The Rise of Dutch Neo-Nationalism: Three Explanations for the Recent Upsurge in Nationalist Mobilization

The return of populist, xenophobic and racist movements to the Netherlands has signified the resurgence of neo-nationalism in a country known for its multiculturalism and tolerance. The acceptance of neo-nationalist agendas is a recent phenomenon in the Dutch political scene. When the Centre Party (CP), a nationalist right wing party, secured its first seat in the House of Representatives in 1982 under the banners of “Full is full,” “Our own people first,” and “The Netherlands is only for the Dutch,” the electorate was shocked. The party was accused of fascism and discrimination, and faced violent protest. Other political parties imposed a cordon sanitaire on the CP, and the party was confronted with legal proceedings accusing it of racism. Twenty years later, in the 2002 elections, Pim Fortuyn, an extravagant politician who advocated closure of borders and claimed “Islam is a backward culture,” led his party to receive twenty percent of popular vote. Dutch liberals Geert Wilders and former-immigration minister Rita Verdonk have continued this trend, winning over twenty percent of the electorate by arguing that “immigrants have to assimilate to our culture,” “Muslims have to reject the Koran,” and “everybody has to learn Dutch history, culture and the anthem.” The media has provided neo-nationalist politicians a powerful platform, lifting the taboo on the discussion of ethnic differences. Other mainstream parties have also become more nationalistic and gotten tougher on immigration.

Although questions of national unity and nationalism are not new to the Netherlands, the current neo-nationalism represents a fundamental shift in Dutch politics. How did these nationalistic movements gain momentum in a country know for its tolerance, independence and open-mindedness? Why did neo-nationalism become popular in a country once known for its support of multiculturalism? This essay will analyze the recent upsurge in Dutch neo-nationalist mobilization through different theories of nationalism. It will first consider the nationalistic components of the recent upsurge, before examining Benedict Anderson’s imagined community theory and Roger Smith’s stories of a peoplehood, Andreas Wimmer’s theory of nationalist exclusion, and Roger Gould’s theory of critical events and participation identities. While none of the theories fully explain the upsurge, all are complementary and offer important explanations to parts of the puzzle of resurgent Dutch neo-nationalism.

Nationalism has generally been described as a “willed construct,” brought into being for various purposes, such as mobilizing labor, and arising out of certain structural or historical conditions. Politically, nationalism is the principle that state and nation should coincide, thus members of a nation should share a culture. The relation between nationalism and immigration is the threat immigrants can pose to the cultural and national identity. Neo-nationalism is defined as “the re-emergence of nationalism under different global and transnational conditions.” Dutch neo-nationalism differs from earlier forms of Dutch nationalism, in that it has less to do with praising of Dutch culture, than with hostility to outsiders. This form of nationalism is often closely affiliated with racism or discrimination. In this paper, nationalism is considered to be a political phenomenon, traceable through political party’s ideologies and their supporters. Nationalists are characterized as the supporters of parties with widely acknowledged nationalist agendas, such as the Centre Party, Fortuyn’s ‘Livable Netherlands’ (LPF), Verdonk’s ‘Proud of the Netherlands’ (TON) and Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV). However, LPF, TON and PVV are not the only representatives of Dutch neo-nationalism as other political parties have expressed strong nationalist sentiments, for example, the PvdA’s (Labour Party) wish for a ‘decent form of nationalism’ and the Christian Democratic Party’s desire to address the lost public awareness of Dutch culture, history, and ancestry.

