Pillarisation (‘verzuiling’ in Dutch) is one of the most distinctive — and fascinating — characteristics of Dutch history and society. Yet, it’s not very well known by foreigners.
The idea behind it is quite simple as it basically means that Dutch society is divided into pillars. Characteristic for each pillar is a unique system of political and social organisation. (Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, we’ll go more into detail below!)
Ultimately, a pillar fuses people together around a shared ideology and common values. Instead of relating to their fellow Dutch countrymen, Dutchies end up identifying themselves with their pillar. So, we’re talking about many micro-societies within the one big society.
This also leads to strong social control. Not too cool.
The history of pillarisation
Let’s turn back the clocks to the end of the 19th century when a long history of division between the different religions in the Netherlands kickstarted pillarisation.
Catholics, conservative Calvinists, and the (non-religious) socialist and working class, in particular, rivalled to preserve their unique identities and values. Therefore, they started to create their own social and political institutions, creating a number of parallel societies living next to — but with their backs turned — to one another.
This division into pillars was also a way for the elites to resist modernisation and secularisation, and to keep control of the population as long as they could.
The role of media
So, essentially, the whole society was divided as each pillar had its own institutions: its own school, hospital, shops, political party, media — you name it!
Having their own media was particularly important. Through their own broadcasting companies, it was very easy for the elites to disseminate a cultural identity that people could then reproduce.
Consequently, Dutch society was completely divided into different groups. People from one pillar rarely mixed with people from another — they basically didn’t really have to! Not to mention that it wasn’t only socially unacceptable but that doing so could be strictly forbidden.
Good to know: As with most things, pillarisation in the Netherlands wasn’t black and white! There was overlap between the different pillars. For example, many members of the working class were both political socialists and practising Christians.
Some strict Calvinists, however, live in separate communities until this very day! Check out our article on the Dutch Bible Belt.
Societal changes shake up the pillars
Even though it lasted for some decades, the pillars started to break down in the 1960s.
Firstly, the economic growth of this period allowed the development of the Dutch welfare state, meaning that people didn’t rely as much on their pillar’s members. 👋 Medicine, money, and support were now controlled by higher levels of governmental organisation, rather than being provided by peoples’ immediate community.
The welfare state also allowed more Dutchies to get a higher education and to own television sets — in these ways people no longer relied on their pillar to know what was happening in the world.
Secondly, the pillars started to fall around this time because of the free spirit of the 60s. ✌ As you can imagine, the peace-and-love mantra didn’t match well with people telling you how to behave and who to interact with.
The effects of pillarisation on freedom of expression
Before this time, the identification with a pillar was so strong that it altered the freedom of expression.
In the pillared society of the Netherlands, freedom of speech was effectually limited since you were supposed to follow the rules and the values of the pillar to which you belonged.
The elites didn’t only tell you how to behave, they were also telling you what to do if you wanted to truly belong to the group and reap the benefits of it. Yes, the social control in the pillared system was extremely strong but you couldn’t just leave it behind — unless you like to be completely on your own. 😅
To all the future internationals in the Netherlands: breathe in, breathe out. The pillars indeed broke down and the Dutch society is no longer pillared.
If you pay attention, however, you can still see some remains of it today. Take for example the big windows the Dutch have. You can easily see inside peoples’ homes! (Something which new internationals often find very strange).
READ MORE | Why don’t the Dutch like to use curtains?
But why do they have them? Because of pillarisation! With the very strong social control, one had nothing to hide and the idea was that people could even check that.
It makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
Have you noticed the big windows in Dutch architecture? Do you like them? Tell us in the comments below!
Feature Image: Cebas1/Depositphotos
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2016, and was fully updated in May 2022 for your reading pleasure.