Histories of an old Empire: The Ever-Changing Acknowledgement of Dutch Imperialism as a Present Past

Maria Grever, Susan Legêne

Research output: Chapter/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


Until the late 1960s, Dutch national historiography and school history have been shaped by the narrative template of the Netherlands as a small country with a large empire. Students familiarized with the colonies from a Holland-centric, benevolent perspective. Colonial landscapes were exotic, the people traditional, the Dutch were the drivers of progress. With Indonesian and Surinamese Independence after decolonization, many Dutch historians limited the national past to a European history turning colonial history into a specialization for some. History teaching focused on national history and Europe, on Third World developments and on World War Two. In the 1990s the interest in heritage incited the founding of new heritage institutions, and history curricula in primary and secondary education directed more attention towards non-Western and colonial history. Meanwhile, differences in the perception and appreciation of the changes in post-colonial multicultural Dutch society evoked fierce public debates on the meaning of “Dutchness” and a call for a more common understanding of national history. This resulted in the government’s initiative in 2005 to commission a national canon of Dutch history and culture. Despite critical reception of this initiative, its outcome gave rise to unexpected responses. The varied appropriation of the underlying heritage-canon concept sometimes confirmed nationalistic images but also challenged orthodox approaches to national-imperial historiography. Local and regional communities and political movements constructed a temporal and at times spatial extension of national history in order to present a unique and selling identity. Among these were the heritage initiatives of ethnic and other minorities inserting their history/heritage into the common public domain. These initiatives not just tinker the Dutch national identity and the socio-mental topography of the Dutch past. They also put the past to work for a discussion on the present and future of Dutch society. A telling example is the Black Pete controversy, which shows the inherent tension that a heritage discourse on history brings to the present.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHistory and Society: integrating social, political and economic sciences
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2023

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SeriesHistory and Society: integrating social, political and economic sciences

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