The nationalistic component of political movements is often overlooked by the Dutch media, which focuses on their populist, fascist and extremist tendencies. Isolating and focusing on their nationalist components can offer new insights. For example, neo-nationalism contradicts the belief, held by some, that nationalism solely manifests itself in new nation states. Also, neo-nationalism uniquely depends on specific rhetoric that manipulates existing notions of culture or the “imagined community.” Nationalism in liberal states can easily lead to illiberal practices due to its exclusionary implications with regards to membership. It is therefore important to check if the current neo-nationalism is in line with liberal values to shield society from falling into discriminative and racist practices such as demanding immigrants assimilate not only linguistically but also culturally. An illiberal form of nationalism can result in forms of cultural apartheid, depriving newcomers of equal status and enforcing its own identity, or becoming a more liberal society with a new, pluralistic identity. Nationalists have a tendency for collectivism, which stands at odds with human rights. Understanding these complications and problems in this discourse is the first steps to solving the crisis.

Reimagining communities

Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community,” which is sovereign and limited because of its finite, yet elastic boundaries. The community is sustained by the faith of members that there are other members, whose identity remains unknown to us. Neo-nationalism can be explained as members having lost the confidence of the existence of imagined others, engendering a need for a “reimagining” of the community or nation building. Dutch cultural feeling of natural belonging had been natural and needed no strengthening until the threats of the 1990s when the immigrants from Mediterranean and African countries as well as the Antilles became a part of the permanent population.

From the beginning of the 20th century, the Dutch society was segmented into vertical categories (or pillars) under political and religious denominations to keep a strongly divided society together. Each of these pillars—a Catholic, Protestant, and Socialist—had separate social institutions including press, trade unions and universities. During the ‘de-pillarization’ of Dutch society in the 1960s, traditional strong religious and socio-political barriers were broken down and segments of society lost their original identity. Secularization went hand in hand with individualization and people started choosing based on their own values. In the pillarized society, the national identity had been preserved above these identities within the pillars, which were strong and homogenous. However, during de-pillarization, people started to give the national identity their own interpretation and meaning, weakening the strength and unity of the national imagined community.

Immigration accelerated the integration of the Netherlands into a globalizing world and challenged beliefs that were at the core of the Dutch identity. In the 1970s the Dutch faced a growing stream of immigrants coming from Mediterranean and African countries. In the 1980s the Dutch received a stream of refugees from all over the world, while simultaneously receiving families of guest workers, prompting discussions on their integration policy. In the 1990s many Antilleans came to the Netherlands to study or work when the Islands became independent. The Dutch looked with Argus eyes at the immigrant stream and slowly lost confidence in the existence of their nation as a community. They felt threatened “with exclusion or marginalization in popular imagined communities.” This process was accelerated by globalization and Europeanization, which also threatened the uniqueness and strength of the Dutch national identity.

In reaction to these trends, politicians of mainstream parties have argued that it is as if the Dutch no longer have a common identity. Neo-nationalists like Wilders drew public attention to current and future insecurities, propagating national cultural reinforcement against new “enemies” or immigrants. Furthermore, parties promoting popular “linguistic-nationalism” such as LPF and PVV rose to protect people who felt threatened with exclusion from popular imagined communities. The Dutch reacted to the threat in the manner Anderson had predicted them to: the nationalism will have a “populist” and “pathological” character and is rooted in “hatred and fear of the Other”—in this case Islam—and has “affinities with racism.” Fortuyn was the first politician to be widely supported for expressions such as “our original culture is in danger of perishing.” Later Wilders and Rita Verdonk became part of the same trend by forming populist parties that explicitly stated their aversion to Muslims, focused on the loss of the national identity and demanded that immigrants assimilate.

