Progressive Nostalgia: Restoring and Selling the Dutch “Golden Age”

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Saskia Pieterse


In the Netherlands it is often assumed that the Dutch are not prone to colonial or imperialist nostalgia. In this denial of postcolonial nostalgia, the notion of “pragmatism” plays a crucial and complicated role. Firstly, the Dutch colonial empire is often typified (both in popular and scientific debates) as “pragmatic,” meaning, not driven by an imperialist ideology. The Dutch accepted their relative smallness and therefore do not suffer from delusions of grandeur (or a nostalgia for this lost delusion), so the reasoning goes. Secondly, and paradoxically, it is precisely this notion of the “pragmatic colonial empire” which is itself the object of nostalgia. Especially the Dutch East India Company (VOC) is surrounded by a nostalgic discourse in which the shrewd capitalist entrepreneurship is admired and seen as inspirational for the Dutch economy today. In the Dutch case, colonial nostalgia is therefore primarily cultivated in a neoliberal economic and political context: the nationalistic self-imag of the Netherlands as an innovative trading nation is employed in the
tourist-industry, outlet centres and the creative industries, and embraced by politicians with a neoliberal agenda. Thirdly: this colonial nostalgia sometimes encounters postcolonial criticism, especially if public institutions such as museums and archives wield this nationalist discourse uncritically (and often for economic purposes). In their response, the institutions than utilise the notion of “Dutch pragmatism” as a form of self-critique, as they are willing to admit that the Dutch were driven by desire for commercial profit and had little moral scruples.


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