it soon grew clear that the Netherlands were not France, either. For a time, France used to try to invade the Netherlands with almost boring regularity. For a brief Batavian interlude, the Netherlands were French. In the humid company towns of Guiana, the planters sported either orange or tricolour ribbons in their hats, and serenaded each other with mutually irritating patriotic songs. The French shipped off all the important paintings they could locate to Paris — while at the same time setting up what would turn out to be the Netherlands’ two important public art collections. Almost immediately, of course, good sense prevailed — the paintings were sent back, Guiana quietly transferred to the British, and the Orange dynasty ‘restored’. But at the same time, grim voices whispered that the Netherlands that were clawed back were not the Netherlands that had been there before. In retrospect, not least, it became easy to blame the whole post-Golden Age collapse on the French — or rather on the Dutch attempts to paint, fight and think as if they were French, as if French courtly ways were better than Dutch burgerlijk ways, and as if French ‘humanism’ and ‘enlightenment’ rhymed with their Dutch equivalents. But they were not and did not. If it did nothing else, the Belgian Revolt of 1830 would confirm this ultimately negative impression of French culture, and would thus help to shape definable Dutchness out of inchoate practice. To reiterate, no matter how good French art, clothing, furniture, poetry, music, wine or dance might be — and they were very good indeed, and the Dutch continued to appreciate all of them — the Netherlands, quite clearly, were not French either.

But in some ways this is a coat-trailingly negative account of Dutch state-formation and cultural self-definition. In the 1670s, many would argue, the good part of Dutch history had hardly even begun. The great age of the East and West India Companies still lay ahead. Dutchness could be planted in the Dutch Antilles, in Suriman and (briefly but magnificently) in Brazil, in Indonesia, and at very least run past Japan and China. Its legacy would last, at least in the Netherlands; the Dutch would become knowledgeable snobs on the richly engaging subjects of coffee, tea, chocolate, porcelain, rice and sugar. They would brew jenever and enjoy exotic paintings of strange, yet apparently Dutch, locations. Somehow other countries might appear to forget the Dutch colonial past, eventually, but however the Dutch might wish — for reasons we’ll come to in due course — to blur these memories just a little, they simply will not go away. It is not just the fact that ‘older’ Dutch people sometimes turn out to have spent the Second World War in Indonesia, being mistreated by the Japanese, or as far as that goes, that Dutch cities today are full of people of many and varied skin-colours, cooking various sorts of dishes and worshipping various sorts of gods, although both these things are true. At the same time, it has something to do with the Dutch sense of what the Dutch role in the world ought to be. Some might see the Netherlands as one of those interchangeable little places that go along with whatever the EU wants — but the Dutch do not see it that way. Once a world power, never again a tiny helpless pawn of some more effective nation? True or false, Amsterdam once had a navy that was the wonder and the terror of the seas, snatching gold-laden Spanish galleons and British naval flagships and ensuring that the phrase ‘Afro-Caribbean’ would come to have twenty-first century currency, and if some of the self-confidence this purchased has fled, the wider purview that accompanied it is, to an extent, with them still. The Dutch are enthusiastic peacekeepers, enthusiastic proponents of Grotius’s legacy and enthusiastic hosts of international gatherings. Danny leaves this out of his description of the Netherlands, and yet it is the forum in which the casual Newsnight enthusiast is most likely, these days, to encounter live Dutch action.

