I have a plane to catch, but the museum only opens at 10 am. Not just on Saturdays, but every weekday. This strikes me as incredibly un-Dutch. I expected families to be queuing up for 8 am sharp, complete with bicycles and broodjes.

So the airborne museum goes onto (into?) my bucket list, but there were two great reasons for wanting to visit today—space and time.

The spatial context is Arnhem, site of a massive airborne landing in 1944, when the allies tried to build a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Rhine. Not only that, but I was at the very spot where the German surrender was signed by Blaskowitz on the Nazi side, and Canadian general Charles Foulkes on behalf of the allies, ending the war in the Netherlands.

This historical site is marked by a huge shell (of the military persuasion) with a flame burning merrily at the top. For a moment I thought it was some gigantic mammary gland, albeit of the elongated variety, the sort of thing you see in back issues of National Geographic that feature ‘ethnic’ articles.

I was always amused that in the 1960s and 70s the magazine, whose style may be described as ‘US prude’, was happy to show rows of topless women, provided they belonged to some tribe from the Amazon or Papua New Guinea—native boobery was exempt from censorship.

But my speculation on the sexual nature of the giant cannon shell was not entirely driven by libido—that afternoon, I had been taken on an unrequested tour of the Het Depot museum—an exhibition of sculpture. The whole shebang was set up by a wealthy patron of the arts, and there is no admission fee, which would certainly be an attraction for Dutch visitors.

The sculptures, and there were many, distributed through four levels, focused entirely on the human body, with a disturbing emphasis on genitalia.

I think after my third dick and pussy, in as many rooms, I began to get the general drift of the artform on display—it seemed to me this particular millionaire was er… a tad obsessive. My companions seemed oblivious to this point—we perused many a penis, and viewed many a vulva, before we finally made our escape.

The temporal context for my visit to the Hartenstein Airborne Museum at Oosterbeck is of course the Dutch general election next Wednesday. This is the next test of Europe, in a year fraught with challenges to the European Union.

The Netherlands is an easygoing sort of place, and above all a tolerant one, as its history attests—In the XVth and XVIth centuries, the country received a large influx of Jewish refugees fleeing the torches of Torquemada, and Amsterdam boasts a Portuguese synagogue. So it’s bizarre that the party leading the field runs on a platform built on nationalism and racism—apparently, these days populism is in greater demand than good skunk.

Let me explain just how relaxed this place is. Since 2015, the Dutch prison system is in crisis—not, as  in the US, the UK, and every nation in the developing world, due to overcrowding, but because the good burghers of the Low Countries aren’t committing enough crimes.

This has led to social upheaval across the judicial system, and much trade union activity. Prison guards, policemen, and even magistrates are concerned this worrying lack of criminality is putting their jobs at risk.

So they’ve done what the Dutch are best at—trade. Yes, it may come as a shock to you that Holland has no diamond mines, and neither do they particularly appreciate shells (of the aquatic persuasion)—and yet, Antwerp (yes, yes, it’s in Belgium, but what’s in a name), Rotterdam, and Amsterdam are major centers for the international diamond trade, and down in Zeeland (yes, yes, as in New Zealand) there is a small, unpronounceable town called Yerseke (you need a serious case of strep throat to do it linguistic justice)—it’s the center of shellfish trade for Europe.

In a deal reminiscent of Hanseatic times, the Dutch prison service has made its jails available to Norwegian inmates, because there are too many naughty Norwegians—but only because the correctional system in Norway is nicer than most US business class lounges. In Brazil all the convicts would fit comfortably in one cell—food optional.

“It’s a very cushy prison, a pleasant prison,” Kenneth Vimme, who is serving a 17-year sentence for murder and who volunteered for a transfer, told Norwegian public television NRK. But he complained that inmates transferring would get fewer TV channels, and was dismayed that not all prisoners were going of their own free will, which he feared could cause tensions.

I rest my case.

A Norwegian prison cell. It closely resembles my Dutch hotel room.

Holland has 57 inmates for every 100,000 people, compared to 148 in the UK, and crime has fallen by 50% in the last ten years—the Dutch are also selling prison space to Belgium. Dutch inmates are now suing the government, in protest at being relocated to less luxurious correctional facilities.

Frans Carbo, the prison guards’ representative from the FNV union, says his members are “angry and a little bit depressed”. Young people don’t want to join the prison service he adds “because there is no future in it any more – you never know when your prison will be closed”.

But the majority of this placid nation supports Geert Wilders, the leader of the populist PVV,  who is campaigning on an anti-Islamic ticket. His party stands to win 25 seats out of 150, which means there is no risk of an EU exit, or even a hint of withdrawal from the euro. The problem is that the other parties must cobble together a coalition government, and this appears to be less than straightforward.

What a different nation Holland now is, compared to the ruined country that emerged from German occupation in 1945. The older people remember—when Germans ask for directions, it’s not unusual to direct them to the border. But yesterday evening, a white haired gentleman told me that when he recently showed an Amsterdam cabbie photos of bombed-out buildings in the city, the man merely shrugged—“I don’t care, I’m a taxi driver.”

And yet the Netherlands are a case study in suffering, of the religious divide in Europe, from medieval times to the modern day. The Rhine, where the allies planned their bridgehead, is a barrier: Protestants to the north, Catholics to the south—but the great river flows on regardless.

History shows that bigotry, violence, and yes, holocaust, are predicated on nationalism, indifference, and precedent—the Armenian massacres by the Turks were carefully studied by Hitler, and a number of their techniques were faithfully reproduced in the ‘final solution’. In one case it was the mass murder of Christians, the next in line were the Jews.

We’re all People of the Book—they’re just different books.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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