The last people to ask about the Dutch identity are the Dutch. They make themselves smaller than they are and than they actually think they are. No other nation would present itself to its European neighbours with a series of chaffing pieces that trivialize its own history, society and culture. This self-abasement is a widespread characteristic in Holland. Especially in the company of foreigners the Dutch tend to run their country down. By pretending to be less than they know they are, they prevent being belittled by other people. By distancing themselves from their fellow countrymen, they try to elevate themselves to the high level they place the foreigners on. I haven’t seen this in any other Western nation. Collective self-exaltation is the most common tendency in the rest of the world, national self-abasement is a specifically Dutch trait.
And now I’m doing it as well.
Enough. The Dutch don’t have much to reproach themselves, no more than other nations should blame themselves for. But in this self-reproach the Dutch already reveal an essential characteristic: they talk about ‘we’ and ‘Holland’ as a coherent entity. And so they are already in the process of identifying with their countrymen. This national identification offends the Dutch. We have renounced nationalism. We were raised with the notion that nationalism is the source of all hatred between peoples. Even the slightest Dutch we-feeling is strictly forbidden. We are a prudish people in all respects except with regard to sexuality. And so strict abstinence from all national emotion is only fitting.
This is also related to our history. The Netherlands has lost every war in the past three centuries. That stings a little. The Netherlands had an empire, and lost it in no time. We prissy prudish Dutch do not allow ourselves to lament that fact. We must find anti-colonial satisfaction in it. Now that we can no longer wreak havoc to our heart’s content among distant, strange and less heavily armed peoples, we have become sensible, peace-loving and entirely unaccustomed to warfare.
That, too, is a form of prudery: strict abstinence from violence. And so the Dutch are not sure what to do when on a military mission abroad. Which is why things went so terribly wrong in Srebrenica. The facts are controversial, but one thing is sure in retrospect: then and there, there was not a single Dutchman we can be proud of. The shame this evokes is also a national feeling, a ‘we-feeling’.
We Dutch people look at the world as if in a two-way mirror (the metaphor is Johan Goudsblom’s): we can see the outside world, the outside world cannot see us. We are a medium small, medium large nation. With more than twenty million people who speak it, Dutch ranks about thirty-fifth on the world list of languages, the gross product generated by these Dutch-speaking people is on number twelve in the world rankings (as Jean Laponce once calculated).
The Dutch are afraid to take pride in the achievements of their countrymen and when a foreigner lists their achievements in the fields of art, culture and science, in government, trade and industry, what they hear more than anything else is a pitying tone of voice (‘Come on, you’ve got Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Hugo de Groot, Philips and what’s his name again…’).
Like a baron von Münchhausen Holland sucked itself out of the sea with its own pumps. I am proud of that, even if all I ever did was use a toy scoop to build little dikes against the flood in the sand on the beach.
The Netherlands has the advantage of its location by the North Sea, in the large triangle between Great Britain, France and Germany, and, behind the ocean, America. It has made the most of this advantage, but compared to those powerful countries it is most of all a decent and industrious, middling country.
The Netherlands is a democracy under the rule of law and the people there are peaceful, humane and grumpy. In addition to all my idiosyncrasies I am also a Dutchman. And quite content to be.