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A nation of headstrong nationalists

For the Netherlands, like many other European countries, the nineteenth century was a period of strengthening national identity. Anne Petterson describes how 'the ordinary people' of Amsterdam expressed their patriotic feelings differently from how the elite had hoped. PhD defence 24 January.

The nineteenth century is known in Europe as the age of nation building. During that time a number of small states merged, in 1861, to form the new country of Italy, and ten years later separate federal states united in the German Empire. And even though the Netherlands had been in existence for considerably longer, here too national identity was given a strong impetus at the time. 

‘Ordinary people’

Historians have a good idea of how the Dutch elite expressed their patriotic feelings. However, much less is known about the 'ordinary people', because most historical sources only provide information on the wealthy and powerful in a country. PhD candidate Anne Petterson examined newspapers, letters to the town council, police reports and film sources to learn how Amsterdam housemaids, shoemakers and school pupils expressed their nationalism.  

History of revolt

‘My research shows that the ordinary people of Amsterdam based their nationalism  on more or less the same themes as the elite,' Petterson says. 'Stories about the notorious history of revolt against the Spanish and the wealth of the Golden Age played an important role. And the popularity of the royal family also helped create a feeling of togetherness.' 

Banal motives

But that is where the similarity with the elite ends. The powerful in the country hoped that nationalism would have a civilizing effect on ordinary people, but they were mistaken. The populace celebrated the national identity differently from how the elite had imagined. Most festivities were based not on grand schemes, but on banal motives. Princes Day, for example, was a good opportunity for a party, similar to the current Kings Day. And royal celebrations were often a competition to see who could decorate their street better than the neighbouring street.  

Orange fury

Occasionally patriotism could get out of hand. Petterson: ‘Take the Orange Fury of 1887 for example.  Royalist citizens fought with socialists, whom they saw as a threat to the monarchy. They attacked shops and destroyed a café on Waterlooplein. Obviously, this was not the good citizenship that the elite had hoped for but people were not prepared to let their nationalist sentiments be channeled by others.'

Not money but bullets

In other cases it was the people themselves who initiated patriotic activities, as was apparent during the Boer War in South Africa (1880-1902). The Dutch regarded the Afrikaner Boers - who had fought against the British - as people who needed support. 'Café owners put a collecting tin on the counter and plans were made to introduce a toll at the entrance to the Amsterdam Kalverstraat,' she continues.   'There were even calls by a few people to send bullets rather than  money.' And the elite? They could only stand and watch.' 


Anne Petterson is publishing her dissertation in commercial form:

Eigenwijs Vaderland - Populair nationalisme in negentiende-eeuws Amsterdam
Uitgeverij Prometheus / Bert Bakker
ISBN 9789035143746

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