Are Germany and the Netherlands best friends

Germany archive

Hanco Juergens

The author

Dr .; research assistant at the Duitsland Instituut Amsterdam, studied history at the University of Utrecht and was a Nuffic scholar at the Leibniz Institute for European History in Mainz. He has lectured at Utrecht University, Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on contemporary and media history, the Berlin Republic and the Netherlands, Dutch-German relations and the history of the eighteenth century. In 2014 he published the monograph "The Netherlands after the fall of the wall" (published under the title Na de val, Nederland na 1989, Nijmegen: Vantilt).

The Dutch people’s image of Germany has changed several times since reunification, which is not least due to the Dutch’s changed self-perception within an enlarged EU. Since the beginning of the European financial and economic crisis, Germany has been increasingly viewed as a political role model.

"Kaasmeisje Antje" offers tourists fresh Gouda cheese for Green Week in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The image of "Frau Antje" in Germany is protected and cultivated by the Netherlands (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

If you look at the comments in the Dutch newspapers, the Dutch people's image of Germany has changed completely over the past 25 years. Instead of suspicion and aversion, there was increasing admiration and sympathy for the neighboring country to the east. Especially since the last peak of the European financial crisis in mid-2011, Germany has been increasingly portrayed as a model for the energy transition, the manufacturing industry, dual training, and cultural and European politics. Winning the soccer world championship in summer 2014 was the reason for laudatory newspaper articles about Germany's position in Europe. The positive assessment is remarkable, as the Dutch still kept a critical distance from Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. According to the historian Jacco Pekelder, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, German-Dutch relations have developed from a crisis-ridden relationship to an intense friendship: They are 'the best of friends'. [1]

The assumption that Dutch-German relations were in crisis at the beginning of the 1990s needs to be nuanced. In fact, the rapid reunification process took both the government and most of the journalists in the Netherlands by surprise. It took a while to adjust to the new situation. And indeed there was some disagreement between Germany and the Netherlands, especially with regard to EU policy. The question arises as to what role these discrepancies played for Dutch-German relations as a whole and for economic and cultural relations in particular. In 1993 in particular, when the crisis in relationships was most frequently written about, several turning points occurred in politics and culture, which justify the image of an intensive partnership.

Three phases in the debate

In this article I will classify the Dutch image of Germany into three phases in order to be able to show how the debates have developed over the last 25 years and which topics have played an important role. I would like to work out how the Dutch image of Germany was shaped by the changing perceptions of self and others. In my opinion, Germany is a significant other in Dutch culture. Three developments were decisive: First of all, since the 1960s, Germany served the Netherlands as a negative image of its own progressive-liberal society. Due to the rapid change in Dutch society in the period 1995-2005, however, the eastern neighbor lost this function. I would also like to show how the cultural memory of the Second World War changed at the same time, and how this change is related to the changing image of Germany. Thirdly, I believe that the new political situation in the two countries in the EU has led to a new assessment of their own positions in the world as a whole. This also had consequences for relations between Germany and the Netherlands. Based on the European policy of the two countries, I will show the good relations with each other, but also the differences between the two political cultures.

1989 to 1994 teaching hours in modesty

The fall of the Berlin Wall was greeted with cheers in the Netherlands. The progressive daily newspaper de Volkskrant declared 1989 to be the Year of the People: "It was not a revolution by party leaders or ideologues, but a revolution by students, intellectuals and workers. They pushed through the reforms that the Honeckers found superfluous." [2] The political consequences of the However, the fall of the Berlin Wall also brought uncertainties with it. What position would the Netherlands take next to a unified Germany? Although the Netherlands had also paid lip service since the Second World War that the German people should complete unity in free self-determination, Dutch politicians in 1989 did not expect this unity to take place so quickly. They had adjusted to a completely different development of events. In addition, the Dutch newspapers did not always rate the new national democratic phase among the German demonstrators as positive after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was characterized by slogans such as "We are one people" and "Germany united in the fatherland". Wrote on December 12, 1989 de Volkskranthow the dissatisfied petty bourgeoisie "crawled out of his hole" during the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and how demonstrators from the environmental movement were insulted by "Germany-over-everything" scandals with the words: "They should gass yourselves." [3] The Article suggests the fear of a growing right-wing extremist potential in the GDR.

Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers did not directly think of a quick reunification either. On December 8, 1989, one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall and ten days after Helmut Kohl had presented his ten-point program, he mentioned the term "German people" at a dinner with heads of government in Strasbourg. He wondered if one of one German people should go out, and whether it is not too early to talk about self-determination. After dinner, Kohl replied to Lubbers that he would explain German history to him again. [4]

In the phase after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Netherlands was reminded that the country could hardly be considered a great one among the small powers. Peter van Walsum, then the highest official for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry, interpreted the legendary 329 days from the fall of the Berlin Wall to German reunification "as a period in which we were reminded almost daily of our lack of influence." [5] This impression was also followed of reunification when several proposals from the Netherlands were not honored internationally, for example in 1991 the proposal for a European political union with more powers for the European Parliament and the European Commission (known in the Netherlands as Black Monday), 1993 the proposal for Amsterdam as the location for the European Central Bank and in 1994 for Ruud Lubbers as chairman of the European Commission. The early German recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991 can also be seen as an affront to Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, who was looking for a solution to the conflict in the Balkans on behalf of the European Economic Community.

Attitudes of the population

In view of the minor and major incidents in diplomatic dealings between the Netherlands and Germany, it is not surprising that feelings of rejection against an overly powerful Germany also arose among the Dutch population. To this end, a number of opinion polls were carried out by very different agencies, which produced different results: A survey at the end of November 1989 showed that 54 percent of those questioned were in favor of reunification, 27 percent against and 19 percent had no opinion on this topic. In other surveys, the proportion of opponents was around 12 percent. Only the well-known Clingersael study "Known and Unpopular" from 1993 gave cause for great concern. This survey among 1807 young people between the ages of 15 and 19 showed that 56 percent of those questioned thought negatively about Germany. 71 percent rated it as dominant and 46 percent still viewed Germany as addicted to war. The study also showed that young people who knew less about Germany judged more negatively than those who knew more.

Regardless of the quality of the survey, about which one or the other should be noted, some recent incidents had influenced the negative result. There was some outrage in the Dutch press about the takeover of the Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker by the Daimler Benz aircraft company, Deutsche Aerospace Aktiengesellschaft (DASA). The impression arose that national pride was being handed over to German carmakers without any guarantees for the development of further new aircraft. The predominantly negative judgment of the respondents was mainly related to the great media attention for the right-wing extremist attacks in Germany, such as in Hoyerswerda and Rostock. When it became known that right-wing extremist youths had set fire to the house of a Turkish family in Solingen, killing five people and seriously injuring another eight, the popular Dutch radio program The Breakfast Club organized a postcard campaign. 1.2 million people took part in the call to send a postcard with the inscription "Ik ben woedend" ("I am angry") to Helmut Kohl. The action also caused a sensation in Germany, as it showed that the German outrage over this attack had escaped the Dutch senders.

Political Cooperation

But it must be asked how strained the relationships actually were. From a political point of view, the disagreements arose from the fact that it was at times difficult for the Dutch government to find its new role in Europe. The traditionally good relationship was continued in 1993 with the planning of a joint Dutch-German military corps, which was operational from 1995. From an economic point of view, too, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. As the well-known journalist Willem Leonard Brugsma put it, the Netherlands was Germany's jetty and vegetable garden, referring to the port of Rotterdam and the greenhouse areas in which tomatoes and peppers for the German market were grown. However, sales of Dutch tomatoes in Germany fell by 50 percent between 1990 and 1994 due to increasing competition from other countries. The image of "Frau Antje" was at stake here. The Dutch tomatoes were called "water bombs", too watery and too factory-made. That is why a new slogan was devised: "Plow for Germany". New products were developed such as the shrub, cocktail and cherry tomato. After a few years, the arable farmers found their way back to the German market.

Cultural relations

Prince Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands since April 2013, at the Frankfurt Book Fair 1993 (& copy picture-alliance / ANP)
In contrast to political relations, cultural relations were particularly good in 1993. At the beginning of the 1990s, the quality of the cultural exchange was comparable to that during the cultural heyday of the Weimar Republic. The highlight of the cultural relations was the Flemish-Dutch appearance as a guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Especially the quick breakthrough of the author Cees Nootebooms, after some very positive reviews of his work on the popular TV show The literary quartet, was remarkable. The rediscovery of Nooteboom in Germany brought about a reorganization of the Dutch literary canon. In the Netherlands, Nootebooms was finally known as an author of travel books and could not compete with the big three named Willem Frederik Hermans, Gerard Reve and Harry Mulisch. In 1993 Rudi Fuchs was also appointed director of the city museum in Amsterdam - the Stedelijk Museum. Fuchs' career, who headed the documenta in 1982, was closely linked to the careers of some German artists, such as Georg Baselitz, Günther Förg and Markus Lüpertz.

