The role of the monarchy in the Netherlands

On April 30th, the Netherlands celebrated Queensday as usual. However, this time the ceremony was different, as it was also the day Queen Beatrix abdicated and her son Willem Alexander was inaugurated as the first King of the Netherlands since 1890.

The timing of the inauguration is no coincidence. On the one hand, it’s symbolic as it has been 200 years since the Kingdom of the Netherlands was founded in 1813. On the other hand, there has been a political crisis in the Netherlands for years, as most Dutch people have lost confidence in the main political parties. In the 21st century, more Dutch people trust the monarchy than the main political parties. The whole ceremony has been a move to promote “national unity and trust” in a country which is suffering from continuing austerity packages. Unemployment is at 8.1%, the highest percentage since the 1980s, and in absolute numbers the highest amount of unemployed people ever in the history of the country. As the economy went into recession in 2013, even the ruling parties are thinking of not sticking to the European norm that the budget deficit cannot be more than 3%; something which was “not done” during the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Since the former Queen Beatrix stated that she would resign on January 28th, not a single day has passed without media attention for the members of the House of Orange-Nassau. Almost all of this attention has been positive. There were almost no critical voices. Many “left-wing” voices (those former “romantic” radical lefts who became centre-left middle class hypocrites) were just as positive as the conservatives. Even the parliamentary leader of the Socialist Party praised the “social engagement” of Queen Beatrix. In the last days leading to the inauguration, the republican activists got some media attention, but they have been portrayed mostly as a minority of cynical people who do not share the great “Orange feeling” with the rest of the population. Many peaceful republican activists were arrested on the day of inauguration. Afterwards the police stated it made mistakes, but the hard way the protestors were treated shows the hysteria that comes with the promotion of this “Orange feeling”.

Is the monarchy a Dutch tradition?

Proponents of the monarchy always state that it is a Dutch tradition that we should keep. In fact, the Netherlands has only been a kingdom for the last 200 years and as we shall see, the installation of the monarchy was the result of a counter-revolution supported by foreign powers.

Antonio Moro: Willem I van NassauAntonio Moro: Willem I van NassauThe Netherlands won its independence in the 16th century in a revolutionary war against the Spanish absolutist king, Philip II, which could be considered as the first ever bourgeois revolution. The “leader” of the revolution was William the Silent (the first William of Orange), who together with some other members of the nobility protested against the increasing power of the Crown and the Inquisition in the Netherlands, which had seen many conversions to Calvinism. The nobility at the time did not desire independence, but only wanted a compromise with the King, whereby they would stay in power in their part of the empire and the arrest of “heretics” would be stopped. However, this did not work out. In 1566 there was a social explosion, whereby plebeian masses stormed the Catholic churches in protest against the Inquisition. This explosion made a compromise impossible. The nobility forged an alliance with the merchant bourgeoisie who wanted to get rid of the high taxes that were implemented to finance the wars of Philip II. Backed by the Calvinist masses who fought for the freedom to practise their faith and an end to the Spanish tyranny, the Dutch revolution led to the founding of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands in 1581.

In the Republic there was constantly a power struggle between the Orangists and more republican factions. William of Orange held the position of “Stadtholder”, which meant he replaced the King. As the rule of the King had now ended, the position of Stadtholder was maintained as highest executive and military leader. There was a constant attempt by the princes of Orange to make this position permanent and hereditary, in order to make the Stadtholder of the Netherlands a king in all but name. The Stadtholders of the House of Orange were twice alternated by Stadtholder-less periods, which were ended when the Orangists made use of political and military crises to install a strong Stadtholder regime, backed by the privileged Calvinist church.

The ruling period of the last Stadtholder, William V, who had inherited the position, saw the rise of the Patriot movement, a revolutionary democratic movement influenced by the enlightenment and the ideals of the American Revolution. The Patriots wanted to return to the original values of the republic, and an end to the corruption and nepotism in the Dutch Republic in the 18th century.

The Patriots established popular militias around the country, which were not only armed with weapons, but also with revolutionary democratic ideas. After a failed uprising in 1787, which was crushed with the help from a Prussian regiment, the Patriot leaders fled to France. In 1795, backed by French revolutionary regiments, they returned to the Netherlands to take power in the Batavian Revolution and set up the Batavian Republic.

