A House Divided


Last week was one of my favourite times of year in the Netherlands: Carnival, an annual celebration held in the run-up to Easter, during which half the country braves the cold and rain to enjoy several days of drinking, costumed parades, marching bands and more drinking.

I say “half the country” because Carnival is only celebrated in the south of the Netherlands, in the region between the River Maas and the Belgian border – a reflection of the traditional divide between the predominantly Protestant north of the country and the largely Catholic south. This religious divide is a topic I explore extensively in my book, both because it explains a lot about how the Netherlands developed its unique culture, and because writing about it gave me an excuse to spend several days drinking beer while dressed as a tiger.

I won’t repeat the whole story here, but suffice it to say that until relatively recently, the Netherlands was quite starkly divided on religious lines, with Dutch Catholics and Protestants using different schools, hospitals, football clubs and even newspapers depending on which faith they belonged to. Dividing the population into these faith-based groups – known as zuilen, or pillars – made it possible to ensure peace and equality between communities which previously had been mired in a bloody war.

In recent years these pillars have largely dissolved, thanks to the growing popularity of atheism, and the growth of a more mobile, more educated workforce which blurred the traditional boundaries. However, the pillars have left behind an enduring legacy, including a national culture in which people attach huge importance to the need for discussion and compromise. People will happily spend hours debating even the most mundane of issues, and in Dutch politics there’s little of the partisan point-scoring seen in countries like the UK. You could even argue that many of the things which the Netherlands is now most famous for – homosexual equality, for example – are partly a result of the long tradition of giving each minority group an equal say, and ensuring that their rights are protected.

Although a majority of Dutch are now atheists, there are still places where conservative values reign supreme, such as in the staunchly Protestant Dutch ‘Bible Belt’. I’ve also been surprised to find that despite the Netherlands’ reputation as a freewheeling country where anything goes, there’s still quite a strong conservative streak running through Dutch society, with people attaching huge importance to hard work and family, and frowning on anything which smacks of overindulgence. Woe betide anyone who dares show off their new sports car.

This year, I went to two Carnival celebrations – one in the ancient city of Breda, to the south of Rotterdam, and the other in Eindhoven, a large southern city best known as the home of the Dutch electrical giant Philips. Both cities have a reputation for holding particularly rowdy celebrations, and they didn’t disappoint – tens of thousands of people had turned out in costume for vast street parties which would put the Notting Hill Carnival to shame. A week later, my hangover has eased just about enough to upload some pictures here. If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy the book…

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