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The State-formation and Nation-building of the

Netherlands
Firas A. 2007

Contents

1. Introduction ...................................................................................................................... 3

2. Feudalism in the Netherlands ........................................................................................ 4

3. The State-Formation Process .......................................................................................... 5

4. The Nation-Building Process .......................................................................................... 8

5. Nation-State, Nationalism and Mass Democracy ..................................................... 11

6. Conclusion ........................................................................................................................ 13

7. References ......................................................................................................................... 14

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1. Introduction

Concepts such as feudalism, the state of the estates and the numerous religious wars played a
significant role in the process of state-formation and nation-building in Europe in general –
and the Netherlands in particular. Therefore, the main aim of this paper is to examine the
ways in which the Netherlands participated in the great European events and how
internal/external factors contributed to the state-formation and nation-building process of the
Netherlands. In order to ensure a detailed examination of key factors contributing to the state-
formation and nation-building, the time-frame of this paper shall be limited to the early
medieval era until the outbreak of the First World War.

The rough road to the state-formation and nation-building of the Netherlands took numerous
unique turns in history. The Dutch version of the state of estates, the Staten-Generaal, and the
formation of the Dutch Republic are just a few examples of such unique turns. It is interesting
to notice that state and nation are often taken for granted, however they are in fact historical
entities. This means that they came into existence as a result of the interaction of specific
historical events. Therefore it is not impossible for a state or nation to disappear (Rulof,
2007). At this point two questions central to this paper arise: which circumstances contribute
to the formation of sovereign states and which circumstances contribute to the building of
nations?

This paper shall start off by examining the state-formation and nation-building process of the
Netherlands by considering the effects of feudalism on the Netherlands. Here the claim is
made that feudalism and the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics played a vital role in
the state-formation and nation-building process of the Netherlands. Dutch Nationalism on the
other hand emerged in the course of events such as the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648).

In order to ensure a valid discussion on the state-formation and nation-building process of the
Netherlands, important key words need to be defined first. Here the definition of the modern
state put forward by Roberts seems appropriate. According to him what constitutes a modern
state is “the presence of a supreme authority, ruling over a defined territory, which is

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recognized as having power to make decisions in matters of government and is able to enforce
such decisions and generally maintain order within the state” (Caljé, 2007).
The term nation on the other hand always refers to people. It is worth mentioning that the
definition of this term is controversial. However, for the purpose of this paper the definition of
nation put forward by Davies (2005) seems appropriate. According to him the term nation can
only be effectively defined as “a social group whose individual members, being convinced
rightly or wrongly of their common descent and destiny, share that common sense of identity”
(Davies, God's Playground: A history of Poland in Two Volumes, 2005, p. 8).

Please note that whenever referring to the Netherlands, Dutch history or Dutch culture it is
the intention to refer to developments relevant to that region at that time. Thus referring to a
region by calling it the Netherlands does not mean that this region already did represent a
political, linguistic or cultural unity. Calling a specific region the Netherlands therefore
indicates that the region of the present-day Netherlands is being dealt with.

Having established the definition of these key words, the discussion shall now go on to
examine the state-formation and nation-building process of the Netherlands. This examination
shall start by considering which effects feudalism had upon the Dutch state-formation and
nation-building process.

2. Feudalism in the Netherlands

By the 10th century, feudalism had spread to most territories of the former Roman Empire.
Historians often claim that feudalism laid the basis for the emergence of the political culture
of liberalism in Europe. According to Opello and Rosow feudalism was responsible for the
establishment of “political, economic, and social conditions from which the modern territorial
state emerged” (Opello & Rosow, 2004, p. 42). This was due to the organizational nature of
feudalism with respect to social and political structures. Indeed, the political structures
employed today greatly differ from those employed in feudal times. However, to a certain
extent the present political structures do share common basic principles with the feudal
system.

The present-day Netherlands represented one of the provinces of the Roman Empire till the
5th century (J. C. H. Blom, 2006, p. 245). After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area

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became part of the Holy Roman Empire in form of various duchies, dioceses and countships.
The Holy Roman Empire employed a quite sophisticated form of feudalism. This in turn
influenced the course of developments in the territories subject to the rule of the Holy Roman
Empire (e.g. the area of the present-day Netherlands).

