Holland: Today and Yesterday: A Historian's Appraisal



THE Holland of today cannot be understood without reference to her history. And yet the first thing that her history shows is the profound, the fundamental difference between her political constitution and international position now and in earlier centuries.

One great change occurred only recently, when the sovereignty of the Indonesian Republic was recognized and the dominant position which Holland had long occupied in the South Asiatic Archipelago came to an end. The struggle with Indonesian nationalism into which the Dutch were thrown immediately after the liberation from German occupation took them quite unawares. Its conclusion was a rude shock to national pride and was accompanied by feelings of resentment against the powerful allies who had made any other settlement but the radical one impossible. Certain groups continue to grumble and to nourish bitterness. But it is notable that, by and large, opinion has adapted itself to a situation which, one might have feared, large groups of Dutchmen would find it difficult to accept.

Perhaps the fact that the country had once before had to accept a diminution of its international position, and in fact a much more fundamental one, helped on this occasion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Dutch Republic — despite its smallness and the loose structure of its federal government — was counted among the great powers of Europe. From the convulsions of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, and the break-up of the union with Belgium (set up in 1814), there emerged the small Kingdom, for which in an unorganized Europe no foreign policy was left except a somewhat tenacious clinging to neutrality. The overseas Indian empire which had been saved from the ruins of past greatness often seemed something of an anomaly. The Dutch, in fact, have had more than a century to accustom themselves to the hard fact that world events do not wait upon their pleasure.

It should not be forgotten, however, that when Dutch rule over Indonesia was so abruptly liquidated, finis was written to a chapter of history in which much more was recorded than domination or exploitation: much constructive work in which the good of Indonesia had been the objective. While resigning themselves to the inevitable, most Dutchmen feel that there was a tragic, quality in the abrupt conclusion of an episode which had its impressive features — tragic for all concerned.

There is, however, another explanation of the apparent ease with which Dutch opinion has weathered the shock of losing Indonesia. For centuries it had been widely believed — in Holland as well as in the rest of the world — that Dutch prosperity was due to the possession of a rich colonial empire and that its loss must result in sudden distress. But that has not been the case, despite the fact that the catastrophe happened when Holland had just passed through the terrible ordeal of the German occupation and was left with many towns severely damaged, several areas flooded, slocks completely exhausted, railway material and industrial equipment carried off by the invader. The country was in a far worse plight than its neighbor, Belgium, which was liberated in September 1944; for it was during the final eight months of occupation that the full horrors of requisition, forced labor, and total tyranny were experienced. Yet although the loss of Indonesia came on top of all that, a recovery is to be seen in Holland today which has surprised even the Dutch themselves. Marshall aid has been a factor of enormous importance; it has helped Holland to reach a position in which the buoyancy of her unaided economy is becoming apparent — more strikingly apparent than in the case of several other Western European countries.


ON A recent motor tour with American friends I noticed how amazed they were by the general appearance of prosperity—the land intensively cultivated, the towns neat and well kept, new streets and new quarters everywhere, front gardens full of flowers, flowers behind the spotlessly curtained windows, and the people well clad, well nourished, and seemingly happy. Official data and statistics confirm those bright impressions. From being (on emerging from the war) a penurious debtor in the European Payments Union, Holland has already worked herself up to the position of one of the most opulent creditors: in the Organization for European Economic Co-operation she has consented to freeing a larger proportion of her imports (92 per cent) than almost any other member. The miracle becomes all the more miraculous when one remembers that Holland is without the natural advantage of raw materials and that on her cramped territory she has to accommodate an exceptionally dense population, which is still growing at an unusually rapid rate (10,000,000 inhabitants, 310 per square kilometer, as against 2,600,000, or 80 per square kilometer a century ago).

What is the explanation of this amazing recovery? First, it should be remembered that although the Dutch middle class can no longer look forward to posts in the Indonesian administration or technical services which used to take considerable numbers to the Archipelago, the disestablishment of Dutch rule does not mean the sudden liquidation of Dutch investments in Indonesia, In the long run, the leading position of Dutch capital in that country will no doubt be lost; but for the time being business still provides thousands of Dutchmen with careers in the East Indies and profits are still being made, however much they may be endangered by increased competition from foreign investors and by the less stable conditions prevailing under the regime of the Republic.

But this is not the most important Consideration. Much more decisive is the fact that the Dutch are an industrious and energetic people, skilled in organization and technology, and gifted with a sense of order. If the colonial adventure, which is now at an end, has left an imprint on their minds, it is not to brood over lost opportunities, but to put the experience gained to fresh purposes: to swarm out to countries where the expert advice of men schooled in a brilliant colonial tradition may yet be required, or to seek new outlets for trade or capital in other distant lands — in Africa, for instance, and in South America.

Agriculture and trade used to be the twin pillars of the Dutch economy, but even before the last war industry had become of importance. After the war it was realized that industry would have to play a much larger role than ever before, and industrialization has been systematically promoted as the only means of providing work for the scores of thousands added every year to the labor market. The task seemed almost beyond the country’s strength. To absorb 135,000 new workers into the industrial process, and to increase productivity by 15 per cent, necessitated, in the years 1948 to 1952, investments to the tune of 7,000,000,000 guilders,1 and an alleviation was sought through state-supported emigration. These measures, however, can never provide for more than a fraction of the annual population increase, and further heavy investments will have to be faced, at the cost of severe economies in consumption.

