March 19, 2008

Remembering home: The Netherlands amongst Dutch Americans

David Zwart has an interesting article in the most recent edition of the Michigan Historical Review. Zwart argues that in the 1940s two images of the Netherlands came into contact and conflict. On the one hand the Netherlands Information Bureau (set up by the Dutch government during the second world war) attempted to put forward an image of the Dutch as modern and powerful, a good ally for the United States thanks to their toleration of religion, their modernity and their resistance to Naziism. On the other was the image cultivated amongst the conservative religious folk of places like Holland, Michigan. Many of these people had fled the Netherlands in the 19th Century, they had fled what they saw as religious persecution to the New World and compared themselves explicitly to the Pilgrim Fathers. Their image of the homeland was as a traditional and unindustrial place, a place where religious persecution thrived and that marked a moment in the eschatalogical history of the human race- when the people of God were turned on by a pharisaical majority.

Zwart devotes a lot of interesting attention to the ways in which people developed both identities. The Netherlands Bureau used all the traditional press tactics of the 40s, sending journalists to Indonesia for example and monitoring the American press. They also produced propaganda films in great quantity. Perhaps more interestingly, the citizens of Michigan, one of the largest Dutch settlements in the US, also sought to influence public opinion about their homeland. They put in a festival about tulips every year, emphasizing the traditional Holland that they had left. They also put on a festival about their own origins which blamed the Dutch 19th Century authorities for their intolerance. They emphasized these occasions with a national advertising campaign, seeking tourists and making the point that they shared an experience of America as a promised land of religious freedom and fulfilment. Most of these settlers had come from one church and retained their affiliation with it- so this religious sense of emancipation was crucial to their identity as Dutch-Americans.

It is easy to see that these two visions of Holland- one put forward by the Dutch government and the other perpetuated by an immigrant community were in conflict with each other. Zwart is not as good as he could be in establishing this conflict in a real sense- the campaigns don't seem to have been directly antagonistic- but there is no denying that their messages conflicted, their portraits of Holland were drawn from very different sources. Whether they confused Americans is another matter of course, and there are indications in Zwart's article that Americans were worried about other things, not less Dutch imperial behaviour in Indonesia and the Dutch position in the world, than the behaviour of Dutch Americans but still the detail is interesting. Often we assume that immigrant communities are a sort of fifth column for their home country: on this occasion though we see something very different. The community in Holland, Michigan and the Dutch community throughout the US had an image of the Netherlands that was negative, as a pre-industrial and repressive community. Their message directly conflicted with efforts to cement American-Dutch friendship in the mid-twentieth century. Relations between them and the home country were much more ambiguous than our picture of immigrants as fifth columnists might suggest: they brought their politics over from Europe, but it was a politics antagonistic to Europe. Their immigration was a moment of liberation from tyranny, it did not make them look nostalgically at the home country.


Des said...

A quote from your article says the "Dutch community throughout the US had an image of the Netherlands that was negative, as a pre-industrial and repressive community".

I have only been to the Netherlands once but as a tourist it left me with with a whole different outlook on life. The place was clean the people laid back and friendly and their contribution to the environment is incredible where they ditch their cars for bikes is quite something. I see no signs of the Netherlands being negative.

Gracchi said...

Ah yes sorry the point is about the historical US Dutch community in the thirties and forties and only some of them- not the Dutch community now or the US now. Its not even a point about what Holland was like then. ITs a point about the image of the Netherlands held by those who had left in the 1840s. I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear enough- its a historical argument.

Gracchi said...

It is definitely not a point about what the Netherlands is right now.