Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Spectres of a Dutch past

Modern Holland sells itself as enlightened and peaceful, but this perception is not shared in Indonesia. Will today’s election return the Dutch to a more brutal era?

I’m flying somewhere over India at the moment, making my way to Amsterdam after a fascinating week on the Indonesian capital island of Java. Once I land in the morning I’ll be spending the day covering the Dutch election, and it’s safe to say the things I saw here on the other side of the world will be shaping my impressions.

The degree to which today’s election will say something about the direction Europe is heading has been a bit overstated in the English-speaking media. Headlines have declared breathlessly that far-right firebrand Geert Wilders is set to “win” the election and bring the Netherlands into the same axis of populism as the UK and US. But it's not quite that.

Dutch exaggerations

Let's get this out of the way first: it is impossible for Wilders to "win" this election. His Party for Freedom (PVV) is currently polling at around 14%. At most, they may win 20% of the seats in the Dutch Parliament today. This would make them the largest party in the chamber - but this is more a result of the quirks of Dutch politics at the moment than reflective of the majority opinion in the Netherlands. As Simon Kuper explained in the Financial Times last week, Wilders is not the most interesting thing in this election domestically.

To say that Wilders achieving 20% will be the equivalent of Donald Trump winning almost 50% of the US vote, or the Brexiteers winning 52%, or Le Pen winning 51% in May, is patently absurd. While it will certainly be alarming, and will not bode well for upcoming elections in France and Germany, it does not mean that the Netherlands has fallen to populism. All of the major parties have promised they will not form a government with Wilders. There is almost no conceivable scenario in which he becomes prime minister.

Yes, the unavoidable fact will still be there on paper - the Party for Freedom has the most elected MPs of any party in the Netherlands. But really, what difference does it make if Prime Minister Rutte’s party, the VVD, slightly edges them out and PVV end up being the second-biggest party? Pundits will probably declare that European populism has been stopped in its tracks and France will be safe, but this would be premature.

The real battle will come in France in May, because France is the only country in the EU that has a presidential system like the US, rather than a parliamentary system. If Le Pen wins more than 50% of the vote, she controls the French government. If that happens, the European Union is probably over. The import and the danger is far greater in France than in the Dutch or German elections.

That hasn’t stopped Rutte from casting this election has the first battle in this year’s electoral war between liberal democracy and the far right, as he reiterated at last week's EU summit in Brussels.

He’s not wrong, symbolically at least. If the PVV becomes the largest party in the Netherlands it will be a shock to the continent, particularly since the Dutch are perceived as being among the most liberal and enlightened of Europeans. So what’s gone wrong in Holland? Have they changed, or was  this impression never quite accurate in the first place

Indonesian memories

I've spent the past week on the island of Java, in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. The former is the capital of the country, but the latter is its soul. It has a unique status within Indonesia as a hereditary sultanate, a situation it was allowed to maintain after independence as a gift for the sultan's support for the revolution.

Although they ruled these islands for roughly 300 years, the signs of Dutch influence are not immediately noticeable. Unlike in many former British colonies where Victorian edifices abound, there is almost no identifiably Dutch architecture. Very few people can speak Dutch, although there are some Dutch loan words within the Indonesian language. Indeed, if you didn't know this was a Dutch colony before you visited, you could spend a week here being blissfully unaware of the fact - if you avoided any history museums.

But the truth is that were it not for the Dutch, there would be no Indonesia. There is no logical reason why this should be a country. It is home to many different ethnicities and languages and spread over an enormous amount of land area. From island to island, people look completely different, worship different gods and have different traditions. The country exists because this is the territory that the Dutch negotiated for control with other European powers, to administer as a single colony - the Dutch East Indies.

Even the country's language - Indonesian - would not exist were it not for the Dutch. It is actually a simplified form of Malay, unused in this territory outside of trading ports before the Dutch arrived. The Dutch introduced the Indonesian language, with the Roman alphabet, as a single administrative language for the multilingual colony. It was convenient to use because it was mutually intelligible with the native language of the neighbouring British Malay colonies, now Malaysia (it is also, incidentally, blissfully easy to speak).

But to hear the Indonesian government tell it, Indonesia has always existed eternally. We visited the Vredeburg fortress in Yogyakarta, built by the Dutch to keep an eye on the new sultinate they had created by dividing a previous state in two. It is today a historical museum, full of dioramas explaining (the government's version of) the country's history.

Because of the sultanate's leading role in the independence movement, that war is featured heavily. I've visited many history museums in post-colonial countries, and I have never seen a more brutal depiction of the colonial power. Dioramas depicted ginger-haired Dutchmen slaughtering innocent Indonesian women and children. 

There was even a video game for children to play in which they could kill advancing Dutch troops by pressing on them with their finger. The Dutchmen would explode into a puddle of blood.

At the history museum in Jakarta's national monument, it was much the same story. The Dutch were depicted as ruthless and cruel. But subsequent colonial behavior by Indonesia, with their invasions of Papua and East Timor, was depicted as heroic efforts to "reunite" the Indonesian people. The basis for them being 'Indonesian' was simply that they had also been part of the Dutch East Indies.

