National Identities

The Party for Freedom (PVV) here in the Netherlands, with its political leader Geert Wilders, demands strict measures against immigrants: itself sheltering criminals among its parliamentarians, it presents them as a safety risk for “ordinary Dutch citizens”. It demands that foreigners, especially if they are “non-white,” should assimilate and adapt to Dutch culture at break-neck speed, or else pack up and leave. But what is this supposedly monolithic and static national culture, in Holland and elsewhere? Migration is not a new phenomenon and often, immigrants have played an influential and constructive role in different sectors of society, such as economics and culture.

The 17th century was economically and culturally Holland’s Golden Age. The percentage of immigrants in the Netherlands was about the same as it is now. One quarter to one half of all the sailors, soldiers and other employees of the Dutch colonial VOC (East-Indies Trading Company) fleet were from foreign countries. Many of the “Dutch” national figures or their offspring were immigrants themselves: philosophers Descartes (France) and Spinoza (Portugal), the great writer Joost van den Vondel (present-day Germany), painters such as Frans Hals and Gerard de Lairesse (Flanders), Govert Flinck and Caspar Netscher (Germany). These men are all considered protagonists of Dutch national culture. Many of the people in the parliament/government now who are concerned with the cultural assimilation of immigrants are they themselves descendants of immigrated foreigners.