The system of feudalism consists of three main elements: lords, vassals and fiefs. The
interaction of these elements represents the system of feudalism. Over time individual vassals
began to proceed increasingly independent of the overall empire. This development set the
very basis for the emergence of primitive counties and independent principalities. Around
1100 AD Holland emerged as one of such counties, regulated by a count (van de Groep,
2004).

With the advent of the French Revolution the formal feudal rights were finally entirely
abolished. The French occupation followed, resulting in Napoleon Bonaparte setting up the
Kingdom of Holland (1806-1810). Due to the fact that significant developments took place
between 1100 and 1648 the following section of this paper shall be dedicated to a detailed
discussion of that time period.

3. The State-Formation Process

The area of the present-day Netherlands came under the control of powerful dynasties such as
the Bavarian, Burgundian and Habsburg. The dukes of Burgundy for example gradually
unified the Netherlands, an accumulation of Dutch- and French-speaking provinces on the
western edge of the German Empire (Brabant, Holland, Flanders etc.). This gradual
unification was part of the Burgundian state-building efforts – which were continued by the
Habsburgs, who inherited the area by marriage (Glete, 2002, p. 20).

Under the Habsburgs, numerous policies encouraging centralization were implemented. Philip
II of Spain had the intention to centralize justice, taxes and the government. Furthermore,
different feudal entities within the region had been united into one state. As the region was
increasingly exposed to centralization, a certain resistance against centralization developed.
This resistance reached a climax under the rule of the Habsburgs, leading to the revolt, which
shall be examined later.

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Charles V’s son, Philip II of Spain, employed mainly absolutist ways of ruling. As a
consequence a number of religious restrictions were imposed. This in turn was another factor
contributing to the emergence of the revolt, which lasted from 1568-1648 (discussed later). In
this context the spread of the Reformation to Western Europe was of great significance. A
large number of suppressed individuals within the Netherlands converted to Protestantism,
which immediately made them dissenters from the viewpoint of the Roman Catholic
Habsburgs. King Philip II, who was well known for the fact that he was a committed Catholic,
was literally horrified by the success of the Reformation. Therefore the reaction of the
Habsburgs was highly undesirable for the Protestants: the religious suppress was further
increased by King Philip II (Üzüm, 2007, p. 51).

Not only, but especially at the southern part of the present-day Netherlands quite considerable
Catholic settlements existed. The inhabitants of these Catholic settlements were free from
abuse and religious suppress by the Catholic Habsburgs. On the other hand, the Protestants
underwent active persecution by Philip II of Spain who was, as mentioned before, a
committed Catholic. Therefore, the rule of the Habsburgs was mainly opposed by Protestants,
increasingly Calvinist, while Catholics were less active in that sense.

This transformed a purely religious clash between the Catholics and the increasingly Calvinist
population of Zeeland, Holland, and Utrecht into a political-religious clash. The tension
between the Catholic Walloons of Hainault, Namur, and Liege and the Dutch-speaking,
Calvinists rose continuously. However, these were not the only clashing communities. The
wealthy burghers and fishermen of the coastal towns contrasted sharply with the feudal
aristocracy of the countryside (Davies, Europe: A History, 1997, p. 536).

What finally led to the revolt was a combination of factors. As mentioned above, the attempts
of Philip II of Spain to enforce religious persecution of the Protestants played a major role in
triggering the revolt. His intentions to centralize justice, taxes and the government further
worsened the situation, leaving him highly unpopular amongst the Dutch population. At this
point the revolt seemed inevitable (Davies, Europe: A History, 1997).

While up until the 1560s the policies employed by the Habsburgs seemed very successful, the
government suddenly found itself in a highly problematic situation. In 1548 the practical

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separation of the Habsburg Netherlands from the rest of the Empire was conducted by Charles
V. In doing so, he and his son Philip II behaved like typical state-building rulers of this age.
This becomes obvious considering their main intentions to gradually gain greater control over
this economically very important area (Glete, 2002, p. 20).

