‘No nation is more charitable than the Netherlands’: the rise of disaster nationalism

Disasters such as floods cause a lot of suffering, but at the same time they can strengthen national identity. A certain ‘disaster nationalism’ arose in the nineteenth century, according to historian Fons Meijer, who will obtain his PhD on 28 June 2022. “This use of disasters to stir up national feelings is something we still see today, like with the floods in the Dutch province of South Limburg in 2021.”

The nineteenth century was a century full of disasters: storm surges, river flooding, explosions and city fires caused enormous damage and cost many lives. But something also came out of these disasters, feelings of national solidarity. This is what historian Fons Meijer has seen in the many sources he has studied for his PhD research.

Commemorative books, prayers and poems describe the disasters in great detail. “In some texts, an obvious appeal is made to a feeling of compassion, that’s linked to the duty to help your fellow affected countrymen”, says Meijer. “Appeals like this often had a nationalistic tone: no nation is more charitable than the Netherlands.”

Overstroming te Erichem, 1809, Reinier Vinkeles (I), naar Cornelis van Hardenbergh, 1809
Overstroming te Erichem, 1809, Reinier Vinkeles (I), naar Cornelis van Hardenbergh, 1809 - bron: Rijksmuseum.nl

Need for unity

There was a lot of political unrest in the nineteenth century: after the Batavian Revolution (1794-1799) came the separation from Belgium (1830) and revolution in 1848. The social elite wanted to strengthen their position and therefore created a sense of unity, that was well received in the aftermath of disasters.

“Disasters were seized upon to stir up feelings of national unity in the population”, says Meijer. The researcher calls this ‘disaster nationalism’. Leaders like Emperor Napoleon made use of the disasters. In 1807, he organised one of the first national collections. In commemorative books, the king was presented as the father who helps his family (the country) to get on its feet again.

In this way the idea of national solidarity was shaped further with each disaster. Even though this was not unconditional solidarity according to Meijer. “Only the worst damage from disasters was compensated, otherwise people would become lazy. The charity institutions made this point too. But there was a sense of duty: you helped your countrymen, even though they were catholic, and you were protestant.”

Help to South Limburg

The use of disasters to give rise to national feelings is something Meijer also sees today. “Relief actions were also set up after the river floods of 2021. These were aimed at South Limburg, while this was actually a European disaster, with floods in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. But in the call for help, an appeal is made not so much to our humanity, but rather to our sense of Dutch identity: we help our countrymen. In this way we once more turn the disaster into a national event.”

Fons Meijer is one of the four PhD candidates from the research group ‘Dealing with Disasters’ by Lotte Jensen, Professor of Dutch Literature and Cultural History. Meijer will obtain his PhD on 28 June 2022 at Radboud University

Contact information

More information? Please contact Fons Meijer or Science Communication via + +31(0)24 361 60 00 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl).

History, Art & Culture, Nature