The Low Countries

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W. P. Blockmans


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Low Countries were gradually united into a dynastic union. In 1548–1549, Emperor Charles V secured the autonomy of the so-called Seventeen Provinces as the Burgundian Circle within the Holy Roman Empire. Only his son Philip II profited from the concession that this union should remain under one ruler, because the Dutch Revolt, which started in 1566, led to a definitive split between the northern and southern Netherlands—roughly, present-day Netherlands and Belgium—formalized in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. However, the principalities that constituted the former Seventeen Provinces cherished their centuries-old institutional traditions and identities. Two of them, the counties of Flanders and Artois, had belonged to the kingdom of France until 1529, while the others had formed part of the Holy Roman Empire. Neither of these sovereign powers had been able to impose its authority effectively on this peripheral and relatively prosperous region. Until the end of the eighteenth century, regional autonomies prevailed over the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic in the north, and of the Habsburg dynasty in the south. After the revolutionary movements of the 1780s and the French occupation, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 created the kingdom of the Netherlands, reuniting most of the territory of the former Seventeen Provinces, with Artois and parts of Flanders lost to France but including the previously independent prince-bishopric of Liège. The Belgian Revolution of 1830 divided the region again, forming the kingdom of Belgium, formally recognized in 1839. In the opinion of Belgian historians, the very progressive, liberal character of the new Belgian constitution of 1831 gave the secession a revolutionary character; Dutch historiography sees the 1830 events only as a "Belgian uprising."

There has been a lot of discussion about the factors uniting and dividing the Low Countries. The absence of natural external borders, the decentralized political structure, and the relative prosperity made the region an easy and tempting target of invasion throughout the centuries. Political integration was slow, and resistance against centralization was one of the issues in the revolt against Philip II. In the Dutch Republic, local and provincial magistracies enjoyed the same sovereign power as the States General. In the Spanish (later Austrian) Netherlands, the Habsburgs had learned to respect the local and provincial privileges and did not impose centralization until the last decades of the eighteenth century. The kingdoms of the nineteenth century insisted on the formation of national identities, but in Belgium the imposition of nationhood as defined by the French-speaking bourgeoisie provoked a reaction from the majority of the population, who spoke various Dutch dialects. They slowly saw their cultural and political rights confirmed constitutionally, culminating in the transformation of Belgium into a federal state in 1993. The linguistic border, which cut through all the southern principalities of the ancien régime (Flanders, Hainaut, Brabant, Liège), had not caused serious problems until it became a divisive factor in the development of the nation-state.

If there are no external natural borders to the Low Countries, there are internal ones—large rivers separate provinces—and they formed a frontier Spanish troops were unable to cross reliably during the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648). As a consequence, south of the rivers, the Spaniards maintained control and continued to impose Catholicism. When the Spanish withdrew in 1648, the Dutch Republic respected freedom of religion but did not grant the newly acquired territories the same sovereign rights as the seven United Provinces north of the great rivers. Therefore, the Catholic regions in the south developed a distinct cultural pattern, including the perception of being second-rate citizens. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did Catholics in the Netherlands obtain rights fully equivalent to those of Protestants.

The river delta was also a unifying factor. In preindustrial economies, ships were the easiest means of transport for bulk cargos. The dense network of river-mouths, including the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt, created opportunities for commercial linkages with distant regions in northern France and western Germany. Along these rivers larger cities developed earlier than in landlocked regions. Thus, rivers facilitated the development of the transport-oriented economy that typified the region from the early Middle Ages to the late twentieth century.

The decentralized political structure, distant sovereigns (and, until 1559, distant bishops, except in Utrecht), an economy oriented toward long-distance trade over rivers and seas, and a high level of urbanization: these factors gave the Low Countries their special character through the centuries, and help us to understand the strength of local and regional power, especially that of citizens. With the exception of northern and central Italy, before 1800 no other region in Europe was so highly urbanized and commercialized; this concentration of men and capital was the source of an extraordinary degree of freedom for citizens and of political rights for artisans.

