“The Kingdom of the Netherlands : The Early Years”

Professor Dr Ido de Haan (Unilever Lecture, Blackfriars, Wednesday 19 March at 6 for 6.30pm, buffet supper),

From the Announcement in the Winter 2013 – 2014 Newsletter :

“In the years 2013-2015, the 200th anniversary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands will be celebrated. This celebration has gained even more weight now that Queen Beatrix has stepped down, in order to make room for King Willem-Alexander, who was inaugurated on 30 April 2013. The festivities on the occasion of the establishment of the Kingdom of the Netherlands are not without problems.

In November 1813, the Napoleonic regime in Europe collapsed. In the Netherlands, Willem Frederik, Prins van Oranje-Nassau, son of the last stadhouder Willem V, landed at Scheveningen, on the beach where he and his family had fled the country in 1795, to assume the throne that was offered to him.

In the context of the Congress of Vienna, a new state was established. After centuries of republican government, the Netherlands received a King, while the territory was enlarged to include the Southern Netherlands as well. Like all Restoration states, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands under the leadership of Willem I was a constitutional mixture of old and new, integrating old republican diversity, revolutionary citizenship, and Napoleonic authoritarianism. This was the beginning of a long period of political experimentation, which was not all that successful, as became clear when the Southern Netherlands seceded in 1830 to become the independent Belgian Kingdom.

The regime of King Willem I finally collapsed under the burden of too many ambitions and too little accountability. When Willem I resigned in 1840 he left a bankrupt state to his son Willem II. The many problems he faced led to the constitutional revision of 1848, which was finally triggered by the new revolutionary wave that swept over Europe. In this lecture, the nature, relevance and problems of the establishment of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is discussed in a European context.

Ido de Haan is professor of political history at Utrecht University. He published and edited several books on the history of the Netherlands, on the history and memory of the Holocaust in Western Europe, and on the history of democracy. He is co-editor of a volume on the early years of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, requested by the official committee for the celebration of 200 years Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was presented on 30 November 2013 on the occasion of the official celebration. He is also chair of the editorial board for the publication of biographies of the kings Willem I, Willem II and Willem III, which were presented to King Willem-Alexander on 29 November 2013.

From the Report in the Spring 2014 Newsletter :

“Prof. Dr. Ido de Haan was the ideal speaker for the topic of this year’s Unilever lecture: “The Kingdoms of the Netherlands: the Early Years”. Prof De Haan co-edited the book ‘Een Nieuwe Staat’, requested by the official committee for the celebration of 200 years Kingdom of the Netherlands, that came out on 30 November 2013, as start of the celebrations. He also chaired the editorial board for a three-volume biography of the kings Willem I, Willem II and Willem III, presented to King Willem-Alexander on 29 November 2013.

Prof de Haan gave us a fascinating insight in the lengthy and complicated process of establishing the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in the context of events in Europe at the time. As is the job of a historian, he debunked a few popular myths on the way. For a start, there was no festive landing on the beach of Scheveningen, unlike the stories and the re-enactment of 30 November last year would have us believe. It was an altogether more subdued affair, in miserable weather, and under cover of darkness. Hardly surprising no people lined the road to The Hague.  Furthermore, the Kingdom as it was formed in 1813-1815 barely lasted 30 years, when in 1830 the Southern Netherlands separated itself from the Northern part to become the Kingdom of Belgium.

We all may be forgiven for thinking that the forming of a kingdom is an ultimate national act, but nothing could be further from the truth in this case. It was both a very personal matter for William Frederik and an international matter in which the Dutch hardly had a say at all. William Frederik wanted to reclaim the powers his father had enjoyed and behaved in the most opportunistic way possible to get them.

The international political stage was in the process of re-setting the scene for the next act after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. This took place at the Congress of Vienna, where the British delegation, led by the Earl of Clancarty and Lord Castlereagh, pushed for the creation of a Kingdom of the Netherlands. Their wish was to establish a balance of power in Europe, in order to prevent France from becoming too powerful ever again. With a strong Prussia in the East, a strong Piedmont in the South and a strong Kingdom of the Netherlands in the North it would be possible to contain France, so they hoped.

