The end of Dutch history

The image of the Dutch past is now dominated by the Golden Age, especially as embodied in the work of artists like Johannes Vermeer. To people living then, for whom Dutch history was synonymous with the revolt against Spain, this would have been incomprehensible. Schwartz speculates on the next turn of the screw.

Had Francis Fukuyama been a 17th-century Dutchman, he would have dated the end of history to 15 May 1648. On that day, Spain and the Netherlands ratified the peace treaty ending the Eighty Years War and establishing the United Provinces as a sovereign nation. The future prospects to which the Dutch looked forward would have been familiar to Fukuyama: worldwide freedom of trade with more money and better troops to back it up.

To a Dutchman of the mid-17th century, the history of his country was a history of warfare. The great theme was the Revolt. Not only did that heroic success story eclipse all other accounts of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries; it also colored the past. Four centuries of Batavian-Roman relations were reduced to the prophetic Revolt of Julius Civilis of 69 A.D. The martial self-image of the Dutch was well-deserved. Modern historians might look for underlying economic and social factors that enabled the tiny Netherlands to prevail against the imperial might of the Habsburgs, but to contemporaries it boiled down to military savvy and the boost in morale that comes from knowing that God is on your side.

If that is the story that Dutchmen told themselves about themselves in the middle of the Golden Age, it is certainly not the one that present-day Dutchmen tell about their forefathers of that period. Between 1648 and the beginning of the 20th century, Dutch history was demilitarized and then pacified. In the place of war, even in the place of religion, came art.

From this point of view, the Dutch self-image is even more distorted than I have indicated. Not only has its central feature been flopped 180 degrees from warfare to art, but the kind of art that is now regarded as quintessentially Dutch was distinctly marginal in its time. This was noticed by the perspicacious historian Ernst Kossmann in an essay of 1992: "The painters who departed from the main styles were considered to be representing … the ‘true’ nature of the Netherlands…. In other words, Dutch nationality displayed itself where no one in the 17th century ever looked for it."



What does Dutch history mean to the Dutch? For as long as we cherished the illusion that our country could rise once more to the level of military and economic dominance it enjoyed in the 17th century, we continued to define ourselves as the victors of the Revolt and as unrivalled masters of world commerce, through the VOC. As those illusions fell by the wayside in the 18th and 19th centuries, other sources of pride were enlisted. The historian Niek van Sas locates the key turning point in the late 19th century, in the work of Conrad Busken Huet (1826-86). "The only field in which the Netherlands could be judged by international standards was in the painting of the Golden Age…. Through its art, in Huet’s words, the Netherlands had scored ‘a decisive victory’ over the rest of the world"

In 1882-84, when Busken Huet published Het land van Rembrand, there was however still one other source of living pride that could stand alongside the art of the Dutch masters in our struggle for status. He wrote in conclusion to his magisterial overview of Dutch history: "No other product of our culture in the 17th century flourished as powerfully as our art. To find anything comparable, we must turn to our colonial history. Java and [Rembrandt’s] Syndics of the drapers’ guild are in fact our best testimonials."

In these terms, the final touch – a provisional final touch, needless to say – to our historical self-image was not added until after the Second World War, when we lost India. Until 1949 we still could boast that our control of the immense Indonesian archipelago was a "decisive victory," an historical possession of which the world could be jealous. As the post-colonial period gathered steam, however, Holland’s long domination over Indonesia quickly became a source of shame rather than pride.

Having arrived in the Netherlands in 1965 as a student of Dutch art, I was just in time to experience the relocation of historical aura from world dominance to art history. The transfer played itself out in symbolic form in the Institute for Art History of Utrecht University. In 1966 a supervisor was appointed to run the Institute. His name was Mr. (Meester – the Dutch title for a jurist) H. Hoogenberk, known to insiders as the co-author of a discredited book on Dutch India, published in 1941 under the title Daar wèrd wat groots verricht (Something great was accomplished there, with emphasis on "was," to confound critics who doubted the proposition). Hoogenberk’s attempt to instill colonial discipline in the staff of the Institute failed, and control over the the Dutch self-image as the Land of Rembrand was taken over by the art historians, where it still resides.

If I were to dare a prediction concerning the next turn of the historical screw, it would be this: the Golden-Age-centered history of the Netherlands is a national history with a lingering taste of nationalism. As Europe edges toward a period of post-nationhood, values of this kind may come to share the distastefulness that pride in a colonial past took on in the mid-20th century. At that point, the history of the Netherlands will become more of a European story, with new space for all those periods when the Netherlands was not a nation-state, or when its "true nature" was located not in the qualities that were seemingly unique to it, but in those it shared and still shares with the rest of mankind, beginning with Europe. As one of the art-historian custodians of the Golden-Age Dutch self-image, I for one am ready to pass on the baton.



© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 5 March 2005.

Not a column. Requested by Het Financieele Dagblad as the newspaper’s contribution to the theme of the annual Boekenweek ( The Week of the Book), De spiegel van de Lage Landen (The mirror of the Low Countries). In his own comments on Dutch history in NRC Handelsblad, the historian Willem Frijhoff put his finger on the same phenomenon, the shift from the Revolt to the Golden Age as the guiding historical self-image of the Netherlands. He too dates it after the mid-20th century.

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