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  • A New Portrait of William of OrangeThe Year in the Netherlands
  • Monica Soeting (bio)

Most national anthems, it is safe to say, sing the praises of the land, the king or queen, or everything that is typical of the nation. Not the Dutch anthem though. The Dutch anthem, "Het Wilhelmus," is an autobiographical verse as supposedly sung by Willem van Oranje-Nassau. "Wilhelmus van Nassouwe," reads the first of the fifteen stanzas, "ben ik, van Duitse bloed / den vaderland getrouwe / blijf ik tot in den dood. / Een Prinse van Oranje / ben ik, vrij, onverveerd, / den Koning van Hispanje / heb ik altijd geëerd." Which means, in brief: I am of German blood, as a Prince of Orange, I am free and fearless and have always honored the King of Spain. Three nations are sung here: Germany, France, and Spain. But not the Netherlands. So who was this free and fearless man? And how could his autobiographical song become the national anthem of the Netherlands?

William of Orange was a German count, born in the German county of Dillenburg in 1533. When he was eleven years old, he inherited the princedom of Orange in France from his cousin René of Chalon, plus several effects in what is now Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. In order to obtain these possessions, William first had to gain permission from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Archduke of Austria and King of Spain. They were given to him under the condition that he would be raised and educated at the court of the emperor's sister Mary of Hungary in Breda.

Thus, William grew up to become one of the most important men at the court of Philip II of Spain, Charles's son. However, things took a wrong turn when Philip, in contrast to his father, took a very stern attitude towards the early Protestant movements in the northern parts of his realm, the southern and northern Nether-lands. Nobles who, like William of Orange, took a more moderate attitude toward Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists were either killed or robbed of their possessions by Philip II. This led to a war of independence in the Netherlands, which was initiated and led by William, his brothers, and allies, and lasted eighty years. It also led to the murder of William in 1584 by a French Roman Catholic called Balthasar Gerard. [End Page 67]

Now, anybody living in the northern, predominantly Protestant part of the Netherlands—"north of the great rivers," as the expression goes—and raised before, say, the last two decades of the twentieth century, was bombarded at school with the story of William of Orange, the father of our fatherland, as he was called. Unfortunate children who, like me, attended several schools because their parents would move their families from one town to another quite frequently, often found themselves learning not much more of Dutch history than the heroic deeds of William of Orange and his tragic death, over and over again. This obsession with William of Orange was an aftereffect of the historical events after 1815, when the Vienna Conference decided that the Dutch Republic should become a monarchy, with a distant relative and namesake of William of Orange as the first king of the Netherlands, and even more so when the Belgians separated themselves from the Netherlands in the 1830s. At this point in time the Netherlands developed into a new nation-state in dire need of a typical Dutch identity, a typical Dutch history, and a typical Dutch hero-cum-martyr. The Eighty Years' War against the Spanish emperor, the struggle for religious freedom, and the sly murder of William of Orange by a French Catholic all fit the bill. So did the autobiographical verse that William had once ordered to be written to convince the Dutch of his good intentions and to boost morale. To affirm this image, in the nineteenth and twentieth century there appeared a plethora of biographies of William of Orange as the father of the fatherland, the redeemer of the Protestant faith, the man who saved "the Dutch" from the Spanish yoke, and who defined the Dutch "character" as freedom-loving, righteous, sober...