‘Back in time’ versus ‘a whole new era’?

Contemporaries disagreed about whether the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of an independent Dutch state in November 1813 was a return to a remote past or a new beginning in national time. The well-known Batavian politician, academic and writer Johannes van der Palm (1763-1840) for instance, in his pamphlet Vaderlandsche Uitboezeming argued that the history of the Dutch Revolt against Spain was being repeated in the ‘revolution’ (omwenteling) of November 1813. Just as in the late sixteenth century a foreign tyrant has been driven away and national liberty was restored according to the former Dutch patriot, ‘Am I dreaming or am I awake? By what unknown force do I find myself two centuries back in time on the stage of history?’1

Others regarded the establishment of the kingdom of the Netherlands in first instance not as a return to the glorious revolt of the sixteenth century but on the contrary as essentially a new beginning in national history. ‘A whole new era in our national existence begins. By the grace of God, we have received our former fatherland, albeit in a new form and in new circumstances’, the anonymous author of the Aanspraak aan het herstelde volk van Nederland (1813) declared.2 Although early nineteenth-century publicists disagreed whether the ‘revolution’ (omwenteling) of 1813 was going back in time or a new beginning (or both at the same time), they almost all agreed that the restoration of the Dutch provinces presented a rupture with the recently ended rule of the ‘man-eating monster’ and ‘brutal tyrant’ Napoleon.3 The shaping of a new historical and temporal regime formed an important part of the formation of a new political order.4

In this essay I will explore the problem of (dis)continuity of the years 1813-1815 from the Dutch perspective in two ways.5 First, I will turn my attention to the insufficiently studied contemporary perceptions of historical change and temporality in 1813-1815, placing special emphasis on the (problematic) memory of the sixteenth-century Dutch Revolt. Second, I will jump forward two centuries and discuss the current historical interpretation of the (dis)continuity of 1813, focusing on the bicentennial commemoration in 2013-2015. I will argue that national historical narratives that were fabricated in 1813-1815 in certain ways have survived, but in other ways have broken down and a new historiographical consensus has appeared that incorporates the legacy of the Batavian Revolution. At the end of this essay, I will point out some blank spaces in the new ‘historiographical consensus’.

Competing political memories: The contemporary perspective of (dis)continuity

The English historian of memory Geoffrey Cubitt states that, ‘Events may also take on significance from patterns of expectation that are rooted in the memory of earlier episodes’.6 This statement certainly holds true for the Netherlands in 1813. Especially the memory of the sixteenth-century Dutch Revolt, revived in the preceding years of Napoleonic rule, was used as an interpretative framework to give meaning to the confusing events of November and December 1813.7 First of all the memory of the Revolt provided a general narrative of a national struggle for freedom against a foreign tyrant. In many poems published in 1813 and 1814 Napoleon was described as the new Philip II and the French were new Castilians trying in vain to smother Dutch freedom.8 Specific themes within the larger Revolt memory were used in the early nineteenth century. Sixteenth-century heroes such as the Leiden mayor Van der Werff were described as role models for the post-Napoleonic Dutchmen and the returned Prince of Orange was naturally regarded as the reincarnation of pater patriae William the Silent. The brutality of the massacre by French soldiers in Woerden was seen as the nineteenth-century ‘Naarden’. Sixteenth-century literary forms were also used for the expressions of patriotism after 1813. Marnix’ Wilhelmus for instance, was adapted to the new circumstances.9

The use of the memory of the Revolt in public discourse in 1813-1814, however, was not without its problems. First of all, the Revolt was not the only frame used in contemporary public discourse. Also many references can be found in the Bible (the Empire as the new Babylon captivity and the Emperor as Nebuchadnezzar) or, perhaps more surprisingly after the fall and discrediting of the Batavian republic, to the Batavian myth. In many pamphlets no historical reference can be found at all. Furthermore, pamphleteers also distanced their own time from the sixteenth century and the remote past in general. This be can seen most explicitly in Jacobus Scheltema’s Vergelijking van de afschudding van het Spaansche juk in 1572 met die van het Fransche in 1813 (1813). In this pamphlet the Revolt is very unfavourably compared to the ‘revolution’ of 1813. In almost every aspect the nineteenth century is regarded as superior (‘onze betere toestand’). The oppression by the Spanish inquisition was not nearly as severe as that of the Napoleonic police, according to Scheltema. In contrast to the foreign usurper Napoleon, Philip II had been more or less the legitimate lord of the Netherlands. Moreover the Revolt against Philip had been the work of an aristocratic elite, whereas ‘1813’ was the achievement of the Netherlandish people as a whole. The relative non-violent character of the regime change was attributed by Scheltema to the civilised nature of the nineteenth-century Dutch.10 In the first histories of the events of 1813, in the introduction a comparison is often made between ‘1572’ en ‘1813’, which puts the more recent transition in a favourable light. In his Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche staats-omwenteling (1814) Herman Bosscha argues that in 1813 the flawed Dutch constitution of the Dutch Republic was perfected in the new state under William I.11

