“Greatest Dutchman”? You Might Be Surprised

Yes, EuroSavant has been gone for a while. And what a time for such an absence! Just when the assassination of controversial Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh on the American Election Day touched off a wave of violence and counter-violence against places of religious worship here in the Netherlands, suddenly throwing into question in the eyes of the rest of the world this country’s reputation for tolerance. Have we been swept up too much over here in violent street-pogroms against local Muslims to find time to get to our computers to do a little blogging?

Nothing of the sort, of course; the absence has had more to do with unexpected delays in fully implementing a cable-to-ADSL Internet connection transition, which left me access-less for a while in the meantime. And just to make things perfectly clear: that “street-pogroms” phrase above was nothing more than exaggeration for effect. (Could we call it “blogger’s license”?) There’s been actually nothing more here than occasional night-time vandalism attacks on mosques and Muslim schools and churches. Nothing at all like mobs or a “pogrom,” although those incidents are certainly bad enough, of course, and do raise concerns about where this country is going with relations between various immigrant communities and native Netherlanders. At least rest assured that both the prime minister and the Queen herself are on the problem, paying visits to the right places and speaking calming and reasonable words.

Rather than try to follow the day-to-day incidents, I think mention of another happening, reflecting on the political background, is in order.

A national debate, of a sort, has just wound up about who the greatest Dutchman of all time was. (Or Dutchwoman; Ann Frank was among the final “short-list” of candidates, although many have also pointed out that she was never actually a Dutch citizen – born in Frankfurt, deprived of her German citizenship because she was Jewish, but she never gained Dutch citizenship.) The exact form was namely a series of television programs on that “Greatest Dutchman” question, with various speakers making their cases for their preferred candidates, broadcast from the beginning of October until last Monday by the KRO, the Dutch Catholic TV-and-radio-program organization. During those broadcasts – and apparently only during those broadcasts; the rules are here, but in Dutch – anyone could vote via Internet, telephone call, or SMS for a “Greatest Dutchman” candidate. (Yet that rules-page also says that they could vote by sending in a voting-form by regular mail; how was the “only during the broadcast” rule applied to that means of communication, I ask?)

Well, as you can see if you followed that first link to the KRO homepage, and even if you don’t know Dutch, the winner was Pim Fortuyn, the populist politician who shook up the Dutch political establishment around the spring, 2002, general elections, but who you must know also was assassinated shortly before those elections. The party he had founded, however (the LPF), did extremely well in those elections, becoming the country’s second-strongest political force for a time. Without Fortuyn himself around, though, and an assortment of power-grabbers and incompetents around instead, the LPF’s fortunes have steadily declined since, to the point where these days it is little more than a laughing-stock. (This was covered in a past €S entry.)

Yes, the LPF remains today little more than a political footnote, which most observers are just waiting to see disappear entirely, and this despite the fact that several of Fortuyn’s main ideas have sprung back into relevance in the light of recent events – most particularly his contentions that Islam is a backward sort of religion and that the Dutch should not fool themselves that the Muslims they are allowing to come live here are actually interested in adopting Dutch social values. Still, it’s also instructive to look at the other historical figures whom Fortuyn beat out to the “Greatest Dutchman” title. Coming in second was William the Silent of Nassau, leader of the great revolt against the Spanish of the 16th century (which revolt stretched into the 17th century, but he was long dead by then, of assassination) which gained the Netherlands its independence: the Dutch “George Washington,” if you will (an estimation seconded by none other than one of the New York Times’ crack travel-writers – free registration required). Coming in third was Willem Drees, who is pretty much the Clement Attlee of Dutch history, both in terms of establishing the post-war welfare state and in presiding over the loss of the country’s largest colony.

And an Anglo-Saxon analog for Pim Fortuyn himself? That’s hard to say, as we’re really rather too close to the time when he was still alive to yet form any definitive historical judgment. But as a first estimate I would have to label him the Dutch Huey Long, i.e. a populist of potential danger to his national political environment. (Huey Long was also shot dead; and maybe that’s not just a coincidence, when you think about it.)

