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.
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.
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.
- “Geschiedenis Wilhelmus” Oranje Vereniging Rijnsburg. Oranje Vereniging Rijnsburg, n.d. Web. <http://www.ovrijnsburg.nl/volkslied>. April 6, 2011.
- “Iedereen Moet het Wilhelmus Kennen” Geschiedenis.VPRO.nl. VPRO, n.d. Web. <http://reload1.geschiedenis.vpro.nl/artikelen/34627128/>. April 6, 2011.
- “Nederland Zonder Volkslied : Regering Vergat Wilhelmus in Wet te Verankeren” Geschiedenis.VPRO.nl. VPRO, n.d. <http://reload1.geschiedenis.vpro.nl/artikelen/34649601/>. Web. April 6, 2011.
- “Ontstaan en Geschiedenis van het Wilhelmus” De Wilhelmus Site. n.p., n.d. Web. <www.wilhelmus.nl/OntstaanWilhelmus.html>. April 6, 2011.
- “De Wortels van het Nederlandse Volkslied : De Literatuur Maakt Propaganda voor de Nederlandse Opstand” Literatuurgeschiedenis.nl. Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren, n.d. <http://www.literatuurgeschiedenis.nl/lg/goudeneeuw/literatuurgeschiedenis/lgge002.html>. Web. April 6, 2011.