Don’t mention the war
Yet there is at least one more negative definition of Dutchness that we, and the Dutch, ignore at our peril. That is the Dutch relationship with Germany, and in particular, the Dutch experience of the Second World War. Now that this recent, confusing, complicated conflict has begun to ossify into a particular set of heroic, easily-manageable legends — the resolute monarch, the brave Resistance, the brutal suppression of the dock strikes and, most sacred of all, that brilliant, fluent adolescent diarist holed up in her foetid little prison above the Prinsengracht — there is a great deal that can no longer be said about it. There is no point in mentioning the cultural, familial and historical affinities, for instance, that might for some have linked the Netherlands with Germany and made ‘collaboration’ seem less a morally disreputable compromise than a reasonable accommodation with reality — not least, the Netherlands’ near-complete escape from the horrors of the previous Great War — and even less point in mentioning, however wearily, all the genuinely hideous things that invasion could not plausibly have been seen to be about at the time when it took place. We now know, for instance, to our great if ineffectual grief, that only 5,000 of Amsterdam’s 80,000 Jews survived the war — but given the number of these intelligent, well-informed people who could have gone elsewhere before the invasion began, it seems mad to expect non-Jewish Dutch people to know better and to do better. Similarly, if on a fainter note, it would seem like bad taste to describe the tact with which the occupying Germans tended to buy, rather than expropriate, Dutch paintings, and the solicitude with which they (the Germans, that is, not the Dutch) stored away important Dutch pictures for the duration, because that would make it sound as if there were substance in the sense of fellow-feeling some civilised, literate, decent Germans and Dutch people seemed once to detect in each other, before the great hard grimness of reality began to kick in.

That fellow-feeling, though, is long gone. After it came the endless, cold, starving winter of 1944, the deaths (20,000 died in Amsterdam alone), the consumption of flower-bulbs and burning of old houses to save new babies — a terrible time for a nation that had for so long been wealthy, comfortable and pragmatic. Anyway, if nothing else, a combination of straightforward resentment with more than a little projected guilt has ensured that the ‘tolerant’ Dutch now dislike the Germans with a cheerful, voluble explicitness that is hard for any foreigner to miss. The result is another Dutch definition-by-contrast: the Dutch are not only neither Spanish nor French, but they are not German either. (My first illustration of this was the reaction of Middleburger restaurateur to the departure of a group of Germans from his restaurant, which was to show my American, apparently WWII-vintage mother an aerial photo of Middleburg, c. 1945; what I didn’t realise for years later was, of course, that most of that damage had been done by the hapless USAF, of which my mother remains a vociferously loyal daughter — all of which says volumes, I guess, however quietly, about the attitudes current in each of the nationalities concerned.)

Brothers in arms
All of which leaves the Dutch, really, with the English. The English, for their part, have generally realised that the Netherlands are not England — not even a sort of utopian dream of what England might someday be like — although one can’t blame them for checking from time to time to just to make sure. Sometimes the lines between the two become blurry. On the one hand, there have been four Anglo-Dutch naval wars, although on the other, Britain and the Netherlands have occasionally co-operated, usually briefly, always uncomfortably yet always fruitfully, against other threats: during the Eighty Years’ War, at Waterloo or through the SOE sixty years ago. More to the point, though, at least in this context, is history on a human scale. For centuries the Dutch army and navy welcomed an impressive number of British volunteers — less out of protestant solidarity, incidentally, than the relaxed attitude of the Dutch towards Catholic membership of their officer corps, coupled of course with the endearing Dutch habit of paying regularly, fairly and in cash. (Perhaps the most famous member of the long-lived Scots Brigade was John Gabriel Stedman, the half-Scots, half-Dutch diarist whose perceptive and painfully frank descriptions of Surinamese slavery elicited from a young William Blake what is, to my mind, by far his greatest work.) Oliver Cromwell wanted a union with the United Provinces, but a few years later the Dutch stadholders surprised many by handing over group of English regicidal republicans to what proved, happily, to be their protracted, painful and much-celebrated deaths. So it is, all in all, a complex relationship. What cannot be missed is the degree of engagement, and its general tone. Over the years, the Netherlands have given Britain fen drainage, refuge from Marian persecution, gin, the limited company, cheap prints, William of Orange, investment banking, the word ‘landscape’, the concept of secularised international law, radical protestant literature and access to hardcore pornography. I am not sure what, precisely, we have given the Dutch, although depending on social class, they seem impressed either by Jermyn Street and Savile Row, or by the technical proficiency of our football hooligans. Alternatively, in Amsterdam, at least, they dislike our loud songs, our inability to take drink, our predilection for cheap and horrible food and the randomness of our holiday urination. Do the Dutch, then, congratulate themselves on their lack of Englishness? If so, they have — typically, delightfully — been too polite to tell me.

