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Village mentality

The 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands

How do national cultural identities change with time?

“The term ‘identity’ suggests eternal value, something that is resistant to the wear and tear of time and that affixes itself to groups. For people who appeal to the identity of a race or region - such as nationalists and populists - any change in that identity is regarded as a threat.” This is the view of professor Georgi Verbeeck from the Faculty Arts and Social Sciences. He specialises in political culture and is an expert on German history.

Eternal value? Verbeeck grins: “National cultural identities are relatively young; they came into being at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, prompted by the Enlightenment and Romanticism, more prominently in the forefront since the rise of the modern state. They have grown historically and were construed by the authorities. Being in charge of education, it had a powerful means to generate patriotism. But compulsory military service, historiography (we, the Dutch, descend from the Batavians and so we have existed for a very long time), and infrastructure (make sure that you can get to every corner of the country), also contribute to patriotism. The enterprising, Calvinistic, tolerant, and frugal Dutchman has only existed some 200 years. Before that time, one’s nationality was not an identity-promoting factor. One was a religious believer, a citizen of a city, or a subject to a ruler. The term invention of tradition by Eric Hobsbawm is appropriate here.”

“If a national cultural identity is able to emerge, it can also disappear again, or change shape. After a serious clash of nationalities in the First and Second World Wars, the European Union tried to create a European identity. It is again something that is construed, determined from above. People decide, for example, that the Jewish heritage is crucial for Europe, that Turkey and Russia are not part of Europe, that Europe is limited to the continent and hence excludes North America; people choose an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ Europe. These are administrative decisions that could also have gone some other way.”

“I suspect that the old national cultural identities will fade, but we will not become Europeans or world citizens within two generations. A great deal will depend on politicians, intellectuals, opinion formers and policy makers. At the moment you can see countries where identities are clashing: the feeling of being Belgian colliding with the feeling of being Flemish, in Spain there is Catalonia, in Germany many people are hanging on to their Eastern German identity. You can also see that everything is being anglicised, communication is super-fast, people travel a lot, but at the same time the village mentality is strong too. Just look at the media, a TV programme such as Hart van Nederland (Netherlands’ Heart). People are afraid of globalisation, so they automatically turn to the well-known and familiar.”


Riki Janssen

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) made a list of the 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands. Every week a UM researcher gives an answer. This time: prof. Georgi Verbeeck, specialised in political culture and an expert on German history, answering the question: How do national cultural identities change with time?



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