Sadly, the depictions of the Dutch are probably not exaggerations. The Dutch were ruthless in putting down revolts during their 300-year rule. In one instance, they even tricked the prince of Yogyakarta to come meet them for 'peace talks', but killed him once he arrived.

But the depictions startled me for two reasons. First, I have not seen such a heavy-handed approach to depicting the colonial power in other post-colonial history museums before. Second, I am not used to seeing Dutch people depicted so brutally (it's usually the English, French or Germans). Dutch people do not see themselves this way either.

The good Dutchman

I recall a few years ago speaking to a Dutch friend who spent his formative years in Jakarta about what people in the Netherlands learn about the country's colonial history. "Pretty much nothing," he said.

The heyday of Dutch colonialism ended much earlier than for its neighbours in France and Germany. Indeed, the Dutch East Indies was the only significant colony it had left by the Second World War, which perhaps explains why they were so reluctant to give it up even in the face of international pressure. But the Dutch rule there, and in other colonies, had a huge impact on millions of people. 

Dutch history lessons prefer to focus on the country's 80-year war for independence from Spain, its 'enlightened' golden age in the 17th century, and its role as a commercially-oriented liberal seafaring nation. Much attention is paid to how the country suffered in World War II. The prevailing narrative is that the Dutch are a good, progressive people, surrounded by bad, retrograde people. "We pretend to be humble, but the message we receive in school is that everyone else should be more like us," one Dutch friend observed.

Which brings me to the Dutch election I am on my way to cover. It seems to me that the rise of Wilders and the unique Dutch far-right brand can be explained by this sense of self-satisfaction. 

Unlike other far-right leaders in Europe, Wilders makes an appeal not to the most conservative, regressive members of society but to those who fancy themselves to be progressive. He taps into the Dutch sense that they are good, and the new elements being brought into the society are bad and backwards.

While other far-right leaders are homophobic, Wilders has appealed to gays based on the (very real) harassment and hostility toward gays perpetrated by some Muslim immigrants. He casts himself as a feminist, appealing to women who have been sexually harassed by some Muslim men (again, not an unreal phenomenon). 

He would not take Holland backwards, he insists. Instead he is standing up for the long-standing history of Dutch progressivism. He is trying to defend liberal, progressive values from Islamic reactionaries.

But in truth he is defending nothing of the kind. For starters, Holland's status as a bastion of progressive experimentation is a relatively new phenomenon. Yes the scruffy ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, like all ports, were sites of debauchery. But the rest of the united Dutch provinces were a fiercely conservative place, dominated by Calvinism - the country's raison d'etre. Some have posited that the early years of the Dutch republic could be characterised as a sort of quasi-theocracy. Still today, this fiercely conservative impulse lives on in the country's 'bible belt', which cuts through the middle of the country and has significant political power.

It isn't only 'the enemy within' that Wilders is attacking. He is also attacking Holland's European partners, particularly 'lazy' Southern Europeans and 'domineering' Germans. Dutchmen are not only good and progressive, they are also hard-working and enterprising. Any partnership with their European neighbors, therefor, is inevitably a fleecing - Holland funding everyone else and getting little benefit.

It is a phenomenon we are seeing throughout Europe. The subtle messages of nationalism taught in education systems and then reverberated through media can be easily exploited. Messages extolling the national character are harmless while they lay dormant in people's minds. But when someone can activate those ideas for their own political gain, things turn ugly.

The bad Dutchman

Are Dutch people capable of committing atrocities? "I think I was given the impression that Dutch people have never done anything wrong, ever" my Dutch friend observed about his education. 

If this were the case, then one can see why some people might have the impression that there is no harm in turning over power to someone who promises to defend Dutch values. If Dutch values are good, and always have been, then defending them could never be bad.

Would people feel differently about Wilders and the world view he represents if they knew more about the Netherlands' brutal colonial past? It's hard to know for sure. In the United States, the evils of slavery are drilled into our heads from a young age (at least for people my age and younger). But that didn't stop many people in my age bracket from being susceptible to the racist messages of Donald Trump.

In the UK, people certainly know more about their colonial history than the Dutch. But it is usually portrayed in a positive light. British students learn about colonialism and imperialism through maps - the sun never set on the British empire. While in the Netherlands colonial history is ignored, in the UK is celebrated. But in both countries, students learn little about the negative aspects of that history. The negative consequences of this education in the UK are explained in this clip from Channel 4:

In my view, the rise of the far-right in Europe can largely be explained by flaws in the education systems, which still follow a syllabus shaped by 19th-century nationalism. So much time is spent extolling the virtues of the individual countries, little time is spent warning of past mistakes, and past atrocities (outside of Germany that is). 

A student might be led to believe that their countrymen can do no wrong. If only the corrupting influence of foreign factors could be removed.

Today we will know the zeitgeist of the Dutch psyche in 2017. The consequences for governance will not be as dramatic as many in the media are making out. But the consequences for the Dutch identity could be huge.

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