The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century
History of the Low Countries: Episodes and Problems
As an historian, Pieter Geyl has two claims to distinction. The first is as the author of a major reappraisal of Dutch history in the heroic period of the late sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, and the other is as a shrewd and pugnacious commentator on the methods of other historians, alive and dead. He is, for example, the most damaging, though not the most acidulated, critic of the metaphysical speculations dressed up as history put about by Arnold Toynbee, concluding with a wealth of supporting evidence and argument that “the whole imposing work is a travesty of the scientific method.” The books under review are the last two of his three-volume history of the Netherlands (first published in Dutch thirty years ago and now fully translated into English), and a collection of essays on select topics of Dutch history over the past four hundred years, including, for reasons which will appear in a moment, an attack on the philosophical attitudes of Mr. E. H. Carr.
Some years ago Geyl wrote: “History cannot be conceived, and it cannot be written or communicated, except from a point of view conditioned by the circumstances of the historian. One can even argue that, humans being what they are, history can benefit by a close contact of the historian’s imagination, or awareness, with contemporary life.” The thirteen months Mr. Geyl spent in the Buchenwald concentration camp are ample testimony to his involvement in current issues, and it was a passionately held belief which inspired his major reassessment of the history of the Netherland over the last four hundred years.
Geyl is a European, to whom the grandiose visions of proponents of universal history like Geoffrey Barraclough are both meaningless and unhistorical. The key to his achievement lies in the fact that he is a Flemish nationalist, who finds it impossible to accept as natural or inevitable the political division of the Dutch-speaking peoples. This basic premise allowed him to look at the sixteenth-century evolution of the Netherlands in quite a new light. In the middle of the sixteenth century the accident of dynastic marriage and inheritance had placed under the Spanish crown a loose agglomeration of provinces and cities, some French-speaking and some Dutch, collectively known as the Netherlands. A few years later an armed revolt began which eventually resulted in the division of the area into Belgium and Holland as we know them today. As interpreted by Geyl, this revolt of the Northern Provinces against the rule of Spain ceased to be a heroic struggle for political independence and religious freedom by a people in arms, as it had been to historians like Motley and Fruin. It became the work of a tiny but resolute minority imposing its views upon an inert or hostile majority.
For reasons of geographical convenience, a band of Calvinist desperadoes—mostly exiles from the south—chose to set up their headquarters in the north behind the river barriers. There they dug in, held down the Catholic majority by force of arms, found themselves a wily politique of a leader in William the Silent, the head of the noble house of Orange, and grew rich. As late as 1624 a quarter of the population was still reckoned to be Catholic. The political division between north and south did not represent a linguistic or cultural or religious division, for Flanders and Brabant, which were Dutch speaking and had been the main centers of Protestantism, were left behind the Spanish lines. The division was thus merely one of strategic convenience, the line of military stalemate along the waterways. Mr. Geyl concludes that “it is because the rivers enabled the rebellion to entrench itself in the North, while Spain recovered the provinces situated on the wrong side of the strategic barrier, that in course of time there sprang into existence the dual system of the Protestant Northern Republic and the Catholic Southern Netherlands, of Protestant Holland and Catholic Belgium.”
This interpretation, which is undoubtedly correct, may seem reasonable to us today, when military lines divide Germany and Korea and two different cultures and ideologies consolidate themselves behind them. But Geyl advanced his thesis over thirty years ago, in the heyday of concepts of natural frontiers and national self-determination, when the idea that a nation might be an artificial construct was not merely immoral but unthinkable. The thesis was consequently inspired not by grim acceptance of the power of the sword, but by a denial of its efficacy to obliterate the cultural identity of the Dutchspeaking peoples. It recognized, however, that history can be thrown off what might be regarded as its normal course by unforeseen catastrophe. This leads Geyl into sharp conflict with the philosophical position adopted by E. H. Carr. Because of his loyalty to frustrated Flemish nationalism, he finds it impossible to accept Carr’s teleological dictum: “It is the sense of direction in history which alone enables us to order and interpret the events of the past.” He rejects the notion that the historian should write “as if what happened was in fact bound to happen, and as if it was his business simply to explain what happened and why.” This brutal pragmatism is rejected by Geyl, rightly in my opinion. He agrees that history is an unending struggle of opposing forces, but believes that the losers always contribute something to the culture of the winners, and that a denial of the possibility of choice in history not only robs it of much of its instructiveness for the present, but also deprives the historian of an understanding of its true complexity.