The success of the neo-nationalist politicians can also be explained by their efforts to restore the old sense of community and source of identification. In 2008 politicians decided to build a national historical museum to increase historical awareness and to help solve the identity crisis or to “appear as guardian of tradition.” Roger Smith, like Anderson, emphasizes the importance of engendering a “narrative of identity” or telling “ethnic stories of peoplehood” in re-imagining communities, which explains recent developments such as the museum as well as the institutionalization of a common canon of Dutch history to be taught in schools. The new integration policy, which obliges migrants to enroll in a citizenship course to learn the Dutch language, history, culture and norms, also ensures the creation of a common identity. Smith furthermore emphasizes the importance of leaders and elites in constructing a ‘peoplehood’. Their successes depend on their use of the modern form of “print-capitalism.” More than any other politician, publications strengthen the national community by targeting a mass audience. They pursue “people-building” by telling “ethnically constitutive stories” about Dutch culture, celebrating its Humanistic-Judeo-Christian tradition. Moreover, the media nurtured traditional Dutch values, religious norms and history with high esteem. The stories in the media are effective for nationalist mobilization, as proven by the electoral support for PVV and LPF, because their rhetoric addresses the identity crises of native Dutch people, highlighting the unspoken worth of their national identity while concealing their lack of tangible supporting evidence.

The LFP, TON and PVV tailor their messages to a particular demographic. These parties mobilize people who score high as ‘conservative’ in the social dimension, meaning they support preservation of familiar values and the accomplishments of the welfare state. Furthermore their supporters are less internationally orientated, rejecting globalization and Europeanization. In general their supporters characterize themselves as anti-cosmopolitanism, and believe politicians and Dutch elites have imposed cosmopolitanism on them over the past years to the county’s detriment. The voters are very dissatisfied with previous governments (in the PVV 45% dissatisfied, 37% very dissatisfied) and distrustful of government in general, further showing their aversion to the current state of affairs.

Distrust of Muslims can be perceived all across Dutch society, showing that the threats to the imagined community are not unique to supporters of explicit nationalist parties. In the other mainstream parties, 30% to 40% of the constituents agree Muslim immigration should be fully stopped. The only exception to this trend is the cosmopolitan green party (GroenLinks). Amongst voters of nationalistic parties, 96 to 98% of their voters find that the Netherlands must become more selective in admitting immigrants. Over 70% of their constituents believe that Muslims should be entirely forbidden from entering the Netherlands. Furthermore, 25% of Dutch electorate finds that EU integration has already “gone too far,” showing the perceived threat posed by Europeanization.

Thus, Dutch nationalist mobilization can be explained by a perceived threat to Dutch national identity. This theory explains the current emphasis on border closures, teaching historical canon in schools, instituting citizenship courses and media attention of nationalist leaders. Furthermore, the theory accounts for the focus on Muslim immigrants, because this group is believed to pose the most significant ‘threat’ to Dutch national identity due to their different values of which the Dutch became aware through incidents such as 9/11.

Nationalist Exclusion as Negative Side Effect of the Social Welfare State

Andreas Wimmer offers another explanation for the intensity of the nationalist mobilization, focusing on its origins in the inevitable tension between globalization and nation state ideologies. Wimmer shows how nation-states are the product of different ways of “institutional closure” as defined along the lines of a “cultural compromise.” He argues that in strong nation states, exclusion along national and ethnic lines is unavoidable. In the Dutch state, modern institutions of inclusion such as citizenship, equality before the law, and protection from violence are tied to nationality. Furthermore the Netherlands is a fully nationalized state with a strong civil society. The 2010 Civil Society report has shown that overall the civil society is large and “well-developed” existing in a “positive environment.” The Dutch have made their unique cultural compromise in the arrangement of society along certain values. As Wilders and Verdonk expressed, many Dutch believe that “their culture is better than those of many immigrants.” Judging from the mainstream political parties, the Dutch cultural compromise is founded in the Christian-Humanistic tradition, which also constitutes the norms and values that are passed on the migrants taking a citizenship course.

Wimmer shows that the cultural compromise is closely connected to community building, which aims to close or institute the compromise through controlling access to the group and defining borders as constituted by the cultural compromise. The process of social closure occurs through political, legal, military and social means. In the Netherlands three processes have been completed: politically, “democracy is tied to national self-determination”; legally, citizenship is tied to nationality; and militarily, only Dutch citizens can join the army and are taxed to maintain the army. Lechner shows that the Netherlands is currently in the process of social closure by closely linking the welfare state to the close control of immigration of foreigners.

