WE HEAR from all sides the question: "Can the Netherlands be neutral?" The reply is: "What else at the present time can she be?" More and more she is coming back to the fundamental principle of neutrality which, after a long experience with other policies, she took as her guiding doctrine in the nineteenth century -- a self-determined neutrality, begotten both of her strong sense of national independence and of her good will towards all her neighbors. She is coming back to this attitude deliberately, by the force of circumstances, after a brief sojourn in that quite different atmosphere of collective security which the Covenant of the League of Nations for a time engendered in Europe.

The establishment of the League profoundly changed the Dutch people's conception of their international position. Under the spell of the League spirit they prepared to abandon the attitude of neutral reserve to which they had learned to look for safety. They willingly shouldered the burdens of League membership in the belief that through the general acceptance of these obligations everybody's peace would be protected. True, from the beginning a few eminent skeptics expressed misgivings. The absence of the United States and of Germany was felt to leave bad gaps in the new front against war. Nevertheless, non-militarist Holland, peaceful and pacifist Holland, commercial Holland, idealistic and unsophisticated Holland, greeted the new plan with satisfaction and on the whole placed her confidence in it. The general assumption prevailed that the old principles of neutrality had been superseded, for under the Covenant the Netherlands would have to side against an aggressor. The time-honored freedom of the neutral to trade with both belligerents would no longer redound to Holland's national prosperity. Her territory would not be closed to the passage of military and naval forces acting under international sanction. Even her own armed force might have to participate in collective enterprises.

Holland never quite regarded these various possibilities as practical realities: the mere fact that they existed as hypotheses was supposed to be sufficient guarantee that they never would be given actual application. The juridical force of the collective menace was believed to be so imperative that law-breaking need not again be feared. The Dutch people have a very firm belief in the value of contractual obligations and in the strength of the written word. The majority of them therefore regarded the League of Nations as a definitive safeguard against international mischief -- a safeguard reënforced by the Kellogg-Briand Pact. They readily went in for reduction of armaments, for arbitration and conciliation, and for all the rest of the League's program. It became old-fashioned to refer to "neutrality." As for the United States, though its absence was deplored its obviously peaceful inclinations were enough to dispel any fear that it might interfere with collective action for peace. And after Germany entered the League in 1926, all seemed to be for the best.

A few years later came the bitter disenchantment. Collective security failed to prevent energetic governments from taking warlike action to gain their private ends. The Dutch took part in the application of sanctions against Italy, and were sadly disillusioned by the League's failure in this affair. The national state of mind altered profoundly as a result. The Dutch again found their national bark adrift in an unscrupulous and dangerous world. They saw themselves, their country, their colonial empire, exposed to the breakers swelling in Europe and in Asia. There seemed to be no limits to the opportunism and ruthless expansion of aggressive military Powers. Respect for contractual undertakings had disappeared. Holland realized that she must reconsider her plans for the defense of her vital interests.

Now the potential dangers which she faces are of two kinds: possible direct aggression by a strong Power, and the possibility that in a conflict between other belligerents she will be prevented from remaining neutral. It may be said in general that, so far as Europe is concerned, Holland is less fearful of deliberate aggression than of violations of her neutrality. The same cannot be said of the Netherlands East Indies, which lie more directly in the expansionist path of other Powers.

True, the risk of aggression in Europe cannot be ruled out entirely. Chancellor Hitler's government has shown an inclination to interfere in neighboring countries which number Germanic elements among their populations. In this connection the Dutch are not so much afraid of bad intentions as of unpremeditated impulses. Does not Nazism tend to penetrate and absorb wherever the opportunity offers? Holland obviously would be an extremely important economic prize. Nevertheless, the Dutch incline to think that for the present no serious anxieties need be entertained in this quarter. Perhaps the most conclusive reason for this feeling is that the Germans know that Holland is perfectly prepared to live on friendly terms with a Germany that leaves her alone, but that she would resist implacably a Germany that tried to conquer her by force of arms. The overwhelming majority of the Dutch people feel psychologically far removed from Nazi Germany. The attempts of the Dutch National Socialist Party to influence public opinion in favor of Germany and against England and France entirely failed. The Party's efforts today are concentrated on trying to make Holland's neutrality "benevolent" towards Germany in the event of an international conflict. But the Dutch realize quite well from long experience that real neutrality can exist for them only if it is in no degree "benevolent" to either side.

What the Dutch want most is to maintain a clearly defined and rigorous neutrality. They see their country surrounded by Great Powers involved in endless complications. They see themselves as a buffer or as a possible corridor for one side or another in case those complications lead to war. They also see in the Pacific Ocean an arena of conflict. There too the Dutch East Indies are situated at the crossways, much as the mother country is in Europe. Holland does not attribute deliberate warlike intentions to any government; but she knows that if the general situation becomes delicate, her own position will be delicate also.

