Velvet Revolution?

Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780-1813

by Simon Schama
Knopf, 745 pp., $20.00

“No scholar cares much to keep company with calamity for long.” Thus Dr. Schama explains the paucity of studies of the Dutch age of catastrophe when the Netherlands were successively defeated at sea by England in 1784, invaded by Prussians in 1787, by the Russians and by the French in 1795, bankrupted, robbed of their colonies, and finally turned into a Department of Napoleon’s Empire. Small wonder that this “time of troubles” is not the most popular subject of historians, though distinguished specialized studies of it have been written by H.T. Colenbrander and Peter Geyl, and (more recently) by I. Leonard Leeb and C.H.E. de Wit.

Dr. Schama’s very long (his own words are “indecently corpulent”), detailed but eloquent book is justified, in his view, by a revised interpretation of the importance of the reforming Patriot movement that arose in the 1780s, of the Batavian Republic set up after French troops entered the Netherlands in 1795, and of the “French times” that followed. What apparently started for Dr. Schama as a study of the French Revolution as it was mirrored in Dutch history ended as an autonomous study of the Dutch “revolution” itself. More than that, his bold theory of the specifically Dutch contribution to their own later development after 1813 takes unequivocal form. “…[I]t seems incontestable that the Dutch monarchy of the nineteenth century, conservative before 1848 and liberal after it, was not merely preceded but caused by the Batavian Republic and its successor Kingdom. The origins of the second Dutch state are to be found…in the travail and tribulations recorded in this history” (p. 648, Dr. Schama’s italics).

What were these tribulations? They were manifold and pervasive, penetrating the very underpinnings of Dutch political, economic, and social life, and they had been festering, politically, since 1747 when the republican party lost power and Willem IV of the House of Orange became hereditary Stadholder, or ruling official, in all of the seven Dutch provinces. Economically and socially they had been festering much, much longer. Dr. Schama is not primarily concerned with the economic history of a declining Netherlands; his is a sophisticated “total” view of the origin of the troubles. He accordingly takes full account of those recent researches into Netherlands economic history (e.g., those of Professors Johan de Vries and A.M. van der Woude) which have substituted for the older view of over-all economic decline a less cataclysmic and more relative view.

Traditional Dutch industry was in a poor way; trade static or worse. But agriculture was expansive and buoyant, and finance, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. (Dr. Buist, in a recent history of Hope’s bank, has concluded that the Dutch came out of their “troubles” with much more of their extensive overseas investments intact than used to be thought.)

Not a happy picture but certainly not one of gloom and catastrophe so unrelieved as to “explain” the discontent and “revolution” that were gathering to a climax. There was a “social dimension” to the troubles,…

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