The Dutch Yesterday and Today

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished professors, dear foreign students, Welcome in the Netherlands, this small country on the shores of the North Sea, a country where things that appeared to be stable for many centuries now all of a sudden seem out of ballance. Many of the statements that you may have read about the place where you are going to spend a period of your life are not valid any more, they are at least disputed, many of the old, time-tested certainties today appear to be anything but certain. National characteristics that the Dutch have always, in their own seemingly humble way been proud of – for example a certain tendency towards tolerance in religious matters – seem to melt away, or so the journalists and political commentators tell us. This is good news for those of you who have come here to study a social science: this small spot on the earth that for a long period of time has been a rather uninteresting, not to say boring, place, has transformed in a relatively short period of time into a kind of laboratory for those who are interested in the opportunities, the dangers, the problems, the challenges of high-modernity.

As a sociologist I did some research into the touchy subject of what some seventy years ago used to be called: the problem of national character. In the twenties and thirties of the last century sociologists, historians, anthropologists en social geographers were all very interested in the question of what is characteristic of the Germans, the French, the Brittish, the Italians or the Dutch. In Dutch social science the subject was hotly debated and one of the interesting things that struck me when I was reading these texts in the dust covered volumes of old scholarly journals, was that the traits they ascribed to the Dutch were extraordinarily stable. Whether you read an article by the famous Amsterdam professor of history Johan Huizinga or a book by the Amsterdam ethnographer Steinmetz, whether you looked into an French tourist guide of the thirties or an American anthropological research into the customs of the Dutch, you always find the same lists of peculiarities that struck the authors as typically Dutch. Some scientists founded their descriptions on detailed studies of what foreigners, visiting the Low Countries, had reported to their countrymen in letters or personal diaries about the natives that they had come across on their travels through these regions. There were also researchers who used questionaires with structured psychological questions in order to discover what psychological traits the inhabitants of this part of the earth had in common. But whoever wrote about it and whatever method was used, the lists they came up with were strikingly similar. And that list seems to have remained relatively stable from the nineteenth century until the end of the eithties in the twentieth century. That is such a remarkable fact: the absence of disagreement, everybody agreed with everybody on what typifies the Dutch.

Let me give you just one example, a list of Dutch characteristics that I found in an article by one of the founding fathers of ethnology and sociology in the Netherlands, Sebald Rudolf Steinmetz, who was one of the famous professors, teaching at this university in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1930 Steinmetz published a book about the Netherlands. Five of the eighty-three pages of this book, that was written in the German language and for a German audience were devoted to the question of this presumed National Character. Steinmetz headed his list of Dutch character traits with the love of freedom. He went on to mention individualism, an avertion to personality cults and other forms of ‘Pathos’, a critical attitude, a penchant for irony, a lack of emotionalism, negligible traces of vanity and very little vindictiveness, sensuality or sensitivity. According to Steinmetz the Dutch seldom showed any signs of joy and were rarely cheerful. They were not too enthusiastic about new inventions. Art in the Netherlands was never monumental. People were not extravagant; on the contrary, they were economical and thrifty. They were not adventurous. In 1871 the historian Robert Fruin wrote an article entitled ‘The Character of the Dutch People’ in which you will find just the same description: the Dutch are phlegmatic, he says, the word that describes them best is the untranslateble Dutch term bedaard: calm, collected. Very few people were filled with any kind of real passion for the opposite sex. The Dutch kitchen was – to put it mildly – not overly sophisticated. The Dutch were not cruel to animals, nor were they cruel to each other. They took life very seriously and when this seemed to exact too high a toll, they tended to drink away their problems. (Some visitors, especially in the nineteenth century report that alcoholism seems to be a national desease.) They had plenty of energy, but they excelled more in their perseverance than in their enterprising spirit. (…) They did not tend to change their minds easily, nor did they react quickly and they were not inspiring orators. But they were faithful, persevering, reserved, reticent, industrious, peaceful and scrupulous. The only field where the Dutch were more emotional was religion: here very heated feelings were sometimes rampant, and there was evidence of great love for religious leaders.

Huizinga in his friendly polemical way wrote that in the Dutch language the word schoon means clean and beautiful at the same time. Every foreigner travelling through the Netherlands marvels at the clean streets, the clean houses, the clean clothes that the people wear. And every reader of Huizinga in the fourties or the fifties nodded when reading those lines. Yes, you can say many unpleasant things about the Dutch, but nowhere else will you walk on cleaner streets.

These traits can be found in nearly every other text on the same subject. There is a surprising amount of consensus of opinion among authors aggregating the elements of Dutch national character. Sometimes, of course, this is attributable to their copying parts of each other’s lists. But a wide range of sources and methods led the authors to draw strikingly identical conclusions.

Some of these authors presented interesting explanations for these traits. Some of them assumed that a large part of the national character was inherited and transmitted in a biological way. Some of these explanations verge even on a disquieting kind of racism. But historians traditionally had a great aversion to linking national character to heridity. Jan Romein, one of the most illustrious historians working at this university, believed that in order to track down our national character, we have to examine the history of the Dutch people. The fact that Dutch society is a predominantly protestant society, has been considered by many authors a very important factor. Another interesting point is the fact that in our country a court society, remotely comparable to the court of Versailles, did not develop; the dominant class was not the nobility, the descendants of warriers, specialists of military means, of weapens,  but the frugal tradesmen in their simple black clothes, the specialists of economic means, of money. Johan Huizinga thought that all the aspects of the Dutch character were derived from their essential bourgeois nature. This bourgeois nature was related to the history of the Republic of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Even at its peak, Dutch life was fundamentally unheroic, according to Huizinga, who wrote the famous sentences: ‘Whether we like it or not, we Dutch are all bourgeois, from the notary public to the poet and from the baron to the common labourer. Our national culture is bourgeois in every sense of the word. The bourgeois conception of what life is all about has been adopted by all the segments or classes of our nation, whether rural of urban, the rich and the poor… Our very spirit has sprouted forth from bourgeois seeds, not a military spirit, but a commercial one. The bourgeois quality of society accounts for the negligible rebelliousness of the lower classes, and in general the tranquility of the nation’s life, which only ripples slightly under the wind of great spiritual turmoils.’

