I often enjoy reading books about entire countries and Why the Dutch are Different- A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands was certainly very enjoyable. Usually, when most people think of the Netherlands, windmills, dikes, and the red light and marijuana delights of Amsterdam usually come to mind. It’s a pity because the country is so much more fascinating than just those things.
Having lived in the Netherlands for several years after marrying a Dutch woman, Englishman Ben Coates decides to venture around his adopted country while exploring its past and present. The output is a humorous, affectionate and stark look at a small country that has contributed more than its fair share to global exploration, commerce, and art.
While Coates travels to the south for Carnival and to places of interest like massive flood gates that form part of the country’s Delta Works dams and floodgates, and Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old-fashioned windmills, this book is not a travelogue. It’s a historical portrait, socio-cultural study, and political commentary packed into a 300-page book.
Coates starts off by exploring the physical attributes of the Netherlands, especially its famous dikes and windmills which play a pivotal role in enabling the country to cope with its low-lying land and make full use of it. The country is mostly flat, so flat (highest point: 322 meters) that a Dutch journalist actually proposed building an artificial mountain for sportsmen like cyclists and hikers to use.
Water is what the Netherlands has in abundance, and it is something to be feared and controlled, through extensive dikes and canals. One fascinating historical geological fact is that the Netherlands used to be connected to England by a massive landmass called Doggerland, which was eventually swallowed up by the sea 8000-9000 years ago.
While the country is small, it has a distinct traditional north-south divide based on religion. While the north is more Protestant and staid, the south is mainly Catholic which manifests in a more lively, fun-loving spirit exemplified by colorful Carnival parades on Ash Wednesday (my country Trinidad also has an annual Carnival which is its biggest festival). Coates visits several southern cities to take part in their Carnivals, including Maastricht, normally known for being the host of the negotiations that established the EU, and Eindhoven. In the north such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, where Coates lives, Carnival is not so widely celebrated.
This religious divide stems from historical times when the Dutch fought to break away from Spanish Catholic rule in the late 16th century as the United Provinces, while the remaining Low Countries would eventually become Belgium. This Christian divide was generally peaceful but it created separate societies with both Protestants and Catholics having not only their own schools, but hospitals, banks, unions, and even seniors’ homes. This religious segregation started receding by the mid-20th century, with the German occupation forcing the Dutch to cooperate with each other.
After the Netherlands won its independence from Spain in the mid-17th century, it didn’t just grow into a country, it became a world power. During this Golden Age, as it’s known, the Dutch fought wars with the British, even winning one though the British would return the favor in the late 18th century, created one of Europe’s largest fleets, and sailed around the world. A Dutch prince would even come to rule Britain at one point- William of Orange, who was King of England from 1689-1702.
The intrepid Dutch “discovered” Australia and New Zealand, and raided the Portuguese and Spanish possessions, eventually capturing Galle and Malacca from the former. The Dutch also sailed to the East Indies, colonizing what would become Indonesia. At the southern tip of Africa, the Dutch established the Cape Colony and the city of Cape Town.
Coates then moves on to the Netherlands’ most traumatic period of history – the Nazi German occupation during World War II. While Anne Frank was the most famous victim, almost 300,000 Dutch people also perished. It is understandable why there was animosity among the Dutch for Germany, though after decades of peace and EU co-existence, it is mainly restricted to football now.
As you can imagine, the book features a lot of history, both glorious and tragic, and many fascinating facts about the Netherlands. There is also a lot of humorous observations about the quirkiness of Dutch society, such as the habit of strangers talking to each other (a shock to a proper Englishman such as the author) and love of being in crowded settings (also another shock to an Englishman).
The Dutch are informal, easygoing and communal-spirited, Coates notes, due to their country being dense and lacking space. The Dutch are also thrifty, hence the saying “Going Dutch,” and value saving money for the future. Amusingly enough, this sounds a lot like East Asia, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, but with one huge difference. In order to foster cooperation and tolerance among a crowded society, the Dutch value being blunt and directness, which is the opposite of East Asia.
The Dutch have a saying that they prefer to approach matters rechtdoorzee or “straight on through the sea,” directly and honestly with no face-saving. Coates says that a major reason for this is geography, as the Netherlands is very flat with no mountains. “Everything’s out in the open. No mountains, no caves. Nothing to hide. No dark places in the soul,” according to a Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom.
And given the Netherland’s reputation as one of football’s strongest nations, naturally Coates also devotes a chapter to the sport. Ironically, and despite being English, Coates doesn’t like football but he still attends a Dutch league game involving Feyenoord, Rotterdam’s major team and one of the country’s top three teams. Coates goes into the illustrious history of Dutch football, which includes reaching three World Cup finals, and its most famous club Ajax Amsterdam, Feyenoord’s hated rivals, as well as icons like Johan Cruijff and Louis van Gaal.
The book’s penultimate chapter focuses on a somber issue in the present, where a new kind of religious societal divide exists. This one is driven by multiculturalism and immigration, specifically of Muslims from countries like Morocco and Turkey. Tensions and differences have led to a backlash, mainly in the popularity of far-right politicians who are outspoken against immigrants and Islam. Two of these, Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, were assassinated, the former by an animal-rights activist, the latter by a Muslim Dutch-Moroccan. This might not be the most upbeat conclusion but it’s a realistic look at one of the most fascinating and underrated countries in Europe, if not in the world.
However, it’s not hard to see how Coates feels about his second home country – “The Netherlands, for all its faults, was happier than Britain, more efficient than France, more tolerant than America, more worldly than Norway, more modern than Belgium, and more fun than Germany.” High praise indeed, which Coates follows up with: “In an era when much of the world was cynical and pessimistic, most Dutch remained tolerant, internationalist and open-minded.” I haven’t been to the Netherlands but someday I really hope I could.