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The Dutch Revolt Began 450 Years Ago. William of Orange and the Wilhelmus Still Alive and Kicking
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The Dutch Revolt Began 450 Years Ago. William of Orange and the Wilhelmus Still Alive and Kicking

(Hans Cools) The Low Countries - 2018, № 26, pp. 190-197

This is an article from our print archives

At the beginning of November 2017 the third Rutte cabinet took office in the Netherlands. One of its aims, according to the coalition agreement, is ‘to increase knowledge of our shared history, values and freedoms.’ It follows that the coalition partners have a pronounced opinion on that ‘shared history’. ‘Equality, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or religion; tolerance towards those holding different opinions and division of church and state. ... Those are values of which we are proud and which make us who we are.’

Obviously those ‘values’ derive from Dutch history. Indeed, the coalition partners believe they can point to the moment of their birth. Now that knowledge of them is under pressure ‘in times of uncertainty and globalisation’, they charge schools with the responsibility of ‘teaching children the Wilhelmus, including its context.’

That is an odd diktat. The origin of the Wilhelmus is as a beggars’ (rebel) song. It dates from about 1570, a few years after rebels in the Low Countries had taken up arms against their legitimate monarch, Philip II. In fifteen couplets the anonymous author describes the dilemma facing the leader of the rebels, Prince William of Orange: how to serve the Dutch, without failing in his loyalty to the king. Trust in God must provide the key. Because of its great propaganda value the song was never entirely forgotten in the succeeding centuries. In 1932, after a lobbying campaign by among others the celebrated historian Johan Huizinga, it finally acquired the status of the Dutch national anthem. Initially the choice of the Wilhelmus was anything but uncontroversial. Social Democrats and Communists were opposed to it. Only during the Second World War did the song grow into a widely supported symbol against the German occupying forces.

So the Wilhelmus is definitely part of the Dutch cultural heritage. But the song says next to nothing about the ‘values’ that the coalition partners, according to the coalition agreement, associate with Dutch identity. Such ideas were not yet current in 1570. Only two centuries later, in ‘the period of wigs and revolutions’, did some of them become common coin. Others were not generally accepted until the late twentieth century.

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