Contemporary Dutch nationalidentity as an imagined communitySince Benedict Anderson wrote his1983 book Imagined Communities, inwhich he outlined the emergence of national identity in Western European nations,times have changed and nations are facing new challenges which wereunimaginable in the 1980s. With this essay, I will examine in what wayscontemporary Dutch national identity is influenced by and imagined in media andpolitics, and in what ways it still relates to Anderson’s model. Anderson attributed the tighteningof national bonds to changing mentalities, such as the decrease of faith in themonarchy and the increase of scientific knowledge, as well as the effect ofprint capitalism, which allowed people across a nation to consume the samemedia and neutralized variances in the language (Anderson, 52-53).
In order tomaintain the nation as an imagined community, it was to be sovereign, finiteand based on (appeared) equality and brotherhood, allowing people on oppositeends of a country to feel connected to one another (Anderson, 50). The Netherlandshas the highest proficiency of English as a non-native language in the world (EFEducation First), allowing Dutch citizens to not only relate to fellowDutchmen, but also to a global community. This is exemplified by technologicaladvancements and accessibility of internet and (social) media. Dutch people areable to consume media from international news outlets which communicate inEnglish, allowing them to be even more informed on international affairs.
Dueto the popularity of multinational social media enterprises such as Facebook orYoutube, Dutch citizens are now able to connect intimately with people all overthe world, increasing their feeling of a global citizenship. According toAnderson, the printing press enhanced the national identity, as people across anation were taking in news daily in a standardized language (53). One couldargue that language is still a uniting factor, creating a feeling ofconnectedness between people who live far apart. However, unlike in Anderson’smodel, in which the nation was confined not only by borders, but also bylanguage barriers, the popularity of English has allowed Dutch citizens totranscend national borders, decreasing their connection to their nationalidentity. Thisincrease in globalization, not only through media, but also in terms ofincreased mobility and subsequent migration has put the Dutch national identityat risk, making it less necessary and powerful. In politics, we see an attemptto reconciliate the Dutch national identity, by appealing to history andethnicity. National televised debates around 2017’s Dutch national electionsincluded statements on the Dutch “normen en waarden” (norms and values), whichrepresents the focus on national identity in the public sphere.
Right-winged,populist party PVV (Party for Freedom) used islamophobia and othering tostrengthen the national identity by creating a clear us vs. them. Their leader,Geert Wilders, warns voters of the dangers of the supposed “Islamization” ofDutch society and wants to preserve Dutchculture by banning, mosques, the Qur’an Muslim immigration (Osborne). This isin stark contrast to Anderson’s model, in which national identity was based onequality and brotherhood which, in the national imaginary, transcendeddifferences in class and religion (50). Besides ethnicity, we also see astrong appeal to Dutch national history as a way to reconnect with the nationalidentity.
The center-right party CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) believes aconnection with Dutch historical and nationalist symbols will improve nationalidentity. They did this by trying to add a mandatory singing of the nationalanthem in Dutch schools – the three parties in the center-right governmentfinally agreed to have children learn about the anthem rather than be obligedto sing it (Hartog & Hoedeman). It is important to note that this trend isnot only visible on the right-winged side of the Dutch political spectrum, leftwinged parties are also occupied with national identity from a historicapproach. In a Dutch daily talk show, JesseKlaver, the leader of the green progressive party Groenlinks presented the Acte van Verlatinghe, the 1581 documentwith which Dutch provinces proclaimed their independence from the Spanish, toremind viewers we should return to the notion of freedom on which the Dutchnation was founded (Joop). The attempt to revitalize the connection with thishistoric, yet largely unknown, document represents the attempt to re-establishthe image of antiquity which modern nations often appealed to, according toAnderson (52). However, rather than doing this through a shared language,Klaver attempts to do this through connecting to a shared history.
The aforementioned destabilizationof Western national identity due to globalization and migration, seems to be abreeding ground for the romanticizing of history to restore the nationalidentity. Dutch political leaders want the public to imagine the Dutch nationalidentity along the lines of an essentialist Dutch heritage as a nation offreedom, equality and prosperity. This national history, however, appeals toDutch natives, and neglects the increased diversity of Dutch demographics.Instead of engaging with this, politics focuses on winning voters by creating afantasy of the nation returning to a safe haven, which is either based on theexclusion of “intruders” or the acceptance of tolerance.The way the contemporary Dutchnational identity manifests itself in the public sphere no longer fitsAnderson’s 1983 account on nations as imagined communities. While the casestudy may fit within Anderson’s model through its appeal to antiquity, the roleof language and equality have greatly changed due to an increase of technology,mobility and xenophobia. Times and tensions have changed, andas Anderson’s model may no longer apply, the national community can and shouldbe reimagined. It seems like politicians are already attempting to do so, but historycannot be rewritten – considering the colonial history of the nation, returningto a 16th century Holland will is unlikely to bring about peace orequality, nor is keeping out those with different ethnicities or religionshumane or even realistic.
Instead, Dutch citizens and politicians need to takeon a more open and honest approach, without excessive pride or guilt about thepast, but using our current, diverse makeup as a guide to move towards thefuture. A transformation of the way we imagine nations is unavoidable andembracing this challenge head on will prove to be more sustainable thananxiously holding on to dated memories of imaginary communities.