In the initial effort required to repair wartime damage and to expand the industrial plant, Marshall aid was, as I said, an important factor. But without the habit of work and a high level of technical skill in the labor force, without a spirit of enterprise among the employers, without careful and judicious planning on the part of the Government, it would never have been possible to achieve the present situation, in which there is social contentment and no abnormal unemployment.

All this does not mean that Holland is a rich country, as she AS as reputed to be in the past. Wealth is a different matter from the kind of wellbeing that is the lot of the Dutch. The policy ol Dutch governments since the war has been one of leveling up and leveling down. Capitalists can be heard to grumble at high taxes and at stifling regulations. The middle classes often complain that their parents and grandparents led more comfortable lives. The worst evils of overpopulation have been fought with remarkable success, but many economists maintain that the country is suffering from overpopulation all the same — and also from lack of opportunity.

It is impossible to measure the fundamental qualities of a human society by any exact standards. The carefulness, the love of order, the concentration on the homely pleasures and the homely virtues (all of which is so strikingly shown in seventeenthcentury Dutch genre painting) — these Dutch traits will sometimes arouse impatience. But visit the Wieringermeer polder2 — the first of the large areas reclaimed from the Zuider Zee — and you will see a result of these qualities, profoundly suggestive of them, and at the same time profoundly impressive. The vast, fertile landscape, with the beautiful, fresh-colored homesteads; the carefully planned village, bright with flowers, its wide streets and lawns clean as a chestnut coming out of its shell — when one remembers that this was sea not fifteen years ago, that as late as 1945 it was flooded again by the Germans and has since been recovered a second time from the water, one realizes what sturdy perseverance and courage must be present under the peaceful Dutch exterior. And were not these qualities revealed again last year when the spring tide broke through the dikes of Zeeland to devastate a much larger and older part of the country, and the nation rose to the crisis in a unanimous surge of sympathy and determination?

Dutchmen have sometimes felt oppressed by the smallness of their country. A generation ago, the great poet, Mme. Roland Holst, wrote:

In a small field, hemmed in by narrow bounds
Each finds his little room and petty life.
All things here touch all other things.
The foot lacks distances to wander in.
Holland you leave no room but to the mind.

The exception is a large one. And after describing the wide horizons and the clouds trailing in the vast sky, the poet goes on:

Our eyes taste something groat, and therefrom goes
A touch of greatness through our minds’ desires,
And we’re at home in vast, in boundless spheres.

Dutch art speaks a language which all nations can understand. And in it how often will you find expressed that same longing after greatness, after boundlessness, to which the poem refers. It is true that critics for a long time affected to see in Dutch seventeenth-century art nothing but the accurate and unimaginative representation of things in the artist’s daily life, an art on the smallest of small scales. But even in the kind of work which might be thus regarded, some of the painters managed to convey an escape into space; a greatness either of human understanding, as with Steen, or of perfect equipoise of light and beauty, as with Vermeer. And side by side with these there have always been in Dutch art the visionaries and the passionate, like Rembrandt or Ruysdael; and in a later age, James Maris and Van Gogh; and in our own day Chabot or Mme. Charley Toorop. They all give expression to that imaginative quality of the race which Mme. Roland Holst seeks to explain by the character of the landscape on which its eyes are fed.

I have spoken of the steady planning conducted by the Government since the liberation. Holland’s politics in the postwar period have indeed been characterized by stability. The three Cabinets that have successively been in power have all been based mainly on a coalition of the Labor Party and the Catholic Party (each represented by 30 members in the present Chamber of 100). The two Protestant, or Calvinist, parties —the Christian Historical (9) and the Anti-Revolutionary (12)—are now also taking part in the Government. The opposition — apart from the Communists, who were never very strong and who have lost adherents at every election until they are now down to six deputies — is represented by the Liberal Party (V.V.D., 9), which is, in effect, a conservative businessman’s party.

The Labor-Catholic coalition must be a surprising spectacle to Americans. Indeed in the Catholic Party, which, based as it is on religious principle, embraces men of both conservative and progressive views, there are often rumblings of criticism at the association with “the Socialists.” But only the other day a leading Catholic politician stoutly defended this association, reminding his hearers how different is the mentality of the present Labor Party compared with that of the Socialist Party of which it is the successor. National Defense and the monarchy have been accepted; Marxism and the concept of the class struggle have been dropped.


BUT before going more deeply into present-day Dutch politics let me say a few words not about the Socialists but about the Catholics. Their importance in modern Holland is often a matter for surprise to outside observers, who arc still inclined to regard Holland as the classical example of an essentially Protestant country.

