Letters of Johan de Witt give a glimpse behind the scenes at the Disaster Year 1672
The government, the people and the country were in desperate straits. This about sums up the state of affairs in the Disaster Year of 1672. It was 350 years ago, and to mark the occasion PhD candidate Roosje Peeters collaborated on a series of letters to and from a key political figure Johan de Witt, for whom 1672 was also a disastrous year personally.
In the Disaster Year, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was under attack from three sides: from the south and east by France and the principalities of Munster and Cologne, and from the sea by a combined fleet of the English and French. ‘It wasn't that the Republic didn't anticipate this war, but it wasn't adequately prepared for it,' historian Peeters explains. 'The Republic's fleet had grown to become the strongest fleet in Europe under Johan de Witt's administration, but the land army wasn't in good shape because no war had been fought on land for decades.'
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Hand over of city keys
During the war, the Republic pluckily defended itself at the battle of Solebay, where the Republic, led by Michiel de Ruyter and Cornelis de Witt (Johan's brother), fought against the English and French. There was no clear winner, but the battle was seen as a victory for the Republic because it avoided being completely hemmed in.
At the same time as the Battle of Solebay, the French marched towards the Republic. And on 12 June French King Louis XIV crossed the Rhine at Lobith. Peeters: ‘This caused even greater panic than there was already in the Republic. The French army was far superior to the small, badly organised State army, so any hope that the Republic forces could repel the French army were dashed. Even the defence works were not ready for battle'
The French were simply able to march in and occupy the towns one by one. The residents of Utrecht were so anxious that two mayors handed over the city keys to the French, out of fear that otherwise the city would be destroyed.
Old Holland Water Line
To protect the parts of the Republic that had not yet been occupied, only one option remained: to construct the Old Dutch Waterline. A wide strip of land along the border of Holland was flooded by breaching dykes and opening sluices everywhere. Peeters: 'Local farmers were not at all happy about it; they saw their crops disappear. And people had to flee because the whole area was flooded. But it was effective: it succeeded in keeping the French out.'
After that, the battle continued for a long time, but the French finally succeeded in pushing back the Republic after cooperating with other powers in Europe. The Republic was saved under the leadership of William III.
Murder of the de Witt brothers
Johan de Witt did not live to see that rescue: the grand pensionary and leading politician was assassinated. In the Republic, a smear campaign was waged against him by supporters of the prince. They wanted the Prince of Orange (William III) to rule as stadholder. Peeters: 'Pamphlets, letters and texts were distributed blaming Johan de Witt for everything that went wrong, such as the ill-prepared army and taking money from the State coffers. Among the people, the smear campaign created enormous hatred towards Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis, who was his right-hand man.'
In late June, Johan de Witt was attacked and narrowly survived. Not much later, Cornelis de Witt was accused of plotting an assassination attempt on Prince William III, who was to be appointed stadholder shortly afterwards. Peeters: 'More and more people wanted William III as stadholder and army commander again, because he was an Orangist and they had always saved the people in the past as well.'
Cornelis was charged and imprisoned and tortured in the Gevangenpoort near the Binnenhof in The Hague. About a month after Cornelis was convicted, unjustly incidentally, Johan went to see him. Citizens then dragged the brothers out of prison and lynched them. After his death, the States of Holland confiscated all Johan de Witt's documents, including his extensive correspondence. The nearly 35,000 letters eventually ended up in the National Archives.
Peeters and Ineke Huysman from the Huygens Institute have used this correspondence to compile the collection of letters in 'Johan de Witt and the Disaster Year'. 'The letters are both from and to Johan de Witt. 'We wanted to use the letters in this colletion to bring the Disaster Year into focus for a wide audience,' explains Peeters. The original letters are printed in the collection, along with a modern translation. Jean-Marc van Tol, the illustrator of Fokke & Sukke, also illustrated the letters in the style of seventeenth-century paintings.
A look behind the scenes
According to Peeters, the correspondence gives a glimpse behind the scenes of the Disaster Year. 'Johan de Witt was a spider in a huge web. You can read in the letters what was happening all over Europe. De Witt had people everywhere who provided him with intelligence. And many people within the Republic also wrote to him, even on matters that had nothing to do with politics. Altogether, you get a really broad picture of what was going on.'
The letters all feature important events and people from the Disaster Year, but they also contain very personal stories. There are letters about the army, anonymous notes from spies giving information about where the French were, correspondence with foreign politicians and letters from relatives and civilians. For example, there is a letter from the parents of a boy who was present at the battle of Solebay and who died there. Peeters: 'His stepfather asks Johan de Witt if he knows what happened to the ship and to his son's body, because his mother is distraught and can’t rest until she knows what happened to her son.
Similarities with the present
Peeters also sees similarities with the present. 'Fortunately it is not such a disastrous year now as it was then, but we have been in an exceptional situation in recent years with the corona pandemic and recently with the war in Ukraine. In 1672, during a smear campaign, pamphlets were distributed with stories about Johan de Witt. You can compare that to today's fake news around corona and the war in Ukraine. It is sometimes difficult to decide what is true and what is not, and that was just the same then. Citizens worried about where the French were and who was behind certain things. In the end, Johan de Witt became the scapegoat and it cost him his life. It shows how important it is for people to be well informed.'
In addition, according to Peeters, the Disaster Year shows the importance of cooperation, both nationally and internationally. 'In 1672, many things went wrong because there was no real cooperation. Decision-making about the army, for instance, was incredibly slow because the various regions did not work together well. They impeded each other because one did not want to pay for something that would benefit the other.' On the opposite side, the war with France was won through strong cooperation between William III and several European countries, which ultimately succeeded in ending the war.'
It isn’t only the lessons about cooperation and having proper information that make it important to remember the Disaster Year, according to Peeters. 'The Disaster Year had a huge impact on what happened next in the Republic. Until then, the Republic had been very prosperous, but 1672 had major economic and political consequences. The Disaster Year is also recognised as the end of the Golden Age. It made the Netherlands what it is today and it is therefore good to reflect on this event 350 years ago.'
Text: Dagmar Aarts
Timeline illustration tijdlijn: Fien Leeflang