For generations the Dutch were seen to be a quiet, tolerant, and internationally-oriented race, but in the past ten years it looks as if they have become a panicky, xenophobic, and chauvinistic people. This about-face can be put down to the fact that their culture of consultation and consensus seems to have become devalued.
Consultations and meetings have been a national pastime of the Dutch for many centuries. You meet this culture in all walks of life: the business world, the army, the sports club, the neighborhood committee, the school – yes, even in the family. That it evolved from the struggle to harness the water is a cliché, but as a cliché it contains as much truth as fiction.
The oldest consultation bodies of what is now the Netherlands did indeed play a role in the management of the water. But the tendency to consult with each other on an equal footing is much older and had more to do with the reclamation of the peat bogs than with the construction of dykes.
Once it had taken root, the culture of consultation spread to more and more areas of society and took on many guises. It manifested itself in the guilds, in the meetings of the Estates, in the meetings of the Calvinist communities, in the Amsterdam regent circles, in the pillars we will discuss, and in the economic structures. This website offers an overview of the history of the Netherlands and tries to show how the culture of consensus created a calm and tolerant race of people that looked beyond their own horizon to other parts of the world.
Twice in its history, the Dutch consensus culture came under pressure. The first crisis took place in the sixteenth century. Then, Holland was incorporated into the Spanish empire and all the old familiar points of reference disappeared. At the same time, the Dutch economy had to adapt to increased opportunities in international trade. The second crisis was also related to the upscaling of government and changing economic conditions. It happened at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon dominated Europe and the Industrial Revolution took place.
Could the situation today cause another crisis in our consensus culture? The parallels which can be drawn with present-day globalization and the economic and political unification of Europe must not be exaggerated but they are nevertheless present.
And yet we must not be too pessimistic. There is good reason to trust in the future of the the consensus culture, when we consider that over the centuries the people of Holland (later, the Netherlands) managed to steer clear of the excesses of feudalism, French absolutism, the Prussian military economy and British industrialization, and because (or in spite) of this, they can proudly stand up and be counted internationally.
This being said, we are still left with the question of what the Netherlands’ place is in a Europe which is merging and uniting into a bigger and bigger unit: a question which this website will seek to answer.
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