James Boswell once wrote that if he ever knew that the world was coming to an end he would move to the Netherlands, “because everything happens 50 years later there.” The Netherlands is certainly not as isolated or as insulated as it used to be — indeed, because of its industry and resourcefulness, as well as its geographically strategic location, it has become the gateway to Europe and one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world. (Where else does one find schoolchildren who speak four languages?) Nevertheless, if one comes during the fall, winter, or early spring, when the weather is too rude for most vacationers, and does not limit one’s visit to Amsterdam, it is still possible to feel detached from the human race. Even in a city as large and as modern as the Hague, the streets are usually uncannily quiet: the long, wind-swept beach at Schevenigen nearby is all but deserted; and everwhere one turns there seems to be a small gezellig (cozy) cafe, where, for a guilder or two, one can while away the morning or afternoon sipping cocoa or gin, listening to the rain drum against the windows and reading yesterday’s International Herald Tribune.
Yet, for all their gezelligheid, the Dutch themselves tend to be a little world-weary these days. The past 35 years of Dutch history is the story of innocence lost. During the Second World War, in which the Dutch had expected to stay neutral (as they had during the First), they were bombed, strafed, invaded and more or less annexed by Nazi Germany. A quarter of a million Dutchmen lost their lives — including 110,000, or almost all, of the country’s Jews. In 1949, just as the Dutch were emerging from the painful process of reconstruction, they were suddenly and forcibly divested of their valuable East Indian empire, and, just as suddenly, forced to absorb 300,000 Indonesian refugees. Four years later, in February 1953, the Netherlands lost a major round in its age-old struggle with the sea, when a ferocious windstorm swept in from the English Channel, leveling dikes and homes, killing nearly 2,000 people and submerging much of the low-lying southern half of the country. More recently, after the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973, the Dutch were punished for their long, outspoken support of Israel — support born largely of the sadness of not having been able to save their own Jews–by having their oil cut off for nine months by OPEC. To add insult to injury, the Dutch, in spite of their tireless promotion of European unity, were at first cold-shouldered by the other members of the European Economic Community when they asked for emergency provisions to make up for their boycott.
Yet, for all the tribulations of the postwar years, the Dutch were never daunted. Thanks to the remarkable spirit of cooperation on the part of both labor and business, as well as the Marshall Plan, the Netherlands recovered from the war more quickly than any of the occupied countries. The devastation left behind by the Germans served as an incentive to modernize Dutch industry and agriculture as well as the ruined metropolis of Rotterdam. The new Dutch renaissance was only temporarily slowed by the loss of the East Indies. Even the terrible flood of 1953 had an upbeat finish, providing the impetus for the titanic Delta Plan, an ingenious, laborious, staggeringly costly project designed to protect the southern part of the country from further incursions by the sea by sealing off the various arms, or scheldes, of the troublesome Rhine-Maas river delta with massive concrete caissons and sluice dams; already 25 years in the works, the last huge dam is scheduled to be floated into place sometime in the mid-1980′s. Too, the Dutch emerged from the oil crisis with their heads high, figuring out a way to get around the boycott even before it was formally lifted, and staying pro-Israeli to the very end.
Today, however, the Dutch are a little winded. The noxious malaise that has long been eating at the vitals of most of industrialized Europe seems finally to have reached the Netherlands, taking much of the bounce out of this quiet, bustling nation of 14 million, and weakening its once invincible institutions. The greatest damage was sustained during the past year, when, almost at once, the stouthearted Dutch got their first taste of domestic terrorism, racial extremism, corporate scandal and massive unemployment.
In December, in the first incident of its kind in the Netherlands’ long, largely peaceful domestic history, a band of homesick exiles from South Molucca (once part of the Netherlands East Indies) hijacked a passenger train in the northern Dutch countryside casually murdering three of their hostages. One of the executions occurred on national television, stunning millions of Dutch viewers and plunging the entire country into mourning. Spooky funereal music wafted out of the table radios and into the streets. A week later, a second group of fanatics broke into the Indonesian Consulate causing more casualties and consternation.
