What happened to the Holland I knew?

I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s, and not much happened. Almost the whole country ate dinner at home at 6pm (generally meat and potatoes), and voted for boring technocrats. People kept their curtains open so that you could look inside as you cycled past, but it was seldom worth it.

Whoever happened to be running the Netherlands was very popular. The prime minister typically cycled from his terraced house to work without bodyguards. He ran almost no risk of ever being voted out of office. When he went abroad, he liked to exhort backward countries – the US, say, or the USSR – to follow Holland’s moral lead. He worried about the Germans next door falling for the far right again. But mostly, Dutch politics was about giving guilders to traditional Dutch interest groups: people too stressed to work, lifelong students and refugees from less blessed countries.

Dutch life was gentle. As the German poet Heinrich Heine supposedly said (though nobody can find the reference): “When the world ends I’ll go to Holland, because everything happens there 20 years later.”

Well, it’s all happening now. Dutch life remains pretty gentle, and yet the country has fallen for the far right. The new government has made a pact with the anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders. It relies on his votes to survive. Wilders favours banning the Koran, levying a “head-rag tax” on the Islamic veil and stopping immigration from Muslim countries. He’s currently on trial in Amsterdam for hate speech. What happened to the country where I grew up?

The platinum blond Wilders is a symptom of a trauma: the transformation of the Netherlands in recent decades. By the quiet standards of postwar Europe, this country has changed fast. Take the suddenness of immigration. In 1961, precisely three Moroccans lived legally in the Netherlands. Only in the 1970s did large numbers of foreigners start arriving. Today more than a tenth of the Dutch population is of non-western origin. Many are Muslims. People who vote for Wilders care that their local high street now has a mosque on it, and phone shops with cheap deals to Ivory Coast, and teenagers of Arab origin hanging around.

But the date that Dutch politics changed was September 11 2001. That sounds trite, but 9/11 had a bigger impact here than in other European countries, because it ended the almost unique Dutch holiday from history. This placid country had avoided civil war, revolutions and the first world war. No Dutch politician had been assassinated since 1672. The one intrusion of history had been the Nazi occupation, but its brutality was very targeted: the 98 per cent of Dutch people who were neither Jews nor active resisters were in little danger.

The consequence is that the Dutch have unusually low tolerance for violence and extremism. That’s why the peaks of Dutch anxiety over Islam have coincided with violence: first 9/11, then the murder in 2002 of the pioneering far-right leader, Pim Fortuyn, and later the murder of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker who had made a silly little film against Islam.

Wilders, who also made a silly little film against Islam, now lives with 24-hour protection. But his voters worry too about violence in ordinary life. Wilders’ supporters like to say that “you can’t even go down the street in Amsterdam any more”, a notion that baffles actual inhabitants of Amsterdam. Furthermore, the attacks of 9/11 sucked the Dutch military into two wars in Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. So in this decade, violence associated with Muslims suddenly entered Dutch public debate.

Nowhere else in Europe has the far right done so well out of 9/11. The day the planes hit the towers, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark already had substantial far-right parties in parliament. The Dutch far right had zero seats. Today Wilders has 16 per cent of Dutch voters. That dwarfs the far-right Sweden Democrats, who finally broke into parliament last month with 5.7 per cent of the vote, not to mention the British National Party with zero seats.

Moreover, most European far-right parties are shunned by their civilised rivals. Nobody will govern with Vlaams Belang in Flanders, for instance, but the Dutch mainstream has accepted Wilders. The country that once saw itself as a moral “guide land” is becoming a pariah. Indonesia’s ambassador to The Hague accused Wilders of “sowing hate”, and when the Indonesian president cancelled a state visit, Dutch newspapers said it was because of Wilders. Now it’s the Germans who worry about their far-right neighbours: Germany’s defence minister called Wilders “a charlatan”, and Chancellor Angela Merkel ticked him off for rejecting Islam.

The resistible rise of Geert Wilders, the German playwright Brecht would have called it. It all feels unnecessary. The Netherlands remains practically the safest country in human history. Yet Wilders’ voters seem to live in terror.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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