Faith no more?
And yet there are, in Holland, larger issues afoot. The recent past, it must be said, has brought its own set of challenges to the Netherlands. Perhaps the greatest of these, if the least well-publicised outside of the Netherlands, is the collapse of formal religion. Half of the reason I mention this, it must be said, is that assumption by British libertarians that the Netherlands are in some way ‘tolerant’. This is, however, a significant misunderstanding of a much more tangled, tricky, problematic reality.

Although, as in England, the state-approved version of Calvinism soon came to be challenged by a whole host of dissenting creeds, some more radical and some more latitudinarian — and although, again as in England, Catholicism was tacitly tolerated as long as fines could be levied and an ostentatiously exaggerated degree of civic loyalty ensured — it was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that legal disabilities pertaining to Catholics were lifted. On the other hand, the formal and informal discrimination against the so-called Seceders from the Dutch Reformed Church was so unpleasant as to force many of them abroad. So much for ‘tolerance’. (I write with a degree of special interest here. In 1847 my great-great grandfather led his ‘little sheep’ — his congregation — from Zeeland to a place called Holland, Michigan in the United States, bringing with him his only son, Cornelius Gardenier, a darkly handsome and highly intelligent child who eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the US Cavalry, becoming a great thorn in the side of US imperial policy in the Philippines and ultimately abandoning his father’s faith in favour of a sort of syncretic a-la-carte Buddhism — such are the bubbles that occasionally rise from that well-documented thing, the American ‘melting pot’.) Certainly, too, from the start of the seventeenth century until the catastrophe of the Second World War, the area around what is now Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein provided a safe haven for Jews from elsewhere in Europe, allowing them to get on with their own endless internecine doctrinal battles without undue interference. Compared with other parts of Europe, the Netherlands were fairly relaxed in this regard, allowing a relatively free press to exist within a relatively slack confessional state.

Yet while religious toleration was at best a patchy and unreliable affair in the post-reformation Netherlands, what could not be in the least doubted was that religion was important — in terms of the way in which individual identities were developed around it, in terms of the worldly institutions that grew up leaning on it, and in terms of the practical information it provided about how life ought to be lived. But recently — within the last generation — all of that has begun to change with remarkable haste.

On one level, of course, this is not so different from what has happened everywhere else in north-western Europe — although parenthetically it ought to be noted that Europe is the only continent in the world in which the membership of Christian churches is falling rather than rising — were it not for the fact that the transformation is so much more recent, so swift and so dramatic in the Netherlands. In 1960, only 21 per cent of Dutch people were not members of a church or other religious body. Today, only 37 per cent are members of a church, synagogue or mosque, while the only faith that is growing right now in the Netherlands is Islam. And even here, one has to wonder whether the quality of religious involvement is what it once was. Has faith become simply an attractive background for family weddings and funerals, a comforting but flexible link with the past, rather than the framework through which all meaningful experience is understood? And if so, how much does this fairly major earthquake alter the ground of the Netherlands we think we know?

Danny, perhaps, feels that the answer to this lies in libertarian ‘freedom’ — in permitting even the things one likes least, even the things which one regards as wicked, to flourish, at least amongst consenting adults. But what if the collapse of organised religion simply means that no one cares any more — that all of a sudden, there is no right and wrong except that provided for a pragmatic people by their pragmatic state? What if a combination of individual inertia and generalised disengagement from one’s fellow creatures is the order of the day? What if the Dutch don’t believe in ‘freedom’, but instead can’t be bothered to set out what they believe instead?


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