During the last eight centuries, the southern and northern areas of the Low Countries have alternately spearheaded the European economy. From around 1200 to around 1600, the southern Low Countries formed the core of the northwestern economy, with Bruges and, from 1480 onward, Antwerp as its metropolises. The former, a city of around 45,000 inhabitants at its zenith, served as the economic center of northwestern Europe, while the latter, with around 100,000 inhabitants in the 1560s, integrated markets throughout the continent and Europe's overseas colonies. At the end of the sixteenth century, the locus shifted to Amsterdam, which attained yet another level of integration as a world market. From the late eighteenth century onward, the innovative role shifted again to the south, thanks to the early industrialization in Wallony, intensive husbandry and the textile industries in Flanders, and the growth of the Antwerp harbor. After World War II, the harbors of Amsterdam and especially Rotterdam took the lead, with rapidly developing chemical industries. Dutch companies grew into important multinationals and their financial sector proved exceptionally dynamic. This remarkable continuity of core functions is directly related to the natural infrastructure of coasts and rivers.


Around 1500, the Low Countries counted some 2.3 million inhabitants, of whom 32 percent lived in cities. The population density reached 72 per square kilometer in the county of Flanders and 63 in the county of Holland. In Spain, repression provoked the emigration to the Dutch Republic of some 150,000 persons, mainly Protestants, two-thirds of whom settled in the north; others fled to Germany and England. Most of the migrants belonged to an elite of entrepreneurs, skilled artisans, artists, and intellectuals, who greatly stimulated the boom of the Dutch Republic, which counted 1.5 million inhabitants in 1625 and 1.9 million from 1650 to 1750. The province of Holland was by far the most populated and the most urbanized of the Seven Provinces. In 1625, 675,000 lived there, and by 1680, 61 percent of its population was urban, while in the rest of the republic it was below 25 percent, though still far higher than the European average. Amsterdam had 220,000 inhabitants, Leiden 80,000. Religious tolerance attracted those persecuted in other countries, such as French Huguenots after 1685 and Portuguese Sephardic Jews. In 1675, the latter formed a community of 4,000, mostly wealthy merchants, in Amsterdam. Later, crowds of poor Ashkenasi from central Europe found a safe haven there as well. In 1797, the Jewish community in Amsterdam counted 20,000 persons, who had their synagogue but were restricted in their intercourse with Christians. Amsterdam also attracted numerous landless laborers from rural regions in the southern Netherlands and western Germany, who found employment mainly as sailors. Given the high mortality on the ships making intercontinental journeys, Dutch people voluntarily left these jobs to these Gastarbeiter, whom they labeled Moffen, a discourteous expression used for Germans in later times as well.

The strong immigration during the seventeenth century probably brought about a relative overrepresentation of younger age groups and, as a consequence, lowered the death rate. At any rate, a series of death- and birthrates for Rotterdam shows a birthrate increase until 1700. Between 1700 and 1730 there was a sharp decline in the birthrate, which afterward stabilized at 3 to 4 percent. In 1626–1627, brides at first marriage in Amsterdam were on average 24.5 years old, with 60.9 percent marrying at an age below 25 and another 28.2 percent from 25 to 30. In 1676–1677, the average age climbed to 26.5, and one century later it was 27.8. Bridegrooms were 25.7 in 1626–1627, 27.7 in 1676–1677, and 28.6 in 1776–1777. This pattern demonstrates clearly the demographic stagnation from the middle of the seventeenth century onward. The household composition in Gouda, a city of 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants, confirms the break in the secular trend around 1650. In 1622, the average number of household members was 4.25, while in 1674 it had decreased to 3.55 as a consequence of the reduction of the number of children (2.07 to 1.71) and of other people living in (0.28 to 0.06). In 1749, households in Delft and Leiden counted 3.47 and 3.62 persons, with even fewer children (1.27 and 1.42, respectively) but more servants and others living in. The figures for the countryside are only slightly higher: 4.68 in 1622 Rhineland (the region between Haarlem and The Hague) and 4.9 in 1775 northwestern Brabant.

