An Economic and Social History of the Netherlands, 1800-1920
Demographic, Economic and Social Transition
Michael Wintle
399 pp, € 64
isbn/issn: 0 521 78295 3

An Economic and Social History of the Netherlands, 1800-1920

(recensie: Ton Kappelhof)

A lot of historians outside the Netherlands think that the Dutch experienced their Golden Age between 1580 and 1700, which was followed by a period of decline and that afterwards nothing special happened any more. Due to a new and better organisation of historical research the number of publications on the demographic, economic and social history of the Netherlands has increased tremendously over the last twenty years. However, almost all of these books and articles are written in Dutch. Therefore they are not accessible for people who do not master the language. As a consequence, Dutch history after 1800 does not figure in general textbooks, just like the history of countries like Denmark, Italy or Spain. Nevertheless, many people would like to know how contemporary Dutch society with its prosperity, its tolerance and its generous system of social security developed between 1800 and 2000. Wintle's book fills in this gap and should be read by everyone who wants to know where modern Dutch society came from. The author is Professor and Head of the Department of European Studies at the University of Hull and taught at the universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam. The Dutch language therefore poses no problems for him. He has published at least thirteen articles and books about Dutch history between 1982 and 1998 and did extensive archival research in the province of Zeeland.

I was charmed by the composition of Wintle's book because of its outstanding logic. He divides his work into three parts: I. demography and environment (p. 7-68), II. economic transition (p. 69-248), and III. social transition (p. 249-347). The first part concerns population and environment as mainly determined by the quality of health care, working conditions and food and drink. The second part contains economic history proper, analysed according to the usual grid with the supply factors followed by demand. The third part deals with social and political history. Political history forms an integral part of the book, so Wintle follows the mainstream of historiography in trying to integrate the different sections (political, economic, social etc.) into a synthesis. Before going any further, I would like to emphasise that this book could not have been written without the results of the now finished long term project 'National Accounts' led by professor Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University) and funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Wintle could dispose of almost all the results of Van Zanden and his team of experienced historians like E. Horlings, A. van Riel, J.P. Smits, A. Burger and J. Jonker. Some special studies were not even published, when Wintle finished his research in 1998.

Wintle's conclusions are lucid and need the attention of Dutch readers. Our ancestors have performed much better than previously thought. Especially the service sector (trade, transport, storage and shipping) supplied the economy with a momentum which produced a breakthrough between 1850 and 1870. Compared to other countries, including the United Kingdom, this sector was extremely efficient and achieved a high level of productivity; only the service sector of the United States scored better (p. 210, footnote 121). Dutch historians, especially the older generations, have been too modest and their attitude had the symptoms of an inferiority complex (p. 239). In the footsteps of Edwin Horlings, the author points to the importance of the resources in the East Indies. The Cultivation System, although immoral and very disadvantageous to the indigenous population of Indonesia, was brilliant from a functional point of view (p. 220). Another item, puzzling foreigners, was the high level of demographic growth which went on until about 1965. This was mainly due to the attitude of two religious denominations, the Roman Catholics and the members of the Reformed Churches founded by Abraham Kuyper.

Dutch historians have for some time been discussing whether the Netherlands were lagging behind in the early nineteenth century and why the Industrial Revolution came later than in other European countries and the United States. Was it owing to disadvantageous circumstances or to psychological and mental factors like traditional and lazy entrepreneurs who preferred making poems to introducing new technologies like steam-engines? This debate is now finished. Dutch and other historians were looking for the wrong Industrial Revolution, using the paradigm that modernisation and industrialisation were twins. The Netherlands had no industrial revolution, they did not even have a revolution at all but nevertheless their society appeared to be a modern one by 1920. The modernisation model that most economic historians have used until recently was based upon British experience and their Industrial Revolution (written in capitals), but more ways lead to modernisation (p. 246). A country does not need heavy industry or a well developed factory system, a Rostowian growth spurt is not necessary and agriculture does not need to be a backward sector blocking modernisation. The Dutch example shows that agriculture may even trigger economic growth and development. The Netherlands had a balanced growth, a term by the way already used by the economic historian J.A. De Jonge in 1968. The Dutch were lucky by missing the drama of the factory-system. Their way to a modern society may have been less spectacular, but it was much more comfortable than the Belgian or British way (p. 244). Modern historiography has consigned a lot of outdated statements to the dustbin, like the problem of capital impairing industrialisation. The problem was not the supply of capital, but rather the lack in demand for it.

The debate concerning the starting point of Dutch modernisation, which began almost half a century ago, has thus come full circle. Much from what has been said by old, almost forgotten historians like J.A. van Houtte and I.J. Brugmans has been confirmed by research like Van Zanden's and numerous other historians (p. 238). Professor Brugmans was right, after all, in his thesis that the most crucial period in modernisation occurred between 1850 and 1870.

Michael Wintle uses almost all historical literature published up to 1998. He has been very successful in compiling this mass of publications dating from the last twenty years, but goes one step further, as the reader can see in the last paragraph titled 'General conclusions' (p. 342-347). In six pages he succeeds in pointing out what is part of the European mainstream and what is different in Dutch history. Pillarisation ranks first; nowhere else, not even in Belgium, Austria or Switzerland, has this phenomenon developed more systematically as in the Netherlands.

Mr. Wintle has done an excellent job and I presume his book will be used for many years by numerous historians. After reading this masterpiece of compilation, I only wonder why he entitled his book 'An economic and social history of the Netherlands' and not 'A history of the Netherlands', as he has integrated economic and social history into the mother of all historical research, political history.

I would only like to point out some minor details: due to the book's composition some repetition is unavoidable, but according to a popular saying of Holland's most famous football player, Johan Cruyff, 'every advantage has its disadvantage'. This permits the reader to read chapters and paragraphs separately. I also noticed the book is useful for those who want to look for a special item or aspect. Finally, another point that should have received more attention, is the internal structure of the pillars. The Catholic pillar, for instance, was not as monolithic as it might seem owing to internal conflicts between conservative and democratic wings, between labour movement and employers and between different sorts of employers too.