Wimmer’s note on the inevitable tension between globalization, migration and national state ideologies offers a convincing explanation for the recent upsurge of nationalism in the Netherlands. Wimmer argues that in fully nationalized societies such as the Netherlands, conflict will occur not between different ethnic groups, but between “the legitimate owners of the state and those excluded from the national ‘we.’” Similarly, André Gingrich explains neo-nationalism as an effort of the Dutch to “reclaim ‘their’ state” when confronted with the large number of immigrants. The Dutch are dealing with a threat not only to their national identity and imagined community but also experience the “fear of having to share jobs and welfare benefits” with new migrants. The native Dutch see themselves as the “legitimate owners of the collective goods of the modern state.” This general sentiment can be proved by the popularity of political statements such as “The Netherlands is only for the Dutch” by Fortuyn and references to the “native people first” movements in the media. Furthermore, it is supported by the fact that LPF, PVV and TON have primarily ‘autochtoon’ or native Dutch people vote for them.

Wimmer’s theory explains how the nationalist sentiments can legitimize xenophobia and racism. Wimmer focuses primarily on those who speak about the immigrants, rather than the characteristics of immigrants themselves. In the Netherlands, ethnic minorities are dealt with as a separate category through integration policies and integration reports. Xenophobic and racist policies can become legitimized through separate policies for ethnic minorities, because they can blame the different ‘culture’ of the migrants as a reason for their exclusion, not as a xenophobic cultural conflict. Against a growing stream of Muslim immigrants, the multicultural society to which the Dutch were committed ever since WWII can be renegotiated in an attempt of native Dutch to defend their culture against a perceived threat to their imagined community and welfare.

Furthermore, the Dutch have especially tried to protect their nation from Turkish, Moroccan, or Muslim influences. This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that Muslims have the highest unemployment rates, lowest income, highest crime rates, and receive social welfare payments more often than nationals or other major immigrant groups, such as Surinamese or Antilleans. They face the most racism, because the natives believe these groups are hindering the state in her task to protect its members. The fact that nationalist mobilization by political parties has so far mainly found resonance with autochtoon, low educated whites as shown above, can then be explained by the fact that they are most directly faced with allochthons competing for their jobs.

Furthermore, the theory explains why both Fortuyn and, even more so, Wilders have enjoyed support from the Dutch educated elite. Hoffman-Nowotny’s study has shown that support for nationalism primarily depends on people’s “estimated future opportunity,” thus the higher a person sees the future chances of his group, the less likely he is to support xenophobic attitudes. As a result, higher educated autochthons can also perceive threats to their welfare and support nationalistic parties.

Thus, Wimmer’s theory offers significant explanations for the recent upsurge in Dutch nationalist movements. The theory explains why mobilization has occurred along national lines, rather than cultural, ethnic or religious. The racism and xenophobia that are occurring as a consequence can be explained as the result of the creation of a fully nationalized state in which the interest and ideas of its members are confined. They are fully legitimized because the job of the state is solely to represent the interests and opinion of its members and they are fundamentally tied to the idea of a national community. Wimmer’s theory does not contradict the imagined community perspective; rather it reinforces and strengthens the theory. In addition to an imagined community, the Netherlands is also a community of interests, such as equality before the law, welfare benefits and freedom. In order to guarantee and protect those interests in a highly globalized and modernized worlds and faced with a stream of immigrants, the Dutch have mobilized along nationalistic lines