Common counterculture

The explanation for the intensive cultural exchange between the Netherlands and Germany lies in the divided counterculture that was lived and cultivated in both countries during the Cold War and afterwards, certainly until 1993. As Niklas Luhmann wrote, protest, opposition, was an essential part of the old Federal Republic. This is one of the reasons why Germany had a great deal of interpretive power in the Netherlands in the field of art and culture. Artists like Joseph Beuys, Pina Bausch and Wim Wenders were well known. Various intellectual debates in Germany, such as the historians' dispute and the debate about the controversial play "The Garbage, the City and Death" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1985, were then continued among intellectuals in the Netherlands. Jürgen Habermas' influence on Dutch sociologists and philosophers at the time is also particularly noteworthy.

Associated with the cross-border cultural scene, social protest also formed a cross-border movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Progressive Dutch and Germans moved together in the fight against the excesses of capitalism, apartheid in South Africa and the NATO double decision. The churches also played an important role in the cross-border peace movement, and together German and Dutch demonstrators successfully took to the streets against the commissioning of the Kalkar nuclear power plant. The protest in the Netherlands decreased in the second half of the 1980s, but was still strongly organized until the 1990s: in 1993 50,000 people demonstrated against racism in Amsterdam and 25,000 students in The Hague against savings in the education sector.

The Dutch culture of protest also resulted in a double-edged attitude towards Germany. On the one hand, Dutch and German protesters came together in their fight against injustice. On the other hand, Germany in particular stood for a country of exaggerated hierarchies, for "there must be order". Peter van Walsum, meanwhile the Dutch ambassador in Bonn, said in an opinion article in the NRC in 1993 Handelsbladthat he encountered little actual hostility towards Germany among Dutch people, but that being a little anti-German, and above all belittling the anti-German being among others, seems to be good form in Dutch circles. [6]

1995 to 2005 New self-image: closeness and distance

The intense debates about the Dutch image of Germany from 1993 to 1996 were an important impetus for changes in Dutch society itself. The heated debates in the press about the big football games led to questions about where the negative feelings of the Dutch actually came from. Was the departure from Germany a Dutch variant of xenophobia? Was it about the "Calimero complex" of a small country that shies away from its big neighbors, or about a collectively unprocessed war past? These questions went beyond bilateral relations: rather, they related to the Netherlands' place in the world after the fall of the Iron Curtain. One could even see the debates as a form of self-therapy.

When Ruud Lubbers was forced to withdraw his candidacy for the chairmanship of the European Commission in June 1994, harsh words fell from the Dutch side at Helmut Kohl's address. He had agreed with the French President François Mitterand to support the Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene in a candidacy. The feeling was also that Kohl was reciprocating the Dutchman's lack of support for German unification. Incidentally, Kohl was not aware of any guilt. In the opinion of the Deputy Prime Minister Wim Kok, however, "old wounds were torn open again" and "the differences in the relationship had intensified". [7] The State Secretary for European Affairs, Piet Dankert, even spoke of a "dirty campaign" by the Germans.

Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl (left) is bid farewell by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers (right) at Valkenburg Airport with military honors in January 1993 (& copy Bundesregierung, B 145 Bild-00086145, Photo: Christian Stutterheim)
Foreign Minister Pieter Kooijmans opposed this resentment.He announced a study of enemy images that existed among the Dutch, because "otherwise the Clingersael survey will stand like a wall between us". [8] He then spoke out in favor of German-Dutch conferences at which politicians, entrepreneurs and journalists should come together. In addition, an educational program about Germany should be developed for both secondary and university teaching and a journalist program should be advertised in order to gain experience in the neighboring country. The aim was to bring about a change in mentality through exchange, dialogue and the transfer of knowledge. The initiative for this came from the Dutch side. The new policy was intended to bring about "change through rapprochement" in Dutch society. Wim Kok's new cabinet, which took office in 1994, continued this course and developed Kooijman's plans further. On their part, the German government showed understanding for the Dutch sensitivities and responded to them in 1994 and 1995 with visits by Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, Federal Chancellor Kohl and Federal President Roman Herzog in the neighboring country.

