In late January, protests and riots against COVID-19 lockdown measures in the Netherlands drew attention from international audiences, taking many by surprise. Described by the Dutch police as the “worst rioting in 40 years,” it was a response to the first curfew the country has seen since the Second World War. Now, more violence and what appears to be a deliberate attack on a coronavirus testing center have caused further shock. The Netherlands is well established at the heart of orderly Northern Europe, bound by welfare-state solidarity and reserved, measured behavior. However, its populist subculture is news to no one. Radical and conservative elements, as well as a culture of Dutch exceptionalism, existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has undoubtedly stirred social tensions in an unprecedented fashion.
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As the curfew remains in place, most activities are restricted, including the shuttering of non-essential businesses and shops (closed since December), restaurants (closed since November) and gyms. Schools are only recently back in session after being closed in December, and only as of Wednesday, March 3, have contact professions been allowed to open on a limited basis, with stores also taking appointments for shopping trips.
After suffering some of the worst rates of COVID-19 infections in the second European wave at the end of 2020, the Netherlands is watching numbers rise again. However, a poll in the third week of February indicated that 45% of Dutch citizens believe lockdown measures would be relaxed. How the government responds to this pandemic is most likely being swayed by the fact that national elections are coming up in less than two weeks.
The unique social dynamics of the Netherlands are important for understanding the social sentiment surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. Firstly, it should be noted that the Netherlands took a different approach to many European counterparts at the start of the pandemic. Referred to as laissez-faire by some, there was never a total lockdown experienced by Spain or Italy. Of course, when the first round of lockdown measures hit Europe, schools, restaurants and businesses were closed. However, while citizens were encouraged to respect social distancing and limit gatherings, as well as to stay home as much as possible, there were neither explicit measures, such as how many times a day one could go outdoors, nor any regulation of them. Prime Minister Mark Rutte called this “an intelligent lockdown.” The Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to make masks obligatory, as late as December last year.
This is perhaps due to the culture of Dutch exceptionalism or tolerance: no need to enforce or dictate rules to independent citizens so long as everyone peacefully goes about their business. As Sarah Bracke explains, Dutch exceptionalism can be understood as pertaining to “a notion of toleration, which is historically linked to its particular arrangement of secularization and later on, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, gained a strong resonance in relation to sexual politics.”
The Netherlands has been known for its “coffee shop” culture where recreational use of soft drugs is openly tolerated, and it has legalized prostitution, euthanasia and gay marriage far in advance of many other countries. Such a culture, which is often criticized as being overly idealized, can prove resistant to what could be viewed as over-regulation of the private sphere through constrictive measures necessitated by the global pandemic.
What is perhaps less directly related to but is more illustrative of the social tensions exacerbated by the pandemic is the history of radical-right and conservative presence in the country. Throughout the world, it seems that populist movements against COVID-19 measures and conspiracy theories relating to the pandemic are often led by right-wing factions or adherents. Populist anti-Islam or immigrant politicians or parties have proliferated in the Netherlands in the past decades. Geert Wilders, who founded the nationalist, far-right populist Freedom Party in 2006, is one of the best-known faces in Dutch politics.
In fact, Dutch politicians often reference immigrants and minority ethnic groups in their rhetoric. While Dutch culture and identity are purportedly tolerant, there has been a constant and evidenced critique from academia and civil society that institutions and society remain exclusionary toward those who fall within the category of “allochtoon” (not from here) versus “autochtoon” (from here). Neoliberal and nationalist-populist parties reflect and mutually reinforce these alleged biases.
A peek into the perspective of those who attest to discrimination on a daily basis is interesting and illuminative, even if it may not be statistically representative of Dutch culture or even an entirely objective account. The Amsterdam Confessions of a Shallow Man website, for instance, is authored by an expat living in Amsterdam who presents a bemused apparisal of Dutch life and moderates a large Facebook group where members joke, critique or celebrate Dutch culture. With over 8,000 members, it often serves as an outlet for those who feel discriminated against.
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For example, members share when they have been told to “go back to their country” alongside news and experiences of racists attacks or rental ads that are exclusive to Dutch nationals. In particular, when someone experiences racism or discrimination, other members of the group offer support and advice on how to file a complaint. A common topic of discussion includes a Dutch Christmas character, Zwarte Piet — Black Pete — who takes his name from traditional blackface.
There seems to be a frustration with proclaimed liberal Dutch tolerance vis-à-vis the experience of everyday life, especially among people of color. This explains the possibility of polarization and right-wing extremism or populism taking firmer root in Dutch society. However, simmering unrest intertwined with racial inequality is not exclusive to the Netherlands: The United States and its Black Lives Matter mobilization provides an example of a nation coming to terms with these same issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Problematizing extreme reactions to government-imposed COVID-19 response measures can be conducted from several angles. One could cite the culture of Dutch exceptionalism and resistance to intrusive regulation, or point to an increasing trajectory of populism. There are, however, many more factors at play, and the social implications of the pandemic will probably continue to be revealed in varying stages for years to come.
For example, when explosives and fireworks were set off during riots, which were made up of mostly young people in their teens and twenties, earlier this year, it caused understandable alarm. However, these fireworks could be seen as an extension of Dutch youth culture and a popular, even if a dangerous, tradition. Each season, New Year’s fireworks result in injuries and property damage in otherwise peaceful Dutch towns and cities. These explosives seem to be a traditional manner of expression — both for festive and restive moods.
By contrast, the recent, uncharacteristically intense February storm Darcy brought sub-zero temperatures, snow and iced-over canals that drew many happy faces. Locals enjoyed another cherished tradition: skating on nature’s ice rinks (at a respectable distance). The Dutch rank favorably on many indexes thanks to a comparatively rich, educated and open society, rooted in a specific set of customs, traditions and culture that requires a unique approach to a global emergency.
The number of those who participated in the violence is low in comparison to the wider population, although it does suggest that there is understandable dissatisfaction with current COVID-19 response policies and management. Indeed, much like the rest of the world, the Dutch government and society face challenges in addressing the multilayered issues inherent in this unprecedented crisis.