History Rhymes

The darkest decades of Dutch history hold important reminders for us today.

As the old saying goes: “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The past does not give us a blueprint for the future, but it can provide us insights into the trajectory of current events.

This year, many Dutch towns are celebrating the 450th anniversary of one of the most important turning points in the Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), which resulted in The Netherlands becoming an independent republic. On April 1, 1572, a motley crew of seamen loyal to William of Orange and known as the Sea Beggars, captured and held their first town (Brielle) on the Dutch mainland.

We can see clear parallels between today’s Russian-Ukrainian war and the violent chaos that overtook the Netherlands by 1588. Like Ukrainians, the Dutch also endured long sieges during which terror was used as a military strategy and large waves of refugees fled to neighbouring countries. Tepid international support for the Dutch rebels seeking independence kept the revolt going but gave them few solid victories. The my-way-or-the-highway thinking of one king (Philip II) clashed with the more democratic impulses of the rebel leader (Prince William of Orange). Many cities during the first two decades of that grinding war were ruined and countless ordinary civilians, along with regular soldiers, became war casualties, as is happening now in Mariupol.

Read the first two articles in this series: Part 1: “A nation born during a century of war and lawlessness” and Part 2: “When the Dutch put things back together again.

And yet the Dutch rebels, after 1588, were able to put many things back together again. The United Provinces became a successful nation and even a safe haven for refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution in neighbouring countries.

There are five lessons from the Dutch Revolt story that may have something to say about what is happening in today’s world. The first two lessons are positive guides. The second two are like red warning flags, and the last lesson wraps the first four into one cohesive package of mercy.

The power of “No”

In his book The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder uses the phrases “politics of inevitability” and “politics of eternity” to describe the two modern beliefs suggesting that individuals are not free because they are swallowed up and controlled by autonomous processes of change.

The story of the Dutch Revolt is an epic tale in which a small group of individuals, through their actions, said “no” to a leader whose political power was widely viewed as being unstoppable. The determined “no” of the Dutch Sea Beggars ended up fatally weakening the seemingly all-powerful Spanish Empire of Philip II. In world history such epic tales (Greek, Roman, Jewish, Finish, Ukrainian, American etc.) have always been wedded to the songs of peoples who want to be free.

Innovative leaders

William of Orange played a central role in the Dutch Revolt both during the years when it was a small regional uprising and when it became a general revolt. Maurice of Nassau and Van Oldenbarnevelt were, in the same way, pivotal in turning that flailing revolt into an amazing success story. Those three leaders were the face of the revolt that they helped shape.

The high cost of religious wars

It is impossible to calculate the high financial and human costs associated with the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives or became war refugees. Rural populations were harassed into abandoning the war-torn countryside and countless cultural treasures were destroyed in the cities.

The religious wars also created a legacy of us-versus-them hatred which made a mockery of the Christian church’s witness as expressed by the greatest commandment. In our era of cultural wars, those same kinds of moral costs are steadily mounting.

Protagonist shortcomings

The sobering reality about all human conflicts is that protagonists often mimic each other’s destruction. The soldiers that served under William of Orange were not always paid on time and would, like the Spanish troops, sometimes turn into hooligans (see sidebar). That problem was not solved until the 1590’s.

William of Orange’s dream of a society of religious freedom was not realized in the United Provinces; the Calvinist Reformed faith became, for all practical purposes, a kind of established religion for several centuries in the Netherlands. When a scion of that same House of Orange became King of England (William III) his name would forever be linked to Protestant suppression of Irish Catholicism which took place after the Treaty of Limerick (1691) was signed.

As the Dutch claimed victory in the revolt, they began seizing Spanish overseas possessions in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In doing so, they became deeply involved in the dark crime euphemistically described as the “trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

The quality of mercy

When the Dutch rebels deposed Philip II as their king, they created an independent republic governed by a representative institution known as the States General. For the States General to function, the delegates, with grace and mercy, had to learn to listen to each other and, as a consequence, be open to alternative opinions.

As Shakespeare stated in the Merchant of Venice, when mercy “seasons justice” it is “like a gentle rain from heaven. . . that both blesses him that gives and him that receives.” That mercy, sorely lacking during the era of religious wars, slowly became an inner fibre within the States General after 1588.

Today, it is ever so important to rediscover the deep spirit of Christian mercy that is welded into the inner fibre of our own democratic institutions. Mercy creates room for religious, social, racial, sexual and all other kinds of diversities in the same society. That mercy is the only antidote to the toxic culture-war mentality which modern-day autocrats are happy to harness


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