By Ivana Mouawad
Abstract: Dutchness, this singular something Dutch people have in common, mostly noticeable to non-Dutch folks. This paper is an attempt by an amateur ethnographer/exchange student in Amsterdam to tackle Dutchness, or what it means to be Dutch for Dutch students. Two centuries after numerous nationalist concepts were theorized, where does the youth stand today? Are nationalist concepts still applicable to the everyday youth? Questions that will be answered using a sample of Dutch students in their twenties willing to talk about their relationship with their country.
“I wonder whether there is such a thing as a sense of individuality. Is it all a facade, covering a deep need to belong? Are we simply pack animals desperately trying to pretend we are not?” (Rabih Alamaddine, I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters)
“Why Amsterdam?” When asked this question by a Dutch girl I was caught off guard, “why did you choose the Netherlands out of other countries?” I found this question very strange, I am conscious that choosing Amsterdam for an exchange year would not be everyone’s choice, but why would someone from Holland ask me that? If it was my country that people would come to for an exchange year, I would never say this. It is obvious for me, of course they want to come to Lebanon, who doesn’t? This is when I realized that the relationship I have towards my country is completely different from hers, and maybe from Dutch students in general too. The aim of my research project was to know more about nationalism and Dutch students: to what extent is there a sense of belonging to their country and how do they express and give shape to this sense of belonging? The first part of my paper will briefly cover the main concepts on nations and nationalism, the second part will discuss the main themes I found by interviews and interaction with Dutch students; the third part will link the research findings to more contemporary concepts of nationalism.
What is a nation?
The word nation has a Latin origin: natus, which means to have been born somewhere. A nation can be defined as a group of people having common historic origins and language. According to the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is in the nation that citizenship is found.
Two conceptions can be distinguished concerning the idea of nations. The first is the essentialist conception, where the nation is eternal; it has always been there and will remain forever. The second is the constructivist conception, which questions the former conception. The constructivists point out the recent history of nations – which came into being only in the eighteenth to nineteenth century – as well as its ideological, willful, and organized aspects.
In the nineteenth century, as Benedict Anderson (1991) points out, nationalism spread through education, the army and the print-media. According to Ernest Gellner (1983), nationalism and industrialization are bound to make us similar in some way since we eat the same products, we read the same labels. Modes of transportation and communication accelerated the creation and the maintenance of a national space. Sport was, and still is, an essential element for the diffusion of nationalism, in particular the Olympic games and the World Cup in football.
The constructivist theory is moderated by Eric Hobsbawm’s (1991) theory of proto-national bonds, arguing that certain ties did exist before the construction of nationalism. Ties such as old religious traditions, the language of the elite, and the role of dynasties. A dynasty that has been in place for a thousand years is bound to create a certain link between people who were governed by that same dynasty; for example in the Netherlands, where since the independence from the Spanish in 1648, it is the house of Orange that rules, although it was only after the defeat of Napoleon in 1813 that the Dutch Kingdom acquired its modern status as nation-state.
Proto-national bonds also include conflicts. Due to conflicts, the awareness of the Self is made through opposition with an ‘Other’; I am not like the Other therefore I am. A nation’s identity can be related to a concept called ‘looking-glass self’, conceptualized in 1902 by Charles Horton Cooley, which signifies becoming aware of one’s self through the eyes of the other.
These notions on nations and nationalism are still very relevant and accurate; however, to what extent do they reflect nationalism nowadays, in particular among young people? Two centuries after nations were constructed, and after two centuries of scholarly study and analysis of nationalism, what remains of nationalism today? This is what I attempt to answer, taking Dutch students in their early twenties as my sample.
Dutch students and Dutchness
During my conversations and interviews with Dutch students, in which I attempted to trace when and how they feel most ‘Dutch’, I noticed that particular subjects kept coming up. The first of these was feeling Dutch while traveling.
