The Dutch may seem civilized now, but anyone with some knowledge of European history knows that was not always the case in the past.
Europe, including the Netherlands, was not an easy place to live in back in the day. The continent was ravaged by wars, conflicts, and assassinations — a complete geopolitical mess. One story from the past that best exemplifies this is the tragic tale of Johan de Witt, an especially dark chapter in Dutch history.
In 1672, the Netherlands (back then known as the Dutch Republic) was caught up in a war with England, France and the two German cities Cologne and Münster. This year would enter the Dutch history books as the Rampjaar (Disaster Year), which marked the end of the glorious Dutch Golden Age.
The Rampjaar even has its own slogan: “het volk was redeloos, de regering radeloos, en het land reddeloos.” In English: the people were irrational, the government helpless and the country beyond salvation. What a stressful time to be alive. Or, worse yet, what a stressful life to be leading a country.
The unlucky Johan de Witt was the Prime Minister at the time. For almost twenty years, he was one of the only non-royal leaders in all of Europe. This was to the displeasure of many Dutch citizens who disliked him and would have rather seen the famous William III of the House of Orange-Nassau take office. The House of Orange was the closest thing the Republic had to a royal family at the time.
Johan de Witt, on the other hand, alongside a strong and wealthy merchant class, represented Republican interests. The de Witt’s had been governing the city of Dordrecht since medieval times, and the powerful family held high political positions all over the Netherlands.
For example, Johan’s brother Cornelis de Witt was a highly ranked marine officer and governor of Dordrecht.
The (violent) downfall of Johan de Witt
On June 21 of the Rampjaar, an assassin stabbed De Witt, hurting him gravely. De Witt then resigned his 20-year long leadership, but the people conspiring against him were not yet satisfied. At the same time, his brother Cornelis was arrested for treason, taken to a prison in The Hague (now a museum — more on that later), and tortured.
As it was the custom at the time, torture was just a normal part of imprisonment, used as means to force a confession out of those convicted. Sure, it didn’t really matter if the confession was true or not — as long as the person confessed to whatever, the torture was considered justified.
Being a strong lad and not intending to conspire against his own brother, Cornelis refused to confess. He was sentenced, however, to exile.
Johan went to the prison to help his brother to prepare for the trip. As they both departed, they got captured by a militant mob, which shot both of them, and then left them to the crowds.
The crowds did what crowds do best: lose all sense or sanity. According to some reports, the two brothers were stripped naked, mutilated, and had their livers removed and eaten. “C’est la vie, c’est la guerre,” as the French say.
It’s important to note that crowds always liked to pick a souvenir back in the days of public lynchings. Maybe pop some teeth off and put them in your pockets, or perhaps a finger or two. Heck, why not be a legend and take the whole arm? Sure, eating the liver sounds a bit intense, but hey, war makes people do desperate things.
It’s unknown whether William III of Orange was involved in the assassination or not. Whatever the case, he wasn’t the one eaten by the crowd, so it must have been an overall win/win situation for him.
Nowadays, curious visitors can go to the prison where Cornelius was tortured. It’s called Gevangenpoort, and it’s now a museum in The Hague. Part of it is dedicated to its glorious prison days, and part of it acts as a refurbished art gallery.
It is situated right next to the square where both the brothers were killed, and you can even find a commemorative statue of Johan de Witt there, in a more dignified state than during his last moments.
Have you heard of this dark chapter in Dutch history before? Let us know in the comments!
Feature Image: Hague Historical Museum/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2020 and was fully updated in January 2022 for your reading pleasure.