The dominance of the nuclear household in the preindustrial Netherlands has been explained by the high level of urbanization as well as by the high number of nonagrarian activities in the countryside. In the early sixteenth century, a great variety of artisanal activities were located in villages. Small households could combine fishery with the cultivation of tiny plots of land. More often, linen bleaching, weaving, shipbuilding, hunting of waterbirds, ground work for the upkeep of the drainage system, and many other crafts provided wage incomes that allowed small households to survive as long as they observed a controlled reproduction pattern.


One of the most particular features of the social history of the Low Countries is the early emergence of class struggle in large Flemish cities. The earliest date from around 1250 in cities like Douai, and from the 1280s onward in Ypres, Bruges, and Ghent. These cities numbered at least 30,000 inhabitants, the latter two even more, up to two-thirds of whom were artisans in the textile industry. Flemish cloth, produced mainly from English wool, was exported to all parts of the continent and to the Near East. Merchantentrepreneurs introduced a putting-out system that threw the risks of the international trade on the workers. The social tensions of the later thirteenth century arose as a consequence of major shifts in the international division of labor, which provoked large-scale unemployment in traditional industrial cities.

In Flanders, social antagonism was heightened by a political conflict between the urban political elites (merchant-entrepreneurs), the count of Flanders, and his suzerain, the king of France. When the latter occupied the county in 1297 and 1300, the count's relatives mobilized as many craftsmen and peasants as they could. Together with a relatively small army of mounted noblemen, they destroyed the French mounted knights in 1302. This battle marked the breakthrough of the infantry on European battlefields; it also implied that the count had to recognize the social and political rights of the artisans. In all the major cities of the county of Flanders, dozens of craft guilds were organized; they were awarded autonomy in the regulation and control of their trade and given rights of participation in the new political structure. In the larger crafts in the textile sector, with thousands of workers, the journeymen—salaried artisans working for a master who owned his shop and his tools—could vote in the election of the dean and the board, and could even be elected themselves. The deans of all the crafts formed, together with the delegation of the bourgeoisie, a large council, which voted on taxes and other main issues of the city.

The Flemish guild revolution was an exceptionally early and radical breakthrough made possible by the huge scale of the industry, its vulnerability to international business cycles, and the confluence of economic problems with a major political conflict. In the main cities of other principalities, similar guild revolutions took place, but they were mostly beaten back by more coherent elites. Only in Liège, Dordrecht, and Utrecht did the guild organizations last until the early modern period. The reality of the new power structures differed from one town to another as a consequence of local conditions. The most extreme case was that of Ghent, the largest industrial city of its time, with about 65,000 inhabitants around 1350. After protracted and bloody struggles between the largest crafts of weavers and fullers, the latter were excluded from political power and guild autonomy in 1360. Twenty of the twenty-six seats of aldermen were earmarked for particular crafts, the six others, including the two chairmen, were reserved for members of the bourgeoisie. All delegations of the city, as well as the whole of the city's personnel, were neatly proportioned to reflect each of the sociopolitical sections of the community. This extreme case illustrates the harshness of the class conflicts, even among the small entrepreneurs in the textile sector itself who held the rank of guild masters. At the same time it shows how pacification could be installed through a complicated system of power sharing, which functioned until its abolition after another revolt in 1540. In other cities, more moderate forms of participation and autonomy survived until the French occupation of 1794.


