Power is History and History is Power

The Netherlands and its alter ego
Ceci n'est pas Bruxelles

History is usually perceived to be set in stone, as events from the past which cannot be changed any longer and we therefore have to accept. But like a wave the consequences of these events ripple through time, altering the fate of both people and the world. In his latest blogpost our scientific director Martin de Jong ponders on the history of what is today the French department Pas-de-Calais and the lessons we can draw from its fate today.

Appetite for real estate just 50 minutes from Paris (by TGV)

Exactly three years ago I marveled at the beauty of Arras, a city of the French department Pas-de-Calais. Two huge Brussels-style Grands Places (central market squares) for the price of one and without all the overcrowded fuss of waffle-guzzling tourists: where can one still experience such a marvel these days? Overseeing the historical town of just 30,000 residents from the comfort of a ferris wheel and letting its architectural splendor sink in, I decided to contract a real estate agent to find out what my options were. I placed a provisional bet on a newly built, 60m2 apartment very close to the station (yes, with unbeatable accessibility to Paris within only 50 minutes by TGV, as the ad announced!). Unfortunately, once back home, sanity prevailed and my grand irresistible plan to set up shop in miracle town was shelved for an indefinite period of time. But now that I am making another tour amongst a host of Nord-Pas de Calais cities this week and visiting the place again, romantic dreams of living in small-town France resurface and take a grip on my mind once more.

St.-Armand-les-Eaux: An obscured history

How the beer bowls fell into French hands

But how French actually is Arras? For those of you who have been there or seen photos of it, the architecture is clearly Dutch Renaissance style; the beer people drink is unmistakably Belgian (sipped from those familiar big glass bowls); the loud (semi-barbarian) howling of students in public places reminds me of Dutch and Belgian student clubs; and the town is surrounded by alluvial flatlands that clearly characterize the Low Countries. In fact, Arras even has a Dutch name (Atrecht) and played a prominent part in Dutch and Belgian history as the name-giver of a treaty which unified the provinces of the Southern Netherlands in support of the Spanish Crown and against the Northern heretics. Being in the region again for a week allows me to observe how many other cities, towns and hamlets share all these typical Southern Netherlandish features that remain obscure to many people further up north: Saint-Amand-les-Eaux (Sint-Amand-aan-de-Skarpe) Valenciennes (Valencijn), Douai (Dowaai), Cambrai (Kamerijk), Bailleul (Belle), Hazebrouck (no need to translate), , Dunkerque (Duinkerke/Dunkirk), Saint Omer (Sint Omaars), and of course the metropolitan area of giant Lille (Rijssel) with its two satellites Roubaix (Robeke) and Tourcoing (Toerkonje). In all of them, lifestyle patterns are reminiscent of those in Flanders and Hainaut. This should not surprise us overly much from a historical point of view; indeed they belonged to the Spanish-occupied Southern Netherlands until Kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV dropped their eyes on them and managed to wring them out of Spanish hands to be absorbed into French lands during a series of painful frontline wars and extorsive treaties. The years 1659-1713 saw all of Artois (from what beer do we know that duchy?), large parts of Flanders and Hainaut transferred to (then still the Kingdom of) France. Given that they evolved from the most prosperous and advanced Southern tip of the Netherlands to the least attractive and undervalued Northern tip of France, they present an excellent example for pondering how history is written, but also how different circumstances might have produced alternative histories.

United in self-confidence

The United Provinces, now known as the (Northern) Netherlands, have enjoyed centuries of nearly uninterrupted independence. Their heroes are their own heroes, their language is their own, they brim with self-confidence about themselves and their performance, and their identity appears comparatively solidly defined. The Dutch interpret their own history in terms of a successful insurgency against the repressive catholic Spanish, while their temporary occupations by the French in the early 19th and Germans in the mid-20th century were only ripples in a wide ocean of national freedom and strength. What could happen to them? They are their own yardstick! They explored and conquered the world, their fame in naval engineering was unrivalled and praised in Scandinavian history books, the wealth they amassed through trade routes was incomparable. The fact that this had been primarily a success of Holland in spite of and occasionally even at the expense of other less prominent provinces has only recently surfaced as an issue deserving serious academic attention. What great and proud sources to write history books from! No need to wonder why those blond kids caravanning in southern France every summer seem to enjoy characteristic bravado and immodesty. And mind you: they will say they are from Holland, not from the Netherlands. Or is it virtually the same thing? There can be a lot of meaning in a pars pro toto expression.

