While I was in the Netherlands trying to appreciate the tulips in spite of a tenacious winter, a report was issued by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, ranking developed countries in terms of their children's well-being.
The Netherlands came in at the top of the list, not at all to my surprise based on what I saw there. To my horror and, I have to say, shame, the United States ranked 26th of 29 countries, beating out only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania for last place in terms of children's access to housing and education, material well-being and overall health. America is second from the bottom in child poverty.
The United States is first in military spending, providing the Pentagon more than the next 12 countries taken together give their defense establishments to play with. We also have the most obese people, the highest rate of imprisonment, the highest divorce rate and the highest level of illegal and prescription drug use.
Enough about me: This is about the Netherlands, a truly remarkable country.
Quoted to us several times was the line, "God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands." This is in reference to the fact that 40 percent of the country is below sea level.
Its picturesque windmills, dikes and other water-control facilities are not there to amuse tourists, but to keep the water of the sea and rivers off them. I took particular glee from the fact that when enemies through history became particularly annoying and hard to get rid of, the Dutch simply opened the dikes and flooded them out, the equivalent of calling in an air strike on one's own position.
Catholic Spain was probably the favorite enemy of the Dutch, in terms of religion and form of government. Their provinces and mercantile city states did not take well to Spanish rule and inquisitions. They didn't like the French much either and were glad to see the Europeans dispose of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Dutch also fought off and on with the British, mostly over trade routes, control of sea lanes and colonial properties, although monarchs William and Mary governed England at one point. The Dutch empire, at its peak, included possessions in Africa, Asia, North America and South America.
Americans tend to put the Dutch and the Belgians in the same category of small, coastal European states, but this is a mistake. One of Belgium's languages, Flemish, is very close to Dutch, but the peoples are different. One writer claims that Belgians are, by contrast, lazy, myopic and overly Catholic. I'll stay away from that argument, although the two countries' approaches to government are rather different.
At the moment the Dutch are coming up to a major change in symbols of government. Queen Beatrix, the third of three successive queens, preceded by Wilhelmina and Juliana, all from the House of Orange-Nassau which has been in nominal power more or less since 1559, decided to abdicate in favor of one of her sons, Willem-Alexander, and will step down April 30 in Amsterdam. The Dutch have mixed feelings about the prince. One said he was the most stupid of the queen's three children, adding, however, that his wife, Princess Maxima, an Argentinian, is a knock-out beauty. It doesn't matter anyway since, as a constitutional monarch, he will have only ceremonial, not real, powers.
The Dutch have, through banking, fishing, shipping and trade, provided their population of about 17 million the eighth highest per capita income in the world. How this has come about is no secret and becomes clear in conversation with almost any Dutch person. I sat next to a young person on the flight from Washington to Amsterdam and learned that for almost any of the Dutch, the idea of not working is not an option.
The history of the place until its borders and form of government became fairly stable in the early 19th century was bloody and replete with sieges, sacking of cities, assassinations and general mayhem. Part of the problem is that the Netherlands is very flat and does not have particularly defensible borders -- unless one is ready to open the dikes to repel invaders. It suffered Protestant vs. Catholic problems and conflicts between republicans and royalists.
Most observers consider the continuity of the House of Orange to have been an advantage, but some of the family were prone to establish their reputations through war. A bizarre history of the place that I read, having ordered it without realizing that the period it covered ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, was full of horrid wars and what the author, Thomas Colley Grattan, called "circumstances of most revolting cruelty." These included burning a losing general alive in a hollow tree trunk.
One curious episode in Dutch history was World War I. The Dutch were able to stay neutral. Germany's war plan took its armies across neighboring Belgium, not the Netherlands, and the Dutch were happy enough to stay out. They never liked the French and were still cross at the British for having put Afrikaners, white South African farmers of Dutch origin, in concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War.
After World War I the Dutch offered asylum to Kaiser Wilhelm in the Netherlands, where he lived from 1918 until his death in 1941. The victorious Allies tried to get the Dutch to hand him over for a war crimes trial, but they wouldn't. The Allies had blockaded Dutch ports during the war, hitting the mercantile Dutch painfully and memorably in their pocketbooks.
World War II was a different story. The Germans occupied the Netherlands for four years and carried out a vicious campaign against Dutch Jews, including Anne Frank, whose house in Amsterdam remains an evergreen tourist attraction.
The Netherlands now is a model of justice, in terms of the standard of living of its people, and as a center of international jurisprudence. The Dutch are quite an amazing people, according to me.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).