Guild power helped shelter the employment and income of urban artisans from the effects of depressions. Its aim was purely protectionist: solidarity never reached further than one's own guild or one's own city. Labor mobility was considerable, thanks to the relatively high wages paid in cities. During the prosperous years from 1400 to 1450, the Bruges building industry recruited high numbers of laborers from outside the city; 75 to 80 percent of the outsiders even came from outside the county of Flanders. After 1450, the economy of Bruges stagnated, which led to a shift in labor migration toward fast-growing Antwerp, and later toward Amsterdam. Considerable differences in real wages continued to exist between town and countryside and between cities. Further, a laborer's income fluctuated heavily depending on variations in employment, since most were paid on piece rates, or were engaged for a number of days only. Because the purchasing power of nominal wages depended on fluctuations in the price of bread, which was the primary household expenditure, real wages can best be expressed in liters of rye, which allows comparisons. In Bruges, in the bumper years 1463 to 1468, a master craftsman could purchase with his theoretical maximal income some sixty-four liters of rye, while his counterpart in Leiden could purchase only thirty-eight liters, or 40 percent less. Real wages in the 1460s in Bruges were the highest of the preindustrial period. During the sixteenth century, real wages declined generally. In Bruges, they were at twenty-seven liters of rye from 1500 to 1505 (still more than the 23 in Ghent and 21 in Antwerp), but in the crisis years 1548 to 1557 they reached only 44 percent of that level in Bruges, while in buoyant Antwerp they were at 81 percent.

Generally, artisan households needed more than one salary to survive, and even then they suffered in the periods of high food prices, which occurred either as a consequence of weather conditions, political blockades, or a combination of both. In any case, the Low Countries were so highly populated that they could not feed their inhabitants and needed the constant import of grains. Until the mid-sixteenth century, most grain came from Picardy and Artois; later Prussia became the main rye supplier. During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries Amsterdam built its position as a staple market entirely on this so-called mother trade, from which all other trades in the Baltic were derived. Blockades of the Sund Strait created serious problems for the grain supply of the Low Countries. Riots resulted, for example, in 1530 and 1565–1566. Poor relief normally helped up to 25 percent of the population through the most difficult months, but it remained insufficient when grain prices tripled, as they did in 1565–1566. In this so-called hunger year, the iconoclast movement, which spread in three weeks in August 1566 from western Flanders to Leiden, Amsterdam, and Utrecht, made clear the relationship between living conditions and the propensity for Protestantism.

Lutheran ideas had been spread in word and print through Antwerp since the early 1520s. The first victims of the persecution of Protestants were two Augustinian monks from Antwerp, who died at the stake in 1523. Anabaptism also found supporters in Antwerp, as well as in Amsterdam. From the 1540s onward, a new wave of Protestantism spread through the Low Countries. The rural textile industries in southwestern Flanders had created a proletariat, which gave the impetus to the iconoclast movement in 1566. Most Calvinists were found among the middle classes in the major cities, including some French-speaking ones such as Tournai and Valenciennes. Calvinist republics took over local government in Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, Brussels, and Antwerp in the late 1570s and early 1580s until Spanish troops subdued each of these after sieges. In 1585, the largest city, Antwerp, fell; one-third of the population had declared itself in favor of Protestantism, and only one-third was said still to be Catholic.

The massive emigration of Protestants, combined with the reconversion of those who stayed under the Spanish repression, explains how the Spanish Netherlands became exclusively Catholic again. The Spaniards introduced there all the tools of the Counter-Reformation, including Jesuit schools, episcopal visiting of parishes, and new charitable institutions. Society was disciplined back into its former pattern. This rapid shift all too often makes people forget that, before the massive military repression of the 1580s, Protestantism had been disseminated predominantly in the more urbanized and more commercialized south, including rural regions with a high level of industrialization. In Holland, it had until then mainly been an elitist movement, and the outlying provinces remained entirely Catholic. In 1650, half of the population of the Dutch Republic was Catholic, and it was only around 1700 that the Reformed Church became the largest among the official churches. It never was, however, a monopolistic state church. Religious tolerance had been one of the main motives for the Dutch Revolt, and it remained embedded in the society of the Dutch Republic. As long as services were not held publicly, they were tolerated, and even Catholic and Anabaptist churches continued to function, albeit it hidden behind discrete facades.


