Netherlands Overlooks Past as Wilders Tops Polls

Few nations have such an uneasy relationship with their World War Two past than the Netherlands. As with the Germans and the Japanese, the majority of the Dutch people tend to look upon this period of history with regret, if not shame.

The Dutch had their Nazi equivalent, the unoriginally named Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB) (National Socialist Movement), a fringe party that secured a best of 300,000 votes in the 1935 election. Their leader was Anton Mussert, a vile if pragmatic fascist who realised that his only means of wielding any kind of power was to first encourage and then to assist a German invasion.

Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on
Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on

Mussert got his wish in May 1940 when the Wehrmacht invaded the neutral Netherlands, with the Luftwaffe almost obliterating Rotterdam in a simultaneous bombing blitz.

The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis
The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis

Hitler, who did not reciprocate Mussert’s adoration of him, humoured the NSB leader by giving him responsibility for quelling Dutch resistance to the invasion. Whilst he was eventually named ‘Leader of the Dutch People’ by Hitler in 1942 – the Dutch ‘Leider’ coincidentally translating into the German for ‘Unfortunately’ – Mussert never governed, with the Fuhrer preferring instead the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his Reichskommissar in the Netherlands.

Where Mussert was more useful was in his rounding up and deportation of thousands of Dutch Jews. He had help, however, and it is here where the Dutch historical guilt lies.

With Queen Wilhelmina leading a government-in-exile in London, many Dutch people unable or unwilling to flee their homeland had a difficult choice. Take up a potentially futile resistance against Nazi occupation, or collaborate with their new German overlords? History suggests that the vast majority took the latter course, creating one of the most collaborationist regimes of the war.

Whilst acts of bravery and heroism occurred – particularly the harbouring of Jews by Dutch families – the Nazis had little difficulty in compelling complicity from their new subjects. Dutch Jews were deported and murdered in their thousands, a repressive Gestapo state was established, and some Dutch men even fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam
Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam

Fanatics like Mussert – who was executed at The Hague for high treason in 1946 – can be easily dismissed. The actions (or lack thereof) of the average man and woman on the street, on the other hand, are hard to overlook. Given the minority support for the NSB prior to WWII, it suggests that few Dutch people shared their extremist and racist views. Yet thousands still collaborated with the Nazis.

This being so, it is somewhat surprising that the far right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the populist and controversial Islamophobe Geert Wilders, is threatening to top polls in the Dutch election on the 15th March.

Using slogans such as ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ and ‘The Netherlands is Ours’, Wilders has ridden a populist wave in Europe and the West that is demanding an overthrow of the established liberal order.

Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda
Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda

Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has initiated a last-ditch plea to court a restless public increasingly sceptical of open borders an EU interference. ‘Act normal, or go away’ Rutte declared in an open letter published in a national newspaper. His cries smack of desperation, having lost significant ground to the PVV in recent months.

That Wilders is a man possessing beliefs and rhetoric not incomparable with the fascist leaders of WWII is obviously worrying. The Dutch people seem to have forgotten their not too distant past, focusing instead on current grievances that populists such as Wilders promise can be fixed with a healthy dose of nationalism and xenophobia.

Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands
Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands

There are undoubted concerns across Europe over uncontrolled immigration, the bureaucratisation imposed by Brussels and the weakness of some of the newer EU member states. The victory for Brexit in the UK and the rise of the National Front in France are testament to this.

Still, some perspective must be gained. Demanding change should not go hand-in-hand with racist and hostile politics, scaremongering or turning a blind eye to existing inequalities.

The Dutch more than most should recognise this given their experiences in WWII. Memories can fade and collective responsibility may be rejected or conveniently forgotten, but the dark stains of the past persist within the national identity.

It is fortunate that Wilders and the PVV are unlikely to be able to form the coalition government that they will surely require. Similar hopes must be held for the rest of the Europe, where a populist, nationalist resurgence is looming large.

To think that history cannot be repeated is a dangerous and delusional sentiment. Europe has been warned.

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One Belt, One Road: Barking Next Stop for China’s ‘New Silk Road’

‘One Belt, One Road’. This is the slogan of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark development strategy to create a new, twin-pronged ‘Silk Road’ between China and Europe.

One Belt, One Road as initially conceived
One Belt, One Road as initially conceived

It resurrects the halcyon early days of Eurasian integration when overland routes were established between the Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia and the capitals of Europe, passing through multiple cities whose fortunes prospered as trade flourished.

Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Kandahar, Tehran, Baghdad, Palmyra, Lanzhou. All these names once threw up images of medieval wealth, with their fabulous spires, learned universities and libraries, powerful overlords and multicultural marketplaces. Alas, most are now known for wholly different reasons.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The originator of the Silk Road of antiquity was the Han Dynasty, who traded the eponymous luxury (in addition to many other goods) across its vast empire and beyond from the 2nd century BC until its fall in the 3rd century AD. Whilst it survived in various incarnations, the route best known to history was at its strongest during the so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ and here it is worth quoting at length from the eminent J.H. Parry:

