How do Italians think of the Netherlands?

XIII. German-Dutch relations in transition

There are countless clichés and prejudices around the German-Dutch relations that sometimes stand in the way of a better understanding. Imagine the anecdote described at the beginning in reverse: A German has been working in Amsterdam for a week and says to his direct subordinate: “This is very important, please finish it by tomorrow.” The Dutch thinks, oh God, yes another arrogant German. And the German probably thinks his new employee wants to boycott him because he has something against Germans. It's just a different way of dealing with each other and formulating assignments.

One hears again and again that many Dutch people are anti-German. What is interpreted as a dismissive attitude, however, as the example shows, often arises from cultural differences and different conventions.

And of course there is no such thing as “the” Dutch image of Germany or “the” German or “the” Dutch. "The Dutch image of Germany is far more differentiated than Germans often think," says Friso Wielenga, director of the Center for Dutch Studies at the University of Münster. In the last 15 years in particular it has become clear that many Dutch people do not agree with a blanket anti-German stance.

Two events show this. In response to the arson attacks in Solingen in 1993, over a million Dutch people sent a preprinted postcard to the German Chancellor. On it was the sentence: "Ik Ben Woedend!", I am angry. The Germans were amazed at the raised index finger of their western neighbors. But the postcard campaign aroused some resentment in the country itself, many Dutch people found the campaign of their compatriots rather unsuitable - they just didn't send a postcard to put the picture into perspective.

In the same year as the postcard campaign, the so-called Clingersael study was published. According to this study, more than 50% of Dutch schoolchildren have an extremely negative image of Germany, although very few know the country and knowledge of the subject has proven to be very limited. The tenor was accordingly: Unknown makes unpopular. Although the study had some methodological deficiencies and the results are quite controversial in specialist circles, the stereotype of the anti-German Dutchman has solidified in Germany. Among other things, this was due to a rather one-sided article that appeared in Spiegel magazine in 1994 and described the alleged Dutch hatred of Germans in a melancholy tone.

The events of 1993 triggered a lively debate. The postcard campaign is now regarded as a negative example of a feeling of moral superiority widespread in the country - which, as the historian Hermann von der Dunk puts it, is the downside of the awareness of one's own small size. The Dutch reservations and prejudices are typical when looking at a neighboring, much larger country. So the whole thing is also a question of perception: what we receive as a blanket anti-German stance can largely be traced back to domestic Dutch problems.

In the early 1990s, the Dutch government therefore intensified its efforts to develop knowledge about Germany and to promote a more nuanced view. After all, diplomatic relations between the two countries were and are excellent, as well as economic contacts. In addition to the existing exchange programs, a number of new initiatives have been launched: annual German-Dutch conferences at government level, a number of new exchange programs for schoolchildren, students and journalists, increased research on Germany and German-Dutch relations. “Germany after 1945” even advanced to become a high school graduation subject in history lessons. Before that, the material about Germany was mainly limited to the period from 1933 to 1945 - no wonder that many students had only poorly developed ideas about the state of democracy in the neighboring country.

These efforts were supported by the German side. In 1995 Helmut Kohl paid two visits to the Netherlands, and in the same year Roman Herzog also traveled to the neighboring country. In 2001 the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) participated in the financing of an extensive German program run by the Dutch government over several years. The cooperation has also been expanded at the state level: Since 1999, the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia has been pursuing a targeted expansion of cooperation with the Dutch government.

There are first signs that these efforts have paid off. A study published in 2000 by the Groningen sociologist Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven found that the Germans are now even ahead of the French and Italians in the race for the liking of the Dutch. Other reasons can be given for this development - besides the state-stimulated initiatives.

An important aspect is likely to be the long-awaited recognition, which from the German side applies above all to the Dutch “economic miracle”. What is meant is the polder model, which is actually not a model at all, but a name for the way in which political negotiations have been carried out in the Netherlands for centuries: you coordinate, the various parties look for a solution together and agree on a compromise - also in 1982 in Wassenaar, when employers and trade unions negotiated with each other and agreed on lower wages and more part-time work. Consensus was the magic word here, and rising employment figures were the result.

The news magazines Spiegel and Focus devoted cover stories to the polder model in 1998, and German economists were sent to Holland on educational leave. It hardly mattered that around one million older jobseekers were cheated away from the statistics and that the model can hardly be transferred to Germany.

A more positive image of Germany is also due to the coverage in the Dutch press, which has reported extensively from the new capital since the government moved to Berlin and conveys the image of a modern and diverse country. The weekend supplements of the newspapers now often contain large articles about art and culture in Berlin, glamorous capital city events or controversial architecture projects. The political reporting is also extremely differentiated, which is expressed in nuanced reports on German right-wing extremism or the left-wing past of German ministers. And for some time now, the city of Berlin has enjoyed the reputation of being a true Mecca for going out among Dutch young people.

The change in mood in the Netherlands is accompanied by a more open approach to one's own history. As a seafaring and trading nation, the country has grown rich through colonies and the slave trade. However, until a few years ago, confrontation with one's own past was limited to a small group of intellectuals. The use of the language is informative: up until about ten years ago the Dutch war against Indonesian independence was euphemistically called "police action" even in leading newspapers - the term goes back to the idea that order should have been brought about in the colonies at that time. There is also increasing debate about one's own role during the German occupation, and the myth of nationwide resistance has given way to a nuanced image.

Is everything going to be okay now? No. With such an unequal relationship between two neighboring countries, relations are always burdened by certain tensions. The German-Dutch relations are so close that the impression of dependency easily arises on the Dutch side - and the Dutch, on the other hand, will always want to set themselves apart. This demarcation is important for one's own identity, and developments in Germany are closely monitored. "The Dutch seismograph is certainly sensitive, sometimes over-sensitive, to events in the largest neighboring country," says Friso Wielenga. “The Netherlands has gradually got its other large neighbor, the North Sea, under control with high dykes; In relation to Germany, the Dutch have no levees, but rather a low pain threshold, which, however, cannot be equated with a general anti-German mood. "
Frictions and small irritations are part of it, and it is time to come to terms with the bilateral reality. But you can always try to face the tensions and differences with humor. One should cultivate the art of benevolently teasing: “We get angry - in all friendship,” suggests Bernd Müller.

Author: Ute Schürings
January 2008