This mistake is rooted in a misconception of Netherlands history. The sixteenth-century revolt of the seventeen Netherlands provinces (covering the area which is now Holland and Belgium) is still often viewed as a religious epic, and its outcome— the independence, under Protestant auspices, of the Northern Provinces (the Dutch Republic, now the Kingdom of the Netherlands), and the reassertion of Spanish rule over the Southern Provinces (Dutchspeaking Flanders and Brabant and French-speaking Wallonia, which since 1830 have formed the Kingdom of Belgium) — is accepted as proof that the Hollanders were the true Protestants, the Protestants by nature, and that the Flemings (or Belgians) had always retained a hankering after Catholicism. The truth of the matter, as I see it, is that the separation of the Northern and the Southern Netherlands was not brought about by any divergence of religious sentiment, but by the fortunes of war. The Spaniards were able to restore their rule in the country situated on the “wrong” (that is, south) side of the rivers, after which they at once drove out the Protestants, who were at least as numerous there as they were in the North. North of the river barrier (which proved its slrength once again in September 1944, when Montgomery failed to cross it), the small Protestant minority, strengthened by Flemish refugees, was able to entrench itsell and, in the course of one or two generations, to bring over a majority of the population into the new Calvinist Church.

No more than a majority. A strong minority, in the big towns and in groups scattered over the countryside, clung to the old faith, oven though it was proscribed by the dominant seet. The Republic recognized only the Reformed Church, and the government (federal, provincial, and municipal) was exclusively composed of members of that Church. The Catholics, a little over one third of the population then as now, were not “emancipated” until the old Republic was overthrown in 1795 and a (very mildly) revolutionary regime was set up. Even then this legal emancipation did not, for several generations, alter the Protestant tone of Dutch public or cultural life or the prevailing conception of Dutch nationality as being in some intimate way bound up with Protestantism. The real, as distinct from the legal, emancipation of the Catholics was a long and arduous process, which reached completion only in the present century. It will be seen that the ease is a very different one from that of, say, Massachusetts, once the stronghold of Puritanism, where the current prominence of the Catholic element is the result of immigration. In Holland, it is the coming into its own of an old, long-submerged portion of the nation.

A curious episode in the history of Catholic emancipation was the coalition between the Catholic and Calvinist parties from about 1880 to 1920. The spectacle of these ancient enemies co-operating and dominating Dutch politics was not without irony. It arose from the desire of both to break down the monopoly of the state-supported elementary school, which was meant for children of all denominations, and was therefore “neutral” in the religious sphere. The struggle ended in complete victory, and today private denominational schools -managed by private committees and subject to State inspection as to efficiency only — are subsidized on an equal footing with the neutral public schools and draw considerably more than half of the nation’s children.

The solution was in the end agreed to by all parties, and today there is not a man in politics who would question its wisdom. Certainly there are disadvantages attached to a system which tends to divide the nation from youth upwards into separate sections. The disadvantages are the more serious as the principle has extended to practically all spheres of public life: we have Catholic, Protestant, and General (which means, in effect, “Humanistic”) trade unions, newspapers, radio corporations, sports societies, et cetera.

On the other hand, there was a conscientious grievance involved here, and it is only because it was removed that the coalition between Catholics and Socialists became in the long run possible. The example of other European countries reveals how much the school settlement has thus indirectly contributed to the nation’s political stability. And while the different sections are allowed to live their own lives, this does not prevent their joining hands over issues of serious national impart. The reality of Dutch unity was stirringly demonstrated during the war, and it has not shown up so badly in the politics and crises of the postwar period.

The Labor Party never wavered in its determined hostility to the Communists and to their creed. More than anything else, perhaps, this eased the way for coalition with the Catholics and other non-Socialist parties. The Communist Party never succeeded in capturing large portions of the working classes outside of certain well-defined areas, one of which is Amsterdam, where, however, its influence is now definitely on the wane. Fellow-travelers are not unknown among Dutch intellectuals, yet it may be said that Communism in Holland, as compared with some other Western European countries, makes a very poor showing intellectually.

Apart from the Communists and their halfhearted apologists, there are no fundamental differences between the parties as regards the country’s international position. There is general agreement that the days of neutrality are past, that Holland must bear her share in a common system of defense, that there is no “Third Way” between the United States and Russia, and that the fate of Western Europe is indissolubly bound up with that of the United States. Of course, differences of opinion exist as to the methods and possibilities of bringing about closer Western European unity. But here, too, opinions do not coincide with party affiliations.

In conclusion, a word must be said about the monarchy. The prestige of the House of Orange is deeply rooted in Dutch history. Queen Wilhelmina, in her self-chosen exile in London during the war, strengthened it by embodying, in her unwavering faith, the national hopes for a restoration of independence; and not less by taking up again, on her return in 1945, the self-effacing role of constitutional arbiter. Her abdication on completing a fifty years’ reign in 1948 made a scene of profound human dignity, all the more moving for its simplicity.

Queen Juliana, too, has displayed just the right touch in the exercise of her office. Because the limitations on the Dutch monarchy are so unquestioningly accepted, the monarchy is of inestimable value to the smooth working of the parliamentary system in this country of many parties.

  1. The guilder is equivalent to about 26.32 American cents.
  2. Polder: a tract of low land reclaimed from the sea by dikes.