Background to the Picture
THE KINGDOM OF THE NETHERLANDS has only existed as such since 1814, not much more than a century--a century which has seen a return to the ancient glories of Holland's Golden Age, when the Republic of the Netherlands led the world in every form of endeavour. Following the glorious period which bred men like Tromp, de Ruyter, Oldenbarnevelt, Jan De Witt and, not least, members of the princely House of Orange-Nassau, the people of the Netherlands were inclined to rest on their oars and devote themselves to the simpler domestic pursuits. For a while the spirit which Motley lauded seemed to have vanished from the land, and the enterprise of the people of the Netherlands appeared to have become blunted when compared with that of other nations.
For a century and a half excessive caution and conservatism relegated the Netherlands to the backwaters. But the fibre of the Dutch people has ever been the same as that which enabled them to secure a foremost place among the nations in the
seventeenth century--notwithstanding periods of poor leadership, laissez faire and lack of a forward policy. There were times when divided counsels weakened the State, but in the end the ancient spirit of the people prevailed. Old habits were cast off and the Dutch people paid heed to what was happening outside their frontiers. What they saw whetted their appetites. From being half-forgotten in the world's calculations the Netherlands re-emerged as a powerful factor which could not be ignored.
The Napoleonic wars saw Napoleon's feeble brother Louis installed as King of Holland. The Treaty of London of 1814, recognizing the Netherlands as a kingdom, likewise recognized Prince William of Orange as King of the Netherlands, which included Belgium. There followed quiet uneventful years for Holland, save for the separation from Belgium in 1832. The Dutch no longer had 'in their hands the greater part of the carrying trade of France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Turkey, the East Indies, and the West Indies.'1 Holland was not exactly the Holland of a few centuries earlier 'where nothing groweth but a few Hoppes, Mader and Cheese,' but the country which had housed the giants of an earlier age now was become a country largely dependent on its agriculture, with little voice in the affairs of Europe, a country where life flowed
as slowly and pleasantly as the very waters in the Dutch canals. The Dutch people laboured dutifully, worshipped in the Churches and earned the pleasant reputation which the Victorians bestowed upon them--a people who dwelled placidly and peacefully in a land of windmills and who were picturesquely clad country-folk. The windmills and the country costumes, of course, were no more representative of general conditions than are stovepipe hats in Wales, but it was a picture with a moral.
The Victorian age was an industrial age, and for a while the Dutch people seemed unable to build up the big industries which gave Great Britain such a vast measure of prosperity. The population of the country was small, well under 4,000,000, and whereas Britain had coal and iron as solid foundations on which to rear an industrial structure, Holland only had the rich soggy soil on which grew luscious crops of value alike to man and beast. Dutch dairy-farming became one of the country's staple industries. Industry as we know it, iron foundries, steel and cotton mills, were unknown. Holland remained the land of windmills. But the Dutch were traders, and their renaissance was at hand. Trade was ever their mainstay, and on the waterlogged soil which they had won from the sea they built great warehouses, docks and shipyards. They built ships again; steamships now. They
dispatched them abroad, to the farthest ends of the earth. They established markets for important raw materials in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. They amassed wealth, and they invested this wherever they might, so that their riches might increase. The splendid days of the Amsterdam Wisselbank, which flourished in the seventeenth century, returned, and the Amsterdam and Rotterdam Stock Exchanges were accounted factors of paramount importance in the conduct of the world's financial business. A provident people, the Dutch were able to husband their resources and achieve a degree of national prosperity virtually unequalled by any other country in the world. But their prosperity was not wholly material in its nature. The ancient Dutch affection and respect for learning persisted, and, based on their material prosperity, the Dutch people achieved a new high level of culture. In the world of medicine and the sciences there is none among the nations that excels the Dutch. For their size they have given the world greater scientists than any other people. Their men of learning have been the recipients of more Nobel prizes than those of any other people.
Quietly, unsung, but respected among the nations for their integrity, they pursued their way. In the world of great diplomacy the Dutch word was seldom heard. No intrigues were hatched at The
Hague. In the chancelleries the Netherlands were accounted as a fixed star, though not of the first magnitude, yet completely sans reproche. If a Peace Conference was held The Hague invariably was suggested as the venue. That which was promoted by the Tsar of Russia in 1904 was held there. The Carnegie Palace of Peace still stands as a silent even if ironic monument to a well-meant effort. The International Court of Justice had The Hague as its headquarters. The Dutch were trusted by the nations. They had no axes to grind. They minded their own business. And they minded it well.