The developments of the French Revolution had its effects in the Batavian Republic. The Patriots came to power when the most radical phase of the French Revolution had already passed. In France, the Thermidorian reaction came to power, followed by the Directoire, the Consulate, and finally Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor. These power shifts had as result that the French governments supported different coup d’états in the Batavian Republic, until Napoleon in 1806 decided to put his brother, Louis Napoleon, in power in the northern part as “King of Holland”, while the southern part was incorporated in the French Empire.

The first king to rule (part of) the Netherlands in centuries was Napoleon’s brother. However, things did not turn out exactly the way Napoleon wanted. Louis Napoleon took his job as King of Holland quite seriously and tried to represent the interests of the Dutch bourgeoisie. Napoleon in his war with England implemented the Continental System, a trade embargo against England. As the Dutch bourgeoisie suffered under this blockade, Louis Napoleon did not support the policies of his brother, and as a result was removed, with the Netherlands being completely incorporated into the French empire.

After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, the reactionary forces of England, Prussia, Austria and Russia (the Concert of Europe) wanted to create an anti-French buffer state in the Netherlands. They brought back the son of the last stadtholder in order to make him King of the Netherlands. The restoration of the monarchy was part of the struggle against the revolutionary values of republicanism. The Kingdom of the Netherlands thus was established only in 1813, by foreign counter-revolutionary forces.

The role of the Dutch monarchy

While the monarchy in general can be considered a feudal relic, in Dutch history it is intrinsically linked with Dutch Capitalism. The Orange-Nassau family, ever since William the Silent made an agreement with the merchant bourgeoisie, had gained considerable wealth in the “Golden Age” through colonial trade and plunder. In the famous Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC – Dutch East Indian Company), which can be considered as the first multinational and joint stock company, the Orange family had considerable shares and influence.

The first king, William I, played a role in using the new centralised institutions (the result of the Batavian Revolution) to implement a policy of industrialisation in the Netherlands, especially in the southern part which later became Belgium. Therefore he set up different investment companies, into which capital from the Orange family was invested, and multiplied his wealth twenty times over. At the other end of society, there was a process of proletarianisation and pauperisation.

Since Louis Napoleon helped the Dutch bourgeoisie against the unpopular measures of his brother, the bourgeoisie did not have any more objections to having a king. However, as the King had a lot of power, they wanted to check this, especially when William I made some reckless decisions. In 1830 there was social unrest in the southern Netherlands, especially in proletarianised areas like Brussels. The southern bourgeoisie tried to reach a compromise with the government in the north based on a few reforms, but the confrontational stance of William I led to a revolutionary upsurge, which was contained by the southern bourgeoisie by splitting away the southern Netherlands from the north in the new independent state of Belgium.

The loss of the most industrialised part of the Netherlands led to some tensions between the King and the bourgeoisie, but eventually they reached a compromise in the year 1848. The year 1848 was a year of revolutions throughout the whole of Europe. In the Netherlands there was no revolution, but there were demonstrations and riots in some towns. In Amsterdam some exiled German communists linked up with Dutch revolutionary democrats, and distributed propaganda to come to the Dam Square, in front of the Royal Palace. Workers and youth flooded the square, and the cavalry was mobilised to empty the square. This and similar smaller events led the newly crowned King William II to declare that he “from conservative became liberal in one night.” The bourgeois liberals designed a new constitution to reduce the political power of the King, and there was born an alliance which continues until today.

Prince Bernhard facing Lockheed scandal August 1926Prince Bernhard facing Lockheed scandal, August 1926The monarchy, as a capitalist family, is an important pillar of Dutch Capitalism, on the one hand as symbol of “national unity”, on the other hand as an influential family with many foreign ties. The symbol of national unity was utilised in late 1918, where after the end of the First World War there was considerable unrest in the country, with food riots and the setting up of soldiers’ councils, influenced by the German Revolution. With no leadership from the social democrats, the movement ebbed away. When this happened, an Orangist counter-movement was mobilised to unite the country behind Queen Wilhelmina.