– Traveling –
In order to know more about how they view themselves and other nationalities, I asked about their travel experience. Most of the students I talked to had only traveled in Europe, and for those who went outside Europe, Turkey was one of the main destinations. Why Europe? Because it is close, which I observed is important for the people I spoke to. The fact that European countries are ‘close’ to the Netherlands make them more prone to being visited by the Dutch, which seems logical, since it’s easier to access without long-distance means of transportation like a plane. Some of the interviewees made the remark that “travelling for me is not about getting from point A to point B, the journey to get there, is travelling, it is what matters”. This seems relevant to me, because it seems such a different mentality from what I was personally used to, where far-away places are dream destinations and the ‘getting there’ is necessarily by plane. All interviewees seemed to share the same ‘it is about the journey’ philosophy. At the same time, they seemed to be very critical about the ‘tourist bubble’ the Dutch get into when they travel.
The main European destinations the Dutch seem to travel to are France, Spain and England. Destinations where, according to one girl I interviewed, the Dutch tourists “make no effort to speak the language, put on tons of sunscreen and still come back red.” A rather harsh criticism on the traveling Dutch, which was shared by other interviewees: “I went to Turkey, but I didn’t really see Turkey, I stayed in the tourist areas,” or, “I was in London for the Olympic games and went to Holland House, where Dutch people just get together, wear orange, drink beer, eat kroketten, basically just stay between themselves, I mean, what’s the point of traveling?”
Starting my conversations with where they had traveled, whether they liked it, whether they liked the people there, and whether they could see themselves living there was very revealing. The concept of the ‘other’ came up naturally with regard to this subject. Terms like ‘they’ and ‘we’ came up in every conversation, showing how this idea of difference from one border to another, or opposition to ‘them’ is embedded in defining the ‘we’, to the point where it is natural to think of other nationalities as intrinsically different. “In Spain they are so passionate, you know, they go on the streets when they want something, in Holland we are not like that, we are not passionate,” said one student who clearly told me she had no affiliations with Holland. Although, before talking to her, I had considered her very Dutch, making me realize how our conceptions of what being Dutch means completely differed. I still see her as very Dutch (her physique, her accent and the way she put things), even though she clearly told me she does not consider herself particularly Dutch, I link her identity to her culture which shows my own subjectivity in the matter and how hard it is not to have prejudices.
The French nineteenth-century scholar Ernst Renan said that being part of a nation is a choice, and I tend to agree with him. However, even if the person makes a choice of not being part of a nation, there will still be ‘others’ – like me, in this case – who will view that person as being part of ‘their’ nation whether they like it or not, creating a never-ending cycle of defining each others’ identities based on perceptions and not individual choices.
– Family –
When I asked about their travels, I also asked if they could see themselves living outside of Holland. Most of the answers were ‘no’, and if it was positive all of them said it had to be relatively close to the Netherlands. Family is the first reason they would not leave, it’s not about the country or the people but because of family. Nowadays, there is a sort of prevailing discourse that claims that the family as an institution is disintegrating, that family does not matter as much as it did before, but the people I have spoken with showed a big attachment to family bonds. “I would love to go to the US, but I couldn’t live there, it’s too far,” said one student. Too far meaning too far from family, therefore the Netherlands, and equally not too far from the Netherlands meaning close to family; a small nuance that shows that family comes first.
Attachment to one’s country is not necessarily about loving the culture or the people, attachment to one’s country is mostly and firstly because of emotional bonds with family and friends: “my life is here, my family, my friends, I don’t want to leave that.” Family is considered more important than national emotion but it does not undermine the attachment to ‘Dutchness’ or the Netherlands. It shows that the sense of belonging of the people I interviewed is very much about their circle of family and friends, or in other words more than about the country itself.
– Tolerance –
To bring up the subject of tolerance, something that Dutch society is known for, I started each interview with the phrase: “When I knew I was going to Amsterdam for an exchange, people who had been there told me that Dutch people were very nice, open and tolerant.” I got two types of reaction: the smile or the flinch.
The smile reaction when I said the worlds nice, open and tolerant showed a positive response to flattery about their country. Those who reacted rather positively all made comparisons to other countries: “I mean, we are not that tolerant, but it’s true compared to other countries.” This sentence once again reveals the definition of the Self in opposition to an Other; we can be considered tolerant because in other countries they are not.
