Memories. My elder brothers cycling over the polder, struggling through the squalls, singing an old song at the tops of their voices: ‘Come hail or rain, come wind or snow or sleet / We’ll soldier on, we won’t admit defeat!’ Our teacher Hendrik Algra marching through the classroom, beating his imaginary drum and telling us about the sea beggars – those fearless fishermen and merchants who stood up to the all-powerful king of Spain, Philip II, and marked the beginning of the Dutch Republic. A bright day in May, years later: the Westerkerk carillon; seagulls; flags in red, white and blue; a gaudy, festive boat with a barrel organ floating down the canals; the sunlight glittering on the water; freedom. All this is the Netherlands – etched into my soul.
The British, the French and the Germans are each made in their own unique manner, just like the Dutch. And that’s how it has to be, because frankly, our country owes its existence to pure accident. A few major rivers flow through it, but there are no mountain ranges or any other natural boundaries. An unforeseen inheritance in the fifteenth century or a daughter of a Burgundian duke choosing a different husband would have set us on a trajectory towards a very different outcome. Our far-flung corner of Europe might have ended up as a handful of French départements, or just another state in the German Bundesrepublik, or maybe even the southernmost outpost of a Scandinavian imperium.
And all these aspects are present in the modern-day Netherlands. Visit a city like Maastricht and you might think you were in France, while to the east of the unspoken psychological border that runs through Utrecht you might still find traces of feudalism. The mentality in Friesland and Groningen is almost Scandinavian; speakers of Frisian can get by pretty well in Denmark and Norway with that ancient, musical language. But in the west, where the rivers meet the sea and the big cities lie, it is water, commerce and the wider world that set the tone. You might say this is where the ‘true’ Netherlands is found: the nation of the polder model, of compromise, tolerance, trade and open-mindedness – but you might also find the perpetual fear of a small country in the big, wide world.
‘There’s no such thing as a “true” Dutch person,’ declared our then crown princess, now Queen Máxima – who hails from Argentina – after she’d spent a few years in the Netherlands. All hell promptly broke loose, but the outrage was revealing. Our whipsmart princess was entirely correct, and yet the truth hurt: we don’t really know who we are anymore; our country crackles with contradictions.
As a modern nation, the Netherlands is obviously diverse, and is home to a whole host of immigrant authors, as well as phenomenal travel writers, such as Lieve Joris and Jan Brokken. Yet it is also the oppressive farming backwater that produced the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. It is a land of order – if it weren’t for our enormous collective effort from the Middle Ages onwards, we would have slipped beneath the waves long ago. Yet there is a certain sense of anarchy, too. We are, and will always be, a country of proud and headstrong citizens – a place where the aristocracy were on the back foot as early as the sixteenth century. It is also a strikingly irreligious country, having secularised with remarkable speed during the 1950s and 60s, and the churches have remained mainly empty even during the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet, deep in our hearts, we have always been Calvinists – even the Catholics amongst us – because in this country, Calvinism is above all an attitude.
Calvinism was tailor-made for the Dutch and Flemish commercial cities, as it represented a religious affirmation of the norms and values they had developed during the Middle Ages: a strong work ethic, an inclination towards thrift, and a sense of individual responsibility – to God and towards one’s fellow human beings. This is the source of the leaden morality of guilt and sin that has permeated Dutch literature in all kinds of ways.
That morality is the reason austerity and a form of civic equality became the default, and remain so to this day. The Amsterdam merchants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the richest in Europe, but their canal-side palaces were modest in size. They left their wealth in their vaults; ostentation wasn’t, and still isn’t, the done thing.
Once, during a state visit, a French friend of mine saw President Mitterand enter a theatre, together with the Dutch queen and her consort. Mitterand strode through the entrance with all the pomp and circumstance of a French head of state, while Queen Beatrix wandered beside him, greeting members of the crowd. ‘That was the arrival of the president of a monarchy,’ said my friend, ‘together with the queen of a republic.’ Bluntness – often mistaken for honesty – was, and remains, a virtue.
And yet there is also something tragic about the story of the Netherlands; something like the lot of the author whose debut is a runaway success but who is doomed to live in its shadow forevermore. Our history, as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, came into being at the end of the sixteenth century with a spectacular explosion of discovery, innovation and rapidly acquired power and wealth. Amsterdam briefly became the New York of the seventeenth century – yet the so-called Golden Age came to an equally rapid end.
Then, after the fall of Napoleon, for a short while the Netherlands and Belgium came together to form a European power once more, but that venture too imploded in 1830. After that, we established our colonial empire in Indonesia, turning our back on our wild and wayward continent and nailing our colours to the rickety mast of neutrality, until Hitler put a brutal end to our illusions in 1940. After the Second World War, we became Europeans against our will – yet our deep distrust of the continent remained.
Even now, we are unsure of who we are in Europe. Are we the biggest of the small states, or the smallest of the big players? Even now, as the fifth-largest economy in Europe and one of the top exporters in the world, we do not take our own strength seriously. The same goes for our heroes. As the essayist Gerrit Komrij once wrote, when Dutch businesspeople travel the world and ‘briefly mention, sotto voce, the names of Erasmus, Spinoza, Rembrandt or Van Gogh, they do so timidly and with embarrassment, before quickly steering the conversation back to windmills and cheese with cumin.’
Even now, we Dutch cherish our myth of impotent innocence. We love giving sermons in Brussels and beyond – our politicians can’t get enough of them – but we refuse to acknowledge that we waged near-constant war in our colonies, and that to this day our tax havens roll out the welcome mat to the scum of the earth.
And what many Dutch people fail to take seriously is Europe itself. Although we are intimately bound to Germany and the rest of Europe in economic terms, in the minds of our politicians and pundits there are dozens of roads and railways leading to London, New York and Washington, while on the eastern border, in Enschede and Oldenzaal, they see beaches and an endless ocean. They would like nothing more than to cut off Amsterdam and the rest of Holland with huge artificial lakes, like in earlier centuries – our own little island in a man-made sea.
No, there won’t be a Nexit; our businesspeople and politicians lack that inexorable instinct for self-destruction. Nonetheless, they too would dearly love to swim away from the rest of the continent; together in splendid isolation, forever small, innocent and free.
By Geert Mak
Translated by Jozef van der Voort