New self-image; new image of Germany

Between 1995 and 2005, the Netherlands changed from a stable, confident society to a country that feared for its position in the world. The massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian nationalists in Srebrenica, which is controlled by Dutch blue helmet soldiers, in 1995, the political murders of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the referendum in 2005 in which the Dutch rejected the European Constitutional Treaty certainly contributed to this. In addition, there was a critical reassessment of one's own past, especially the role of the Dutch during the persecution of Dutch Jews under German occupation. In the 1990s, information about those compatriots who had taken part in the persecution of Jews aroused great interest in the Netherlands - from Amsterdam community officials who put flags on a city map to mark the residences of Jews, to the establishment of a new Lippmann bank , Rosenthal & Co. to steal the capital of Jewish families. The traditional way of thinking in terms of good and bad made way for a palette of shades of gray for those Dutch who adapted to the predicament in very different ways and worked with the occupiers without necessarily sharing their views. Also the sensational book by Chris van der Heijden, "Graue Past" (Redden Grijs), which appeared in 2001, broke with traditional ideas in society about the occupation and suggested a differentiated picture of war history. It appeared at a time when social resistance had lost its appeal and criticism of the country's multicultural self-image was growing. With a sobering look at its own war past, Germany also disappeared as a traditional antithesis to Dutch society.

From left to right: Joschka Fischer, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bernard Bot, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of the Netherlands in December 2004 (& copy Federal Government, B 145 Bild-00057346, Photo: Guido Bergmann)
The arrival of the red-green coalition in 1998 created a different dynamic in relations. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer generally had less of an eye on the small countries, which made bilateral relations less intensive. However, Schröder showed particular interest in one aspect: the polder model. The form of the Dutch negotiation of working conditions between employers, employees and the state was seen as an interesting pattern for German employment relationships, especially with regard to the alliance for work, training and competitiveness, which Schröder breathed new life into. However, it turned out in Germany in particular that the polder model could not simply be exported, as the German state traditionally exerts much less influence on collective agreements than is usual in the Netherlands. [9]

New tasks in foreign policy

From 2002 to 2005, Dutch-German relations came under pressure from several factors. An important point of contention was the Iraq crisis in 2003. While Germany and France spoke out against a new war in Iraq, the Netherlands belonged to the Willingen coalition, incidentally without sending military units to Iraq. But there was disagreement mainly with regard to the EU. The slightest problem was that the German and Dutch ideas about the structure of the European institutions diverged. Germany, especially the German Foreign Minister Fischer, was an important driving force behind the conclusion of the Treaty on a European Constitution. However, the Dutch government showed particularly little interest in this initiative, which certainly contributed to the fact that the Dutch rejected the constitutional treaty in a referendum in 2005.

However, real differences emerged when it became clear that Chancellor Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac had jointly decided to bypass the strict budgetary guidelines of the Stability and Growth Pact. In the EU finance ministers' council, the EcoFin, the Dutch finance minister Gerrit Zalm threatened sanctions against the two large countries, whereupon the German finance minister Hans Eichel accused him of poisoning the climate in the EU. A vote showed that a majority supported the Franco-German initiative. When the Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot told his German colleague Fischer that the dispute was over, it continued within the Dutch cabinet, as Zalm did not at all agree with Bot's statement. [10]

While the friction between the neighboring countries at the beginning of the 1990s could be traced back to problems of the Netherlands adapting to the new international conditions, the disputes between 2002 and 2005 were due to more fundamental causes. With regard to Iraq, the Netherlands expressed its disappointment at Germany's break with a multilateral tradition. While they stood loyally on the side of the USA, Germany deliberately distanced themselves. With regard to the EU, there was both an ideological conflict over the handling of the budget directives and divergent visions regarding the architecture of the EU. The ideological conflict was of a temporary nature, but the opposing views on how to shape European democracy still exist. Incidentally, as Jochen Stöger emphasized, the crisis came mainly from the Dutch side. In 2003, Schröder said to the Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende simply: "We are friends". [11] He obviously saw fewer problems in relationships.