The reaction to my “I’ve been told” sentence also received a flinch from some of my interviewees. “We are not so tolerant,” was the explanation I got for the flinch, although they all implied that they do consider themselves to be tolerant but nothing to exaggerate or be especially proud of, even though they accept that ‘tolerance’ is there in Dutch society. But a few made the distinction between tolerance towards tourists in Amsterdam – “Amsterdam is tourists and students” – and tolerance in general towards immigrants, mentioning that: “Before it was the Turks that were frowned upon, now it’s the Moroccans”, and that “there is a popular far right movement in the Netherlands.” Different responses that all have a common ground, which is that yes, tolerance is present in the Netherlands, but to different extents according to whom I talked to.
– National symbolic –
National symbols were put in place by States centuries ago, in order to unify or create Nations. They are still present nowadays and taken for granted, national holidays, the national anthem, etc. In order to know more about these national semiotics from the Dutch I asked them when their independence day was, and all of my interviewees hesitated for a few seconds and the most common reply was that “we have several national holidays, but I think the main one is Queens day.” Coming from Lebanon, a country that fought the Ottomans and then the French for its independence, I was surprised that the people I talked with did not really have knowledge about their independence day. But with hindsight I realized that my national education was much stronger than theirs, whether in school where we celebrate our independence a day before the official holiday, with flags, a parade and the national anthem, or in the streets where roads are closed, flags are everywhere, speeches, parades – even if you do not want to celebrate independence day, you are inevitably immersed in it.
All the interviewees consider Queen’s Day – Koninginnedag – as the national day.[i] But when I asked them what it was exactly about, every answer included drinking and orange: “Queen’s day is basically about getting drunk and wearing orange.” Some of the people I talked with do wear orange and some do not on Queen’s Day, but the drinking part is included for everyone. Their notion of a national day does not include singing the national anthem and seriousness as it does for me, it is more about a holiday and as one interviewee put it: “It’s an excuse for partying all day, and even though it’s Queens day we don’t really care about the Queen.” Queen’s day was originally created in 1885 by the Liberal Party to enhance national unity and encourage the popularity of the Orange dynasty. Nowadays, it is a holiday that the youth does not necessarily link to its national aspirations but that they enjoy and think of as specific to them.
Two historical events can be considered as the day of Dutch independence, the Dutch independence from the Spanish on January 30th 1648 (Munster Treaty) and Liberation Day on the 5th of May which marks the end of Nazi occupation in 1945. Nothing is celebrated on January 30th and Liberation Day is a national holiday every five years. The fact that they consider Koninginnedag as their national day and not their actual independence dates shows the role of the State in controlling what is related to the Nation. Queen’s day is an official holiday, it occurs every year on the 30th of April, whereas the Munster treaty or Liberation Day are not celebrated by the State, therefore people do not consider it as a national holiday even though they are the actual independence dates.
The Dutch national anthem, Het Wilhelmus, is said to be one of the oldest in the world. However, when I asked about their national anthem each of my interviewees replied that they did not fully know it. “I only know the first three lines or something,” and “we sing it during football matches”. From what I understood, there are not many occasions where average civilians sing the national anthem; not during what they consider to be their national day Koninginnedag, they do not learn it in school, they did not know that they had one of the oldest national anthems in the world, and they did not seem to attach much importance to this fact.
National semiotics are key aspects for constructing a nation. However, nowadays they do longer matter as much, at least in the eyes of the students I interviewed. There is a sort of apathy concerning national semiotics. They mostly consider these national symbols – the color orange, Queen’s Day, Het Wilhelmus, etc. – as fun, and presented it to me as awesome orange parties. In other words, they enjoy them in a specific context at specific times.
– Football –
In every talk about national symbols such as the national anthem, the color orange, the flag, there was mention of the Dutch football team. The football lovers as well as the ‘not really into football’ interviewees all mentioned that football matches are where they find the entire national semiotics mentioned above gathered. Even those who are not sport fans watch football matches when the Dutch team plays: “If the Dutch are playing all the bars show the match,” “I’m not into football at all, but it’s fun to watch when you’re in a bar and everyone becomes crazy.” A lot of people do not follow football, but when the national team is involved against another country, there is a sort of ‘national solidarity’ and excitement that comes out of it. As one of my interviewees put it: “Dutch football is the only time where you can see Dutch men crying.”
Sport is one of the most effective mediums in creating national bonds: for one day, at the same time, almost everyone in the same country regardless of class is watching (or is forced to watch) the same thing and is automatically cheering for their national team. The national media comments on it for a few days and people talk about it before and after. Football is particularly positive for national bonding because it involves a direct (more or less friendly) opposition to an Other. If the team loses, it is the whole country that looses.