Then, in February, came word of Prince Bernhard’s alleged involvement with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Testifying before a United States Senate subcommittee, a Lockheed official admitted that in the early 1960′s, as part of the company’s aggressive campaign to sell the Netherlands the F-104 fighter plane (which it eventually did) he paid $1.1 million to a “high official” of the Dutch Government, hinting that the money had gone to the Prince Consort himself.
The once indefatigable Dutch economy has also been causing concern of late. Last winter, the Socialist dominated Dutch Government released statistics showing that, because of the slowdown in world trade — on which the Netherlands, a country that exports more than 50% of its G.N.P., depends so heavily — more than 250,000 Dutchmen or about 6 percent of the country’s work force were unemployment, a record high.
The young South Moluccan nationalists who wreaked such havoc in December are more misfits than anything else. Their fathers were among the 3,500 crack native soldiers, mostly from the small Christianized island of Ambon, in the South Moluccan islands who fought with the Dutch East Indies Army in the late 1940′s in trying to suppress the Moslem nationalists who had taken over the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. It was a bloody, futile fight, and in 1949 the defeated Dutch forces returned to the Netherlands, taking along with them 12,000 disgruntled South Moluccan loyalists and their families, most of whom stubbornly believed that somehow, someday, they would return to an independent South Seas republic of their own.
Dutch officials assumed that with time, the exiles would come to their senses, give up their pathetic hopes of independence and raise their children to be decent, law-abiding Dutch burghers. They were wrong. Although some of the older Moluccans have indeed mellowed with the years, many of their children, brought up in a converted German barracks, have grown up to be menacing unemployed outcasts and diehard nationalists. Recently, to keep their case alive, some of the young Moluccans embarked on a hit-and-run campaign of violence against the Dutch state, firebombing the Peace Palace in The Hague and even plotting to kidnap Queen Juliana.
However, it was not until the murderous train hijacking near the sleepy village of Beilen last December that the South Moluccans were finally taken seriously. It was the most sensational crime in postwar Dutch history, and the Ministry of Justice was deluged by letters from anonymous vigilantes threatening to take matters into their own hands the next time the South Moluccans stepped out of line. The Prime Minister himself, Joop den Uyl, felt obliged to go on national television to calm his countrymen and ask for patience.
The South Moluccans aren’t the country’s only misfits. The quarter of a million foreign “guest workers,” mostly Turks and Algerians, currently employed in Dutch industry have also had a difficult time of late, subject as they are to the charge that they are taking jobs away from deserving Dutchmen. (A specious charge, since they are engaged in the sort of unskilled and semiskilled jobs the Dutch tend to look down on.)
Most unwelcome of all, however, are the approximately 150,000 proud, highly excitable Surinamese form the former Dutch dependency on the northern shoulder of South America, just given its independence last November, who recently hurried over to the Netherlands. The newcomers, most of them seeking either political or economic security, are almost universally disliked–first, because they are brown, with some Creolés, Javanese and Indians thrown in; and second, because there is so little space (or jobs) for them. A country as large and as rich as the United States can absorb 150,000 indigent South Vietnamese refugees without batting an eye; but in the Netherlands, where millions of people are already living shoulder to shoulder on a soggy piece of land half the size of West Virginia (the country’s population density of 397 people per square kilometer makes it the most crowded in the Western world) and where many are out of work, a similar influx is bound to cause problems.
And so it has. Nasty fights have broken out between groups of native whites and Surinamese in the back alleys of Amsterdam and Rotterdam; numerous Dutch firms, fearing disorder, now say they are hiring whites only; bored, out of work, several thousand Surinamese youths have become full-time criminals and drug addicts.
The situation does not accord well with the nation’s tolerant self-image. Racism? In the Netherlands? A prominent Dutch editor explains it this way: “We Dutch,” he says, with a touch of mockery in his voice, “have been all too willing to grant asylum to rich Jews fleeing the Inquisition and devout Pilgrims escaped from England. But poor blacks from the South American jungle? That’s another matter.”