From ‘Belgae’ to ‘blague’

The Southern Netherlands underwent a different fate. They were ruled by a very distant Habsburg Royalty in Madrid mostly interested in creaming off its wealth for American ventures and investing deplorably little in its development. They had a large territory gnawed at and eaten up by the French Royalty and consequently were once more separated in two different halves. The North of the South then went over to be ruled by the conservative Austrian Netherlands and eventually became Belgium. ‘Belgium’ in fact traditionally has simply been an alternative Roman name for the ‘Netherlands’, which was a denomination of Germanic origin. And although it was hoped that the Belgae so praised by Caesar as the most valiant among the Gauls would spark the rise of a proud nation, nothing seems to have been further from the truth. Torn by economic and linguistic conflict, secretly envious of its culinarily, culturally and industrially rather underdeveloped but still very confident and vocal northern neighbor and suffering from lasting worries vis-à-vis a revolutionary and imperialistic France on its southern flank always eager to make further inroads in its geographic territories and independent mind; Belgium evolved into a shadow of what it might otherwise have been. The future had an alternative history in store. The Dutch-speaking redefined themselves as ‘Flemish’ with their beloved Flanders consisting of very different regions and peoples (including Brabant and Limbourg) than the original Flemish territories had covered. To them, tragic solace was found in 14th century wealth created by gifted craftsmen in guild-dominated Bruges and Ghent alongside valiant but still lost battles waged against other French kings of those yet earlier days. For them the 80-years war against Spain which so inspired the Hollanders and Zealanders was an episode they would rather forget, although they did claim a substantial share in Amsterdam’s golden age success because of the protestant Antwerpians who went there after their own Scheldt city was permanently lost to the Spaniards. The French speaking (some of them original Flemish elites who thought speaking French was a superior habit) took control of Brussels and as inhabitants of the capital city became the only true Belgians. The other Francophones (’Walloons’) were initially happy with their new nation in 1830 when mining and industrialization brought them prosperity and the Dutch-speaking served as their less qualified infantry forces and mineworkers, but later on lost confidence in Belgium when France became their cultural frame of reference and the Flemish struck back hard at them. What will intellectual debate among historians bring them: a French spirit and inspiration although they happen to be located on the wrong side of the border? Or a Walloon identity based on geographic realism but leading to an uncertain economic future? Now that Flanders rules Belgium and wants to minimize it, who still wants us Walloons? La Belgique, c’est une blague! (Belgium, that’s a joke!)

‘Chier sur les Ch’tis’ (shitting on the Ch’tis)