– Germany –
The thing with Germany was something that really came out of my conversations and interviews with the Dutch. Before beginning my research I did not know that there was a thing between the Netherlands and Germany, it came up naturally during most of the chats especially when we talked about traveling: “Germans are weird.” Some really dislike Germans: “I can’t stand them,” and others are more amused by them, but no one showed neutrality towards Germany. This thing with Germany can be explained by the fact that they share borders; meaning that they are neighbors and have some similarities, also Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands for five years (1940-1945) during World War II.
All these aspects, neighbors and history of conflict, are the perfect mix for creating a sort of competition or jealousy between the two: “They beat us at everything,” “their language is weird.” This rivalry can be interpreted as a mixed feeling of inferiority and superiority at the same time. Similar phenomena of friendly competition can be found between Belgium and France, or between the USA and Canada, etc.
One of my interviews told me a joke about the Dutch and Germans that in my opinion shows well the relationship between the two: “A Dutch guy sees a man using his hand to drink water from the canal, the Dutch guy tells him not to drink the water because it’s dirty. The man drinking replies in German, ‘what did you say?’, the Dutch guy tells him, ‘use both hands its easier’.”. This funrivalry is positive for maintaining national unity; making fun of Germans through various mediums (jokes, television, songs) can be considered as a sort of Dutch custom.
– Auto-clichés –
In order to know more about how the Dutch see the Dutch, I asked them the question if and how they recognize Dutch people outside of Holland. Most of them could not explain to me how exactly they recognized fellow Dutch when traveling (without hearing them speak). “It’s just that I recognize the attitude but I don’t really know how to describe it.” When asked to try to describe a typical young Dutch for them, they had different criteria. For one interviewee, the typical young Dutch will “wear the brand G-Star, they’re simple and listen to the same music,” according to another interviewee “they have semi-long hair and use a lot of hair gel,” and for another “they wear the brand Nicholson, they have short hair and wear jeans with Nike airmax.” The description of the typical Dutch family was more unanimous: “The mom wears crocs, the Dad sandals with socks,” “they sometimes wear the same stuff and have the same bikes.”
Even though the descriptions are not exactly the same and are rather anecdotal, all the interviewees did not consider themselves as the typical Dutch but rather associated the typical Dutch with the lower classes. The association of what is typical and traditional with the lower classes is quite common, because of the belief that they are less educated, therefore less international and more ‘typical’.
– Straightforwardness –
“We are very direct.” All the people I talked with acknowledged that the Dutch are very straightforward and were proud of it. “If we don’t like something we will say it, that’s why we are misunderstood as rude, we’re just direct.” They recognized their ‘reputation’ of being rude, but do not think they are. The justification for this directness is that “we prefer honesty to politeness.” They explained it to me as such: “don’t lie to us to be polite, telling what’s on your mind is more appreciated here.” I and my exchange student friends had quickly noticed this straightforwardness. In addition, I noticed that taboo subjects for me are not taboo for them.
For example, in random conversations with Dutch students I have been asked about my religion and the financial capacities of my parents. Religion and money are very taboo in the society where I come from. But my surprise when these questions were so randomly asked faded away once I realized that they had no particular afterthought or judgment, which would have been the case in Lebanon. What I learnt from the interviews and my everyday life as an exchange student in Amsterdam, is that in the Netherlands there are certainly not as many taboo topics as I am used to. However, I felt that having a different opinion on certain subjects was not well perceived, in particular with regard to subjects like homosexuality, Dutch colonization, World War II, immigration, and saying that Sinterklaas is racist.
Directness is a trait of Dutch culture that is recognized and valued by the young Dutch students I spoke to, a national trait that they consider positive and which they are proud of, too: “Isn’t it better to say what you think than lie to be polite?” Yet in the Netherlands, you better think like the rest does.