In the Dutch Republic (the United Provinces) sovereignty was dispersed among three levels: the local community, the province, and the confederation. For example, nineteen cities had a vote in the assembly of the local estates of Holland. Each of the Seven Provinces also had sovereign rights; a majority could not impose its decisions against the will of a minority. The confederal representative system made intensive consultations necessary to seek consensus wherever possible, especially on the third level of sovereignty, that of the States General. Nevertheless, the fact that the province of Holland alone paid for 58 percent of the expenditure of the national government had some consequences. Informal pressure, patronage and clientage, the sale of offices, and corruption were widespread practices. The whole governmental system recruited its personnel exclusively among the wealthy regents, who directly served their class interests as merchants, bankers, and rentiers. Although the absence of a monarchy prevented the creation of new nobility, while the old noble families died out, the regents developed an aristocratic lifestyle, which combined luxurious houses along the prestigious canals in Amsterdam with lordship and a country residence.

One may wonder why this obviously oligarchic government provoked relatively little social unrest. One reason is that ordinary people in the Dutch Republic were generally better off than in other countries. There was full employment, wages were relatively high, and upward mobility was possible. Second, the guild organization helped to defuse social tensions. Artisans had a place in the political culture of the public sphere, even if they had no direct impact in the daily government, as had been the case in medieval Flanders. Third, the churches, private persons, and public authorities competed in the foundation of charitable institutions, which by the late eighteenth century sustained about one-quarter of the population of the major cities. Fourth, the preachers in the Protestant churches were very good at moralizing. Churches exercised control over their members and promoted the acceptance of the social order as divinely ordained. In a probably less intensive way, public authorities also used symbolic means to convey their message of an ideal orderly state.

Guilds are usually viewed as antithetical to commercial capitalism and as obstacles against all kinds of modernization. Recent research has stressed instead that, already in the Middle Ages, the putting-out system prevailed not only between great merchants and artisans, but also between master artisans themselves. Some masters employed other craftsmen, provided them with credit in the form of raw material, and made them dependent on piece-rate salaries. Entrepreneurs reduced both costs for fixed capital goods and marketing risks by employing artisans. Already in the middle of the sixteenth century, some brewers and building entrepreneurs used their capital accumulation in combination with political power to establish de facto monopolies. Therefore, the guild system continued to function as a means to absorb social tensions, but it did not prevent the full development of commercial capitalism nor the steady modernization of production techniques.


One of the most striking features of the history of the Netherlands is that about half of its territory is situated a few meters below sea level. This is because marsh soils sank as they were drained for cultivation. This process has been going on for centuries, and solutions have been incremental. To keep the river waters out of the land dikes were built beginning in the eleventh century. Canals were dug in a systematic rectilinear way to evacuate the water from the land into the same rivers. Sluices were needed to take advantage of the tides. By around 1400, the soil in Holland had sunk to a level below the lowest tide. Evacuation of the superfluous water could therefore only be done by mechanical means, that is, by pumping it up to the level of the river behind the dike. By 1408, the first windmill for this purpose had been built near Alkmaar. The system was then generalized and elaborated: in the deepest marshes, a series of windmills pumped the water up step by step. In the seventeenth century, new polders were created using these devices. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the lake south of Haarlem was drained by a major steam engine. In the 1970s, a new province, Flevoland, was created by draining a large section of the interior sea, the IJsselmeer.

This drainage system had a social dimension because it required collaboration. Local communities took the first protective measures; when these interfered with opposing interests of neighbors, cooperation had to be negotiated or higher authorities had to intervene. Large drainage authorities were officially recognized by the count of Holland in the thirteenth century, and a number of small authorities continue to coexist in the north of Holland. The construction, control, and steady upkeep of the system of canals, dikes, sluices, and windmills could work effectively only with the full participation of all people having an interest in the protected area. Not only their funds were needed, but also their labor and continuous vigilance. Only a public system that granted rights of protection in strict proportion to duties could foster the solidarity on which the life and property of all depended.

The public authority developed for this purpose is unique, as it combined direct participation in decision making with responsibility. Residents and owners of the land were charged with the execution of the common decisions in proportion to the size of their plots. Every inhabitant was obliged to comply with the decisions commonly taken. The authority had the power to tax and even to prosecute negligence. The land still reflects its systematic clearance; fields are rectangular, divided by the straight canals. A particular political culture grew from the constant concern surrounding this man-made environment. Its elements were solidarity, working toward the common interest, the rational evaluation of purposes and means, freedom of speech during the discussion of a project, and strict adherence to agreed actions. Many of these features are still typical of Dutch political culture.