The Dutch people formed a true unostentatious democracy. The democratic system fitted them like a glove. The ancient States-General, a bicameral legislature, functioned freely at The Hague. The Dutch were a free people. They had a free press and their consciences were unshackled. Great liberal-thinking statesmen arose from their midst, men like Thorbecke, and successive enactments extended the franchise to all adults of 25 years or older. Taxation was never burdensome (onerous taxation was one of the sparks which lit the revolt against the Spaniards in the sixteenth century), and expenditure in the main was devoted to social purposes. Nowhere in Europe, or, indeed, in the whole world, were the people so well housed, well fed and well clothed as in the pre-war Netherlands. They
had the lowest death-rate in Europe, 8.6 per 1,000, compared with 12.4 for England and Wales. Their infantile mortality figure was likewise the lowest in Europe, 41 per 1,000, compared with 58 per 1,000 for England and Wales. The population of the country increased by leaps and bounds until it touched the 8,500,000 mark.
All this was possible since the Netherlands prospered. The fiction has been spread from time to time that the Dutch people prospered because of their colonial possessions. The truth is otherwise. In 1935 the sum of 115,000,000 guilders was advanced to the East Indies. The indirect benefits of foreign trade, however, are well known and naturally the Dutch people, as a trading nation, have benefited from their colonial trade, since much of this has been carried on in Holland. But, equally, much has been carried on by other nations, of which Great Britain is the most important. Figures quoted in an earlier chapter in this book will serve as a rough guide to the share which Great Britain has had in Netherlands East Indies trade.
But the Dutch have not traded solely with their Empire. Their ships, as in the seventeenth century, have roamed the seven seas. Their transatlantic lines were among the most competently run of all; their East Asiatic and African lines carried trade to their home ports. What the Dutch did not know
about navigable waterways and harbour-works was not worth knowing. They developed Rotterdam and Amsterdam into two of the finest ports in Europe. They made them paying propositions. They made them attractive to shippers and shipowners, both as ports of final destination and as transhipment ports. They kept their tariffs low, so that the channels of trade might not be impeded in this way. They prospered. And they improved their port facilities still further and built still more and better ships. All this has been no matter of a single day. The fine canal which links Amsterdam to the North Sea was cut as long ago as 1876. Yet the Dutch people had to import most of their coal and all their iron and steel, without which neither ships nor docks can be built. Immediately prior to the outbreak of the present war Holland occupied seventh place among the ship-owning nations and possessed almost 3,000,000 tons of shipping. For the year ending June 30th, 1939, Holland ranked as the second ship-building country in the world. During that period seventy ships were built in Dutch yards.
The face of the Netherlands was changed. From the almost wholly agricultural country of a century ago by 1940 the Netherlands had become industrialized in many respects and was able to support a population of unprecedented density, 640 per square
mile. Faced with every natural handicap, such as the almost complete absence of raw materials for heavy industry,2 none the less the people of the Netherlands had adjusted their economy to the needs of the present day and, although they had had to surmount almost insuperable difficulties, they had conquered, and were able to enter world markets as worthy producers and competitors. Their reputation, prior to the German onslaught, as manufacturers of machinery, chemicals, electrical equipment, cotton and woollen textiles, apart from alimentary products, was such that the name of Holland was synonymous with quality wherever men went to market.
All this notwithstanding, the real Holland has been little known to the outside world. Few have penetrated beyond the coastal provinces. Few indeed in England have travelled in the western and southern Dutch provinces. Holland and Zeeland have been worn bare throughout the centuries by English feet, but of the great beyond who of Englishmen knows of the people of Groningen and Friesland, of Limburg and Brabant and of Drente? Who among Englishmen has set foot in the considerable Dutch provincial cities with their independent outlook and their local industries? The trodden path
has led from Rotterdam to The Hague and Amsterdam, and back again, with, perhaps, Leyden and Utrecht taken in their stride. There is more to Holland than these cities, even as there is more to England than London and Southampton.
The whole Dutch outlook has been directed along the paths of peace. During the war of 1914-18 the Netherlands Government were able to steer the ship of State through the tempest without being involved directly in the conflict. War is abhorrent to the highly-civilized Hollander. His every instinct is directed towards the arts of peace.
Although the military air force of the Netherlands was unable to play an effective role in countering the enemy invasion in May 1940, in civil flying the Dutch have led the way. Their air-lines covered the whole of Europe and provided the finest service to the Far East, not even excluding Imperial Airways. They were the first to inaugurate direct wireless telegraphic communications between Europe and the Far East, a step forced on them during the last war when normal communications were interrupted. Their town-planning has been thought out carefully on scientific lines; their railways have been modernized and partly electrified; as bridge-builders they are an object lesson to the world and, of course, when it comes to land reclamation they have made of the muddy delta of the Rhine one of the most
fruitful countries in Europe. Their most recent accomplishment in draining a large part of the great inland sea, the Zuyder Zee, has been so much lauded by the press of every country that reference to this remarkable piece of work is almost superfluous. By draining and damming and sweetening the soil hundreds of square miles of land have been reclaimed from the sea so that they may be made available for productive purposes.