Clearly, though, at least for many viewers of KRO programs, Pim Fortuyn remains an inspirational figure, a sort of political messiah who uttered the controversial truths that their country needed to have uttered, and he came out on top. For many, this is not a pleasing result; after all, we are talking here about history’s “Greatest Dutchman.” If you pressed me to judge this evaluation, I would at least object to it on the above-mentioned grounds that Fortuyn is not yet enough of a truly “historical” figure. But even stronger condemnation seems to be in order when you consider some of the alternatives that were up for consideration: not just William the Silent and Willem Drees, but Rembrandt and Van Gogh, of course (and please, the “Van Gogh” of which we speak is of course the Vincent of one ear – but OK, these were “just” artists), and Erasmus – a strong choice, I think – and even Michiel de Ruyter, a hard-charging admiral who saved his country on a number of occasions back in the 17th century.

You can be sure that condemnation of Pim Fortuyn’s selection has been swift in appearing in the Dutch press (although, interestingly, not in the NRC Handelsblad so far – maybe that august paper simply prefers to turn up its nose at the whole proletarian exercise). Algemeen Dagblad writer Reinoud den Haan has a good treatment in Fortuyn the Greatest: Rubbish-Result (free registration, in Dutch, required). His very lead paragraph implicitly compares this “Greatest Dutchman” selection unfavorably with similar exercises undertaken by neighboring countries: the British chose Winston Churchill while the Germans chose Konrad Adenauer. Second and third choices for the British were Isambard Brunel (who? a great engineer) and Princess Di; for the Germans it was Martin Luther and Karl Marx. (And individual writers, in cultural portraits of their respective countries covered elsewhere on this EuroSavant site, chose respectively William Shakespeare and Hannah Arendt.)

Den Haan’s piece goes on to quotes of various academic historians putting down this “people’s choice” of Fortuyn. “The Dutch live in the here-and-now,” says one. “History barely plays a role in this land” – in supposed contrast to the French. Also: “the result says more about the state of Dutch society of the moment. Fortuyn is still seen as the Great Redeemer” – even though, as this historian also points out, it was supposedly the Dutch soon-to-be-ex EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein who initially brought up the issue of foreigner integration into Dutch society onto the agenda.

Jean-Pierre Geelen of De Volkskrant is no more of an admirer of this choice of Fortuyn, as we see in Hard to Swallow: Pim Fortuyn as Greatest Dutchman (free registration, in Dutch, required). “Well-thinking” (“weldenkend“) Dutchmen (whoever they are) definitely have a problem with this choice, Geelen reports. Prominent among these weldenkend in this article is the historian Maarten van Rossem, well-known in this country as an expert on the United States, and Van Rossem doesn’t pull back when it comes to letting his opinion on such things be known. “If Fortuyn turns out to be the Greatest Dutchman, then I’ll emigrate to Iceland,” he declared. (Goodness, this month of November, 2004, has produced way more threats of emigration around the world than usual!) And: “Every list where you find Monique van de Ven [just some Dutch actress/director] together with Spinoza by definition has something wrong with it.” I would certainly agree, and add that any contest or poll that styles itself “serious” but nonetheless is conducted through the medium of television must also by definition have something wrong with it. Finally, Geelen also interviews Frans Smits, editor-in-chief of Historisch Nieuwsblad (i.e. the “Historical Magazine”), who happens to work closely with the KRO. But not on this project; on the contrary, about the choice of Pim Fortuyn Smits’ reaction is “This is ridiculous. He had little to no significance for history. . . . In other countries they must be laughing themselves sick.” (Although, to be completely honest, in Dutch the expression is “laughing themselves dead.”)

Van Rossem’s preference for “Greatest Dutchman” would tend to the country’s George Washington, i.e. William the Silent, and I think that’s eminently reasonable. In any case, I repeat that too little time has elapsed since Pim Fortuyn was actually around. And I repeat it because it’s rather a serious point; Fortuyn was among the first to point out some serious considerations (OK, along with Bolkestein) pertaining to how and whether Dutch society can really assimilate immigrants satisfactorily. Many label him a populist, a demagogue – but too often things happen, such as the troubles that have sprung up in the country lately, that hint that perhaps he was right, and that what he said perhaps should have been said even earlier.

The jury is still out – but couldn’t we have put the “trial” off to another time? Pim Fortuyn’s anointing is just not a constructive thing to have happen in view of the tensions in this country today.

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