All this, of course, is keenly embarrassing to the liberal den Uyl Government, which is a vocal critic of South African apartheid and a financier for several third-world liberation movements. However, aside from enforcing the country’s already existing civil-rights laws–a tall order in itself–there is really little it can do. At one time, the powerful Catholic and Dutch Reformed Churches might have been counted on to temper the country’s latent nativism, as they did during the Indonesian influx of the 1950′s. However, the churches no longer exert as much moral leverage as they used to — the Catholic because of its radicalism, for which it has been repeatedly scored by the Vatican, and the Dutch Reformed because of its ancient Calvinist orientation.
So, for the moment, anything goes. Last fall, to cite an extreme example, disgruntled Dutch youths formed a vigilante group called the Viking Youth with the express intention of “cleaning up” certain urban neighborhoods (such as Amsterdam’s low-income, densely populated Bijlermeer district), by force if necessary. The vigilantes, who derive their name from a former Nazi regiment and dress like the Hitler Youth, enjoy only marginal support among the general population, which has had more than its fill of Fascism. Still, the very appearance of such fanatics is enough to make many shiver.
The Dutch have often been a nation of shopkeepers. But they are honest shopkeepers. People trust the Dutch, and the Dutch trust each other, expect nothing less than godliness from their children, their neighbors and their politicians. The importance the Dutch place on virtuousness, particularly in public life, was well revealed during the scandal of 1974.
As one of the four NATO nations seeking replacements for their aging Starfighters, the Netherlands had become a party to “the deal of the century.” Four firms — General Dynamics and Northrop of the UNited States, Saab-Vissen of Sweden and Dassault of France — did their best to persuade the Dutch Parliament of the superiority of their respective products; their lobbyists could be seen in The Hague for months. Eventually, the Dutch, like the Danes and Norwegians before them, and the Belgians after them, decided that the General Dynamics F-16 was the best (or at least, the most expeditious) buy. However, before the die was cast, it was reliably reported that a representative of Dassault, the French firm, had offered a substantial bribe to Piet Dankert, the chairman of the parliamentary committee on military appropriations, in hope of winning his endorsement for the French plane, the Mirage. The nation was aghast. “Little Watergate,” the affair was called. The fact that Dankert refused the bribe (in fact, he was the one who reported it) was really beside the point. What was disturbing was that anyone even tried to bribe him in the first place. No one bribes a Dutchman.
This is why people in the Netherlands are so amazed by the unwholesome reports, as yet unconfirmed, linking Prince Bernhard with Lockheed. If, say, a general or a Cabinet minister were involved, the reaction might be different. But Bernhard, the dapper “good-will ambassador,” happens to be, next to his wife, the Queen, the nation’s most trusted and respected public figure. Perhaps the country is hoping there has been some kind of mistake.
A high-level Government commission is investigating the entire affair. (Bernhard denies he received the money.) Its report, delayed for half a year, should be released within the next few weeks. Unless it convincingly absolves the Prince of any wrongdoing, it is possible that Bernhard will be stripped of his position of Inspector General, or ombudsman, of the armed forces. It is even possible that Juliana, who has endeared herself to most Dutchmen by her earthy, grandmotherly style, will abdicate. Needless to say, the would be a major tragedy. Even though she is only a figurehead, Juliana, a direct discendant of William the Silent, performs a precious function, reminding Dutchmen of their glorious past, while helping them forget the bitter religious and political divisions that have often plagued them. Some say the only time the Parliament is calm is on that crisp September day when the Queen rides into The Hague to deliver the session’s opening address. Even the few Communist Legislators can be seen waving to her as she glides by. Above all, such a personage must be pure. So must her husband.
Even if Bernhard is proved innocent of the charges made against him, much damage has already been done. “We had a nice century and the royal family was the perfect household,” Piet Dankert, the hero of the Dassault scandal, recently told a reporter. “That myth is all blown up now.”
