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The link between The Hague bonfires and different types of citizenship

For the third year in a row, the bonfires in the Duindorp and Scheveningen neighbourhoods in The Hague during New Year's Eve have been cancelled. According to Professor Henk te Velde, the fight for the bonfires represents something bigger: angry citizens.

'Take Duindorp, for example. Duindorp is known as a difficult neighbourhood in The Hague that constantly radiates: Forget the outside world; we’ll take care of ourselves. They have serious doubts about the official way of doing things and so they arrange things their own way,' begins Te Velde. ‘They react resentfully to developments in society and choose to behave in a none too proper way. Particularly because they feel unheard.’

Bonfires as an alternative

For a long time, this discontent went hand in hand with unrest during New Year's Eve. Christmas trees were burned at crossroads and there were riots in the neighbourhood. ‘So the municipality came up with an alternative: let's give the Duindorpers the opportunity to have a bonfire on the beach,' says Te Velde. ‘That went more or less well for a while, but the pile got taller and taller, even though the municipality had set all sorts of requirements for the maximum height. It is, of course, typical of such a neighbourhood that people don’t pay too much attention to what is expected of them. The municipality couldn't get a grip either.’

In the end, the Scheveningen bonfire during the turn of the year 2018 - 2019 was the tipping point: ash particles and sparks blew across the streets, resulting in bicycles and cars being burnt out, and even a couple of shops. ‘It was a close call, and the conclusion was that things could not go on like this.’

Collective versus individual citizenship

The people in the neighbourhood felt that a tradition was being taken away from them. But behind the riots and bonfires there is more than just anger, according to the professor. In the History programme, there was a lecture by a group of teachers on social unrest in the Netherlands under the heading of 'Angry Citizens'. The lectures focus on old examples from the Republic but also modern ones such as angry farmers and the resistance against centres for asylum seekers. ‘The interesting thing about these examples is that if you apply a historical perspective to them, you see that they actually conceal a kind of representation of citizenship. It's not just about anger,' he explains.

Whereas the current form of citizenship is based on the idea of an individual with rights and duties, the form that can still be seen in Duindorp and Scheveningen goes back to the citizenship we had during the Dutch Republic. ‘People arranged the affairs of their town or village collectively. There was a town council, but it was dependent on the consent of the population. The group was central, not the individual,' explains Te Velde. ‘This is where the tendency stems from not to be so amenable to minorities or people who deviate from the norm. They can have a harmful effect on the community.’

Around the eighteenth century, the concept of citizenship changed: it shifted from collectivist to individualist, with rights and responsibilities. 'The idea is that you get these rights on the basis that you also behave according to the rules. Be a decent citizen: you have an education, a job, good behaviour, and then there is also room for participation. The advantage is that you can take into account individual deviations, and preferences and thus protect minorities. But there is no real place for community in that type of citizenship.’

More attention

Te Velde emphasises that this difference in citizenship cannot be used as a licence to justify possible future riots, but he does think more attention should be paid to it. ‘When Mark Rutte, for instance, says that he doesn't care what's behind the riots and that the violence just has to stop, that's not the end of the matter,' he says. Rutte's form of liberalism leads him to individualise everything too much: people take the decision to riot and everyone who takes part is simply no good. Then I think: we don't think enough about the collective issue that underlies it. Apparently there is a group in our modern democracy that doesn’t feel at home with this form of citizenship.’

And whether the bonfires will return to their former glory? Te Velde doubts it. ‘It would be like a game of cat and mouse between the organisers of the bonfires and the municipality. At the same time, the municipality will be thinking about an alternative, otherwise things will go wrong again in those neighbourhoods. It remains a kind of push and pull situation.’

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