Apart from that, with the memory of the horrors of the French Revolution still fresh, they wanted to restore the pre-revolutionary status as much as possible and a ‘restoration’ into a kingdom, even where there never had been one would be the best way to secure this aim. Lastly, it is possible they wanted to reward the Prince for the valiant conduct of his son at the Battle of Waterloo and Quatre-Bras, where he was wounded on the battlefield.
The Prince’s fate had changed dramatically since he had last solicited Britain’s help in obtaining a position suitable to his high birth. This was in 1806, when his father William V died. The Brits weren’t interested in helping him then, so Willem-Frederik went around Europe for support and found it in the end with Napoleon (of all people!) who gave him a tiny city-kingdom in Germany, named Fulda to play king with. There Willem-Frederik laid the foundations for his later disastrous rule as William I King of the Netherlands.

He didn’t do that well in Fulda to begin with. He was ousted in 1808 and settled on a farm in Eastern Prussia. After Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812 he made his way back to England and it was a year later that a letter reached him, from Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, offering him the  title of Prince of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Needless to say he jumped at the chance. The people who did not jump for joy at the prospect of having a ‘Prince’ were those within the political establishment in the Northern Netherlands, in particular the cities of Amsterdam and The Hague. Did they know about Willem-Frederik’s lack of skills as a ruler and weren’t keen on having him as monarch, or were they just against a monarchy? Prof De Haan did not go into the reasons for their refusal to support Van Hogendorp in his efforts to establish a Dutch government, but instead focussed on the tumultuous times that followed the landing of William-Frederik. He emphasised that the transition did not happen non-violently, as is often believed. King Louis-Napoleon may have left the country, but the French were still in charge and did not give up without a fight. Skirmishes with supporters of independence cost 1,000 people their lives.

Might this have been a reason for the lack of support for the call by Van Hogendorp, Van Limburg Stierum and Van Oldenbarneveld to form a Dutch government?
Not having gotten anywhere with the Dutch notables the trio formed a government of their own and sent an envoy to London to offer Willem Frederik the title of Prince of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.It then took another two years before the Kingdom of the Netherlands, including the Southern Netherlands was founded and William-Frederik was installed as William I, on 21 September 1815, in Brussels.

The Kingdom was a mix of old and new, combining equal citizenship laid down in a Constitution with authoritarian rule.

For King William I ruled on his own. He meddled in absolutely everything and micro-managed the country to near-ruin. He had no regard for the Constitution, nor for Parliament and found ways around their rejection of the national budget. He decided on his own, he held court for all citizens once a week, like a medieval feudal king. He had to work from dawn to dusk every day to keep up with matters and built up 900 metres of archives in the process. In the end he failed and the country almost collapsed.

He poured lots of his own money into big infrastructure projects to get the country moving, but borrowed heavily too, leaving a bankrupt nation to his son William in 1840. His last act of incompetence was to trigger the Belgian revolt in 1830. He had treated the Southern Netherlands as the Cinderella of the Kingdom, even imposing the Dutch language onto the French-speaking population. His bias towards the North only exacerbated the existing cultural, religious and economic differences between the Northern and Southern Netherlands. Add to that his unwillingness to engage in talks with the South when they finally took up arms and it is no surprise they pushed him aside and got themselves a king from the Saxe-Coburg dynasty to rule the independent Belgian kingdom.

Unfortunately King William II didn’t do much better than his father. He too wanted to ‘play King’ rather than play ball with Parliament. He wasn’t brought to reason until 1848, when under pressure of revolutions in Germany and France he accepted the new Constitution, in with article 55 rendered the King ‘untouchable’ whilst shifting responsibility to the Ministers.

William III was the same, which is apparently the reason Willem-Alexander did not choose to become William IV. He does not want to be associated with the three Williams that went before him. Since then the Netherlands have had 100 years of female rule and today the monarchy enjoys great support and popularity.

It has proven to be a big stabilizing factor in difficult times, just like the Windsors are in the United Kingdom, as Sir Michael Perry observed in his closing words.  ”