Ironically, the South of Southern Netherlands found itself back to being the very Northern periphery of a massive European power named France. There are in fact history books about the Pays-Bas francais written by historians from Lille University and these include all main events covered in modern Dutch, Belgian, Flemish and Wallonian history books, but their narrative suddenly ends in the late 17th or early 18th century, an abruptly aborted history. When ‘liberated by the French’, it subsequently became ‘Nord-Pas de Calais’ and a new history was drafted with more attention devoted to French events. And now that even more recently this already artificial region was merged with Picardy and other territories close to Paris into a further enlarged ‘Hauts-de-France’ region even that historiography may appear outdated. May we call this purposively created oblivion? What is certain is that these ‘nordistes’ or ‘Ch’tis’ sadly acquired a public image of inhabitants living in cold, windy, rainy and foggy flatlands devoid of special attractions and speaking incomprehensible dialects. The area has seen a gradual but unstoppable economic and demographic decline. Its cities, towns and hamlets are still beautiful but most of them (Lille excluded) have remained tiny and are chronically underestimated. Like in Wallonia their heavy industry is a past glory and industrial reinvention is due but hard to come by. The value of Arras is measured by its distance to Paris and its role in French history is reduced to being the birthplace of Maximilien Robespierre. The intensely coveted place to live and work in the French comedy ‘Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis’ is the Côte d’Azur, not magnificent Bergues in maritime Flanders. It is impressive how perspective-sensitive historiography is. Who still remembers that the first cities in the Netherlands to go through Calvinist iconoclasm were Valenciennes and Mons in Hainaut, not Ghent or any tiny town in Holland or Zealand? Who is aware that Lille and environs are very Flemish and yet have always been French-speaking? Who has heard that Dunkirk was famous as a Dutch harbor known for pirates as fierce as those in Den Briel? Why is it that any European or Asian who is sent photos of Arras, Valenciennes or Cambrai stands in awe of their beauty yet never gets to see them in reality because they fail to receive or claim the publicity they badly deserve? This is truly a Dutch alter ego: full of baroque Netherlandish quality, but none of it ever touted by anyone. Plenty of things to tell, but rarely listened to. What difference a little bit of self-confidence would have made for them.

The townhall of Valenciennes

Who are the Urranians?

Winners write history, as we all know. But we also learn that history may sometimes have taken a different course than it did in reality. Perhaps it is an exceedingly implausible scenario that the Dutch (in whichever composition) could ever have won any decent battle against the French (at least without ample help from the British and Prussians), but it is quite conceivable that at some point a King Louis or General Napoleon could have advanced as far as Utrecht, ending up preserving a strong and lasting foothold in the polder and dubbing it ‘Urras’. Urranians would have enjoyed a direct high-speed connection with Paris. They would have spoken a proper Latin language and remembered William of Orange as a Calvinist traitor. They would have learned to not always speak their minds when inconvenient and be used to haughty police and security forces rigorously enforcing 2G and facemask regulations. It is unlikely that anno 2022 Utrecht/Urras would have been the most economically vibrant municipality of the Netherlands and count 300,000 inhabitants (rather than the 30,000 Atrecht/Arras has collected over time). In short, there is great importance in people and peoples writing their own history. History is perspective, perspective is history. This applies as much to imaginary Urranians as it does to real Ukrainians. A growing number of historians across the Low Countries now assume that Dutch civilization found its roots in and around monasteries in the very north of France while its center-point has shifted increasingly northwards over time, leading to gradual or abrupt reinterpretations of events past. There is strong parallel here with a major war drama unfolding these days. Russian civilization is still commonly believed to have originated in Kievan Rus (in modern day Ukraine) and in centuries after, cities to its north-east (Novgorod, Moscow and Saint Petersburg among them) have taken control of its further evolution. The histories of what is now the Russian Federation and Ukraine have been tightly interwoven, but certainly do not coincide. During and even after the Soviet era, it has been made increasingly hard to disentangle Ukrainian voices from more general Russian ones, leading important events in Ukrainian history to be snowed under. That has implied a serious loss of historical and cultural memory for Ukraine and the world. While many Ukrainians had fairly recently began to rediscover things that had been erased from collective awareness, there is a serious risk of that process being reversed once again. If Vladimir Putin is a Napoleon Bonaparte, we shall soon learn of him finding some Waterloo in or around Kiev and an independent Ukrainian perspective of history may be preserved. Alas, if he turns out to be a Louis de Bourbon, the worst must be feared. In that case, the best this new-fangled Sun King will allow Ukraine to do is to be a moon that reflects Russia’s, but especially his own magnificence.


Prof. Dr. Martin de Jong

Martin de Jong is responsible for the academic direction and long term continuity of the initiative. His academic areas of interest are sustainable urban and infrastructure development in China, city branding, urban planning & governance, and institutional transplantation.

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes