The Dutch réunion with the Napoleonic Empire
Martijn van der Burg, Open University of the Netherlands
The years 1810-1813, during which the present-day Netherlands was part of the Napoleonic Empire, are known in Dutch as the years of Inlijving, literally ‘incorporation’. The French themselves spoke of ‘réunion’. It was a slow process. After a period of internal conflict in the Dutch Netherlands between the republican ‘Patriots’ and the more traditional ‘Orangists’ (who supported the Stadtholder and head of state, the Prince of Orange), in January 1795 combined French and Revolutionary-Dutch troops crossed the frozen rivers from the south to expel the Orangist forces and create the ‘Batavian Republic’. Moreover, Dutch revolutionaries seized power on their own in most parts of the country, often without requiring military action. The course of events is probably best understood as enforced ‘regime change’ with French interference in the background. Several velvet regime changes followed. Most importantly the ‘Batavian Republic’ was succeeded by the creation of the ‘Kingdom of Holland’ in 1806, headed by Napoleon’s brother Louis.
The actual réunion with the French Empire (after Napoleon had grown tired of his brother Louis’ lack of cooperation), took place without further fighting in late June 1810. Marshal Oudinot led a French Observation Corps of twenty-thousand men that gradually moved into strategic places in the Kingdom of Holland. Louis effectively became his brother’s prisoner and was forced to abdicate. The power vacuum was filled by Napoleonic forces.
The Napoleonic period in the Netherlands from 1810-1813 could therefore be characterized as a time of occupation. There are good reasons, however, to reconsider the use of the term ‘occupation’ to describe the nature of French rule. In particular, we have to distinguish between occupation as a technical term and the ‘occupation narrative’ of the 1810s, that was developed further in 19th and 20th century Dutch and European historiography.
French presence in ‘Holland’ and European historiography
The first reason to be cautious of the use of the term ‘occupation’ is that it is by no means a neutral term. When a historian who specialises in the Napoleonic era speaks of ‘occupation’, this usually implies that they are adopting a ‘conservative’ or nationalist, position in the historiographical debate on the nature of French rule.
In the Dutch case, the French presence in the territory termed the départements de la Hollande (of which the geographical borders were drawn rather arbitrarily) was significant, including (para)military troops and customs officers. Napoleonic exploitation can largely be attributed to these French forces. But despite overall French control, many Napoleonic institutions such as, for example, the police and gendarmerie, drew on both pre-existing French and Dutch structures. Furthermore, the Dutch départements were administered by an intermediate government that could act autonomously from Paris and comprised both moderate Frenchmen and native Dutch. The same goes for the backbone of Napoleonic government, the civil administration, which was dominated by the old native elites and severely hindered the actions of the more repressive forces within the state apparatus.
The image often associated with the term ‘occupation’, of passive conquered Dutch subjects, dominated by a coherent group of Frenchmen, therefore does little justice to historical reality. Since the late 1980s, historians of Napoleonic Europe have become more aware of the blurred lines between occupiers and occupied in many of the pays réunies on the Continent.
The contemporary perception of occupation
The above is, of course, an academic issue. The historically more important question is the extent to which the Napoleonic period in the Netherlands was perceived by contemporaries as a ‘foreign occupation’. Recent research would suggest that most contemporaries did not perceive it as such, providing another reason to be careful in deploying the term ‘occupation’ too hastily.
There certainly were those who resented French rule and saw it as an imposition on their national identity and sovereignty. Well-known examples include writers and poets such as Johannes Kinker, Jan Frederik Helmers and Cornelis Loots. This group features prominently in 19th century history writing, and even in some contemporary literature. However, it was primarily a cultural elite that cultivated the idea of an occupied Dutch nation.
As the important work of historian Johan Joor has shown, opposition to the governing authorities had very little to do with Dutch ‘nationalist’ sentiment and did not amount to a widespread rebellion against French rule. Joor has argued that the local context of the uprisings influenced the nature, the degree of mobilisation and the scale of resistance. Recalcitrant civilians were primarily preoccupied with issues concerning their village, town or region and not with the French presence in the country as a whole. If the state had been led by a Dutchman, they would still have objected to measures they perceived as oppressive, such as taxation.
Certainly, there were incidents of popular resistance directed explicitly against the French. The closest the Dutch départements came to a genuine resistance against perceived occupation was in the last phase of the réunion, specifically the last months of Napoleonic rule when nationalist sentiments became more prominent and widespread, and the Napoleonic authorities responded by becoming more repressive. In November 1813 most French fled the Northern Netherlands. Subsequently, Napoleon’s ‘Hundred Days’ fuelled anxieties that they might return, which acted as a further stimulus to Dutch nationalism.
A third objection to describing the Napoleonic period as a time of occupation is that the use of the term derives from a highly selective national(ist) strand in Dutch historiographical scholarship.
After 1815, with the foundation of the modern Dutch monarchy, it was important to contrast the new nation-state with earlier forms of government in the years 1795-1813 that were now presented as illegitimate and ‘unnatural’. The occupation narrative in historiography thus took shape as national history was cultivated from the point-of-view of the 19th-century nation-state, even though the national borders of 1815 were themselves largely artificial. Historians emphasized the foreignness of the timeframe, highlighting what they considered an ‘anomaly’ in Dutch history. Prominent examples include the works of historians like Theodoor Jorissen, and most notably, Herman Colenbrander.
The difficulty with framing the years 1810-1813 as a period of occupation is therefore that while it could be considered an occupation in an analytical sense, as it constituted a form of alien rule imposed and maintained by force or the threat thereof, in the historiography of the period, ‘occupation’ has a very nationalist connotation. Moreover, the concept has been applied selectively, based on a national-coloured perspective that did not exist in 1810-1813. Another earlier, yet more obvious and longer occupation in Dutch history is often overlooked, namely the Generality Lands (1648-1795) of the Dutch Republic. These were the southern regions of the Netherlands, such as Brabant, governed autocratically by the States General in The Hague. They were mainly Roman Catholic areas, mostly conquered from the Spanish in the 17th century. In many cases, these areas acted as a buffer zone between the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Netherlands. Economically, they were exploited with heavy taxes and levies. There was a constant military presence of Northern armies. Local government was exercised by a minority of the Protestant elite, while the Catholic population became second-class citizens.
While this episode may or may not be interpreted as a significant example of occupation in Dutch history, it is certainly inconsistent to call the three years of French Napoleonic presence an occupation merely because it deviates from the ideal picture of the 19th-century nation-state, while 150 years of The Hague’s domination of the South are ignored, simply because these areas were annexed and became an integral part of the Netherlands in the early 19th century.
So, to return to the question of the nature of French rule over Dutch territory: To what extent was the Napoleonic period in the Netherlands (1810-1813) an occupation?
The Napoleonic period was clearly an occupation in the technical sense of the term, as the Netherlands was under the de facto control of the French Empire. During this period, French authorities exercised direct control over the Dutch government, economy, and society. Dutch resources, including money and manpower, were used to support the French war effort. Furthermore, the French military presence in the Netherlands was significant, with French troops stationed throughout the country to maintain order and suppress any resistance. The Dutch people were also subjected to conscription into the French army, with many Dutch soldiers being sent to fight in Napoleon’s campaigns across Europe.
The lands that comprise the present-day Netherlands were therefore indeed occupied in the years 1810-1813. But at the time, the frame of reference of the inhabitants of these territories was less well-defined. With no epic battle prior to the period, no large-scale purges of governance, no men standing up like Dutch Bravehearts against monolithic French rule, and even no agreement on what exactly comprised the country or territory known as ‘Holland’, the occupation – if it were to be described as such – compares poorly to many other, more obvious and significant occupations in world history. The ambiguities and inconsistencies involved in describing French rule in the Netherlands as a clear case of ‘occupation’ suggests that there are compelling historiographical reasons to treat the term with caution in the Napoleonic era, in modern European historiography as well as in the Dutch historiographical tradition.
Rather than using the term ‘occupation’, but instead examining how individuals tried to position themselves in relation to the core and the periphery of dynamically changing structures of power, in a period of large-scale uncertainty, constantly balancing personal, regional and central interests, may provide more relevant insights than sticking to a potentially black-and-white nation-state occupation narrative featuring only French occupants and Dutch occupés.
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Cover picture: Jan Anthonie Langendijk, Louis Napoleon entering Amsterdam as King of Holland, 20 April 1808.
Source: Wikipedia Commons