The nineteenth century saw relatively little economic change in the Dutch Republic. Indeed, this slowness to industrialize is an important topic in the Republic's social history. Although it had sufficient capital for industrialization, the Republic lacked other components—including natural resources (in contrast to coal-rich Belgium)—and fell into a rentier mentality. The hold of religion also intensified, counter to the trend in most other parts of western Europe. Not all areas of the Dutch economy, however, were immune to innovation: for instance, some Dutch farmers actively converted to market agriculture, especially after 1850, producing vegetables and milk products for Europe's growing urban markets.


The situation in Belgium was more dynamic. In the 1780s, the population of the southern Low Countries was between 2.4 and 2.6 million, considerably more than the 2.1 million in the Dutch Republic. Agricultural innovations had increased the profits of the landowners and stimulated population growth. Various traditional crafts had been transformed. Linen weaving and especially cotton processing flourished in new manufactures in Ghent, while coal mining and iron industries prospered in Liège and Hainaut. The combination of accumulated capital, artisanal traditions, transport facilities on the rivers, the availability of raw materials, sympathetic authorities, and daring entrepreneurship made Belgium the first industrial nation in Europe. Before 1843 railways were constructed connecting all major cities of the country; later, the network became the world's most dense. In the 1846 census, only 23 percent of the population in the provinces of Liège and Hainaut were still active in agriculture. A very unequal income distribution resulted from the industrial boom: by 1880, the business class, 10 percent of the population, possessed two-thirds of the country's real income. Predominantly agrarian Flanders suffered greatly in the potato crises of 1846–1849. Many smallholders starved and had to seek employment in the coal mines in the region of Douai or in Wallony. The first industrial survey of 1846 revealed that the average yearly income of a cotton worker was only 88 percent of the official minimum cost of living. Working time was eighty hours a week. Underpaid female and child labor was widespread in the factories and mines. These observations stimulated the young Karl Marx, who lived as an émigré in Brussels from 1845 to 1848, to write his Communist Manifesto. Only after mid-century did economic growth bring a 49 percent increase in real wages (between 1853 and 1875).

The first labor organizations arose around 1850; they were strongly reminiscent of medieval and earlymodern guilds. Ghent textile workers established a union in 1857; under the prohibition of unionization, which was lifted only in 1867, they presented themselves as associations for mutual aid. In the Walloon industrial centers, a more activist revolutionary socialism was popular, and a syndicalistic form of organization developed. The formation of the Belgian Socialist Workers' Party in 1885 made universal manhood suffrage the main goal of the movement. In Wallony, strikes underscored this aim; when they escalated into a general strike and the police shot some demonstrators, Parliament accepted general male suffrage in 1893, albeit with extra votes for rich and educated men. In 1896, the number of workers in the industrial sector had grown to 934,000, and in 1910 to 1,176,000.

The effect of universal manhood suffrage was not that socialists won a parliamentary majority, but that the liberals, of whom many favored social reforms, were reduced to a tiny minority. The Catholic party held power for thirty years. During this period, labor productivity increased dramatically, but real wages increased by a poor 4 percent between 1896 and 1910. The Catholic party was firmly led by conservatives, although it claimed to include all "orders." As the workers' movement gained importance, the Catholic Church, inspired by the encyclical Rerum Novarum, tried to recuperate it by organizing Catholic unions, newspapers, health insurance, and other parallel institutions. While in Wallony the rapid urbanization had led to massive secularization because the Church could not expand adequately, in Flanders the majority of the workers was attracted by the moderate Catholic workers' movement. The contrast between the two regions remained until the general strike of 1960–1961; even then, Wallony was near revolution, while the Flemish socialists remained loyal to parliamentarism. The Belgian workers' movement was thus divided between a reformist tendency prevailing in Flanders and Brussels and a revolutionary tendency with strongholds in Hainaut and Liège; further, Catholic unionism functioned to moderate the working class as a whole. In this it was most successful in Flanders, where Catholicism remained strong until the 1970s and where industrialization triumphed only after World War II.


Early industrialization required the participation of women, which reduced their fertility. The declining birthrate perpetuated the need for more female workers. The greater demand for women to be available for factory work helped to spread bottle-feeding of babies much earlier in Belgium than in the Netherlands. Institutional arrangements were created earlier in Belgium for child care in crèches, kindergartens, and primary schools with day care after the class hours. The participation of the Belgian Workers' Party in the government since 1919 favored the early introduction of such measures, which became generally accepted and valued. In the Netherlands, industrialization was generalized only after 1945, when the new industries demanded fewer workers. Until then, the Social Democratic Party had been relatively small and very moderate. As a new participant in coalition governments from 1945 onward, it saw no reason to insist on measures to change the role of women, who happily stayed at home, where especially the dominant Christian parties had always wanted to keep them.

Female participation in higher education lagged far behind in the Netherlands until the 1970s, because both institutional arrangements and cultural prejudices worked against professional activity by women outside the home. Also, while the Netherlands remained neutral during World War I, in Belgium women had to take over tasks of the absent soldiers. The early introduction of female labor, and its generalization during the war, helped its continuation under new conditions. The growth of the service sector (which already counted 784,000 employees in 1910) and the emergence of the welfare state after the World War I required more female work in offices, schools, and hospitals. In most countries, female suffrage logically followed shortly after the war. Paradoxically, this happened in the Netherlands, but not in Belgium, where female suffrage was granted only in 1949. The reason is mainly political: the socialists opposed it because of their fear of conservative (that is, Catholic) voting by women. Indeed, a Catholic majority was elected in 1949, albeit only for one parliamentary term.


The institutional buildup of Catholic organizations to keep the sheep within the herd was long successful. Not only workers, but also peasants, entrepreneurs, housewives, shopkeepers, youth, and many other categories were labeled as "orders," which in a harmonious vision of society were supposed to collaborate under the aegis of Mother Church. Catholic power was widespread, especially in Flanders, where it was dominant until late in the 1990s. Most of the hospitals and charitable institutions, education, the press and private mass media, health insurance, the largest trade union, important banks, insurance companies, the Peasants' League, middle-class organizations, and many other institutions belonged to the Catholic "pillar," which cooperated with the Catholic Party, which governed the country for all but four years between 1884 and 1999. All sectors had to be kept in balance in order to secure continuity of power in as many sectors of society as possible. Secularization could be slowed down and the labor movement kept under control by dividing it. The socialist movement reacted by employing similar measures: it erected cooperatives, unions, health insurance companies, newspapers, a youth movement, and so on. The idea was to offer an ideological haven from cradle to grave. However, socialists lacked almost per definition the support of capital, and therefore they needed the state to provide the resources for their action.

In Wallony, the socialist pillar dominated society, in Flanders the Catholic. The two pillars needed to collaborate in order to govern the country smoothly. They did so by privileging their own organizations in performing numerous public tasks at the expense of the state budget. Their grip on society was so tight that it was difficult, after the 1950s, to obtain any appointment to an office in the public sector or any public service without the intervention of one of the pillars. A system of clientage was established in which citizens had to pass through pillar organizations to obtain public employment. The most successful politicians were those who managed to do a maximum of favors for people who would in return vote for them. Electors had become clients, and politicians became brokers of state power and fiscal resources.