From 2005 to today: friendship bond with differences

A few months after the Dutch "No" to the European Constitutional Treaty, Angela Merkel became Chancellor. She actively campaigned for the recovery of German-American relations and the rescue of the constitutional treaty, which ultimately led to the Treaty of Lisbon. Merkel found a partner in Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende with whom she shared a Christian Democratic background, a past in academia and a political leadership style that was more focused on content than broadcast. When the European financial crisis broke out, the Netherlands and Germany tackled it together. However, that did not mean that there were no more arguments. The fear of a strong Franco-German axis grew in the Netherlands with the increasingly frequent appearances of the duo "Merkozy". The Netherlands reacted critically to the "Pact of Deauville" of October 2010, when Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, in the run-up to a European crisis summit, at Merkel's request, wanted to revise the Lisbon Treaty and, at Sarkozy's request, against automatic sanctions for deficit sinners in the stability system. and the Growth Pact. Their walk along the beach in Normandy should show their unity. For the Dutch, however, this image seemed like a dictation proclaimed from "above".

Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands to the German-Dutch government consultations in Kleve in May 2013 (& copy Bundesregierung, B 145 Bild-00283705, Photo: Steffen Kugler)
The Dutch finance minister decided to focus his attention more on Berlin from now on. But in autumn 2011 a political turning point came when the Dutch government effectively set up lobbying work for a strong EU budget commissioner with the right to intervene and to sanction. The new liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, traditionally orientated towards the Atlantic, had to realize after a year in office that it was not England but Germany that was setting the trend for Dutch politics. The German side also paid more attention to the Dutch point of view after François Hollande replaced Sarkozy in the Elysée Palace in 2012. The good relations were emphasized in 2013 with the first Dutch-German intergovernmental conference in Kleve. The Netherlands and Germany also worked more closely together during military missions, for example in Kunduz or on the Turkish border with Iraq. Since 2014, part of the Dutch Air Movement Brigade, the parade horse of the Dutch Army, has been subordinate to the staff of the German Rapid Forces Division in Stadtallendorf.


The European financial crisis has undeniably brought both countries closer together. Germany and the Netherlands work together excellently, especially in the economic field. However, it is not unimportant for good understanding to also take a look at the differences between the two countries. These differences have to do with the extent of the influence in the EU, but also with the recognizability of the Brussels institutions in one's own country. The German federal democracy, with its constant mutual control and a Federal Constitutional Court, has many more interfaces with the sluggish decision-making processes in Brussels than the pragmatic Dutch policy, which is strongly guided by The Hague. The political game in Brussels is far from the Dutch voter. The Dutch governments think little of possible new European treaties that could lead to strife among the population. On the other hand, there are still voices in Germany calling for deeper European integration. Another major difference is how society reacts to world news. The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Germany led to an immediate shutdown of nuclear power plants and to a new energy policy. In the Netherlands, however, no connection has been made between the disaster caused by a tsunami in Japan and the Dutch geography, which is classified as safe in this regard.

The Netherlands also reacted quite indifferently to the NSA affair, while the German social debate and even German-American relations in 2014 were dominated by the wiretapping scandal. After all, the traditional German people's parties are in a position to adopt the euroscepticism among the German population in such a way that no strong eurosceptic party has been able to rise to the federal level. In the Netherlands, Euroscepticism has gained much greater power of interpretation, as a result of which the EU is not getting the political and media attention it deserves.

A strong cultural reference to Germany, as was still evident at the beginning of the 1990s, was less noticeable in 2014. Although many Germans work in the Netherlands today, and there is constant exchange in the field of art, theater and science, the cultural and social orientation in the Netherlands is more than ever directed towards the Anglo-Saxon world. However, the financial crisis has sparked a resurgent interest in the potential of the German education system and the German economy. The way in which Angela Merkel led Germany through the financial and economic crisis and protected the EU from irresponsible spending was first criticized, but has now been praised by many. The Netherlands has had seven governments since 2002, with different compositions and majorities in parliament. Where Germany exudes stability and security in many ways, the Netherlands still seem to be looking for a new balance.

How to quote: Hanco Jürgens, Germany in the mirror of Dutch social change. 1989 to today, in: Germany Archive, November 27, 2014, Link: