When I was in school, it seemed that only private religious schools made the kids learn the Dutch national anthem. The rest of us  never learned, and so we didn’t get much further than the first two lines, and nobody cared.

So here I am, fifty years old, haven’t lived in the Netherlands for seventeen years, and I’m learning about the Dutch national anthem. Reason? Not really because I’m interested—I’m still not. I just saw that someone visited my blog searching for the history of the Dutch national anthem, so I decided to use that as a writing prompt.

Source: De Telegraaf, December 1, 2009

The song is called the “Wilhelmus” and the music and text are from around 1570, which makes it one of the oldest national anthems in the world. Well, I’ll take those bragging rights, even if it’s about something I don’t value. I’m a Dutch expat after all, so I’m entitled. Anyway, back to the trivia. Nobody knows for sure who wrote the text. It was generally believed to be written by Marnix van Sint Aldegonde, a friend of William of Orange and his secretary, but that has been questioned in recent times. It was written during the Eighty-Year War, when the Netherlands were occupied by the Spanish. It’s a song promoting William as king and leader of the resistance. William was the patriarch of the House of Orange Nassau, the Dutch royal family. The text is an acrostic. The First letters of each stanza together spell Willem van Nassov, which was the spelling of the day. Now that’s an interesting fact. Remind me to write an acrostic one of these days.

In the first part of the 19th century, many European countries decided to have a national anthem, and the Dutch did, too. They had a contest. Tollens’ song “Wien Neerlands Bloed” won, but the “Wilhelmus” was occasionally used at official events until Queen Wilhelmina decided to adopt it as the national anthem at her coronation in 1898. Tollens’ song is rather racist, going on about Dutch blood being pure, which may have been the reason she preferred the “Wilhelmus”.  I’d like to think so, anyway. However, the Dutch government forgot to make it official by law. That wasn’t noticed until 1932, when the oversight was corrected.

In 1933, before the beginning of a soccer game against Belgium, the Tollens song was sung, and the government sent the national soccer organization (KNVB) a pretty scathing letter pointing out their mistake, and to never do it again. Which goes to show that, even early on, international soccer games were where the national anthem mattered.

photo: Nationaal Archief

I always thought that people of my grandparents’ generation liked the national anthem because it reminded them of singing it when Holland was liberated from the Germans (that’s World War Two, Yanks, and you were the liberators), but it turns out that Dutch nazi collaborators also sang the song with gusto on their way to the eastern front to help out their BFF Hitler. So it wasn’t solely associated with liberation from the oppressor during the war, despite the text.

Since 1986 the Wilhelmus is played at official state events only when a member of the royal family is present. This led to a political discussion in 2004, with some critics saying that the queen was hijacking the song. I wonder who it was that even noticed. So apparently there’s a Wilhelmus revival going on now, and Dutch school children have been learning the text of the first and sometimes sixth stanza again. Yeah, we Dutchies are definitely known for our recalcitrance. (Give us back our national anthem! We don’t care that we weren’t using it–it’s ours!) Either that or it’s the fear of losing the Dutch identity because of the influx of immigrants. I recently read somewhere that by 2050 all of 11% (oh no!) of the Dutch population will be Muslim. Yeah, I remember that fear of losing our identity when the European Union was being discussed, and again when the Euro was going to be introduced. This, too, will pass. At least, I fervently hope so.

My conclusion? Well, it’s typical: the melody comes from a French Huguenot song taunting the protestants at some battle in France in 1568; the text was written possibly by a Belgian around 1570; the Netherlands as we know it now didn’t become a country until 1839 (correct me if I’m wrong); and when Queen Wilhelmina decided the Wilhelmus was the national anthem in 1898, the government forgot to make it official. So they made it official thirty-four years later and right away chewed out the national soccer league for not having gotten the message yet. The national anthem is played at occasions where Holland is presenting itself to other countries, but the present queen, Beatrix, apparently limits that to official visits where a royal is present. Which isn’t that often. Which is fine with me.

Yes, I was one of those kids who grew up in the sixties and seventies, with stories about the war and learning about German national conditioning. I learned to hate any signs of nationalistic pride and I still think it’s unhealthy. Especially in this day and age, when we have the world at our fingertips, we’re all part of the global community, and borders are blurring. That blurring is a good thing. National anthems are outdated. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. Let’s have a contest for a world song, in which we are reminded that oppression and conditioning are to be fought wherever they come from. A song that promotes getting rid of national anthems. I think I actually heard something like that somewhere.


4 responses to “Wil-who-mus?

  1. Pingback: Holland, What Are You Doing? | Resident Alien — Being Dutch in America

  2. The bit about losing national identity makes me laugh a bit, since it’s the immigrants who were some of the first ones required to learn the song during inburgering — sometimes all 17 or so verses! Maybe they realized that it didn’t look good when all those “foreigners” knew the national anthem better than most Dutch. 😉 I learned the first verse last year during the World Cup, but I’ve forgotten the line or two in the middle and only remember the first couple of lines and the last one.


  3. Love reading your old blogs too!

    As for being taught “het Wilhelmus”, I don’t think it was only taught in private religious schools. I went to public schools and we had to learn our National Anthem at our elementary school (lagere school), and then we had to remember at least the 1st and 6th verse of it. I believe the 1st and 6th verse is what people remember, if they remember at all? My sister went through a phase where she felt that whenever the Dutch National Anthem was played one should stand and I was thinking (and told her) “don’t be silly!”. Maybe it is different nowadays; I’m almost 54 now and left the Netherlands in 2001 so haven’t kept up with the traditions and the “how and what of learning the Dutch National Anthem”….

    Not sure about the Netherlands becoming a country in 1830 unless you mean the break-off of Belgium and Luxembourg in the Dutch-Belgian separation treaty of 1839. First Willem I was forced to pull his troops out of Belgium in 1833 which made Belgium an effective independent country but Willem I was having a hissy fit over Luxembourg and Limburg. The London treaty divided Luxembourg and Limburg between the Dutch and Belgian crowns in 1839 and the Kingdom of the Netherlands was made up of the 11 northern provinces after that. Nowadays it is 12 Provinces after Flevoland was formed in 1986.

    That is why the Netherlands has a province Noord-Brabant/Northern Brabant but there isn’t a Zuid-Brabant/Southern Brabant because that part went to the Kingdom of Belgium (is now “Brabant” in Belgium and is the Belgium province where Brussels is located).


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