In their international relationships the Dutch people always have endeavoured to remain on good terms with their neighbours. Political motives have ever weighed less with them than the simple business of living, which, in the case of nations, may be expressed in terms of trade. They have always strived to buy and sell in the best markets. They have bought their insurance in Great Britain and America and they have gone, often enough, to Germany for their coal, iron and steel. They have chartered their ships from and to British shipowners, but they have carried freights for Germans, for that is the way of international trade--omnes mercatores cum suis bonis et mercandisia secure et libere ire et venire3--all merchants with their goods and merchandise shall come and go safely and freely. That is the Dutch way. Freedom of trade without hindrance
has always been a fundamental in their economy. Trade should know no politics, and on trade and trade alone modern Holland's prosperity has been built. Great then was Dutch distress when, in 1931, Great Britain deserted the gold standard and the £ sterling lost rather more than a quarter of its value in comparison with the Dutch guilder. The Dutch themselves who had piled up one of the most respectable gold reserves in Europe felt this keenly. They themselves were not prepared to be parties to such unorthodox methods of finance and they adhered to the gold standard (although they had found it necessary to devalue the guilder shortly after Great Britain went off gold), until the very ultimate moment when the Germans invaded their country. Since that time, nolens volens, they have been obliged to join the sterling group, but to a people who are as orthodox in the conduct of their finances as the Dutch this cannot have been other than an extremely distasteful task. The result of all this may be seen in the quotation for the Dutch guilder immediately prior to the invasion, namely, 7.60 to the £ sterling compared with 12.05 before Great Britain departed from the gold standard.
Orthodoxy is almost a besetting fault, or an ingrained virtue, of the Dutch people, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. They perhaps, until the fateful events of the past twelve months,
have looked upon the conditions which have governed their existence as static, and have viewed any departure from established conditions as evils which should not even be contemplated. All of which no doubt is exceedingly to their credit and a tribute to their acknowledged integrity. They balanced their budgets; they but rarely borrowed abroad; their foreign debt was nil; their balance of trade, although their imports exceeded their exports, never veered heavily in the wrong direction. 'Invisible' exports always made up for any deficit which was shown.
The pity is that, taking things by and large, very few of the 8,500,000 people of the Netherlands have any considerable acquaintance with England or with the British way of thought. Admittedly, there will be found among the travelled classes persons of naturally strong Anglophile tendencies, while in commercial miles in the great cities there will be found many who know England and our ways. But even as few Englishmen have ventured beyond the three or four great cities of the maritime provinces, so, too, have very few of the people of the Dutch North-Western and South-Western Provinces much other than a wholly elementary knowledge of British affairs. Politically this has had its repercussions, since those selfsame North-Eastern and South-Eastern provinces of the Netherlands abut on to
Germany, and there is much more in common between the Dutch and German languages than there is between Dutch and English, so that the most ordinary Dutch subject of simple elementary educational attainments can read and understand German, which cannot be without a certain, if limited, amount of influence on his outlook. This is not to say, or even remotely to suggest, that Dutch subjects have been contaminated by the German virus. But it does go to show that the British word has not been carried to the 'provincial' Dutch people and that, while they have been able to cross the frontier into Germany with the greatest of ease, few of them have ever crossed the North Sea and set foot on British soil.
The remedy lay ready to hand, but we were slow to apply it. Propaganda as such in peace-time is not in the British way of thinking. This kind of thing would have been looked upon as a lapse of good taste, as an impropriety and an abuse of the hospitality offered to our missions. Yet, how much could we not have done, had we taken the trouble to tell these 'backwoods' Dutch people something about ourselves and our strivings, our hopes and ideals. It is true that they obtained certain enlightenment from their local newspapers, but local newspapers all the world over stress local news to the exclusion of that which does not touch directly on local interests.
The provincial Dutch people knew the British Empire and Englishmen but from a remote distance. As mentioned earlier, an Englishman was a rare being in the Dutch provinces, but Germans there were a-plenty, barbers, tailors, waiters, maidservants, merchants and tourists. Great Britain and British ideas were as alien to the people of provincial Holland as are the affairs and views of the Patagonians to the inhabitants of Rutland. These sturdy and steady-minded people were dragged into the war with but a blurred and third-rate view of the British Empire. Never a British lecturer moved in their midst; never were the editors of the local newspapers taken into British confidence nor were they brought over to England as were the editors of the newspapers of other countries. Only on rare occasions did British journalists of standing visit the Netherlands. Had they done so, they would have learned of the greatness of a small country and of how the size of a man's acres is not always an index to his wealth or station. The great historical Dutch nation, in the sixty years since the Queen was born, had become wealthy and among the most powerful in Europe prior to the invasion. But few outside Holland and those commercial, financial and shipping circles directly affected, either knew or apparently cared. For all the average man knew, the Netherlands (Holland, if you will) was still
the quiet, rustic, bulb-growing, dairy-farming country of juvenile cigar-smokers and much-petticoated country women. That was the Holland which they, in their ignorance, pictured. How far from the truth was all this. They did not know how mighty was this David among the nations.
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