The amalgamation of the Northern and the Southern Netherlands in 1815 made the memory of the Dutch revolt even more problematic as the dominant framework for the historical interpretation of current events. In official discourse the Revolt was increasingly seen not as a triumph of liberty, but as the tragedy of the splitting of the Netherlands the United Kingdom had finally overcome. Attempts were made to replace – or reconcile – the memory of the revolt with the myth of a Burgundian pan-Netherlandish Golden Age. William I described himself as the natural successor of Charles V, with a mission to complete the aborted attempts of state formation in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century.12 However the Burgundian myth never really took hold as a dominant political memory in the new Kingdom. Many northerners regarded the new United Kingdom of 1815 in essence as the continuation of the Dutch state and nation that had come into being in 1813-1814, only now with an enlarged territory and, unfortunately for many Protestant Dutchmen, an augmented number of Catholics.13

Perhaps exemplary for the lack of a univocal political past in the United Kingdom is the failure of the state commission of 1826, under William’s most loyal servant Cornelis Felix van Maanen, to appoint a royal historiographer (geschiedschrijver des Rijks) and to commission a unifying history of the United Netherlands. William’s hope that a new history of the Netherlands based on original source material would automatically lead to an ‘objective’ and unifying national past was disappointed.14 As remote history was unsuitable for nation building, the memory of the very recent past was used as a means of forgetting the political divisions, not only between North and South, but also within both parts of the country. The memory of the battles of Waterloo and Quatrebras, and above all the near martyrdom of the crown prince, were to be regarded in William I’s words as ‘two shining pillars’ in the construction of the new kingdom. William’s attitude toward the problematic Batavian and Napoleonic past can be described as an implicit politics of forgetting or oubli.15

Above all, it seems, in the absence of an appropriate past, the new Kingdom was founded on a promise for the future. Primarily William defended his initially uncertain rule over his new kingdom without a true historical precedent in terms of development, prosperity and stability. Good administration and paternal rule would end the internal strife and create unity in the near future. This future oriented character of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands contrasted with other Restoration regimes. In France for instance, Louis XVIII also laid emphasis on reconciliation, forgetting (oubli), peace and stability as the foundations of his rule. The restored Bourbon monarchy however, was explicitly described in terms of continuation of time, with the revolution and Napoleonic era regarded as an unfortunate ceremonial interregnum. The main goal of la Charte, the French constitution of 1814, according to the preamble was ‘to renew the chain of time’. The early nineteenth century according to many French pamphlet writers was not seen as particularly different or distant from the sixteenth century. The revolutionary wars were described as the mere sequel to the sixteenth-century religious wars.16

The bicentennial: A new consensus?

The political fabrication in the Northern Netherlands of ‘1813’ as a new beginning in national time and the framing of the Batavian and Napoleonic regimes as a period of foreign oppression situated outside national history (the ‘French period’ as it is commonly called) has had a long afterlife.17 Even those contemporaries such as the Kantian philosopher Johannes Kinker, who expressed a more nuanced vision on the Batavian and Napoleonic experience, described the years 1795-1813, especially after 1806, as period of ‘Babylonian captivity’. In the influential early twentieth-century (source) publications of Johanna Naber and Herman Colenbrander, this essentially national and Orangist interpretation of the Batavian and Napoleonic era is more or less revived. The Napoleonic period was analysed almost exclusively from the dominant perspective of the establishment of the Orange monarchy after 1813 (Overheersing (oppression) and Verlossing (deliverance) were the terms used by Naber). In the decades after World War II interest in ‘1813’ gradually disappeared. The commemoration of 1963 demonstrated, if anything, the lack of interest in the early nineteenth century events by the post-war generation.

To what extent are the national historical narratives crafted in 1813 still present in the bicentennial of 2013? On one hand, a certain continuity of national historical discourse can be observed. The bicentennial was above all publicly celebrated as a ‘new beginning’ and the return of national ‘freedom’ after a period of foreign domination.18 On the other hand, a ‘reconciliation’ of the Batavian revolutionary past, but not (or to a far lesser extent) of the Napoleonic legacy, with the Dutch history writing of the Kingdom of the Netherlands can also be discerned. In terms of historiography, the commemoration of 2013-2015 can be regarded as the capstone of the emancipation of the historiography of the Patriot and Batavian revolution that had started with the bicentennial of the Patriot revolution of 1787 in 1987.19 The ‘culture of silence’ of the revolutionary past, constructed during the Restoration era itself, now seems to have finally ended, at least in academic history writing if not in wider public opinion. Batavian history has lost its ‘subaltern’ status in Dutch historiography, some specialists of the period have noted, perhaps with slight nostalgia. Indeed, the (post-) revolutionary era has currently become a fashionable period to study, even for academic specialists of the Early Modern period and the twentieth century.

In his speech during the official commemoration of the bicentennial on 30 November 2013 in the Ridderzaal in The Hague, under the very eyes of the current Dutch sovereign of the House of Orange, Amsterdam historian Niek van Sas emphasised the importance of the Batavian legacy of equal civil rights, constitution and a univocal state for the new kingdom. Van Sas’s answer to the question of what we should celebrate, posed by Johan Huizinga in 1913, was as follows:

[...] for the Netherlands, ‘1813’ was first of all a restoration of national independence and at the same time a consolidation of the achievements of the Batavian-French period such as the unitary state and the rule of [written] law.20

This view of interpreting ‘1813’ as the nationalisation of the Batavian legacy in the new context of the Kingdom of the Netherlands now seems uncontroversial among historians and the wider public.

