Monday, March 17, 2014


I’ve never been to Amsterdam. It floats out there, watery images, both famous and infamous—a boy with his finger in a dyke; fields of tulips extending beyond the horizon; dark, dramatic Rembrandts; marijuana coffee houses and sex workers beckoning from behind large storefront windows; cheese and canals and bicycles—all waiting for a time when I can visit long enough to “do it justice.”

So Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History ofthe World’s Most Liberal City enticed me with the promise of a way to reconcile, or correct, my misty images of a fascinating place, but also with the more important promise of explaining how these images are connected to the concept of liberalism, a complex term often attached to a wide variety of views, sharing as it does an etymology with liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Shorto links the term to free, open, and permissive, but also with a deeper meaning, going back to the centrality of the individual, having its origins, he claims, in the Protestant Reformation. And while Shorto acknowledges contributions to the rise of liberalism from a number of parts of the world (Paris, London, Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Virginia hills), he makes the case that a remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam beginning in the late 1500s, forces that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and the state. These forces include:

  • the first wave of scientific experimentation;
  • the rise of the first stock market to sell company shares;
  • the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries;
  • the crafting of an official policy on tolerance;
  • the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe to create the world’s most dynamic publishing centre; and
  • the transformation of the city with the digging of the canals and the rise of the modern idea of “home.”

But Shorto also relates incidents, both past and present, that cause him to ask how a city famed historically for championing the notion of tolerance could also be the site of deeply disturbing episodes and, even now, seems to be charting odd new frontiers of intolerance.

For example, his son’s day-care provider asks him to sign an immigration document supporting her effort to have her sister visit from a Muslim country. Shorto is confused by the need for all this paperwork for the sister to visit, not emigrate. But he is informed that just recently the laws have changed and it is now necessary for people from “certain countries” to go through an extensive permission process. Some weeks later, he learns that the sister as been denied for reasons of “untrustworthiness.” This although the day-care provider is a legal resident, speaks Dutch at home, and pays taxes. Eventually, the ruling was reversed, but for Shorto it’s another curiosity in a complex web of cultural and historic forces.

For many Canadians, Shorto’s question about the frontiers of intolerance will strike an uncomfortable chord. While we now have one of the highest rates of immigration in the world per capita, adding about 250,000 newcomers each year, during WWI we put thousands of people in camps because they were citizens of enemy nations, and during WWII we interned Japanese Canadians. Only since 1960 with the Canadian Bill of Rights did we put significant emphasis on equality and inclusiveness. In spite of debates about such things as Quebec’s proposed bill banning public servants from wearing religious symbols, immigration is not in question anywhere in the country.

For now. But there is a growing cultural divide and no aspect of human rights can be taken for granted. Who could have predicted the Rob Ford phenomenon, with his speculation that “enough is enough” when it comes to immigration in Toronto? His unsavoury antics and bewildering popularity have distracted us from other actions at the federal level that some view as a dismantling of civic society. Speaking about the rapid closure of seven out of nine world-famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, with much of the material irretrievably relegated to waste bins and land-fill sites, renowned Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings said the closures fit into the federal government’s larger pattern of "fear and insecurity … about how to deal with science and knowledge." He elaborates: "You look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?"

The pertinence of this question through time is powerfully demonstrated by Shorto’s coverage of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Although neutral in WWII, the Netherlands was invaded in May 1940, with Dutch forces capitulating after the severe bombing of Rotterdam. In the five years before the Germans surrendered to Canadian forces, Amsterdam’s Jewish population had gone from 80,000 to 22,000 (it is 15,000 today), the lowest survival rate of Jews in Europe. How does this happen in a city famed for tolerance? One where, for a time during the Inquisition’s severe reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Roman orders to crack down on heretics was obeyed by making offenders do such things as crawl to the pub––rather than burning them at the stake.

Shorto provides an interesting read, teasing out the many forces at work. One of his trains of thought follows the tension between economic liberalism with its desire to ensure trade is not hampered in any way (which comes with a high level of tolerance for differences), and social liberalism, with its emphasis on the government’s role to protect citizens from the ravages of corporate greed. He points to the Industrial Revolution as the engine driving liberalism in these two different directions.

Shorto’s many vivid images capture an extremely capitalist place but one that is whole-heartedly social––capitalists themselves are committed to a safety net, now as in the 17th century when they created orphanages and old-age homes with no segregation of the poor. This itself goes back even further to the founding of the city and the fight against the water.

An essential part of the identity of Amsterdam can be traced to the undesirable swamps and mud flats that most early migratory peoples avoided. But around 1000 CE, early inhabitants, finding the peaty soil to be good for farming, cooperated to reclaim more of it. A series of dykes to keep out the sea and of channels to drain the waters into the rivers required a entire community to come together in an unrelenting process. Eventually they built a dam across the Amstel river. As the land emerged, everyone who participated was given a piece of it to own individually. No king. No church. Individuals were free to buy, rent or sell their lands. As Shorto puts it: proto-capitalist power was infused with an individualistic sensibility, paving the way for liberalism.

At various points, Shorto defines liberalism––beginning with the historical notion of a commitment to individual freedom and individual rights for everyone––but his main argument is that Amsterdam was, uniquely, a special breeding ground for liberalism.

The combination of cooperation and individualism carried over in a significant way to create one of the world’s largest and first trans-global, multi-national companies.

Building on the culture of working together to profit individually, herring fishermen expanded from individual boats bringing back their catch to be processed on shore and sold individually, to the processing of fish on board ship and returning after longer periods of time. This change was made possible by the discovery that leaving the pyloric caeca (pouches in the belly that secrete digestive enzymes) in the cleaned fish both preserved the fish longer and made them taste better. Ships could now come back with larger catches processed and packed, ready to ship around the world, creating an early brand: Holland Herring was stamped on each barrel.

Ships that were sea-worthy for longer times and in deeper waters also had to be invented. And before long, Amsterdam had ships that could travel the world. Ship-building led to specialised lumber processing, which soon became another major export. With herring to deliver around the world, Amsterdam ships came back full of exotic goods. Word of Amsterdam’s rich and vibrant way of life spread rapidly, attracting people and products and causing an economic boom. Individuals could make investments now, not only in one shipping expedition but in a whole series of them, reducing their risk. After a first disastrous voyage to East India, more than 65 ships made the return trip in just four years. Trade became so rich that the military became involved to protect it. Difficult but successful negotiations with provinces around Amsterdam resulted in an entity historian Jonathan Israel calls, “a unique politico-commercial institution, one that could be imitated nowhere else in the world, because the United Provinces were the world’s only federal republic in which a collectivity of town governments, committed to the advancement of trade, industry, and navigation, also wielded great military naval power.”

And thus the East India Company was born, today with archives that measure in the kilometers, detailing advancement of cartography and shipbuilding, but also its “fostering of disease, slavery and exploitation on a scale never before imagined. It shuffled the global ecosystem … by ferrying plants, animals, and insects across the planet.” It transported more than a million Europeans to Asia and brought 2.5 million tons of Asian products back to Europe. Shorto’s account of the growth and reach of this company is fascinating.

The vast economic foundation of Amsterdam gave birth to political and social liberalisms. To provide some security against plagues and storms and other unpredictable circumstances, the stock exchange system developed, as did insurance and facilities for travelers, such as hotels and warehouses.

While the Renaissance is widely held to have begun in Florence in the 14th century, with patronage of the Medici family being an important factor, Cosimo de’ Medici visited Amsterdam in the late 1600s and declared the high Renaissance eclipsed by Amsterdam: “Greater trade is done in Amsterdam than in any other city in the world. Foreigners are astounded when they first see it, and it appears that the four quarters of the world have despoiled themselves to enrich her and to bring their rarest and most curious treasures into her port. Anyone who considers the present state of Amsterdam … will be amazed that the city with such small beginnings and in such a short time has become enriched to such a degree of greatness, beauty, and magnificence.”

Shorto manages to follow threads of various kinds of liberalism and to provide interesting and often bizarre anecdotes, not by providing a wearisome chronology of development, but by offering up biographies of people who were responding to their surroundings and in some cases making major contributions to them. You’ll read about:

Erasmus–– who grew up in a monastery but travelled extensively; although he was an obedient Catholic, he mounted a sustained assault on the structures of the church, insisting that the “essence of Christianity” was not to be found in observance of the sacraments or even in the power of the Vatican. Instead, he developed a Christian humanism with a learned and individual approach to faith, based on the study of the scriptures, that appealed to the Dutch and their culture of strong individuals cooperating with one another to get things done. In his best-selling Handbook for the Christian Soldier, which became the basis for a new curriculum he called “liberal studies,” he encouraged people to drop their “superstitions” and use their brains. Coming at the time of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517), and just seventy-five years after the invention of printing, Erasmus and others created a movement away from their religious culture on such a scale as to be “without precedent or parallel.”

Rembrandt––unlike Michelangelo and Raphael who, for the most part, had been commissioned by churches to do religious scenes, Rembrandt painted more in the service of individuals. His clients and those of other Dutch artists were pious but they were not priests and popes. They were herring merchants and traders who wanted depictions of themselves in biblical settings for their homes. And before he was twenty years of age, he was also inserting himself into the scenes. As Shorto explains it, Rembrandt was using art for his own emotional needs, exploring his identity. Rembrandt has been quoted as saying that his goal was to express “the greatest and most natural emotion.” Between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five (1632) he made at least twenty self-portraits in a variety of guises and techniques. His technical brilliance and inventive, theatrical approach made him a master realist, but what really made him stand apart was his ability to paint not just what people looked like, but who they were. Art critic Robert Hughes calls Rembrandt the “supreme depictor of inwardness, of human thought.” In just two years, he painted forty-two exquisite, fully realised portraits and dozens of etchings and drawings. As Shorto points out, all of the people he painted are dead and gone and none made what could be called lasting contributions; however, they have Wikipedia listings and live on in canvases hanging in Museums all over the world. Each of these human beings face you as you stand in front of them. They have interior lives. This emergence of the individual, this is liberalism.

Baruch Spinoza––considered one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers, he was born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a Sephardic Jewish community. Surrounded as he was with the forces of liberalism, Spinoza made it his life’s work to understand what “freedom” means and how individuals can be free. During his lifetime the Thirty Year’s War and the Eighty Years’ War came to an end, but just two years later two rival Dutch political parties seemed set to begin a civil war, one thinking the government should be centralised around Willem II, Prince of Orange, and the other supporting a republican form of government in which power was held by the individual provinces. These conflicts caused Spinoza to think deeply about a government’s responsibility to its people and about whether there was a right form of government. Descartes, who spent five years in Amsterdam, attracted by the freedom to openly discuss and publish ideas, had left for Sweden by this time leaving behind him a raging controversy on these subjects––and the beginning of the Enlightenment. Spinoza built on Descartes’ emphasis on reason––a faculty that had to be developed so that the lies of king and church could be detected––and went so far as to mock the notion of a “chosen people.” He called the idea of angels appearing to holy people “mere nonsense,” considered the Bible to be an historical document and argued for the separation of church and state. Before long, Spinoza was excommunicated by the rabbis of Amsterdam and the roiling controversy was bringing others to Amsterdam. 

John Locke––was one of those attracted by Amsterdam’s hotbed of ideas. He arrived in 1683 and published three hallmarks of the Enlightenment, on democratic government, tolerance and epistemology (the study of knowledge and how it relates to truth).

Anne Frank––the famous little girl––whose diary of life during the two years she was in hiding from the Nazis, sold over 31 million copies in 67 languages––lived just a short distance away from Shorto’s home in Amsterdam (he lived there for five years) and was friends with Freida Brommet, a woman Shorto interviews extensively. Freida, in Auschwitz with Anne Frank, managed to survive and relates the story of her life, a chapter of great horror for the Jews of Amsterdam and of great shame for its history. Yes, there were informants in Amsterdam as in other places, but the devastation was particularly immense, partly due to the great efficiency of the Dutch. Their pillar system, an effort to keep peace by giving different groups their own social space, meant that each group had its own register, with addresses on file, making the Nazi’s work easier. Shorto also points to the expedience that was behind the Dutch sense of tolerance: when circumstances change, so can the notion of tolerance.

After the war, the city’s liberal heritage again attracted activists of all kinds, giving Amsterdam a renewed commitment to that heritage. In 1946 they had the world’s first organisation to advance gay rights. Freida Brommet was the first woman to head the Dutch Union of Progressive Jews, speaking from Miami to Nairobi on the Holocaust and women’s rights. Yoko Ono and John Lennon had their “bed-in” at the Amsterdam Hilton and invited the press. The White Bicycle Plan––a radical movement, initially thwarted by the police––sought to replace cars by giving people bicycles they could ride freely around the city, eventually spawning similar plans around the world. The counter-culture was becoming the dominant culture. By 2000, prostitution, gay marriage and euthanasia had all been legalised, with both economic and social liberals in agreement.

Shorto tells all this history in a fascinating and highly readable way, providing back up references for those who want yet more detail. In short he’s a credible narrator of a great read.

And then something happens. After talking about Amsterdam’s liberal approach to soft drugs and to sex throughout the book, citing statistics that show how progressive they are, Shorto, in the final chapter refers to a “curious flip side.” He finds the acceptance of soft drugs to be inconsistent with their deep mistrust of pharmaceutical drugs and a reluctance to undergo surgery. Similarly he finds it curious that the sexual content of movies does not get the R rating it would in the U.S. but that movies with violence in them, thought to be acceptable for American children, would be restricted in the Netherlands. I find this perfectly consistent.

As for my dreamy images…

Shorto points out that the most remarkable symbol of Amsterdam’s history of liberalism is actually in its buildings––not in monumental structures such as Paris’ Eiffel tower and London’s Big Ben, but in hundreds and hundreds of canal houses where in the seventeenth-century the idea of home as a personal, private space began.


Photo by Normann Szkop

Oh, and that boy with his finger in a dyke? That turns out to be an American conception, one that emphasizes the heroic; for the Dutch with their co-operative culture it’s a bit confusing. But my image of fields of tulips certainly has a solid foundation even if the windmills are a bit more modern that I might have had in mind.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.

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