Ghosts of History Past

By Guest Contributor

Geert Wilders, the leader and founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), appeared proudly before his loyal following in The Hague on Wednesday night, still hoping that the local elections would solidify his political power. Against the backdrop of a Dutch flag spanning the entire backside of a medium-sized beer cellar in the political capital of the Netherlands, Mr. Wilders asked his boisterous audience three questions.

“Do you want more or less European Union?” The audience, familiar by now with Mr. Wilders’ crusade against the ever-closer cooperation of European nation-states—he has suggested violent rebellion if the EU gains powers of taxation—responded with a somewhat scattered but loud “Less! Less! Less!” The crowd repeated the word 13 times. Wilders, building momentum, continued with the precise eagerness of a hunter who is about to corner his prey. “Do you want more or less Labour Party?” The Dutch Labour Party (PVDA), it had become apparent before Mr. Wilders entered the room, had lost political control over Amsterdam, the Dutch capital and most populous city with roughly 800,000 inhabitants, for the first time since coming to power in 1949. Even Wilders’ disciples, whose confused populism combines leftist and rightist conservatism, seemed to commiserate with the social-democrats. “Less! Less! Less!” they uttered just eleven times.

Wilders, visibly in need of a brief recovery after the underwhelming response, looked down on his bright green tie, then turned his eyes to the floor, before prefacing his third question with an expression of acute awareness of what his next move would bring about. “And the third question is…and I’m not actually allowed to say this, because I will be reported to the police… But freedom of speech is an obvious good. We haven’t said anything illegal. Nothing that is not true. So, I ask you. Do you want, in this city and in the Netherlands, more or fewer Moroccans?” This time, the ensuing chant was reminiscent of the response Joseph Goebbels elicited in his Berlin Sportpalast speech of February 10, 1933, which offered the national-socialist ‘solution’ for Germany’s Post-WWI pains. Mr. Goebbels, who served as Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda between 1933 and 1945, racing in the rhythm of his rhetoric, assured his audience that “the Jewish insolence has lived longer in the past than it will live in the future.” The crowd laughed derisively, applauded, and clamored, with many rising to their feet to extend their right arm at a 45-degree angle.

The congregation of Wilders-devotees in The Hague responded in unison to the question on the presence of Moroccans—a group that makes up about 2% of the total Dutch population—yelling “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” The chant lasted a total of 16 repetitions of the word (‘minder’ in Dutch). Basking in the success of his kill, Mr. Wilders observed his surroundings, wetted his upper lip twice with his thin tongue in a gesture that completed his unnerving resemblance to a colubrid, and assured the Dutch on national television that “we will take care of that, then.” The crowd laughed derisively, applauded, and clamored.

As Mr. Wilders would find out soon after his address, the Dutch midterm elections forced the Party for Freedom, which thrives on the populist appeal of Mr. Wilders—he is the party’s only member—to surrender political dominance in all but one municipality. Having previously suffered significant defeat in the Dutch national elections of September 2012, Mr. Wilders differs much from Minister Goebbels in terms of executive power. That is not to say, however, that his populist rhetoric has failed to make an imprint on Dutch politics. Mr. Wilders’ hard-right campaign against European integration, Islam and ethnic groups brought him as far as holding a position of de facto governing power when the PVV served as the supporting party for the 2010 minority coalition of the Dutch Conservative Party (VVD) and Christian Democrats (CDA). Today, Mr. Wilders’ 15 seats in the Dutch lower chamber still see him represent 10% of the total population. Far more problematically, Mr. Wilders’ influence has pulled the Conservative Party (VVD) closer to demagoguery and xenophobia, and has successfully normalized anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and nationalist discourse in Dutch politics.

But for all the negativity that has surrounded the Dutch midterm elections, their outcome also holds the promise of a reversal in the populist trend of the past 10 years. Mr. Wilders’ speech has provoked public outrage among the Dutch, leading one PVV parliamentarian to cut all ties with the party on Thursday afternoon. As of Thursday night, over a thousand Dutchmen have reported Mr. Wilders’ discriminatory remarks to the police. Perhaps even more promisingly, Prime Minister Rutte (VVD), finally collapsing under the weight of party elders and European peers, announced late Thursday night that he has ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition government with Mr. Wilders if he maintains his views.

Finally, Democrats 66 (D66), the only Dutch party that has consistently refused to accept the Mr. Wilders’ brand of populism as tolerable political practice, emerged from the local elections as the undisputed victor, becoming the largest party in three of The Netherlands’ most populous cities: Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht. The progressive centrists of D66-leader Alexander Pechtold will seek to translate this local power to a widening influence on a national and European scale. To a large extent, the Dutch reputation for religious tolerance depends on how successful Pechtold is in meeting his challenge.

FELIX KLOS ’14 is from Hilversum, The Netherlands

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