In May I visited Amsterdam. The weather was lovely and I had a great time. Before I left I got unsolicited instruction on what coffee to look out for in the coffee houses and where the best places to eat were. Unfortunately, the restaurants were a bit pricy and I’m no longer as keen on mind-altering substances of which I know nothing as I might have been in the past, not that I was ever very interested.
I’d been twice before but didn’t think I would be back as my partner doesn’t like the red-light district, and if you have been there then you will know that if you amble about Amsterdam for any length of time you’re bound to walk into a window with scantily clad women selling their services. But since she was attending a conference because of her work, I flew in at the end of the proceedings to share a short break.
As I like to read up about places I visit, I read some articles on the sex work/prostitution debate, which I will discuss in a future post. More generally, knowing something of where you’re going always makes a place more interesting and can also give you a fresh appreciation of where you live the rest of the time.
So, for example, I learned that in Amsterdam squatting in a building unoccupied for a year was legalised in 1971, although the law was later changed in 2010. Given Dublin’s acute housing crisis, this would be one initiative that would pay immediate dividends. Housing cooperatives could organise the squatting and renovate the properties, connect to utilities and take a reasonable rent to cover expenses and to facilitate expansion of their business. The only role for the state would be to pass a law allowing legal occupancy and working people could then do the rest for themselves.
Something else I read about Amsterdam also reminded me of Ireland. Erasmus, after whom the student exchange programme is named, lived in the city for a few years. He famously dissented from the structures of the Catholic Church, though remained a Catholic all his life and had a priest as his father. When both parents died he was given over to the care of a monastery, an institution within which occurred the “whipping [of] boys to death every day.” There was, he said, “more innocence in a brothel.”
And also like Ireland, with Saint Patrick and the snakes, Amsterdam has its own religious myths to explain its own particular christianity. We are told that an old and dying resident of the city, shortly after taking his last Holy Communion, vomited up the Eucharist whole and intact. When the women attending to the old man then threw the vomit in the fire the host didn’t burn. Some time later, a church was built on the site of the old man’s house and when it burnt down (twice!) there are no prizes for guessing what survived unharmed, whole and intact. The “miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval wonder, which, like moving statues in Ireland, became good for business.
The religious flocked to Amsterdam, becoming its core residents, but it is reassuring to read that while fights broke out between the competing religious orders, the greater tension was between these orders as a whole and the rest of the city residents, who objected to the monasteries taking so much of the best land along the canals. If only the anti-clerical feeling in Ireland could be married to the acute demand for housing in the same fashion. Perhaps then, all the property belonging to the Sisters of
Charity Property could be confiscated to alleviate the housing problem and pay for their misdeeds. Today these Amsterdam streets with their names derived from the religious foundations which were once their most prominent residents are the location of the red light district.
Not that the two were always very far apart. After all, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, sparking the dramatic change that was to affect Amsterdam and many other cities, the Catholic Church was licensing brothels, fathering children openly and appointing an 8-year-old as bishop of Lisbon.
One of the most dramatic episodes of this Reformation revolt was the emergence of the Anabaptists, who proclaimed a religion that included rebaptism, polygamy and common ownership of property. When the Amsterdam Anabaptists took advantage of drunken revelry to take over City Hall they were suppressed and killed, or at least the lucky ones were. Those that were captured didn’t survive for very long. Their chests were cut open and their beating hearts thrown into their faces, just before they were beheaded and then quartered. Amsterdam’s famous tradition of tolerance has clearly not always been quite what it’s been cracked up to be.
The major cause of this tradition, which is not without foundation, was the development and expansion of capitalism in the Netherlands and the trading and intermingling of peoples that merchant capitalism gave rise to. Historians also point to the tradition of cooperation necessary in what was otherwise an inhospitable land – required to ensure that it was not overtaken by the sea. The massive network of dams, dykes and canals required widespread cooperative labour to build and maintain. This, on top of the lack of historical roots of the feudal system, has been credited with the individualism that has characterised something of Dutch culture.
Thus, Amsterdam has few grand buildings or palaces like Paris or even London, but is better known for its more human-scale canals, canal-boats and narrow canal houses. One British resident, writing of the Dutch, could thus conjure up the stereotypical image of the country as “a place where office workers smoked weed over their desks, visited prostitutes at lunchtime and euthanised their grandparents in the evening.” (‘Why the Dutch are Different’). Not, as he notes, that his Dutch friends were wholly accepting of the caricature.
Of course merchant capitalism, and its pioneering by the Dutch East India Company, which preceded the British one, also entailed colonial plunder and disastrous speculation. It is no accident that many knowledgeable-after-the-fact economists have noted that the first speculative bubble was for tulips in the 1630s. The darker history of the Dutch State and its capitalism includes slavery, which it was late to take up and also late to abandon, and colonial conquest, which it fought to retain after the Second World War – despite its own recent escape from occupation.