In the great days of the Mongol Khans much Chinese merchandise destined for Europe had travelled overland on the backs of camels and donkeys by many different caravan routes, to termini in the ports of the Levant and the Black Sea; and European merchants, not infrequently, had themselves travelled with their goods by these routes. Flourishing Italian merchant colonies had grown up at the principal termini, at Constantinople and Pera, its commercial suburb; at Tana (Azof); at Caffa in the Crimea and at other Black Sea ports. In the fourteenth century Pegolotti’s safe route to Peking became exceedingly unsafe and European travel to the east came to an end. The overland routes in general declined in importance, not only because of political disturbance, but from the same physical causes which kept the predatory nomads on the move. Progressive desiccation in the lands of central Asia made pasture unreliable. The flow of merchandise overland diminished, and the ancient towns through which the caravans passed became impoverished. (Parry, 1963, p.56)

The Silk Road of the Middle Ages
The Silk Road of the Middle Ages

The final death knell in the coffin of the Silk Road was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with European states and merchants no longer able to possess a foothold in the Middle East, let alone a launchpad for Asian trade.

Now, the Barking Rail Freight Terminal in London is waiting to become the 15th destination on the ‘New Silk Route, a Chinese freight train expected in the coming days. Overland trade is being re-popularised, a cheaper alternative to air freight, a safer and quicker alternative to the sea. It forms one strand of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the other to create a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ between China, India, the Middle East and Africa.

For the countries of Central Asia, decimated by first the Russian Empire and then the ravages of Soviet rule, it is an opportunity to reinvent themselves and potentially recapture some of their past glory. Simultaneously it offers China a chance to increase both its economic and political influence in regions where the US footprint is light at best. What Russia thinks is another matter.

It is unlikely that China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ will captivate the popular imagination in the same way that the Silk Road of old does, yet it is nevertheless a proactive step by the Chinese government to integrate a giant landmass in a way not seen for centuries.

Xi's seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted
Xi’s seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted

What the geopolitical consequences of this bold venture will be cannot yet be known, but it certainly goes some way to undermining critics who view China as an insular power unwilling to responsibly use its ascending role on the global stage.

Source

Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance (1963)

Beckery Chapel Monasticism and the Legend of King Arthur

Last May, archaeologists excavated seven skeletons at Beckery Chapel near Glastonbury in Somerset. Radicoarbon dating suggests that the male remains are from the 5th or early 6th century and were found at a site where a further 50 to 60 skeletons were uncovered in the 1960s.

earliest-english-monastery-5_1200
One of the skeletons in the monastic cemetery at Beckery Chapel

It is believed that the site is that of a monastic cemetery and is the earliest evidence of monastic life in the UK. The discovery is particularly significant given that legend claims Beckery Chapel to have been visited by the mythical King Arthur himself, one of the most fabled kings in British history and an early embodiment of English national identity.

Whether King Arthur was based on a real-life monarch, was the amalgam of several heroic historic characters, or simply a fabrication by medieval chroniclers seeking to espouse an ideal ‘Englishness’ of character is unclear. However nearby Glastonbury Abbey is heavily associated with Arthurian legend, with Glastonbury Hill often seen as the location of the mythical Avalon.

burne-jones_last_sleep_of_arthur_in_avalon
The Last Sleep of King Arthur at Avalon

Contemporary chronicler Gildas had written of the heroic but failed resistance of one Ambrosius Aurelianus, ‘King of Britain’, against an invading Saxon horde around 500AD. The story was further embellished in the eighth century by the Bede, that most venerable of monks, and then by the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 9th century. This appears to have been the foundation of the Arthurian legend.

The Venerable Bede is the main source for much Anglo-Saxon history
The Venerable Bede is the main source for much Anglo-Saxon history

Not until Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings of the mid-12th century did the saga of King Arthur take a clear form and in the 1170s French chronicler Chretien de Troyes added to the mix ideas of chivalry, knightly tournaments and the Holy Grail.

The ruling Angevin kings tried to claim descent from Arthur whose body (and that of his wife Guinevere) was ‘discovered’ at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191. From thereon many of England’s rulers would claim to be the ‘true heir’ of this benevolent king, however dubious the evidence surrounding his purported life and death.

Medieval depiction of King Arthur and Guinevere
Medieval depiction of King Arthur and Guinevere

‘The legend of Arthur as overlord of all Britain provided a foundation for assertions of English hegemony – or hegemony by whichever Norman, French or half-French ruler sat on England’s throne’. (Tombs, p.17)

Mythology often plays a central role in the founding stories of nations and, to an extent, its failure to be corroborated by historical evidence is irrelevant such is its power over the popular imagination. This is significant, for referencing popular legends in relation to historic discoveries can help draw attention to something that would otherwise be largely overlooked, consigned to the realm of academic journals.

The revelation of this early monasticism is undoubtedly important, for it marks a central place in the history of Christianity in the UK, a force of both unity and destruction for more than 1500 years.

King Arthur probably never existed. Yet his legend, rather than being a distraction from history actually enhances its worth in the public realm by drawing the attention of people to subjects they might not otherwise give a second thought to.

It is not always important how we introduce people to history, even if it is by means that some crusty old scholars might consider deceptive. After all, how often do the ‘facts’ of the past turn out to be as fabulous and nonsensical as the myths that are equally-important in shaping our national identities?

Glastonbury Abbey, inextricably linked to Arthurian legend
Glastonbury Abbey, inextricably linked to Arthurian legend

Source

Tombs, R. The English and Their History (2014)