However, as Paul Ricoeur has noted, ‘seeing one thing is not seeing another. Recounting one drama is forgetting another’.21 By means of concluding this essay, I would like to indicate six topics that, in my view, have not received the attention they deserve in the flood of bicentennial publications and which seem particularly relevant from the perspective of the experience of (dis)continuity.22 I will not go into the colonial and non-European dimension of ‘1813-1815’ or into the North-South divide as these are subjects of other essays in this issue.

First of all, it must be concluded that the Napoleonic period has profited far less than the Batavian period from the new historiographical reconciliation in 2013. The regimes between 1801 and 1813 – Staatsbewind, Gemenebest, Koninkrijk Holland and above all the Annexation of 1810-1813 – are still insufficiently studied.23 In contrast to French history, the Dutch ‘Thermidor’ so far has not received the attention it deserves. The ‘Inlijving’ is still often described as the foreign ‘occupation’ (bezetting), which does not form part of national history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only the popular and literary resistance against Napoleon and the development of a ‘depolitised Dutch national identity’ have received ample attention from historians of the period. A study of the administration of the Dutch provinces as part of the huge Napoleonic empire, which integrates the Dutch case in international research on this topic and does not regard the years 1810-1813 from the perspective of its outcome, is therefore urgently needed.24

Secondly, it could be argued that the contemporary opponents of the reconciliation and those who dreamed of alternative outcomes of 1813 have not received enough attention, although they were undoubtedly a minority and their criticism was often voiced indirectly or anonymously. In 1813 some former patriots feared that a returned Prince of Orange would lead to retribution being visited upon revolutionaries, as happened in 1787, and they dreamed of the restoration of the Batavian republic in a new form. Some reactionary opponents wished for a full Restoration of the ancient order: they were disappointed by the moderation of the new regime of William I and his (unspoken) striving for a ‘fusion’ between Revolution and Ancien Régime inspired by the Napoleonic model.25

Thirdly, more systematic research could also be done on the continuation of republican ideas after 1813 and the connection between the early modern tradition of republicanism and nineteenth-century liberalism, following international developments.26 The development and character of Dutch conservatism also deserves a separate study.27 More generally, the intellectual dimensions of the Dutch Sattelzeit have been less studied. A reason for this neglect might be that in the Netherlands intellectual history as a historical subfield is less developed than for instance, in the Anglo-Saxon world and Dutch historians generally seem still wary to describe themselves as ‘intellectual historians’.

Although recent decades have seen a very successful integration of cultural, above all literary, and political history, the connections between political and social history have been explored far less, especially from the perspective of (dis)continuity after 1813. This aspect would constitute a fourth blank spot.28 To what extent was the new elite of the kingdom formed by former Batavians and Orangists in the societies and reading clubs during the Annexation? How were political differences between North and South reconciled or sharpened by the sociability? More generally it can be argued that the (social) history of the (administrative) elites of the United Kingdom and their political mentalities has been far less studied than, for instance the monarchy, parliament and the international system of the Restoration era. Especially the monarchy has now been well catered for by the excellent new biographies of William I and William II.29

A fifth omission is the survival of the Ancien Régime after 1813. Although William I himself, according to Van der Duyn van Maasdam, had already often complained that the Revolution had unsufficiently cleaned up the ‘aristocratic debris’ (aristocratisch-prullerarij) of the old Republic30, researchers of the Dutch Sattelzeit have often focused exclusively on the rise of the modern Dutch national state. In his micro-study on the Staphorst mayor Ebbinge Wubben (2010) Klaas Tippe, for instance, on the contrary, underlined the survival of many institutions of the Ancien Régime at a local level.31 Joke Roelevink has pointed out the continuities between the bureaucratic procedures of the Ancien Régime, Napoleonic and Restoration institutions.32 The large NWO funded research programme on ‘The persistence of civic identities in the Netherlands between 1747-1848’, which commences in 2015 at Leiden University, will no doubt lead to important new insights and revisions of our understanding of the period.

Especially relevant for the question of (dis)continuity after 1813 is, in the sixth and final place, the development of a ‘security culture’. In many ways the liberal police state or the authoritarian rule of law of the Restoration regime builds on the police apparatus developed during the Revolution and especially the Napoleonic era. The American historian Howard Brown has convincingly argued for the French case that one of the most important outcomes of the Revolution was the rise of the ‘security state’.33 Utrecht historian Beatrice de Graaf furthermore, has called attention to the rise of a ‘European security culture’ after the congress of Vienna.34 Also at other recent international conferences on the Restoration era from a comparative perspective the importance of the collaboration of several European States in the suppression of revolutionary and liberal organisations has been emphasised.35 Although important contributions have already been made, the development and character of the Dutch ‘security state’ from its origins in the Ancien Régime and the Napoleonic system, has yet to find its historian.36