History Lesson

Print More

(HOST) Reading by the woodstove is a favorite winter pastime for commentator Edith Hunter. But this year, mindful of the warning that those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, she has been reading classic accounts of war.

(HUNTER) “…The intolerable excesses of the foreign soldiery, by which the government of foreigners was supported, had at last maddened all the inhabitants…. Notwithstanding, therefore, the fatal differences of religious opinion, they were all drawn into closer relations with each other…to expel the detested foreigners from the soil, being objects common to all. They were united in one great hatred and one great hope.”

This is a quotation from The Rise of the Dutch Republic, by John Lothrop Motley, a classic published in 1855. The “soldiery” are the Spanish troops that occupied the Netherlands between roughly 1556 and 1600, and the “fatal differences of religious opinion” are those of the Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists.

King Philip II of Spain had inherited control of the Netherlands from his father Charles V. As a devout Roman Catholic, Philip continued his father’s ruthless attempt to stamp out the rising tide of the Protestant Reformation as it spilled over from Germany and France into the Netherlands. It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and Charles and Philip introduced the barbaric practices of that inquisition into the Netherlands.

Motley recounts the whole grisly story, ending with the assassination in 1584 of William of Orange. William is the hero of the book and is credited with having been the uniting and driving force behind the rise of the Dutch Republic. This culminated in the removal of the Spanish from the Netherlands and the introduction of religious tolerance.

My reading of Motley was preceded by reading Gibbon’s classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, covering the years from 180 AD to 1453, as emperors and kings and shahs murdered one another, most often in the name of religion. Common soldiers, whether patriots or mercenaries, were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, civilians by hundreds of thousands more.

Some insights from Gibbon: “Fear is the first principle of a despotic government.” “To despise life is the first qualification of a rebel.” “The war was preceded, according to the practice of civilized nations, by the most solemn protestations that each party was sincerely desirous of peace.”

The Dutch finally succeeded in ridding themselves of the occupying Spaniards, for, as Motley observed, “No thoroughly disaffected population can be held down by force.”

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

Comments are closed.