Amidst all these alarums Dutch national opinion has grown much more resolute. This evolution has been particularly remarkable among the Left parties. From the days before the World War the democratic parties and intellectual groups of Holland evinced only a lukewarm interest in the traditional national values. In recent years this has changed completely. Democratic leaders have come to realize that the country's prosperity, its progressive social institutions, its high state of civilization and its very competently administered tropical empire can be preserved only if they are prepared to defend the nation's freedom, if necessary by force of arms. As part of this reawakening of the national spirit the House of Orange Nassau has acquired widespread and sincere devotion, and the republican opposition has correspondingly faded away. The army, the navy and the colonies hold places of honor in the public's affection. Patriotism is no longer considered something out of date.

As the best safeguard of her national existence, Holland has therefore returned to self-chosen and self-imposed neutrality.

This is not a newly invented concept. Out of the confusion of the Middle Ages Holland crystallized as an independent merchant-commonwealth, small in territory but worldwide in economic reach, and with a strong feeling for freedom. But Holland's national existence, dear to herself, was also useful in supporting the European Balance of Power. She opposed the expansionism of Spain under the Hapsburgs and of France under Louis XIV and Napoleon. It is fair to believe that if another expansionist state should arise on her borders -- and since 1870 her attention naturally has been focused on Germany -- she would again have to play this rôle.

The Dutch feel most akin in character and aspirations to the British. In national emergencies they usually have found themselves supported by Britain, who feels it of supreme importance both that a solidly independent state shall exist on the opposite shores of the North Sea and that it shall maintain its key position between the Straits of Malacca and Australia. British rearmament today is reassuring to Holland. Nevertheless she learned long ago that she cannot expect a definite political connection with England. Anglo-Dutch alliances at times have served their purpose, but on the whole they have caused disappointment. Under present conditions, no alliance -- with Britain or with anyone else -- offers a secure foundation for Dutch policy.

The wisdom of Holland's determination to avoid entangling alliances is supported by commercial considerations. Her economic interests reach to every corner of the earth. True, her colonial trade brings her into especially close contact with Britain. Yet her economic life also is vitally tied to the Continent, particularly with the great German industrial centers for which Rotterdam is a principal port. And the Dutch East Indies, halfway round the world, further diversify her economic interests.

It should be understood that Holland's desire to recapture her previous position of neutrality does not reflect any wish to disavow League principles as such. Her people remain sympathetic with the League's objectives and understand that to resign their membership might be taken as a repudiation of its ideals. They would not want this. But at present they can count on very little security as a result of League intervention and they therefore would not join in any eventual League action. Recent events have shown that other members hold exactly the same views. Better times for the League may perhaps come again. Holland is alive to the fact that great countries like England and France still attach importance to the League. But the Joint Declaration made in July 1936 by the Dutch Government in conjunction with other "smaller" governments clearly stated that Holland must consider herself virtually free from the stipulations of the Covenant concerning collective economic, political or military action. This also implies freedom from the proviso concerning the passage of troops or of naval units acting for the League. The principle that Holland's territory is inviolable is thus reëstablished.

Their attachment to the notion of self-determined neutrality makes the Dutch disinclined even to let it become a matter of discussion with other countries. In consequence, they reject any international guarantee. The integrity and inviolability of Dutch territory is "axiomatic." This was made plain recently when the Dutch Government replied to certain courteous suggestions by Herr Hitler. Like the reputation of Cæsar's wife, an axiom cannot and should not be discussed.

This attitude may disappoint governments which hope to set up a Western Pact of mutual security. But however desirous Holland may be to contribute to peace between her neighbors, it is a fact that she cannot participate in regional undertakings of the kind suggested. She neither needs nor wants separate undertakings of mutual guarantee and assistance. She therefore could not give or accept such undertakings. They would expose her to the danger of the very entanglements she is determined to avoid. Nevertheless, it recently was suggested in some semi-official Dutch circles that the Powers might stipulate in the proposed Western Pact that any aggression against Holland by one of them should be considered by the others as an aggression against their own territories. Holland could not be a party to this declaration, but would take cognizance of it. But the suggestion has not met with general approval. From the Dutch side, even that sort of a proposal appears to be going dangerously far: it would hamper the Government's independent decisions at critical moments and in addition lull public opinion into too easy reliance on the half-security of international arrangements rather than on a neutrality arising out of the nation's own resolution.

The practical consequence of the broad position here indicated is that Holland again finds herself situated much as she was in the years 1914-1918. Yet to a certain extent the circumstances are different. The difficulties which she would have to face in the event of a general war are now increased. Suppose that as in 1914 there was a conflict between Germany on one side and England and France on the other. The Germans might act on the assumption that they would have been more successful at the Marne if their armies had marched across Holland as well as through Belgium. The Franco-German border is so strongly defended today by permanent works that an invader would only break his head against a wall, and the Belgo-German frontier is also strongly protected. Might not Germany be tempted to widen her front by launching troops across Dutch territory?

