Discovering the Dutch. On the Dutch National Character (2011)

Welcome in the Netherlands. My name is Bart van Heerikhuizen and I teach sociology at the University of Amsterdam. I have been invited to tell you a few things about Dutch society.

Well, let’s start with this beautiful church. The church is called De Duif – the pigeon, or better still: the Dove. This is not a university building that formerly used to be a church, it is a real, functioning church, that we are allowed today for academic purposes. Next Sunday there will be an ecumenical service here, which means that Catholics and Protestants of different denominations can celebrate their shared Christian beliefs together. You can safely say that this place is a haven of religious tolerance and harmony and in that sense incarnates some of the most admirable elements in Dutch history. But this church is also used for concerts, shows, cd-recordings, fairs, receptions including the official welcome of the university and that is also an age-old Dutch tradition. Churches are places of worship, but that does not mean that you should not use them for other purposes as well. But this was originally a Roman Catholic parish church, built in 1857, on the exact same spot where once a smaller conventicle stood. The official name of the church is Sint Willibrord binnen de Veste, Saint Willibrord within the walls, but originally it was known as the Dove of Peace, later shortened to just the Dove, de Duif. So we are gathered together here with all these different nationalities in a building that is called the dove of peace. Isn’t that a good start?

For several years now I have had the privilege to play a role in this festive day, the official welcome for the new students from abroad. The International Student Network of the University of Amsterdam has organized it in many different locations, but they all share one peculiar element. I have delivered my official welcome speech in the protestant Western church, in the Lutheran church, which is also the auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, in the Mennonite church, and in De Rode Hoed. Maybe some Dutch students here believe that De Rode Hoed is not a church at all, but yes guys, de Rode Hoed used to be a conventicle as well. The oldest building of the university of Amsterdam, where everything started, is called de Agnietenkapel, originally a Roman Catholic chapel, dedicated to Saint Agnes and used by the sisters of the order of the holy Saint Agnes.

The University of Amsterdam is not a Christian university, like our Amsterdam couterpart, the Free University, but religious symbolism is all over the place and although the majority of the Dutch students in Amsterdam consider themselves non-denomenational, nobody thinks it is strange that I teach sociology in the Lutheran Church, that I adress students in the Western church, or that PhD’s are defended in the beautiful mediaeval chapel of Saint Agnes. This is one of the elements in Dutch society that may surprise you. You will meet amongst your fellow students and your teachers quite some agnostics and even outspoken atheists, but when you come to know them better there is often something very serious and moralistic in their attitude towards life that may strike you as profoundly religious. If you came to the Netherlands with all those stories in your head about window prostitution and free marihuana, you might have received the wrong impression. In many ways this is still a Christian society, although many of these Christians, go more often to church to attend a concert or a lecture than to worship.

Let me give you an example of the peculiarity of the Christian faith in the Netherlands. Amsterdam has an international reputation of being one of the attractive capitals for gay men and women, comparable to cities like Berlin or San Francisco. Every summer you can watch the gay parade on the canals of Amsterdam and that is really a spectacular event where hundreds of thousands of people travel to Amsterdam to cheer the gay men and women passing by on boats, outrageously dressed, provocatively dancing on beats that hurt at least my ears. Now you might think that the Christian churches in the Netherlands are a bit reluctant in embracing this trend. But that is not at all true. With the exception of a few extremely orthodox denominations with a small following, one might say that the protestant churches in the Netherlands are by and large supportive of gay rights and gay marriage, including the right of gay couples to adopt children. When a study was published indicating that the number of gays that are battered and beaten in the Netherlands appears to be on the rise, the Christian churches quickly vented their indignation. One Dutch sociologist has even suggested that this is one of the ways in which the Christian churches are able to draw a clear dividing line between themselves and the Muslems who live in the Netherlands. But also in progressive muslem circles the attitudes towards homosexuality seem to change. Even the immigrants quickly pick up the Dutch predeliction for tolerance, although for many people in the Netherlands they do not do it quickly enough.

Holland offers you a fascinating and sometimes bewildering mix of conservatism and very liberal attitudes. You may notice this even in the speech of Harm Versloot, later today, who represents the Amsterdam police here. He will tell you that yes, it is true, you are entitled to smoke marihuana in the Netherlands in the privacy of your own room. I know that the fact that a policeman in uniform says those things with a straight face is guaranteed to produce some raised eyebrows amongst some foreign students. But then he will add that the Dutch laws regarding drugs are in many ways pretty severe and if you don’t take them seriously, you may end up in jail. So beware, make no mistake, it’s a complicated game we play here. This is also true for society at large. The political party that is in the right wing corner of the political spectrum, the party for freedom, is also one of the staunchest supporters of gay rights and by the way also of animal rights, something you might not expect from the radical right. The political party at the extreme left wing corner of the political spectrum, de socialistische partij, is often charged with being surprisingly conservative, for example when they oppose changes in the organisation of the welfare state or when they oppose Europeanisation or globalisation. It is often said that the socialist party is in many respects a more conservative party than the Christian democrats who used to be the guardians of the great conservative tradition in the political arena.

