‘Tolerance’ is a tag-line often associated with Amsterdam and Dutch society, and has been for a long time. Here, we explore some of the possibl origins of this famous reputation which the Dutch have carried for hundreds of years.
Tolerance is supposedly so deeply ingrained in Dutch culture that, in the words of sociologist, Peter van Rooden, the 17th century Dutch Republic was already famous as a ‘tolerant haven in an intolerant Europe.’ Not much of this reputation has changed today, especially as regards Amsterdam. Liberal approaches towards sex and softdrugs, as well as equal-rights for same-sex couples, are often seen as indicative of a society that is still more progressive than the rest of Europe.
But where does this all come from? Numerous scholars have investigated the origins of Dutch tolerance and, like any scholarly pursuit; it has proven a topic that has aroused much conflicting debate and discussion. However, there are some firm ideas as to where the perceptions of Dutch tolerance came from, and they are notions which inform us greatly about the city as it is today.
1. The need to work together.
The idea of tolerance has not always been a dominant tenet of Dutch society. However, the seeds for its growth have existed ever since people started to claim land in this part of the world. The land which the Netherlands is built on is largely of the wet and swampy variety. Over a quarter of the country lies below sea level, and it has only been the mass engineering works of the inhabitants that has kept civilisation here ‘afloat’.
Back in the day, if you were living in a little Dutch village which was likely to flood, and the only way to protect your village was to go and build a dyke, then that’s what you would do. While building your dyke, it didn’t matter if the person next to you was of another religion, ethnic background or somebody you had petty arguments with in the past. As long as they were next to you holding a shovel, then their presence was a positive thing, and you would put aside your differences for the greater good of the community.
2. The Fight for Religious Freedom
In what was the most defining event in the Netherland’s history, the Dutch spent eighty years fighting against the Spanish, who occupied that part of Europe as part of the Holy Roman Empire. This became a war between the Protestant Calvinism of the Dutch rebels, and the oppressive Catholicism of the Spanish. It was a fight for religious freedom. Once the rebels were victorious in 1648, and the Dutch Republic had been established, it became a Protestant Calvinist stronghold whose rulers were seen as relatively progressive advocates of the individual liberty to choose one’s own religion. This doesn’t mean that the general public was particularly tolerant. Catholics, Lutherans, Jews and others were still persecuted in various parts of the Netherlands. Tolerance, however, did start to diffuse into the mentality of certain regions. Amsterdam,as always, was the most notable of these. Officially, Roman Catholicism was outlawed in 1618, during the reformation and not lifted until the Catholic emancipation of 1813. However, Catholics were still permitted to practise their faith, albeit with discretion and largely in secret throughout Amsterdam.
Although it took many years for this tolerance to cement itself as a feature of the Amsterdam mindset, it has expressed itself in modern times in the form of such progressive approaches to issues such as same-sex marriage and the right to consume cannabis.
3. The Business Acumen of Tolerance
Amsterdam was a merchant’s paradise, and the men who ran Amsterdam were the most powerful men in the Netherlands. They led the drive towards global trade, which became the essential factor that led to the world-wide ‘business empire’ established by the Dutch across the 17th century.
A part of the reason why these leaders of the new Dutch republic appeared to be so progressive in their approach to tolerance is that they realised the good business sense of doing so. Dutch tolerance has been referred as value-neutral. What this means is that someone need not have been judged by pre-existing attributes such as religion, race or ethnicity, but were judged by their worth in business. The inherent value of someone was neutral, until otherwise changed through the conduct or misconduct of business.
The mass immigration of Jews into Amsterdam in the late 16th century is a case which highlights this point. Ostracised and persecuted across much of Europe, Sephardic Jews found a safe-haven in Amsterdam. This is not to say that they were welcomed with open arms, but they were not shunned. Their value to society as an ethnic group was neutral. Their business worth, on the other hand, was immense. Their world-wide network, skill and knowledge in business, especially in the diamond and tobacco industries, gave them worth to the merchant based society of Amsterdam. The result was that European Jews found a city that would not persecute them and, over time, this contributed greatly to the reputation of tolerance which we have today.
The darker side of ‘value-neutrality’ can also be found in Dutch business dealings at this time. The slave trade was one which the Netherlands dominated. They jumped on the abolition bandwagon much later than many European countries, and made a vast amount of wealth by dealing in
people. This is because those people, as value-neutral, were commodities in business. They had no pre-existing value connected to their race or skin colour, or as human beings.
Tolerance as an ethical notion had little to do with its introduction into the Dutch public mindset. The value-neutrality of business, however, did. Fortunately, slavery was eventually abolished in the 1860s. As regarded Jewish Amsterdam, their integration into Amsterdam society eventually contributed to the amazingly multi-cultural society which we have today.
It should be noted that the last decade has seen the debate about Dutch tolerance intensify. Many people argue that the Dutch are not as tolerant as their reputation would suggest. Regardless, this reputation undoubtedly exists, and it has done for hundreds of years. Hopefully it will continue for hundreds more.
Joe Wegecsanyi, AmsterDO