In 1568 the failure of the centralizing policy of the Habsburgs was clearly evident in form of
the rise of the Dutch Revolt. Thus, what initially started out as a religious conflict and part of
the European struggle between Catholics and Protestants, quickly developed into an open
revolt. Philip II rapidly found himself in a situation unable to handle his Dutch problems with
political expertise. The situation was worsened as even those who regarded themselves as
moderate Catholics and loyal to the ruler went against Philip II of Spain. The main reason for
this can be found, again, considering Philip’s attempts to proceed with state-formation and
centralization (Glete, 2002, p. 152)

By 1574-75, it was clear that Philip had failed to establish a centralized, monarchic fiscal-
military state. His own army was in revolt due to his inability to pay. Further attempts to
restore his power in the time period between 1580 and 1600 failed. This was due to internal
politics, which from 1585 made England an ally of the young republic. The revolt, which had
started in 1568 under Prince William of Orange, ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the
Peace of Westphalia, granting the Netherlands the recognition by Spain as an independent
state under the name of the Republic of the United Provinces. With this 80 years of warfare
finally came to an end (J. C. H. Blom, 2006, p. 55).

According to Gorski, Dutch nationalism emerged in the course of the Dutch Revolt against
Spain. The nationalism was “directed against the Habsburgs’ policy of administrative
penetration and was reinforced by the confessional conflict between Dutch Calvinism and
Catholicism”. Gorski also mentions the fact that during the conflict Dutch historians, song-
writers, pamphleteer and ministers drew on “on symbols and stories of the Old Testament” to
justify their resistance to Habsburg rule (Zimmer, 1996, pp. 16-17).

Thus, it can be said that religion was a primary factor in the state-formation process of the
Netherlands. After all, it was the revolt of Protestant subjects against the Roman Catholic

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Habsburg that triggered the greater (open) Dutch Revolt, leading to the formation of the
Republic of the United Provinces.

4. The Nation-Building Process

The newly emerged Republic of the United Provinces consisted of seven sovereign provinces:
Groningen, Zeeland, Gelderland, Holland, Utrecht, Overijssel and Friesland. The political
elites of the Dutch Republic were predominantly Calvinist. This resulted in the partial
discrimination against Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Jews and Protestant dissenters. Thus
while freedom of conscience existed, equality with regards to public rights was lacking
(Davies, Europe: A History, 1997, p. 596).

The numerous Catholic provinces were governed by a Calvinist Staten-Generaal. The Staten-
Generaal was a body of delegates representing the United Provinces, and therefore a key-
institution of the Republic on a central level. It was the meeting point of representatives of the
seven provinces. The representatives made decisions on the basis of what was previously
discussed with the States of their province. As mentioned above, the Staten-Generaal was
overwhelmingly Calvinist. This was reason enough for Protestant dissenters or non-Calvinists
in general, to believe that the Dutch Republic was not legitimate enough. Hence, non-
Calvinists (Catholics, Protestant dissenters etc.) only identified weakly with the new Dutch
Republic. As a consequence Dutch identity and consciousness was severely weakened during
that time period (Knippenberg, Dutch Nation-Building: A Struggle Against the Water?, 1997,
pp. 28-31).

The Republic had a clearly decentralized structure, where localities and cities were nearly
autonomous. The Dutch Reformed Church ruled in matters of marriage, poverty relief and
education. In contrast to this, members of other religious groups were discriminated against –
prohibiting them to become employed in the governmental sector. The state became
increasingly associated with Calvinism. This explains the further detachment of the southern
population (mainly Roman Catholic) from the state. Hence, it follows that particularly non-
Calvinist communities in the Netherlands did not feel very Dutch, nor did they much national
consciousness. A different outcome would have been difficult to imagine, considering that
non-Calvinists were seen as second-class citizens (J. C. H. Blom, 2006, pp. 57-226).

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The approach to the concept of the nation in the Netherlands changed in the course of the late
18th and early19th century. The reason for this was the modernization process which had
started with the advent of the Napoleonic invasions. More accurately, the process started in
1795, when the Netherlands was occupied by French revolutionary forces. In this process the
Batavian Republic (1795-1804) was founded, replacing the Dutch Republic and making the
Netherlands a vassal state of France. In the same year the Netherlands became a French-style
centralist nation-state (Üzüm, 2007, p. 58).