But, as Marx explained, capitalism meant progress, even if this progress comes dripping in blood. One result of it was the growth of publishing, for which Amsterdam became an important world centre, significant to this day. In the seventeenth century, it was estimated that half of all books published in the entire world came from the Dutch Provinces, implying that about 30 per cent came from Amsterdam. The city became home to leading philosophers of the day in the shape of Locke and Spinoza.
Of course, capitalist rivalry led to war, in this case with England on four occasions. It is not really surprising that most British people think they haven’t been successfully invaded since 1066, but in believing this they are mistaken, and ignorant of the successful Dutch invasion of 1688 and the installation of a Dutch stadholder as King of England. Better known as King Billy where I live. But then, if Churchill with his many failures and the rout leading up to evacuation at Dunkirk are held up as successes, and still inspire patriotic films today, why not say the Dutch were invited? If only such ignorance didn’t provide the soil within which such ideas as Brexit could grow.
The Anglo-Dutch rivalry, it has been pointed out, has had its amusing side, looked at from centuries later. So, one tract from the period had this title: ‘The Dutchmens Pedigree; Or, A Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box’. Apparently, the terms ‘Dutch courage’ and ‘going Dutch’ are a few of the surviving derogatory usages from this time.
The Dutch state subsequently went into relative decline as the larger European powers took centre stage. In the First World War the Dutch state was neutral and again declared its neutrality in the Second World War, once again expecting this to be respected. In a speech to the Reichstag Hitler did say that he would honour it , but the next day ordered the invasion. On 9 May 1940 the Dutch newspaper ‘Algemeen Handelsblad’ ran with the headline ‘Tensions Defused. Expected Events Not to Occur’, hours before Nazi tanks and troops crossed the border.
The results were catastrophic. In 1940 there were 80,000 Jewish people in Amsterdam, while there are only around 15,000 today. And while 75 per cent of Jews in France survived through the Nazi occupation only 27 per cent of Dutch Jews did so, an estimated 58,000 being killed, mostly in concentration camps. While the Dutch labour and socialist movement launched an unbelievably courageous general strike in February 1941 to protest at the increasing persecution of Jews and deportation of Dutch workers to German factories, the efficiency of the Dutch state bureaucracy meant that you were more likely to die if you were Jewish in the Netherlands than almost anywhere else in Europe.
Today, you can visit the house of the Jewish teenager Anne Frank, which I had done on a previous trip, but it is much less well known that the Frank family were arrested by three Dutch policemen, at least one of whom continued to serve in the Amsterdam police until 1980. Yet an American anthropologist writing a report on the Dutch near the end of the war could write that “no country in Europe is so jealous of its moral rightness as Holland.” In one example quoted in her report, a German officer complained that the Dutch acted as if they had won the war.
In fact the Netherlands yielded up the highest number of volunteers for the Waffen SS of any country in Europe both relatively and absolutely, although the numbers were small – up to 25, 000 in a population of 9 million. Volunteering was supported and given some legitimacy by a member of the Dutch armed forces General Staff. Of course, the occupation was not popular but collaboration was significant.
Such divisions in Dutch society were apparent before the war – the Amsterdam police commissioner had reassured the Gestapo in 1935 that the Dutch would cooperate in the fight against “Communist and Marxist machinations”, and the city Attorney General called for “the establishment of concentration camps where all undesirable communist elements could be sheltered.”
The war led to near famine conditions as the progress of liberation from Nazi occupation was delayed. An estimated 210,000 Dutch were killed and another 70,000 died through starvation and general hardship, while the Dutch economy shrank by around 40 per cent.
The subsequent post-war recovery was remarkable with growth of almost 20 per cent a year between 1945 and 1950, fuelled by the American Marshall Plan, The Netherlands receiving around ten times more per capita than Belgium. One early sign of what came to be seen as Dutch liberalisation was the setting up of the world’s first organisation to advance gay rights in 1946.
Today, the limits of the liberalism for which the Dutch state is famous is exposed by the rise of prominent reactionary individuals such as Geert Wilders and movements that employ the language of liberal secularism to promote reactionary politics. I have seen this described as showing the limits of a tolerance based on a liberal commitment to rights and freedoms, expressed only as simple passive acceptance of difference, which might be true of some, but hardly explains the legalisation of same-sex marriage or euthanasia, or regulation of prostitution.
Bill O’Reilly, the US conservative , once called Amsterdam a “cesspool of corruption, crime, everything’s out of control – it’s anarchy!” In response, one twenty-five year old Dutchman put up a video on the internet claiming that over 40 per cent of Americans had used cannabis while less than 23 per cent of Dutch people had, and drug-related deaths in the US were 38 per million while being only 2.4 in the Netherlands.
Today the number of coffee houses has declined and there is increasing expressions of concern that legalised prostitution in one country doesn’t work. As I’ve noted, the Dutch have also seen a rise in racist movements which have increasingly collaborated with like-minded organisations in Europe and the US. Dutch society is therefore not so different after all.