At some point, Juliana, who is 67, will probably have to abdicate, if only because of her age. Her roost is to be inherited by her willful daughter Beatrix. In 1966, Beatrix, then 28, caused a furor in Holland when she announced that she would marry Claus-Georg von Amsberg, a German diplomat who had once belonged to the Hitler Youth and fought with a Nazi panzer division in World War II. Dutchmen, who still bristle when they hear a German accent, were outraged. “Claus raus!” spectators at the royal wedding in Amsterdam screamed. “Claus, get out!”
But for all the brickbats, Beatrix’s marriage has stayed intact, and the country seems the better for it. To everyone’s surprise, Claus turned out to be a very decent fellow — he speaks Dutch without a trace of an accent — and his boyhood associations have been forgotten, or at least forgiven. But the best thing Claus has going for him is that nine years ago his wife gave birth to a baby boy — the first male heir to the Dutch throne since 1893. Little mop-headed William Alexander probably won’t be crowned for another quarter-century, at the earliest, however, his future subjects, royalist to the bone, can hardly wait.
As long as it maintains a proper demeanor, the present coalition Government (which is, at least theoretically, responsible for the conduct of the royal family) should weather the Bernhard-Lockheed affair. If it doesn’t, Dutchmen will not be too surprised. Although national elections are held every four years, the average life of the 14 Dutch Governments since World War II has been two and a half years. Little wonder that Dutchmen don’t become attached to their Prime Ministers; they don’t last very long.
The last time The Hague changed hands was in late 1972 when a seven-party Cabinet headed by conservative (Liberal) Prime Minister Barend Bieshievel abruptly last its majority in the Second Chamber, or lower house, of the Parliament, and hence its mandate to govern. The crisis, trivial at first, began when one of the 16 ministers, a member of the smallest of the parties in the center-left coalition, refused to endorse the proposed 1973 budget, and after heated arguments, resigned. The man was apparently and under the influence of amphetamines. As a result, the entire cabinet was forced to resign, and new Parliamentary elections were held. Even then, it was not until half a year later that, on the basis of the election returns, which showed a slight swing to the left, and with somewhat reluctant aid of the three centrist religious parties, a new multiparty Cabinet, this one headed by Joop den Uyl’s Labor Party could be stitched together, thus ending what had become the longest and most traumatic crisis in recent Dutch political history. Such is the tenuous basis on which the Netherlands is ruled. Only her politicians’ inveterate knack for compromise saves the country from real disarray.
The Second Chamber could probably put a stop to this silliness by modifying the perfectly proportional method by which its 150 seats are handed out, making it more difficult for the dozens of small crank parties to gain representation, and making it easier to form a strong, durable Government. (Israel, who Knesset is also elected on a perfectly proportional basis, has similar problems.)
In the meantime, discontent with the country’s increasingly unresponsive political apparatus is on the rise. Perhaps the best proof of this is the large number of picket-wielding “action groups,” or ad-hoc committees that have been formed over the last few years to force the Government to act on certain grass-roots issues, such as environmental protection and housing subsidies. There are now an estimated 3,000 of these groups in existence, each with its on particular ax to grind. Very often they get what they want. An American diplomat in The Hague calls them “the piranha fish of Dutch politics.”
The den Uyl Cabinet has been in office for three years, long by Dutch standards. However, it seems to have accomplished this largely by holding its breath. Den Uyl, a short, somewhat high-strung man who sometimes sits on the floor, in Parliament, with his shoes off, and who is known for his bold and often indiscreet remarks (such as when he endorsed George McGovern in the midst of the 1972 American Presidential campaign), is at least by outlook, one of the most radical leaders of Western Europe. When he and other progressive members of the coalition took office back in May 1973, den Uyl and his allies announced that they intended (among other things) to accelerate the redistribution of incomes by stepping up taxes; create greater worker participation in industry; impose selective indicative planning on the economy; further embellish upon the country’s cradle-to-grave welfare provisions, and significantly alter the direction of Dutch foreign policy — to the left, of course.