In 1806 however, Napoleon Bonaparte transformed the Batavian Republic into the Kingdom
of Holland. The short-lived Kingdom of Holland lasted only from 1804 until 1810, with Louis
Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, as king. In 1810 the Kingdom of Holland was annexed by
France, as the interests of the Dutch – which Louis followed – collided with the interests of
the French (Heslinga, 2007, p. 2205). After the withdrawal of the French from the
Netherlands in 1813, the basis of a modern, centralized nation-state was left behind (Postma,
2007, p. 1).

In 1815 the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created during the Congress of Vienna.
The remarkable detail about the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was the fact that it was
established on the basis of the equal citizenship principle. Thus the legal discrimination due to
religious/ethnical reasons (discussed earlier in this paper) came to an end. Based on the idea
of the sovereignty of people, all citizens were granted equal rights. Furthermore, the former
communal citizenship was replaced by state citizenship and a national legislation was
developed (Postma, 2007, p. 2). This point in history can be said to have marked the
introduction of civic nationalism into the Netherlands (Knippenberg, Dutch Nation-Building:
A Struggle Against the Water?, 1997, p. 30).

The Dutch nation turned into a voluntary association after the emergence of the United
Kingdom of the Netherlands. This refers to the fact that citizens were given equal rights and
that any individual, regardless of ethnic or religious background, was able to join the Dutch
nation. Only precondition was the individuals’ allegiance to the state. Thus the nation-
membership was not tied to religion or ethnicity anymore, but rather rested on the common
principles of individuals.

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Thus it is safe to assume that the French occupation had a significant impact upon the state-
formation and nation-building of the Netherlands. It was the establishment of the Kingdom of
Holland by Napoleon Bonaparte that ended the legal discrimination against non-Protestant
individuals – resulting in the redefinition of the Dutch nation. One of the original aims of the
newly established Kingdom of Holland was to provide Dutch unity. In contrast, preceding the
19th century, a clearly established Dutch consciousness was barely evident (Üzüm, 2007, p.
54)

In the case of the Netherlands, the Dutch state-formation had preceded Dutch nation-building.
Only after the Dutch state had been established in the 17th century, did the nation-building
process begin. It is true that the Calvinist Church did provide some degree of unity. However
this consciousness was far too limited to be considered a broad national feeling. The
development of a common culture and the replacement of the Calvinist Church by the Dutch
State however can be considered to have been a rather unifying force (Postma, 2007, p. 6)

Contrary to what has been stated in this paper, it is sometimes claimed that the Dutch nation
already existed in the 13th century. This however is a popular misconception, which is also
easily identified as such, considering any description of Netherland’s early history. The
misconception is best described by the claim that “Europe’s later nations must already have
existed in embryo in the medieval period” “…yet this was not so. In the case of the low
countries familiar terms such as Holland, Dutch, and Netherlands all possessed different
connotations from those which they later acquired” (Davies, Europe: A History, 1997, p.
379). Therefore it would be highly problematic to speak of nation states at any stage during
the 13th century.

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5. Nation-State, Nationalism and Mass Democracy

After a very turbulent period of rebellion and occupation in 1800 the nation-state of the
Netherlands came into being. Only in the course of the 19th and 20th century did the
population of the Netherlands start to develop into citizens. The Dutch government employed
mainly three ways to bind its citizens to the government: taxation, compulsory education and
military service.

Teaching children Christian values and morals was thought to stabilize the newly established
state. In association with this, the law of 1807, granting Catholics the right to function as
teachers, was of great importance. A system of regional/local inspectors was established
encouraging most parents to send their children to public schools. According to Schama, the
primary school system employed in the Netherlands to that time was the most modern in
Europe. He also states that the Netherlands had one of the highest literacy rates in Europe.
However, in some areas regional differences with regards to literacy rates were quite high
(Schama, 1970, p. 588).

The Dutch government also introduced the collection of direct taxes from citizens in order to
further tie them to the national state. Due to obligations to the state, local authorities also
became more dependent on the central government. Thus, the primary goal of the state was to
establish law, order and stability. Later the economic well being of the state came into the
spotlight. In that sense the liberation of the transportation of people and goods was a
significant step forward. Due to first economical and later ethical reasons, in the 1850s the
government also started to focus on social problems (Postma, 2007, p. 6).