Then there is the development of the air weapon, with its vast possibilities. The shortest route for bombers between Germany and England is over Dutch territory. Will not one side or the other land in Dutch territory or try to use it as an operating base? Again, Germany has created powerful motorized divisions which could invade Dutch territory at a moment's notice, or with no notice at all. France has also been developing divisions capable of quick attack.

In the Far East, it is not hard to imagine conflicts between the various Powers with interests there that might easily jeopardize the security of the Dutch possessions. In any general war the territorial waters between Java and Borneo, between Borneo and Celebes, as well as the other straits, would be important passages for naval forces. The numerous islands might be useful as naval and aircraft bases, and important oil stations like Balik Papan and Tarakan on the east coast of Borneo or others on Sumatra would offer temptation to belligerent parties. In 1914-1918 Holland succeeded in making the contestants respect the neutrality of the Dutch East Indian empire. This may be more difficult in the future.

For all these perplexities, domestic and colonial, there is but one answer: Holland is determined to keep her neutrality inviolable. She is not seeking alliances. She knows that small nations, once embarked upon the dangerous waters of international struggle, never know whether and how they may reach port. It has not been unknown even for allies to leave weaker brothers in the lurch. In certain critical circumstances -- e.g. in case of actual invasion -- she may have to accept assistance from without. She could not defend herself singlehanded against a Great Power for long. But that would be entirely a question of policy, to be decided by the Dutch Government in the moment of crisis. It will make its choice carefully as to which side, in the circumstances, offers it the best protection. But it cannot enter into any previous plan or understanding for that purpose.

In the opening days of any war of defense the Netherlands would of course have to rely wholly upon her own forces. Her opponents might be strong out of all proportion, their armaments enormous, their technique terrible. The Dutch have faced such situations before, and have found themselves able, even against the appearance of overwhelming force, to hold their own. History justifies them, they think, in their stern belief in the providential power of persistence. Their successful struggles against some of the best armies of Europe, such as in their War of Liberation from Spain or in 1672 when the French penetrated to the very heart of the country, confirm the notion that in extreme difficulties they will be helped if they help themselves. There is not much reasoning or calculation about this. It is merely a part of the axiom.

Holland's foreign policy as here set forth demands heavy sacrifices in the form of increased armament. The nation is accepting them willingly. Certain politicians still under the spell of the "peace period" were shocked to find that public opinion expected them to speed up the rearmament process much more than they had intended. Military experts do not deny that there is still much, very much, to be done before our defenses are complete. But at least the country now knows what has to be done.

Concrete fortifications, permanently manned, have been established along the eastern and southern frontiers against the possibility of attack by armored columns. An increase in the yearly contingent for compulsory military service is being prepared, as well as an extension of the training period. The shortage of artillery material, armored cars, aircraft, etc., is being reduced. As far as the navy is concerned, a fair number of new units (cruisers, flotilla leaders, submarines, mine-sweepers and minelayers) have already been launched, are under construction, or are being planned. In the East Indies a permanent "fleet in being" is now available, with a seagoing squadron and reserves. The oil stations at Tarakan and Balik Papan have been fortified. The naval bases will be ready for cases of emergency. The East Indian army has also been modernized. All this, of course, means substantial financial sacrifices.

The question of air defense is receiving careful examination. Neutrality implies the complete prohibition of the passage of belligerent aircraft over Dutch territory. There used to be discussion as to whether the prohibition ought not to be limited to flights below a certain altitude. It is now assumed, however, that such limitations are impracticable, and this is the legal position which the Dutch Government will take in the event of a general war. The application of the doctrine of "air neutrality" will doubtless require a considerable supply of aircraft and of anti-aircraft artillery. Plans to provide this equipment are now under consideration.

The Dutch nation feels that its present determination firmly to defend its neutrality is supported by the lessons of the Great War. As the various war memoirs are published, we learn more and more clearly that the Germans were several times restrained from disregarding Dutch neutrality only by the existence of efficient and fully mobilized Dutch military forces. Similar considerations, we are told, also counted with the other side.

Holland today intends to base her policy on the expectation that the same solid arguments will again prevail in any analogous circumstances which arise. She is encouraged in this belief by observing the lessons of recent warfare in several areas. A defense conducted with small arms and individual fighting seems to have been much more successful than expected against the forces of mass aggression. Air attacks have been less decisive than expected, and air defenses, when properly equipped, have been more efficacious; while tanks and motorized forces have not been found such fearful weapons as they were believed to be. On land, the hardest weapon to resist is still the individual machine gun; at sea, small craft, mines and submarines continue to play a vital rôle. These advantages should not, of course, be overrated. The menace of superior numbers and resources is manifest. But the people of the Netherlands are convinced that great power of resistance still resides in a small nation which possesses a well-equipped, efficient and determined army and navy. Fortified with this conviction, they purpose to maintain their neutrality if possible, to parry an invasion if necessary.

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  • J. A. VAN HAMEL, High Commissioner of the League of Nations in the Free City of Danzig, 1925-1929; former Member of the Lower Chamber of the Netherlands Parliament
  • More By J. A. Van Hamel