The Netherlands makes an art form out of its own liberal self-regard. To read about “the most open-minded country in the world” is to read marketing copy of the country’s soft drug policies and idyllic accounts of euthanasia (or “the gentle death,” as the Dutch sometimes call it) along with paeans to Dutch tolerance. You will learn that the Netherlands pioneered gay and lesbian rights when same-sex weddings were made legal in 2000, the first in the world. Also that it’s the first country to legalize assisted suicide for the terminally ill, or for those who endure unbearable suffering. You probably already know that the Netherlands is where people smoke pot in cozy coffeeshops in broad daylight.
They have passed all these laws, but they have also made sure that the world knows all about them. Having pioneered something—whatever it is—the Dutch remain as a guiding light, a “gidsland,” for the rest of the world.
I first encountered “gidsland” in the mid-2000s, a few years after the euthanasia law had come into effect. The “Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act” was viewed by liberal-minded Dutch as a stepping stone into a fully-progressive society: euthanasia, the Dutch believe, is the ultimate right over one’s own life and body. I didn’t give the new law too much thought at first, being young and focused more pressing matters. In the case of euthanasia, as in abortion, this reasoning goes, the State should intrude as little as possible in decisions over people’s own bodies.
Though the whole thing seemed so far removed from my immediate concerns, that word, “gidsland,” kept coming back, with its evident sense of pride and self-congratulation.
The Dutch imposed a harsh form of Calvinism on South Africa, installing one of history’s most brutal colonial regimes in part because they felt themselves “the Elect of the Lord,” an ethos that would be used to justify apartheid. Perceiving oneself as “the elect of the Lord” is only an infinitesmal step away from seeing one’s country as being “chosen” to lead. And so it was that Cornelis van Vollenhoven first used “Gidsland” in his 1913 book, The Unity of the Country, to describe the future he envisioned for the Netherlands.
The Dutch should not assert themselves through force, van Vollenhoven argued, but through moral superiority. To colonize Indonesia, for example, he recommended a “moral imperialism” that would make the Dutch a guiding nation; as other nations followed the Dutch lead, a new international legal order would be created. With such a destiny, the military intervention that had made the occupation of Indonesia possible was both necessary and desirable; bringing peace, order, and welfare to Indonesia, van Vollenhoven believed, only illustrated the fundamental unselfishness of Dutch imperialism. This view of the unselfishness of Dutch Imperialism also inspired seemingly benevolent programs in Indonesia, such as the Ethical Policy which passed reforms in education and agriculture and, under the rhetoric of welfare and human rights opened the Indonesian rural areas to the penetration of Western capitalism.
Over the decades that followed—as the Dutch Empire was considerably reduced, at least in territorial terms—the term went dormant, living on only in citations of van Vollenhoven’s book. But in the early 70s, the radical leftist politician Bas de Gaay Fortman resurrected the term to illustrate his vision of The Netherlands “exporting” human rights and moral politics. The solution to the Cold War’s divisions of the world, he argued (in the Internationale Spectator in 1973), was a gidsland, a country that would set the example for the rest. “The Netherlands must be a gidsland for radicals,” he wrote, “it must pave the road through its policies that other EU and NATO countries can follow towards globally responsible security and development policies.”
This guiding nation should be small, he wrote, so as to be unencumbered by the issues of big administrations; by lucky chance, it should be just the size of the Netherlands. And yet, how small was and is The Netherlands? In 1973, as de Gaay Fortman conveniently avoided mentioning, The Netherlands still retained full administrative power over its colonies, Suriname and the Antilles. And while Suriname only became an independent nation in 1975, a number of other colonies such as Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba still remain part of the country to this day. This Imperial continuity is always forgotten or denied: Cornelis van Vollenhoven had believed the country should be a role model of moral Imperialism, occupying lands to “spread welfare around the world” while de Gaay Fortman’s vision of The Netherlands as a guiding power was through participation in poverty alleviation, the global environmental debate and human rights policies.
But if the latter was meant to fix what the former had broken, it was necessary to sever the link. Otherwise someone might ask: why was the nation that created the problems the one to solve it?
Since 1973, “gidsland” has become inextricably attached to the national self-perception: among what the Dutch perceive as the forces of obscurantism (countries ruled by dictatorial regimes, cultures the Dutch consider regressive or illiberal), the Netherlands is the guiding light setting legal precedents and showing other nations how to be truly progressive. This myth has never undergone serious public scrutiny—especially not with regard to its colonial roots. As a result, continuities abound: van Vollenhoven wanted to promote moral military interventions, and our contemporaries call themselves exporters of democracy and human rights as they support US imperialism in Iraq and draconian EU policies in Africa.
Always, the democratic values and rights the Dutch benevolently support both expect and demand free markets and unrestricted access for Dutch businesses and investors. And while the Netherlands might be a guiding moral force on euthanasia, they have been active participants in the deadly inaction in the Mediterranean: in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, the right-wing liberal ruling Party, VVD, proposed to close European borders to all asylum seekers. Dutch refugee policy is one of the toughest in Europe.
The selective morality of these self-serving half-truths permeates the entire concept of gidsland, and is not so different from what van Vollenhoven had in mind when he believed that colonial military interventions could spread Dutch notions of welfare across the Empire. Like the Empire, the Dutch army is no longer what it used to be and the Defense budget has been reduced. So in the absence of physical force, the Dutch have adopted an international marketing approach more suitable for the corporate interests that constitute the backbone of the Dutch economy.
With the relentless advance of right-wing politics over the last decade, the concept of gidsland has come to seem a bit lackluster, associated with once-progressive—less and less compelling as other nations also legalize drugs and same-sex marriage—and advocated by jaded liberal politicians and equally jaded media figures. By contrast, the right is too focused on the domestic fortunes of Dutch white people to advocate international moral leadership. But appearances can be deceiving, and if the word has fallen out of favor, it’s only because the right’s chicken-coop nationalism won’t let them consider what gidsland actually means. The Dutch right is actually a gidsland like no other group in the country: since Geert Wilders became a role model for other right-wingers to follow, the Dutch have been at the forefront of mainstreaming the extreme right.
In a sense, the word has changed. If there was a time when the Dutch believed they could be at the forefront of progress, they ended up leading in a different way: What the Dutch right have taught the rest of the world is not progress but regression. But this is how words and language evolve. And maybe “progress” is more of a story we tell ourselves than a real thing anyway; after all, if the Dutch see themselves as exporting moral values, it’s also a nation that embraces blackface as holiday merriment.