The political unification of the Netherlands was prompted by the governmental penetration of
public life through regulations and laws. However, this behavior incurred tremendous
(monetary) costs to the government. This can be illustrated considering the hundred-fold
increase of expenditure per person between 1850 and 1960. Also the number of people
working for the government increased from 45.000 in 1900 to 200.000 in 1960 (Kraemer,
1966, p. 55).

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In 1848 an important step was taken: the country became a parliamentary democracy with a
constitutional monarch. The revolutions of 1848 can be said to have persuaded William II to
agree to the aforementioned step. Indeed, in this case King William II’s decision was based on
foreign rather than internal developments. The final step, turning the Netherlands into a
constitutional monarchy, was the conclusion of the by Thorbecke rewritten constitution. After
the document was proclaimed valid in November 1848, the government was solely
accountable to an elected parliament, limiting the king’s power and protecting civil liberties
(Heslinga, 2007, p. 2154).

According to Wels three percent of the population was allowed to vote. To that time the
Netherlands was divided in sixty-eight different districts, while each district retained
approximately 45.000 inhabitants. The decreasing importance of the regional, in comparison
to the national level, can be illustrated considering the fact that in 1917 the district system was
replaced by a system of proportional representation. In the same year of 1917 universal male
suffrage was introduced. Only five years later, in 1922, the right to vote for women older than
twenty-five was granted. This achievement can be associated with the efforts of feminist
movement leaders such as Mina Kruseman, Aletta Jacobs, and Wilhelmina Drucker (J. C. H.
Blom, 2006, p. 421).

Another considerable achievement of that time period emerged out of the protest against the
new School Law. This movement, lead by Abraham Kuiper, united Protestants and Catholics
into the first national political party of that country: the Anti-Revolutionary party. Thus the
regional stubbornness was finally overcome with the help of the school debate, which was a
national issue (concerning a large part of the population). The school debate, which dealt with
the emancipation of the Christian education, encouraged people to unite their forces. This was
done in form of the creation of the Anti-School Law League (Postma, 2007, p. 8).

In 1882 the Social Democratic Alliance was formed, whereas just three years before, in 1885,
the first national Liberal society of local clubs was formed. In the last quarter of the 19th
century the population increasingly started to participate in nation-wide issues such as social
problems, the right to vote and schooling. This active participation in nation-wide issues was
facilitated by certain improvements in infrastructure.

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Due to the decreased price of the postal service, magazines found their way to a greater
number of individuals. The key to the success was the spread of news and ideas about
political strikes and actions, which in turn activated readers. According to Knippenberg, this
resulted in the regional/local orientation being replaced by a national or even international
orientation (especially amongst socialists).

This can be proven considering the fact that national favorites of the people were chosen even
in communal elections. In the year of 1986 for example, the decision to vote for a candidate
did barely depend on his or her local political programme – but rather on the degree of fame
of that particular candidate. On the other hand, in the 19th century the representatives in
parliaments were mainly elected due to regional interests (Knippenberg, De Eenwording van
Nederland: Schaalvergroting, 1988, p. 157). The contrast between the decisive factors in
elections in the aforementioned time periods could not have been more significant.

6. Conclusion

Clearly, the numerous religious conflicts (especially between Protestants and Catholics)
played a major role in the state-formation and nation-building process of the Netherlands. The
Dutch Revolt for example would have been difficult to imagine without the initial religious
conflicts. Without the Dutch Revolt, the independence from the Spanish Habsburgs would not
have been achieved. This in turn would have meant the absence of the Republic of the United
Provinces, hence the absence of a state. Furthermore, the claim made in the introduction that
the Dutch Revolt played a major role in the creation of Dutch Nationalism was confirmed.
The French Revolution on the other hand also played a very significant role in the Dutch
state-formation and nation-building process. After the withdrawal of the French from the
Netherlands in 1813, the basis of a modern, centralist nation-state was left behind. This in turn
favored the emergence of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which can be strongly
associated with the elimination of legal discrimination based on ethnical and religious
reasons. Communal citizenship was replaced by state citizenship in similar fashion, causing
the introduction of civic nationalism and the establishment of a national legislation. Thus as
evident from discussion above and indicated in the introduction, the Netherlands underwent a
truly unique succession of events until it became the nation-state as we know it today.

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7. References

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