Critical Events Reassign Participation Identities

In Insurgent Identities, Roger Gould offers an additional perspective on the nationalist mobilization, explaining why the nationalist mobilization has been so successful in the past ten to twenty years but was widely condemned in the past. Gould argues that all people have various “participation identities” which constitute the kind of “normative and instrumental appeals” they will respond to in instants of social mobilization or national protest. Gould argues that circumstances define which of these different identities will be activated or become salient. The most salient identities assign individuals to collectivities, such as allochtoonautochtoon, worker-unemployed and mother-single. Based on the similarity of their position in the system of social relations, people relate to each other or mobilize as that specific group. Gould then argues that a mobilization rhetoric must appeal to people with “(1) similar patterns of social relations to others, and (2) a sufficient level of internal social contact to ensure mutual awareness of this similarity.” The priority ranking of people’s social identities can be rearranged by “critical events,” which are defined by Gould as “imminent changes in taxation, political rights, or property rights, generate confluences of interest among people who may have preexisting, tough relatively inactive, social ties to one another.” The “critical events” of the past ten to twenty years important to the Dutch can offer a significant explanation for neo-nationalism. There have been a series of critical events that have enhanced the threat native Dutch perceived to their cultural identity and welfare. In 1989 Dutch people saw the violence and intolerance of Muslims when Iran issued a fatwa against British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie. On the 11th September 2001 the bombings of the World Trade Center by Muslim fundamentalist, again seemed to show the anti-modern characteristics Islam. Later the Dutch faced their own 9/11 when Pim Fortuyn was murdered in 2002, and again when filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist in 2004. At the same time politicians arose who were able to instrumentalize and enhance the new fears and concerns these events inspired, expressing clear truths other politicians had not dared to express and in that way finding the right medium and response. The events, together with the rise of politicians, isolated group concerns, defined minorities and activated different participation identities. These events primarily activated the Muslim/non-Muslim identity, isolating Muslims as a clear group against which non-Muslims could mobilize.

Another critical event that specifically activated the national identity and gave it salience in social relationships is the changing immigration policies of the past 20 years. In 1991 Frits Bolkestein was the first widely respected politician to openly place integration on the political agenda. Although he was met with resistance, open discussion of the considerable arrears of migrants in education, work, and society, and changing policies to improve their welfare, activated autochthonallochton participation identities. The native Dutch became more critical of their multicultural society. The salience of the national identity was further increased with the introduction of mandatory citizenship courses and changes in admission procedures for refugees.

The insurgent identity theory is further supported by the fact that LFP, TON and PVV voters live in ‘white’ rural communities. PVV’s support is significantly higher in the Southern and Eastern part of the country where fewer foreigners live. Lastly, the level of residential segregation in Dutch society has been found to be “very high.” Even in urban multicultural neighborhoods, people mostly socialize with people of their own culture. There is thus sufficient internal contact to activate the national identity.


The three theories discussed above all offer important perspectives on the recent upsurge in Dutch national mobilization. The explanations are not mutually exclusive; rather they reinforce each other and explain different aspects of the mobilization. The imagined community theory explains the current threat the native Dutch perceive to their national identity, which makes them favorable to efforts to reimagine their community in a rapidly changing and globalizing world. The theory also explains the success of politicians such as Fortuyn and Wilders, who have understood how to effectively engage in and lead the process of community building. Wimmer’s theory explains why in reaction to this perceived threat the Dutch mobilized based on their national identity and not on other characteristics such as ethnicity. He explains how in fully nationalized states with a strong civil society the nationals consider themselves to be the owners of the welfare state. Racist and xenophobic sentiments arise when immigrants start posing a threat to the welfare of the natives, and to secure their interests, the natives mobilize based on the identity that constitutes those interests: nationality. Lastly, Gould’s theory explains why neo-nationalism only became popular the last ten to twenty years. The critical events such as 9/11, the murder of van Gogh and changes in integration policy have activated the non-Muslim, authochton identity, which mobilizes people in favor of nationalistic movements.

Although these theories offer insightful explanations of Dutch neo-nationalism, they cannot fully explain the fully complexity of the situation. There are many other factors, especially economic factors, which deserve further attention. This paper has hoped to provide a foundation, though, for further investigation into the puzzling phenomenon of Dutch neo-nationalism.


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