I hope that you will keep in mind these lists of Dutch characteristics in the coming months of your stay in Amsterdam. Some of them can still be found in the tourist guides that some of you may have read before embarking upon this journey. In these books the old stereotypes are repeated as if nothing had changed. That is not so very strange when you realize that even in the seventies and the eighties these lists were still very recognizable: yes, we did have political one-issue parties that warned against the invasion of foreigners into our beautiful country, but they were not an important factor in political life; yes, when in 1988 the Dutch soccer team won an important European competition, the Dutch seemed to lose their phlegmatic attitude, they painted their faces in orange and immersed themselves in what some people called nationalistic hysteria. But that was the exception to the rule, these outbursts are not incompatible with a general tendency towards remaining cool and collected, even when in a jubilant mood. But how many exceptions does a social scientist need in order to doubt the rule, how many falsifications does a sociologist need before he gives up a cherished idea, after how many anomalies is the governing paradigm in serious danger?

Dear students, let me invite you to do a little empirical work here. Just go on a walk through Amsterdam to control these statements with your own eyes. Set aside your preconceived opinions and just write down what you see.

All authors agree that the Dutch do not show passion, that they are not extravagant, have an aversion to pathos and are very prudish in sexual matters. It is a pitty that the gay parade took place six months ago. This has become a yearly national festivity on the Dutch canals during which hundreds of thousands of people, supposedly in majority heterosexual, are cheering the gay men and women who are passing by on big and small boats, voluptuously dancing and singing. More interesting then this gay parade, that you can also watch in Berlin or Paris or San Francisco are the spectators: hundreds of thousands of fathers, mothers and small children are waving and singing and, although the mayor of Amsterdam has asked the participants to be not too provocative, one can safely say that the spectators are clapping loudest for the most extravagant and extremely dressed actors. What about the characteristics that were considered so typical of Dutch national character: the Dutch are reticent, reserved, unemotional, sober, bourgeois, awkward, bedaard, not emotional, never passionate, rarely cheerful.

Or maybe you should make some observations of your own on the evening of the last day of the year, New Years Day, when you can experience what happens when the fireworks are privatized or on the evening before Queens Day, the 30th of april, when everybody in the street of Amsterdam seems to be drunk. Or look at the thrifty Dutch when they are buying presents for Saint Nicholas Day or for Christmas, exceeding year after year after year the amount of money that they collectively spent the year before. At the same time they are exceeding the financial limits of their credit cards. For centuries the Dutch were said to differ from the French or the Americans in their protestant aversion of financial debts, but also in this respect they have changed their ways.

For some observations you even do not have to leave your student apartment. When you watch the Dutch television programs, zapping between one o clock and four o clock in the night between RTL4, RTL5, Talpa or Veronica, you may change your ideas about traditional Dutch prudishness.

In books written around the time when I was born the Dutch are also described as god-fearing, law abiding citizens, sometimes even a bit too obedient to authority, notwithstanding their individualism. Calvinism does not encourage a rebellious attitude towards the powers that are set above us. I would like to invite you to our coffee shops, one of the institutions that made Amsterdam famous all over the world. Or do your research in the red light district to study at close range how succesful the Dutch are today in their effort to scrupulously hide from the public eye any hint of human sexuality. Even the fact that I uttered those sentences, the fact that I encouraged you just now, to do some empirical research in the Amsterdam underworld of sex and soft drugs, could be interpreted as a dramatic change in our cultural atmosphere, a change in climate.

One of the most interesting subjects is what happened to the traditional Dutch virtue of  tolerance, religious openness, our time-tested hospitality towards people who are prosecuted elsewhere and who are offered a safe haven here. In many sociological studies important segments of the Dutch population still show no signs of extreme chauvinism or nationalistic hatred, as is often suggested in the newspapers. But there is an uneasy feeling that this is beginning to change. Immigrants in Dutch society report a kind of xenophobia that was never characteristic of this society.

The changes I wanted to ask your attention for are changes in the cultural realm, changes in the way people in this part of the world form their perception of society, of one another, of themselves. It appears that we, in the Netherlands, are now experiencing a fundamental change in the meteorological climate, temperatures are rising, Hansje Brinker can sell his silver skates on ebay. This  change might in the long run even pose a threat for the physical existence of these low countries, these nether lands. But at the same time we are witnessing a change in the cultural atmosphere, a lowering of the temperature in the cultural climate. That change has gone so fast, that we are still rather desperately trying to determine what hit us. Maybe you can help us here. Sometimes the gaze of the outsider reveals things that the insiders cannot discern. In order to explain this intriguing change in the cultural climate we need another Al Gore and… well… that just may be… you.

‘The Dutch Yesterday and Today’, Toespraak voor de in Amsterdam aan hun studie beginnende buitenlandse studenten op 1 februari 2007, Aula van de UvA.