The pillarized system in the Netherlands was analyzed first by the political scientists Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder. They argued that the emancipation of the Catholics in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the Protestant organization in reaction to that, plus the demands of the workers' movement tended together to form a system aiming at the pacification of these claimants on the state. Protestants and Catholics wanted to control their own hospitals, charitable institutions, schools, and universities, but also wanted the state to pay for them. The liberals were the least interested in these organizations, but they were pushed by the competition for public funds to participate in some way. Thus, Dutch society became pillarized in four columns. The differences with Belgium are immediately clear and significant: only in the southern Catholic provinces—the "generality lands" from the time of the Republic—was one pillar, the Catholic, dominant; elsewhere, each of the pillars had to collaborate. The absence of a tradition of violent political or social action, and the tradition of consensus seeking, helped the elaboration of a political culture in which power was shared in deals between the leaders of the four pillars, who aimed at "sovereignty in their own circle" and proclaimed in their public rhetoric to be essentially different from all the others. As in Belgium, the pillars used public funds to finance their private organizations. At variance with Belgium, no one of the pillars was regionally dominant—not even in the southern provinces, where all the others jointly kept an eye on the Catholics. So, none was able, as the Belgian pillars were, to act as the corrupt gatekeepers of the public domain.


During the late 1960s and 1970s, a rapid depillarization occurred in the Netherlands, while the pillars remained strong in Belgium until the 1990s. Why the difference? In 1945, both countries had around 8 million inhabitants. In 2000, the Netherlands counted more than 15 million, Belgium 10 million. Population growth was much higher in the north as a consequence of the continued high natality in Catholic and Protestant communities, at least until c. 1970, and the strong intercontinental immigration of people with a high fertility (Portuguese, Spaniards, and Turks), numbering up to about two million in 2000. On the other hand, the political culture and society had remained very traditional since industrialization had remained geographically and socially a marginal phenomenon. Only the fast postwar growth of the harbor economy, the third wave of industrialization, had a great impact, especially in the regions of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The old pattern of extremely high population density in Holland continued, but now the concentration of various ethnic groups raised new tensions.

In the sixties, international examples provided new models of social protest, propagated by the new mass media. In Belgium, these tensions were much smoother, since the population pressure was much less and since modernization had taken place gradually in many sectors. Moreover, the particularity of the linguistic problems focused the tensions on that issue. In the Netherlands, however, the new generation, led by young journalists and academics, demonstratively broke away from the traditional norms and values imposed by the pillar organizations. The media proclaimed their independence and encouraged further criticism of the old order. New forms of democracy were legally introduced in the universities and in many other public organizations. The most dramatic breakdown occurred in the Catholic pillar, which faced massive desertion of the Church after conservative reactions from the hierarchy to demands for modernization. The Catholic Party, which had been very influential, disappeared in a fusion with two Protestant parties. This may all be more apparent than real in the sense that in the late 1990s institutions still bore names referring to one or the other pillar, and still handled public money under the control of their private boards. Still, hardly any of them could claim exclusivity since only a small minority of the population strictly observed a "pillar" ideology. Secularization was certainly the main underlying factor in this process. The first so-called "purple" cabinet (a combination of socialist red and liberal blue) in 1995 was followed by a second in 1999, demonstrating the effects of massive secularization and depillarization in the public sphere. The "social market economy" fit extremely well with the buoyant economic opportunities the country enjoyed.

In Belgium, the two major pillars, with their regional dominance, were stronger. They managed to divert most of the dissatisfactions to linguistic tensions, which they certainly exacerbated for short-term political purposes. They could even strengthen their positions in the federalized state structure, which was gradually elaborated between 1963 and 1993. However, the "end of ideologies" came to Belgium as well. Church attendance sank to 13 percent in Flanders and 11 percent in Wallony in 1998, and the Catholic Party lost votes in each successive election. The socialist party lost credibility in a series of corruption scandals. A "purple plus green" cabinet governed beginning in 1999 and launched a new political and social climate free of political clientage.

See alsoRevolutions (volume 3) and other articles in this section.


Blockmans, Willem, and Walter Prevenier. The Promised Lands: The Low Countries under Burgundian Rule, 1369-1530. Philadelphia, 1999.

Blom, J. C. H., and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries. New York, 1998.

de Vries, Jan, and Ad van der Woude. The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Israel, Jonathan I. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477–1806. Oxford, 1995.

Schama, Simon. Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York, 1997.

Schama, Simon. Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780–1813. New York, 1992.