August 2014

Diane Simmons


Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

The title of Russell Shorto's readable, thoughtful, and personally engaged Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City immediately calls to mind two facts every student traveller knows: people aren't going to Amsterdam coffee houses for the espresso, and those red-lit display windows aren't advertising underwear.

Shorto, who has lived in Amsterdam for several years, is certainly aware of both the sex trade and the legal status of drugs -- results of Amsterdam's famous "tolerance." But his title refers to something else, something much more complicated. Liberalism, as he explores, it begins with the "fault line" between modern and medieval, and the break with the idea that all "knowledge and power" stemmed from the Church and the monarchy.

For a variety of reasons, as Shorto's book explores, the Dutch came early to "liberalism," and to the concepts of both communalism and individualism. These -- along with the cosmopolitanism of the Dutch Golden Age -- produced a concept that the Dutch call gedogen. Tolerance. Or, as Shorto explains it, the idea that, yes, this may be questionable behavior but since we know we can't stop it, we will allow it.

To glimpse the Dutch today, we need to realize that long before red-lit windows and hash-lit coffee shops, the Dutch were different. One difference was the result of the battle to claim their land from the sea, a battle that, as Simon Schama writes in The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, "liberated as well as intimidated." In the rest of Europe, communities depended upon a lord for protection. But in the Low Countries, security came from the community that worked together to keep up keep up sea defenses. As a result, the Dutch had neither the "functional need nor the historical justification" for the sort of top down rule that flourished elsewhere.

Despite a group ethic so ingrained that, as Shorter writes, people still use the term poldermodel ("polder" referring to reclaimed land) on an everyday basis, the Dutch weren't socialists. Having fought so hard to reclaim and hold their land, they were firmly tethered to a sense of their individual rights, and landowners busily bought and sold. The non-feudal Dutch cities, whose own organizations were key to the land's survival, bargained with local powers for their liberties in a way that made them "forerunners of modern political rights and freedoms."

But the sea wasn't the only sixteenth-century enemy the Dutch banded together to defeat. The other was Catholic Spain. So determined was Philip II to stop Protestantism from thriving in the Low Countries that he brought in a standing army and along with it the Inquisition. These brutal efforts alienated the Dutch from their own religious culture in a way, Shorto writes, that was "without precedent or parallel."

An example of this communal alienation, if such a term may be allowed, can be seen in the Rijksmuseum today, where Dirck van Delen's painting Iconoclasm in Church shows a group of well-dressed men methodically working together to topple the statue of a saint from its niche high on a church wall. They wait patiently, rope in hand, as one of their number climbs a ladder to tighten the noose around the saint's neck. To the side is the torso of another saint, whose head and upper body have already been hacked away.

The Spanish were finally driven out, and during the Golden Age of the seventeenth century, the legacy of both individualism and communalism produced a society of remarkable wealth. The Dutch East India company ships brought back the riches of the world, prompting Amsterdam residents to create what Shorto claims was the world's first stock market, and to dig the canals that allowed goods to be easily transported throughout the city. Today the canals are full of tourist boats that glide through this northern Venice, allowing visitors to gaze at the tall narrow townhouses built by the very wealthy and the comfortably well off. Accompanying the new wealth and cosmopolitanism, enjoyed by a wide cross-section of the population, was the development of the secular art of Rembrandt and others. And it is at this time that the Dutch would craft the "groundbreaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe."

But the famous Dutch tolerance has a darker side; it comes as surprise to read of Amsterdam's dismal failure to protect its Jews in World War II. The Dutch proved quite "helpful" to the Nazis, Shorto writes; their system of ID cards, which allowed Jews to be efficiently rounded up, is "one of the darkest statistics of the war." Marnix Croes, in an article posted on the Yad Vashem website, corroborates this view, writing that "the Dutch reacted to the German occupation, including the persecution of the Jews, with a high degree of cooperation."

And Dutch Jews had a strikingly low survival rate. While seventy-five percent of French and sixty percent of Belgium Jews survived the Nazi occupation, only twenty-seven percent of Dutch Jews were alive at the end of the war. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam, Shorto writes, an estimated 58,000 were dead by the time the war was over, most in concentration camps.

As a result there were mixed emotions about the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, the record, as the world knows, of a Jewish family living in hiding in a canal house on Prinsenstraat, their survival made possible by non-Jewish friends. Many in Amsterdam, as Shorter writes, "sympathize with the Holocaust survivor who called the book 'a public relation exercise,'" a Dutch attempt to gloss over what really happened during the war.

This wartime experience, Shorto suggests, casts a different light on our understanding of the famous Dutch tolerance, suggesting that it is "less an ideal than a practicality." If expedience is the rationale, then "when circumstances change, so can the notion of tolerance." The Nazis, it seems, were beneficiaries of gedogen.

The fact that so many Dutch Jews perished created a "deep psychic wound," resulting in a powerful connection between World War II and the countercultural and civil rights revolutions of the 1960s. In Amsterdam, it was a protest over the marriage of a royal princess to a former Hitler-Jugend that kicked off the Provo (for provoke) movement. Activists spread rumors that the water supply had been laced with LSD, and smoke bombs obscured the royal parade route, producing a police over-reaction and public relations disaster. The Provos went on to propose various new ideas for the city, including a plan to supply free bicycles and another to give women free contraceptives, both to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to further the idea that it was irresponsible to enter marriage as a virgin.

"For better or worse," Shorto writes, Amsterdam has, since the war, been even more committed to expanding personal freedoms than before: "The horror of what had happened was real," he says, "but the conditions for acting, and bringing change were in place as they were nowhere else."

Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto
ISBN: 978-0307743756
368 pages