"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

01 May, 2009

Small Country: Significant Trauma - Why the Queen’s Day Parade attack is sure to scar the Dutch psyche

This image from the series "Reigning Queens" © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS

Why the shock of the Queen's Day attack on Queen Beatrix has shaken her subjects to the core

The key challenge for every foreign correspondent is to report accurately from wherever the dateline, without falling into the facile trap of resorting to national stereotype. The Netherlands, with its familiar and easily caricatured iconography of windmills, tulips, clogs and cheese, is a relatively small northern European country, (population 16.5 million) whose heady days of maritime empire are centuries ago and whose guttural language erects yet another barrier for any outsider attempting any meaningful analysis of the contemporary Dutch nation. It is moreover, a society which has been radically altered over the last four decades by unfettered immigration, much of it from Islamic countries.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to underestimate the shock and horror reverberating throughout the Netherlands at yesterday’s – ultimately suicidal – attack on Queen Beatrix and her family, as they travelled in an open-top bus through the central Dutch town of Apeldoorn, home of the main Oranje royal palace, Het Loo. Without exception, today’s headlines in the Dutch papers all signal the end of dreams, the shattering of illusions, disbelief, disgust and discomfort. “Zwart fantoom blaast alle dromen weg” (A black phantom blasts every dream away); “Nationale illusie gesneuveld in Apeldoorn” (A national illusion slain in Apeldoorn); Beatrix: “Heel diep geschokt”.

The country’s leading commentators seem to be taking an unusually long time to gather their thoughts but the on-line message boards have been buzzing with indignant theories and demotic and instinctual apportioning of blame. “The American plague of crazed individual narcissism has arrived!” was one comment in daily de Volkskrant. Another complained about the insensitivity of the media, quick to broadcast footage of the attack on main news programmes, without a prior warning as to its highly disturbing content.

I arrived in Amsterdam in 1985 on my first foreign posting. I was nervous and anxious that my Dutch experience would be as wretched as my gap year, teaching English in a small town in Bavaria. On my first trip to the office, I got hopelessly lost along the city’s central horseshoe of canals and stumbled upon the floating flower market on the Singel. It was April. All I could see was what looked like a protracted rainbow of brightly coloured, perfectly formed tulips. I was hooked.

I lived in the Netherlands, on and off, for almost a decade. I even managed to master – albeit with a still frightful foreign accent – their curiously classical, yet simultaneously colloquial – language. Slowly, I discovered a people startlingly close to their British cousins across the Channel, or the big puddle, as it is affectionately referred to in Dutch. I admired my Dutch friends’ refreshing directness and candour, their dry sense of humour, their robust family ties and their intellectual curiosity and often surprisingly whacky creativity. And, despite my clumsy attempts to mangle their fiendish tongue, I was universally welcomed. The centuries-old alliance between the Low Countries and Britain developed into fervent Anglophilia during the Second World War when the government, eventually led by Gerbrandy was evacuated to London as the Germans invaded their previously neutral neighbours in May 1940.

The Dutch resistance was partially run from London and agents on the ground were heavily indebted to the BBC for communications. British troops’ role in the May 1945 liberation set the seal on an affection which continues, unshaken by any trivialities of EU politics. To this day, German sailors on the Ijsselmeer fly the blue, starred EU ensign, rather than their national colours and most Dutch people, even though they speak perfect German, will use their fluent, accent-free English when replying to German visitors.

I personally believe the Occupation is a vital key to understanding the apparently self-contained Dutch character. The survival instincts, courage and compassion fostered during those five years seem to have lent the Dutch an almost arrogant confidence in their ability to deal with almost any conceivable affront. If my generation has only limited understanding of what our parents and grandparents went through during the Second World War, how much harder do we have to imagine what it must have been like to live, with the Occupiers living next door, with the fight for survival and the temptations, in a time of privation, of collaboration? As a translator, I have had the privilege to work on more than one self-penned tome of memoirs and the extent of the local heroism and courage in all of them is humbling.

The Netherlands is known more for the visual arts than for the literary ones but the Occupation inspired several important lightly fictionalised autobiographical works, among them De Aanslag (The Assault) by Harry Mulisch and my personal favourites, Stripes in the Sky and Drowning by Gerard Durlacher. The Occupation is moreover the subject of the most famous Dutch book of all time, one which has become one of the best-loved books in world literature, Het Achterhuis or Anne Frank’s Diary. The Occupation continues to reverberate artistically, in works such as Paul Verhoeven’s surprising 2006 return to credible film with Zwartboek (Black Book).

The other key factor in understanding the implications of the Queen’s Day attack is the immense affection in which the Royal Family, and particularly Beatrix, herself is held. The family remains remarkably accessible to the Dutch population. Who could possibly imagine the entire British Royal Family taking to a charabanc for a parade on a holiday? A holiday which is anticipated and enjoyed as a true Volksfest – a proper people’s party, with free beer, spontaneous jumble sales and obligatory naff Orange accessories, cheerfully and willingly donned by all.

Of course, there have been regular mutterings about the Dutch royals, since Queen Wilhelmina decided she might feel safer in London, leaving her loyal subjects to deal with the invading Germans. Beatrix herself courted unpopularity in 1966 by marrying a German, Claus van Amsberg (1926-2002). More recent tittle tattle has concerned the putative activities of Argentinian-born Crown Princess Máxima’s father during the Videla dictatorship and the suitability of alleged gangster’s moll, Mabel Wisse Smit, now the wife of Prince Friso.

An excellent English-language portal into Dutch news is the website of the venerable daily NRC Handelsblad which also has clear links to the equally professional English language offerings of Germany's Spiegel-Online and Denmark’s Politiken.