Regarding foreign ties, the father of the last queen, Beatrix, Prince Bernhard von Lippe Biesterfeld, played an important role. Himself a former member of Nazi Germany’s SS elite troops, he forged ties with American president Roosevelt (while the Netherlands was mostly oriented towards Britain) and played a key role in setting up the Bilderberg Conference and aligning the Netherlands towards the USA. In the meantime his wife, Queen Juliana, was there as a figurehead, a “people’s queen.”

As Bernhard was a scoundrel with extramarital children, involved in plots and corruption affairs, Beatrix tried to be his clean successor in 1980. It has to be stated that she has quite intelligently cleansed the image of the royal family. Queen Beatrix had played an important role for Dutch capitalism in securing access to authoritarian kingdoms like Oman and Brunei. The Orange family has substantial shares in KLM, Shell and Unilever. At the same time, in her Christmas speeches, she mentioned solidarity, tolerance, and inclusion of immigrants. This has led to the spectacle of many left-wing intellectuals and former radicals to embrace her.

Socialists and the monarchy

The Dutch Socialist Party officially stands for a republic. There is now however a tendency in the leadership to totally shut up about the issue and accept the monarchy de facto. While they always want to distance themselves from the social democratic party (PvdA), they are in fact gradually going the same way.

In the 1930s the SDAP (the PvdA’s predecessor) effectively accepted the monarchy, and eventually the party ended up with its prime ministers saving the monarchy 3 times. The first time was in the 1950s, when Queen Juliana came under influence of the pacifist ideas of faith healer Greet Hofmans, and stated she wanted to make pacifist speeches in the middle of the Cold War. Prince Bernhard threatened divorce, and some old officers even wanted to liquidate the healer. Eventually Hofmans was removed, with the social democratic government of Drees by media control trying to stop the public from knowing about this Dutch Rasputin affair.

Social Democratic prime minister Den Uyl in 1976 also saved the monarchy. Prince Bernhard was found out to have accepted bribes from the American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed. Queen Juliana threatened to step down if Bernhard was put to trial, and Beatrix was not willing to succeed her. Den Uyl saved the monarchy by a compromise in which Bernhard would only lose some positions, but would not go to trial.

The third time the PvdA saved the monarchy was when the current king, Willem Alexander was about to marry his wife Máxima Zorreguieta. It was found out that Máxima’s father, Jorge Zorreguieta was a high standing figure in the Argentinian Junta under Videla, the monstrous regime responsible for the killing of at least 30,000 innocent people. This led to an outrage, as he was to visit the marriage. Prime Minister Kok saved the situation by reaching a deal with Zorreguieta in which he could not visit the official ceremonies, but still was able to come to the Netherlands for family visits.

As we have seen, it was “socialists” of the PvdA who saved the monarchy. Today the Socialist Party wants to get rid of its anti-monarchy image for opportunist reasons. It is true the monarchy is popular, but the content of its popularity has changed. The traditionally strong conservative Orangism has declined. The royal family are a symbol of national unity, but their status has become more like that of a family of friendly celebrities. Queensday for many working people is a nice day off where people walk through town with family or friends, and have some drinks outside while others sell second hand stuff on the streets. This is different from the traditional Orangist nationalism.

The monarchy is an undemocratic pillar of Dutch capitalism, which will be used more and more in these uncertain days of crisis and austerity, as a symbol to “unite the country in these difficult days” when most people are becoming increasingly cynical towards politicians and political parties. Socialists should fight for the abolition of the monarchy. It is a costly, undemocratic, feudal relic which will be used against growing discontent and also possibly against a future left-wing government when it goes “too far”. The King in the end has to sign all laws in order for them to come into effect. While in normal periods the King/Queen signs all laws, there exists constitutionally the option to veto decisions. Conservatives in the 1970s thought they could persuade Queen Juliana to stop the legalisation of abortion, but she did not interfere, as it probably would have led to an outrage. In a situation of “emergency”, as a last resort, it is however possible that this could be used against a left-wing government with socialist policies.

The monarchy is no institution “standing above all parties”; it is clearly a reactionary institution. Socialists should fight for its abolition, and fight for a republic. In the tradition of the Dutch Revolution and the Batavian Revolution, they should now lead the fight for a Socialist Republic of the Netherlands.

Translated from the Dutch origintal: De troonsopvolging en de Nederlandse monarchie (Vonk, Netherlands)