Dutch Uncles and Aunts

The Dutch have a reputation for libertarian excess. They seem to allow all kinds of weird goings on in their little country. At one time I arrived in Amsterdam at that city’s central station by train, then rode from the train station to the Leidesplein near a hotel where I had reservations. When alighting from the streetcar, I dodged cyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers, cars, other trams, street purveyors of pot and hashish, none of which seem to be out of place. There is also a red-light district when the working girls display their wares in picture windows lit by, you guessed it, red lamps. Wild.

Except for transport on the tram, I declined to participate. I don’t object to most of their permissiveness. Most of the time it amounts to minding one’s own business. But I wish the Dutch would be more consistent regarding freedom of expression, particularly regarding their criminalization of so-called hate speech that is merely critical of certain religious philosophies that countenance murder of those critics, and anyone else that makes remarks at which certain favored groups might take offense. Ask MP Geert Wilders, former MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali; can’t ask Theo van Gogh – he was murdered on the street by an Islamist with a knife. Too bad Theo didn’t have a gun, possession of which is illegal there.

So it may be surprising to some that the latest big news from Amsterdam is that on April 30, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated her throne in favor of her son, the now King Willem-Alexander. I am sure that many of us are surprised to learn that the Netherlands has a monarchy, as low-key as it is. What is even more newsworthy is that this King is the first male monarch in 123 years. His mother became queen in 1980 when grandmother Juliana abdicated. She in turn had been queen since great-grandmother Wilhelmina abdicated after 48 years on the throne. Unlike other royalty, who absent special circumstance reign until death, since Wilhelmina, the Dutch monarchs have had a tradition of abdicating – essentially retiring.

Europe still has, by my count, ten hereditary monarchies. With the possible exception of Monaco, all are figureheads with no real political power. (The Pope is technically a monarch who has absolute power within the confines of the 110 acres that comprise Vatican City, but he is elected.) Contrast those few with the Europe on the eve of World War I, when every sovereign nation on the continent, except France, Switzerland, and, to the extent it can be called a European country, Iceland was a monarchy. Five were styled emperors (including Britain who had a king, also titled Emperor of India). World War I toppled the monarchical rule of the losers; that is, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their subsidiary states, as well as Russia and Ottoman Turkey. The years between the wars, as well as World War II and its aftermath finished the rest except for the ten alluded to previously.

Today, tracing their lineage to William the Conqueror in 1066, the British have the oldest continuous royal family in Europe. In 1913, The Habsburgs who ruled the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary were the second oldest royal house, and at one time in the Sixteenth Century, ruled over half of Europe, including Spain and the Netherlands.

The Dutch revolted against the Habsburg King of Spain Felipe II, and after a protracted struggle, achieved independence as the Dutch Republic or the Republic of the Seven United Provinces in 1588. This entity was governed by a States-General, with a Stadtholder as military commander, and de facto executive; a sort of federal system. After the Napoleonic Wars, during which the French annexed the Low Countries, Willem of Orange-Nassau, declared the Netherlands, which included Belgium and Luxembourg, a kingdom and himself king. Thus, perhaps the first republic on mainland Europe, aside from the Swiss confederation, retrogressed into a monarchy. Predominantly Catholic Belgium split from the Protestant northern provinces in 1831 to form its own kingdom.

It is one of the anomalies of history that today, the nations which have taken much of the lead in forming and administering the European Union, which many envision ultimately becoming a United States of Europe akin to the federal system here, are Belgium and the Netherlands – two of the surviving monarchies. The American Revolution revolted against the very idea of a monarchy.

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