However, because of the necessity of placating the moderate Catholic and Calvinist members of the Cabinet, and because of a number of crises imposed from without, den Uyl has been hampered in putting his program into effect. So, even though this is the Netherlands’ first Socialist-oriented Government in 20 years, Dutchmen are neither very happy nor very unhappy with it — just a bit impatient. The question remains: Where is the country going?
Den Uyl’s great hopes for revamping the economy have been stalled by the energy crisis and the worldwide recession, which, because of the country’s excessive reliance on trade, have hit particularly hard. The Government’s main objective in the domestic sector seems to be to keep down unemployment, which peaked this winter at 6 percent, more than double the acceptable Dutch standard, and inflation, which runs at a slightly less disturbing but still unprecedented annual clip of 10 percent. The latter is easier to combat than the former: Dutch trade organizations, even though unable to agree with business on a centralized wage-price accord, have been amenable enough to accepting the fairly restrictive guidelines laid down in The Hague. However, because of the general slowdown in world trade, about which the Government can do nothing, as well as the high taxes (the highest in the West) needed to maintain the country’s cozy, Swedish-style welfare state, the Netherlands has not been able to attract either the foreign or domestic investment needed to stimulate jobs.
The Government’s one fiscal ace in the hole is its extensive natural-gas reserves, discovered in the early 1960′s, which help provide fuel for much of Western Europe. Each time OPEC raises the price of oil, The Hague raises the price of gas, thus helping keep down inflation and preserving a positive balance of payments. When the reserves give out, sometime in the 1980′s, the Netherlands could really be in trouble.
As the situation stands today, both labor and business are restless. Economic uncertainty, combined with the recent outbreak of xenophobia, could well cause a significant swing to the right in the electorate over the next year. And that, when new elections are held next year (or earlier) could once again force the Socialists out.
A further swing to the left seems unlikely. For all its progressive and “counterculture” trappings, the Netherlands is essentially a conservative, middle-class country. Its Communist Party is one of the smallest and tamest on the Continent, winning no more than 4 percent or 5 percent of the vote in parliamentary and provincial elections. the Dutch New Left, which attracted so much attention in the 1960′s (there are still a few quasi-Yippies on Amsterdam’s city council), seems to be defunct. Less than half of the labor is organized. Strikes are taboo.
The nation’s deep-seated nonviolent and humanitarian impulses, along with the pervasive disillusionment with the United States brought on by Vietnam and Watergate, have, however, allowed Uyl to take significant liberties with foreign and defense policies. Foreign aid, most of which goes to the developing countries, has been increased to 2.6 billion guilders (about $1 billion) a year, or about 1.25 percent of the Dutch G.N.P., a phenomenal ratio.
On the other hand, monies allocated to defense have been drastically reduced. The big cut came in 1973, when over the vehement objections of the other NATO Prime Ministers, den Uyl went ahead with his plans for scaling down the Netherlands’ standing armed forces by one quarter, or about 40,000 men. Some within the Labor Party have called for withdrawal from NATO altogether, but den Uyl and his Foreign Minister, Max von der Stoel, prefer that the Netherlands remain in the alliance in order to play the role of “difficult partner,” encouraging the organization — and indirectly, the United states — to strengthen détante and hasten disarmament.
The Dutch have also played a critical role in the recent talks between the Western industrialized nations and the poorer Asian and African countries in the hope of creating a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth. The Dutch usually champion the latter.
Lately, too, the Dutch, along with the Danes, have been making it difficult for Spain to enter the European Economic Community (which, in spite of their chastening experience during the oil boycott, they still whole-heartedly support), insisting that the Spanish must fully embrace democratic procedures before they can join.
Indeed, the Dutch still relish the role of Dutch uncle. A foreigner, particularly an American, traveling in Holland, is likely to receive a number of unsolicited lectures on what is wrong with his country, and how it should be corrected. It is when one reminds our Dutch friends of their own not inconsiderable — and not dissimilar — difficulties that they suddenly grow silent.