Given the premise of an artificial division of the Dutch-speaking peoples, the next question which had to be answered, and is dealt with in the volumes under review, is why the line of division remained virtually unchanged for such a very long time. It did not move north because first Spain and then France lacked the military resources and skill to break through the heavily defended water-barriers against a United Provinces whose wealth could in a crisis be mobilized to pay for a large army of mercenaries. The stability of the line was decisively influenced by the fact that the seventeenth century was a time when the art of war was in one of its static phases, when defensive techniques far outstripped offensive capabilities. The line did not move south partly because so many of the Dutch generals were overcautious, but also because the urban oligarchs (the regents) of Holland and Zealand, particularly of Amsterdam, did not greatly want it to. So long as it remained where it was, the great port of Antwerp was strangled by Dutch control of the mouth of the river Scheldt. A re-united Antwerp would be free to trade again and so would gravely threaten the prosperity of the more northerly ports.
The United Provinces were floated and maintained by the unparalleled economic prosperity of the area, and particularly of Amsterdam. Their ships carried two-thirds of the freight of the Baltic and much of the French and English export trade in Europe, and the city became the center of world trade and world banking. But, as Geyl is careful, and in some ways proud, to point out, Holland lacked a solid industrial base. The prosperity therefore depended on the maintenance of the freedom of the seas—except the Scheldt—and the freedom to trade—except for others in the Dutch East Indies; these were principles which would have to be fought for in an increasingly mercantilist Europe.
The Dutch in the seventeenth century were the richest nation in the world. As such they were naturally not loved, even by such co-religionaries as the English, and they were therefore forced into a series of prolonged wars against jealous rivals, first Spain, then England, and lastly France. An important feature of Geyl’s revisionism is a shift in the balance of historical sympathy away from the House of Orange, which provided the hereditary, military and political leadership, and back to the burgher oligarchs. He sees a prosperous, cultivated, civilian bourgeoisie forced to fight war after war to defend its economic interests. To win, it was forced to give power to a military-political complex with a vested interest in aggressive war. To Geyl, the true interest of the United Provinces was commercial expansion, provincial particularism, religious toleration, and political control by the regents, not the military adventurism, centralization, and dogmatic Calvinism promoted by the House of Orange.
In the end the war effort was more than the United Provinces could bear. England found that she could not defeat Holland commercially by fighting her; but she succeeded perhaps accidentally, in doing so by allying with her in the endless wars against Louis XIV. Not for the last time in history, the alliance of a small and a large country to fight a powerful enemy had the principal result of transferring economic leadership from the small ally to the large, while leaving the enemy largely unaffected in the long run.
Apart from the strain of war with France and the growing competition of England, Dutch economic leadership was also weakened by a shift of psychological attitudes, a withdrawal from the aggressive risk-taking, characteristic of the Dutch East India Company in its early days, and a transfer of capital to less spectacular, more prudent, investments in finance and banking. It was a shift, perhaps an inevitable shift, not so much from the robber baron to the organization man, as from the entrepreneur to the accountant. It was accompanied by a closing of the avenues of social mobility by new regulations and new practices which turned the existing oligarchs into a hereditary clique sharing out between them the offices and resources of town and province. This shutting off of the openings for new talent accelerated the decline in both culture and economic pre-eminence.
Written as it was three decades ago, Geyl’s work has inevitably a somewhat dated air today. An historian of the present generation would have begun with a closer analysis of the origins, aspirations, economic interests, and religious opinions of the dominant regent class, supported by statistical and genealogical data. He would have tackled head-on the problem of why capitalism flourished the way it did in the northern provinces. Was it generated by the transfer of capital and entrepreneurial expertise from Antwerp; was it a byproduct of the Calvinist ethic; was it simply a result of geographical location? He would have illustrated the growth of Dutch trade and banking with graphs and tables. He would have looked much more closely at the web of patronage, corruption, and nepotism in official circles.
It can be argued that Geyl tends to under-emphasize the ruthless egotism and selfish class and provincial feeling of the burgher oligarchs. “In this great town where apart from myself there dwells no one who is not engaged in trades, everyone is so much out for his own advantage that I should be able to live my whole life without ever meeting a mortal being.’ Thus Descartes on seventeenth-century Amsterdam, a verdict dismissed by Mr. Geyl as “ludicrous.” Exaggerated, yes, but hardly ludicrous. Again, there is more to be said for the persistent Orange drive towards a stronger central authority and a wider view of the national interest, more for the mellowing cultural impact of the Orange court at the Hague, than Mr Geyl will allow. To demonstrate his point, he has striven to minimize the difference between the social structures of mid-seventeenth century Holland and of Flanders, the aesthetic ideals of Rembrandt and Rubens. He tends to regard French influence on Dutch culture as somehow evil and destructive, and he exaggerates the economic torpor of the Spanish Netherlands.
When all is said and done, however, Mr. Geyl has produced one of the most successful and enduring synoptic surveys of a European national civilization in its prime that has ever been written. His revolutionary thesis about the creation and development of his country has stood up well to the passage of time and is now one of the accepted dogmas of history. His essays on historiography are always clear, provocative, and exciting. He inspires his readers to believe—rightly or wrongly—that history is the key intellectual pursuit for mid-twentieth century western man. To few historians is it given to achieve so much.