It’s Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806
This is a heavy book – over eleven hundred pages, with narrative chapters; chapters on social history, architecture, art and the economy. It’s not easy reading. I only picked it up because in 1672 the dutch killed and ate their prime minister, and that seemed like an idea worth exploring.
Seriously, it’s a dry book, detailed enough to get lost in but fast enough to not burst into life at the more colourful events (of which dutch history has many). Dutch history is the history of a rich and complex society about which most of Britain (including myself) now knows much less than it should. I’ve previously struggled with Lisa Jardine’s book on the topic. I thought I would focus on a few things that did come across strongly.
- Being from Northern Ireland, I’d happily leave William of Orange alone – but he’s actually a fascinating character. Manipulative, populist and authoritarian. His rise feels like something from a much later period of history (Napoleon III?).
- In fact the whole of dutch history feels like something from a much later period – with a necessary focus on party politics, economics and industry. I’m not sure you can get away with a Great Man approach to history here.
- Dutch history seems to be a constant series of division and factionalism: north/south, catholic/protestant, rural/urban, coastal/inland, republican/Orangist, the Reformed church vs Arminius, religious tolerance vs repression.
- There’s an oddly familiar feel to the Dutch Republic. Liberal, but only in part. It manages to create and house free-thinkers like Spinoza and Descartes, and then force them out or keep them quiet when they go too far.
- The strength of the Republic feels constantly precarious, and despite the book being loaded with information it can be difficult to really see how it became and remained so powerful for so long.
- These ethereal connections that held it together seem to eventually collude in it’s downfall with the decline of the navy as William III let the British Navy take over.
I’m glad I struggled through it, but I’m still looking for a genuinely accessible introduction to the Netherlands.