If you ask Dutch secondary school students to describe the Netherlands in one word, they will probably answer: tolerant. The principle of tolerance – or rather being tolerant – is deeply embedded in Dutch history and culture. It finds its origin in the 80 years’ war (1568-1648) and the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ (17th century). After years of bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics, tolerance became the norm in the Republic of the United Netherlands. According to school books, tolerance allowed the Dutch to become leaders in world trade and attract enlightened thinkers from all over the world, such as René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. Dutch tolerance has evolved over the centuries. The Netherlands was the first country to allow gay marriage and has highly liberal views on contentious topics such as prostitution and soft drugs. Tolerance is also reflected in the way the Dutch run their daily lives and national politics. In decision-making processes, tolerance is embodied in the so-called ‘poldermodel:’ a system of negotiation that focusses on consensus instead of confrontation. ‘Polderen’ is present in all layers of Dutch society and requires people to compromise and cooperate, all while tolerating opposing views.
The precious national value of tolerance, however, is not invincible. The country is no utopia; racism, sexism, and homophobia are, unfortunately, systemic issues many Dutch face daily. Furthermore, recently the Dutch ‘poldermodel’ has faced serious challenges, too. The aggressive riots that followed the introduction of the national curfew, ‘De Avondklokrellen’ (curfew riots, 23-26 January 2021), stand in stark contrast to the Dutch culture of consensus and compromise. This article investigates how these riots came to be and whether they should be considered an outlier or a severe crack in the Dutch idea of tolerance.
The Curfew Riots of January 2021
One might argue that the curfew riots are merely a product of the unique situation we find ourselves in, a global pandemic, and the resultant measures that have had to be implemented. Historically, many claim that riots are a common if not normal reaction to government-enforced quarantines. Riots, for instance, broke out in England and Russia during the 19th-century cholera pandemic. Last year, protests against governments’ COVID-19 measures were widespread and occurred in states like the US and Germany. Moreover, 2020 saw a general surge of protest movements challenging racism, sexism, and government corruption. This atmosphere of protest combined with the widespread use of social media on an (inter)national level by those involved might have led to a diffusion of these protests.
The Netherlands, however, has never before experienced such massive riots in reaction to global pandemics. Furthermore, during other crises, like the Second World War, there were few significant acts of public protest in the Netherlands. Additionally, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that people will not necessarily react angrily or panicked during a crisis but will try to be cooperative and supportive of one another. So although these riots might be part of an international wave of protest, it is questionable whether it would be justified to name the pandemic the sole cause of the riots. Therefore, it remains unclear why so many Dutch recently took to the streets and whether this is ‘un-Dutch’ like many historians and criminologists claim.
It would be wrong to pretend the Dutch are the best students in the class. Indeed, they do not have a legacy of public protest like the French, but despite the poldermodel, protests occur in the Netherlands. This is not to say that all acts of Dutch public protest oppose the poldermodel. On the contrary, many public demonstrations are often used as starting point for new negotiations. Symbolic was, for instance, the meeting of Prime Minister Mark Rutte with the so-called ‘yellow vests’ protesters, which according to one of the attendees, led to ‘a little bit of hope.’ By focussing on conversation, not conflict, protests can thus be de-escalated. Still, famous Dutch historian and terrorism expert Beatrice de Graaf rejects the view that riots and mass protests are uncharacteristic of Dutch culture and society. Instead she argues that the Dutch have a long history of public protests that escalate into riots. Famous is the ‘eel riot’ (palingoproer) that occurred in Amsterdam in 1886. After a group of people played the forbidden game of ‘eel pulling’ as an act of protest (palingtrekken, a game in which people had to pull an eel from a rope while in a boat), the police intervened. This escalated into a riot during which twenty-five people died. There are even cases in which public protest does not proceed the riot. The Project X riots in Haren, 2012 are such an example. These riots started after a sixteen-year-old girl’s Facebook birthday invitation was accidentally shared with thousands of people. In response, many flocked to the small town, intending to cause significant damage. These examples show that the Curfew Riots might not be so ‘un-Dutch’ as some claim.
De Graaf, however, argues that the recent curfew riots can be separated from previous riots because they had a strong political motive. This is unique since the last significant riots (partially) driven by a political reason were the squatters’ riots (krakersrellen) in the 70s and 80s. However, whilst these past riots were predominantly supported by the political left, the recent curfew riots of the 2020s saw support from the (extreme) right. The leader of the right-wing populist party Forum voor Democratie, Thierry Baudet, called upon the people to ‘resist’ the curfew. Although he disapproved of the violence, many politicians and scholars claimed that he was guilty of sedition. Some went as far as to compare Baudet’s statements to the speech Donald Trump held before the storming of the Capitol. According to many, Baudet’s words showed no intention of de-escalating the violence. The political motive of the attacks can also be derived from the targets of the rioters. Although many rioters looted local supermarkets and tobacco stores, hospitals and train stations were also attacked. In the town of Urk, protesters went as far as to burn a COVID-19 test location to the ground. According to Dutch sociologists, attacking these governmental institutions symbolises a direct and violent attack against the Dutch government.
The question arises then, do these political riots represent the beginning of the end for the Dutch culture of tolerance and compromise? Is the ‘poldermodel’ on its way out? Any answer cannot realistically be garnered from one act of deviancy, as it would be wrong to dismiss years of faith in these norms and values. However, it might be time for the Dutch to look in the mirror and recognise that the perception of Dutch tolerance does not match reality. In short, the Dutch are not as tolerant as they always claim to be.
The Dutch can prevent their precious value of tolerance from going downhill. To do so, the deeper sociological causes of the riots must be comprehended. Shortly after the riots occurred, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte referred to the rioters as ‘scum’ that need to be locked away, preferring to contain the problem rather than discuss the causes of it. Of course, those who committed crimes need to face justice. However, according to sociological experts, Covid-19 only acted as the catalyst of the riots. They believe a research committee should investigate the real motivations, which are likely to be much more complex, systemic, and diverse. Neglecting the underlying causes of the rioters’ behaviour will not help to prevent future riots. Therefore, the Dutch need to continue ‘poldering’ with those they disagree with to prevent people from abandoning dialogue and resorting to violent forms of protest. The poldermodel, just like the polders themselves, is essential to Dutch society. Without polders, the country would not exist.