– “Just act normal”-
As a foreigner I saw and still see Dutch society as being very open about differences. However, I realized that it was just my view on things as a foreigner. All the interviewees talked about the need to be “normal” in order to be accepted in Dutch Society: “Act normal and it’s fine.” When asked what ‘being normal’ is according to Dutch standards I got almost the same answer from all of my interviewees: “Don’t overdo it,” “stay in the box,” “be nuchter, it means stay down to earth.” Three of the interviewees talked to me about a well-known Dutch saying: ‘Don’t stick your head up the corn field’. In general, a saying is very revealing of the society it emanates from, which is what they confirmed: “Just act normal, you’re already acting strange enough as that.”
All my interviewees recognized the need to ‘fit in’ into Dutch society, and they all criticized this aspect. Criticizing one’s society is not necessarily negative, I would call this constructive criticism, which is absolutely necessary for a society not to stagnate. The fact that they criticize this ‘stay in the box ‘aspect of their society shows that they care about it.
Dutch students’ national identification
A national feeling is a ‘feeling of belonging to one’s own people and country’, but feeling you belong does not necessarily mean that you’re proud of and like your country; there are nuances as the interviews show. In their study, ‘Nationalism and its explanations’, Dekker, Malovà and Hoogendoorn (2003) categorize national attitudes in two dimensions: positive and negative. They distinguish five positive national attitudes in a hierarchical form, starting with a ‘national feeling’, in which one feels one belongs to a certain people or country, moving up to ‘national liking’, ‘national pride’, ‘national preference’ and ‘national superiority’, to finally ‘nationalism’. They then distinguish four negative national attitudes in a cumulative hierarchy, starting with ‘national alienation’, in which one feels not at home or not comfortable among one’s own people, moving to ‘national shame’, ‘national disgust’, and finally ‘national hate’.
If I follow their study’s perspective on nationalism, the sentiments of the Dutch students I interviewed would be located in the spectrum of positive national attitudes, somewhere between national preference and national superiority, since overall they showed attachment to the Netherlands, as a territory where their family and friends are, and as a culture where they appreciate some of its characteristics like straightforwardness and tolerance. Their national knowledge and national involvement is not to the same extent as mine, since we have experienced different national socialization, which begins at a young age and is the State’s attempt of placing positive emotions through national rituals and semiotics whether in reality or television (Dekker, Malovà and Hoogendoorn, 2003). Nevertheless, they still mirror as do I their State’s national education.
This study, however, has depicted national attitudes as black and white for the sake of concrete results, but reality is much more complicated. The Dutch students did show positive connections to their country but also showed harsh criticism and even disgust with regard to some aspects (“just act normal”). It is easy to consider love and hate as antagonistic, indeed they are, but they are also very much related. Indifference in my opinion would be the complete opposite of love. Hating is in a strange way caring, indifference is not caring, and none of the interviewees when deep in conversation showed indifference even though some claimed it; they all discussed and criticized their country and I interpret that as them caring for the Netherlands.
None of the interviewees showed signs of blind nationalism where no criticism is tolerated; they were the ones questioning and criticizing aspects of the Netherlands. Indeed, I would say they are in the range of constructive patriotism, which is attachment to the country because of questioning and criticizing it, which might result in positive change (Schatz, Staub & Levine, 1999), or in other words, a healthy open relationship with the country.
Do Dutch students have a sense of belonging to the Netherlands? After my research I realized that they do. Not because of a natural unconditional love for their country but because of numerous factors, including the role of their circle of affection, the role of the Dutch State, and their own vision on their society and history constructed through personal experiences. The reactions to my questions about their country, their habits, etc. were at first hesitant, but as we went into deeper conversations, most of them opened up and told me they had never thought about these things before, which is absolutely normal since they are so imbedded in their society. As an amateur ethnographer, it pleased me a lot to hear that through my questions I had maybe, just for a short moment, made them question or think about their own vision on ‘being Dutch’.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
[i] Since 2013, with the succession of the crown from Queen Beatrix to her son, Willem-Alexander, the holiday has become King’s Day.
Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Dekker, Henk, Darina Malovà & Sander Hoogendoorn (2003). Nationalism and its explanations. Political Psychology, 24(2): 345-376.
Finlayson, Alan (1998). Nations and nationalism. Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Theories of Nationalism, 4(2): 145-162.
Gellner, Ernest (1983). Nations and nationalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Hobsbawm, Eric (1991). Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schatz, Robert, Ervin Staub & Howard Levine (1999). On the varieties of national attachment: Blind versus constructive patriotism. Political Psychology, 20(1): 151-174.