In the spring of 1980, all the schoolchildren in the small Dutch town where I lived were taken to the town hall and taught the national anthem. National anthems weren’t heard much in the Europhile, anti-nationalist Netherlands of the day, and it was the one time I remember learning it. The reason: on April 30 1980 Princess Beatrix was to become Queen.
Next Tuesday, April 30, the 75-year-old Beatrix is abdicating to give her son Willem-Alexander a chance. By now she is as familiar a presence to many Dutch people as their own grandmother. Her silhouette, with helmet-like hair, is such a fixed point on the national landscape that the word “beatrixkapsel” (“Beatrix hairstyle”) has entered the dictionary. More than that: Beatrix embodies Dutchness. Of course that’s a monarch’s job, but Beatrix does it more successfully than most of her colleagues, evidence of which is that she became the most powerful, expensive and possibly most popular monarch in Europe. Thanks largely to the legacy of the second world war, she came to unite the Netherlands – to the irritation of the Dutch far right.
The Oranje royal family had a tricky first few centuries. The 16th-century Dutch Republic was the first European country to question the divine right of kings; the Oranjes were mere “stadholders”. After graduating to royalty in 1813, they rarely bothered to woo the nation. Beatrix’s late 19th-century ancestor Willem III (“greatest debauchee of the age”, wrote The New York Times) liked to stand on the balcony of his Swiss villa on Lake Geneva and open his bathrobe when a tour boat steamed past. In Dutch slang, he was a “pencil salesman”.
Before 1940, the determinedly Calvinist Oranjes put off many Dutch Catholics and socialists. In 1937 some socialists boycotted the wedding of Beatrix’s parents, the future Queen Juliana and the German Prince Bernhard, after the Nazi “Horst Wessel Song” was played in Bernhard’s honour at a pre-wedding gala.
But the second world war made the Oranjes. Admittedly, many Dutch people were upset when the royals fled the Netherlands after the German invasion of 1940. Little Beatrix spent the war in Canada. But her grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, made 34 wartime broadcasts from London on Radio Oranje to a nation listening secretly under the bedclothes. Spiritually, Wilhelmina became the Dutch Churchill (whom she also resembled physically). Bernhard, despite having been a prewar member of the Nazi party, SS and SA, was cast in Dutch propaganda as head of the national resistance. The concepts of Oranjes and nation soon merged. A German Wehrmacht report in 1942 called the Dutch “extraordinarily Oranje-inclined … more even than prewar”. In 1945 the Oranjes returned home practically as holy figures, even to Catholics.
By 1980 the sheen had faded, after some spectacular scandals. However, Beatrix unleashed a charm offensive. Highbrow and arts-loving, she targeted fellow members of the cultural elite. Intellectuals and artists were invited to royal salons. Today, almost every educated Dutch person I know has met Beatrix, or at least Willem-Alexander.
Beatrix’s prejudices were those of the cultural elite. As early as 1961 she had extolled a “united continent”. She was also a green, a multiculturalist and (as the US politician Jesse Jackson indiscreetly revealed in 1983) she wanted to delay placing US cruise missiles in Europe.
Her left-liberal views mattered, because Beatrix wielded power. She met the prime minister every week, took elaborate notes, reminded him what he’d said on previous occasions and gave her opinion. She could also summon ministers for meetings. In public she seldom talked politics but behind closed doors Dutch politicians knew exactly what she wanted. Every politician understood that she outranked him in national status and political experience (she has sat in the powerful Council of State since 1956), and that he would meet her again at the next royal reception. That inclined him to listen, especially as until last year Beatrix was involved in constructing each new governing coalition. Unlike Queen Elizabeth, this workaholic political junkie reads entire laws before signing them.
Beatrix’s net political effect was probably to make Dutch politics more pro-European and pro-immigrant. This annoyed the far right that arose after September 11 2001. The anti-immigrant leader Pim Fortuyn once publicly advised her to retire, and his successor Geert Wilders often sniped at her. When she wore a headscarf to tour an Omani mosque last year, Wilders called it “a sad masquerade”. These attacks were self-destructive because in any contest with Beatrix about who represents Dutchness, she will win. Her approval ratings exceed 80 per cent. One mark of Dutch acceptance: the Oranjes are now Europe’s most expensive monarchy. They cost taxpayers €39.4m last year, more than the Windsors and almost four times more than Spain’s royals, calculates the Belgian professor Herman Matthijs.
Even many Dutch people now think the Oranjes’ power has become a touch unmodern. Willem-Alexander – a more lightweight figure – agreed on TV last week to accept a purely ceremonial role if asked. Beatrix may have been the last European monarch to be more than a figurehead.