For us, the Dutch, these dialectical interactions between conservative views and very liberal opinions are completely self-evident, we just don’t understand how anyone could think about those things in any other way, but for foreigners this seems baffling. When I try to explain to French students, who are used to the rhetoric of Jean Marie le Pen, that our right wingers are the most outspoken ennemies of any kind of antisemitism and unfailing supporters of the politics of Israel, they seem to have lost the way.

In your first months in the Netherlands, it is really difficult to make sense of this society. But I have a few sincere pieces of advice for you if you want to better understand in what kind of social universe you just have landed today. I am really serious about this and you write down the titles of the book and the two movies that I am going to mention.

First of all, I invite you to read some of the books that have been written about the Dutch. There are many books you can choose from, for example in the American Book Center on the Spui in Amsterdam, where you can find shelves filled with books about the Dutch, often written by Dutch journalists who take pride in describing their own tribe in the least flattering light imaginable. A good example is a book, called the Undutchables, very popular amongst expats, but I don’t like it. There is one book that I really like, Discovering the Dutch, On Culture and Society in the Netherlands. It is a collection of articles by serious specialists and it was edited by two authors, Emmeline Besamusca and Jaap Verheul. Keep that first name in mind. Besamusca. Go to the bookshop and ask for the book by Besamusca on Dutch culture and society. It offers you lots and lots of information about political life, economic relationships and the dilemma’s facing the Dutch welfare state. It contains historical chapters on the golden age, the tradition of tolerance, the great painters, Hugo de Groot, Descartes, Holland during the second world war. There is an interesting chapter on the three waves of feminism in Dutch society, in which you can read that we are at this very moment just in the middle of the third wave. In this book there is a very beautiful chapter by David Bos about religious diversification and secularisation, treating the topics with which I started my lecture. But there is also a great chapter on the problems of immigration and multiculturalism, that hold the Netherlands in their iron grip. There is even a chapter about you guys and that is called: the Netherlands seen through foreign eyes. Buy the book, read the book, it will be very helpful. Besamusca, discovering the dutch. Published in 2010 by Amsterdam University Press.

That is all very academic and serious, but maybe such a sholarly book does not suffice if you want to really feel what makes them tick, those strange Dutch people. In order to get a feel for these folks, there are two documentary movies that I encourage you to watch and I advise you to watch them the very same day, first the movie from 1963 and then the movie made in 2006. You can order them, buy them, rent them, but they are not presently in the cinema. The first one is half a century old, the second one is recent. The first one is made by the documentary movie maker that I believe to be the greatest Dutch documentary film director of the twentieth century, Bert Haanstra. The second one is made by a contemporary director, who is a self-reported admirer of Bert Haanstra, but who has developed a very different style, all of his own, Michiel van Erp. Van Erp is more tongue in cheek than Haanstra, more postmodern, and always a bit mischievous. The older movie, made in 1963, has been hailed in a prestigious election as the best documentary movie in the Netherlands since 1945. It is called in Dutch Alleman, but you can also buy or rent the English version and that one is called The Human Dutch and in another edition Everyman. That is the mirror of the Dutch around 1963. If you want to watch the contemporary Dutch, you should turn to Michiel van Erp and his movie Pretpark Nederland, theme park Holland, the amusement park that the Netherlands, according to Van Erp, has become. The movie was produced in 2006. sells a version with English subtitles, but there is also an entirely English spoken version called A fun fair behind the dikes. It is mainly about the tourism industry in the Netherlands, but it gives you an extremely astute peek into the soul of this strange tribe living five meters under sea level.

Enjoy the thought provoking social, cultural and political climate in Holland, and especially in Amsterdam. There is a distinct possibility that when you are eighty years old and you look back on your life, you may arrive at the conclusion that the months you spent in Amsterdam were the decisive period in your entire life, the period when everything began to fall into place, when you became the person that you really are. And this may be the very first day of that crucial episode in your life. Be reflexively conscious of it, and, to quote Jerry Springer, ‘take care of yourself and of each other’. Amen.

‘Discovering the Dutch’. Introductory Speach for the foreign students in Amsterdam, at the Official Welcome, organized by the International Student Network, in the church De Duif, Amsterdam, January, 27, 2011