Why am I writing about the infamous Dutch “Disaster Year,” today? Though today marks merely the half-way mark of this calendar year, I have a sense that for decades to come, and quite possibly for centuries, this year, Anno Domini 2020, may well be known by an epithet such as “The Disaster Year.”
In Dutch history, the year 1672 has from that time to the present been known as “Het Rampjaar,” “The Disaster Year.” So many catastrophes and calamities befell the Dutch Republic in that year, that to the Netherlanders of that day and later, the whole year merited the description “Disaster.” The Dutch today describe their forebears of 1672 as “Het volk redeloos, de regering radeloos, en het land reddeloos;” “The people, irrational; the government, irresponsible; the country, irredeemable.”
Prior to 1672, the tiny nation had seemed to be enjoying a charmed and fortunate existence: After decades of struggle, the United Provinces of The Netherlands had finally achieved independence from Spanish rule and in 1648 had secured international recognition as a nation. Unusually, in an age of emperors and kings and princes, the United Provinces formed a republic to govern themselves; this proved a brilliant boon to the nation.
The governments of monarchs were notoriously bad risks for money lenders, for if a king died in debt, his debts passed with him. But a republic, well that was another thing all together. A republic, like a corporation, is intended to be immortal. This stability also means that a republic cannot simply shed its debts upon the death of a leader. So the Dutch Republic quickly became known as a uniquely good risk for money-lending. Basically, the Dutch Republic had a really high credit score, and the result was that it could borrow money far more cheaply than the great kingdoms around it. Wars cost lots and lots of money.
Thus it was that the tiny Dutch Republic could rival England and France and the sundry German potentates on fields of battle, and utterly outdo these rivals in the commercial arena. Small though she was, the Dutch Republic in the 17th Century sailed the largest merchant fleet in the world, and a navy that was numerically on par with France and England, and which had by far the fastest, most maneuverable ships. This is why the reach of The Netherlands extended from the West Indies, where today’s Kingdom of The Netherlands still holds sovereign possessions, to the East Indies and from New York (“Nieuw Amsterdam,” originally) to Cape Town. Such a trading empire also afforded the ability of the urban middle class of the Dutch Republic to become the wealthiest in the world, allowing them to build comfortable urban residences and to become patrons of a luminous constellation of portraitists and landscape painters of unsurpassed ability so that their compact and efficient homes could be adorned with artworks.
But “Het Rampjaar” changed everything. In the wake of the Disaster Year, Prince William of Orange and his supporters gained control of the government allowing William to be granted the title of Stadtholder, “keeper of the state,” and act as a de facto monarch. Though the Dutch Republic was not destroyed — it would officially persist until the time of Napoleon some 130 years later — it became less and less meaningful and finally yielded to a royal kingdom in the early 19th Century, a status it retains today.
So what happened during Het Rampjaar? In the main, too many wars on too many fronts happened simultaneously. England, France, and a coalition of German Princes and Electors all attacked The Netherlands, and the invading armies conquered much of the nation’s territory. Cities were pillaged, immense stores of goods were looted or burned in merchants’ warehouses, people were forced to refugee to safety, and civil disorder completely disrupted normal trade and commerce. Of particular note is that tensions which had strained the Republic’s politics for generations, the conflicting desires of some to retain their republic, and the aims of others to install a proper royal monarch, exploded.
Johan DeWitt, the “Raadpensionaris” of the Republic (“Prime Minister,” effectively) and his brother were attacked at the instigation of Admiral Cornelius Tromp, by a mob of Orangists — supporters of Prince William of Orange who were in the pay of Tromp — who tore the DeWitt brothers from limb to limb and are said to have roasted and eaten their flesh! After two generations of unparalleled prosperity and success, the Dutch were unprepared for defeat and temperamentally unsuited to cope with it, and the nation was riven at precisely the time when it could least afford any disunity.
Of course, the Dutch Republic was, in the end, utterly lost, but The Netherlands remains a vital and vibrant nation to this day. Despite the upheavals of the Disaster Year, the country did not vanish; the people did not fade away.
So, why am I writing about Het Rampjaar today? Precisely because 2020, may well be long known by an epithet such as “The Disaster Year.” While the United States of America has not been beset by multiple foreign invaders – thanks be! — we have seen an almost unrelieved stream of incomprehensible crises and often inexplicable action and unfathomable utterances from our leadership at every level. Far worse, in many ways, we have also seen incomprehensible inaction and utter silence from our leadership especially when leadership was most desperately needed. Too, protests against racism have been condemned while undeniable racism has been praised from the very top of our government, and our leadership still declines to take any meaningful action at all. And with every action Americans make being framed as a purely political litmus test, and considerable portion of our population declaring their complete lack of concern for the well-being of others in this country, the pandemic rages unabated. A mask is too much to ask. So, as many urban areas remain tense and volatile, as the international community works to literally isolate the U.S., as the number of cases of COVID-19 continue to rise at alarming rates, and the Butcher’s Bill continues to climb, the nearly 350 year old observation seems, tragically, frightfully fitting:
“The people, irrational; the government, irresponsible; the country, irredeemable.”
Flower Mound, Texas
We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds, but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through a quarter-inch of human skull.
— Charles F. Kettering