Willem-Alexander: Van kind tot koning by Willemijn Steutel
Today is Koningsdag (King’s day) in the Netherlands. It is a holiday celebrating the birth of the king, and an excuse as good as any to have a party. Because of Covid, it's the first time in two years people have been able to celebrate. In Groningen, the Vismarkt, one of the major market squares, is filled up with a stage and stalls. Music has been pouring out during the evening, and again in the morning. By the train station, big tarpaulins have been laid out for the vrijmarkt, where everyone is trying to sell their used goods: books, clothes, PlayStations, balloons, appliances. . . By night, the streets teem with people—happy drunks—dressed in orange, a cigarette and a plastic cup of beer in hand, squashing each other as they mingle and dance in the narrow alleys of the Binnenstad.
The current king of the Netherlands is Willem-Alexander. He took over from his mother Beatrix on 30th April 2013. Willem-Alexander: Van kind tot koning was written only a month afterwards. It describes his life in simple, A1-level Dutch, mixed in with a fun amount of current events, political history, and celebrity gossip.
Willem-Alexander was born on 30th April 2013. He was the crown prince to be born in over 115 years; the previous four monarchs were all queens: Beatrix, Juliana, Wilhelmina, and Emma. In Wilhemina’s case, she became queen when she was only ten, so her mother, Emma van Waldeck-Pyrmont, ruled for eight years until she was old enough.
As Beatrix went into labour, hundreds of people gathered outside the hospital in Utrecht in anticipation. When news of the royal birth spread, 101 cannon shots were fired to salute the baby boy. The Dutch flag was hung up across the country. And, somewhat bafflingly, there was a miniature crisis over the baby’s name: at that time, you were not allowed to have a dash (“streepje”) in your name in the province of Utrecht. They had to change the law specifically for Willem-Alexander.
Traditionally, when a baby is born, the family eats beschuit with muisjes (rusk with sugar-sprinkles). If the baby is a girl, they eat pink muisjes. If the baby is a boy, they eat blue muisjes. And, rarest of all, if the baby is a member of the royal family, they eat orange muisjes.
The association of the colour orange with the Dutch royal family comes from their belonging to the House of Orange-Nassau. Orange and Nassau are two historical regions in what are now southern France and western Germany, respectively. The House of Orange-Nassau dominated Dutch politics since the Middle Ages, when its leader, Willem van Orange, lead to the Dutch to their independence against the Spanish.
After eighty years of revolt, the war ended in 1687 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia. The Netherlands became an independent confederation. It had seven provinces with voting rights: Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, and Groningen. Other areas had no voting rights, such as Drenthe, a sparsely populated backwater with no major cities, and those areas which were majority Catholic, such as Noord-Brabant. Catholic regions were effectively excluded from having any political power in the Dutch Republic, and Catholicism itself became illegal—though the faithful carried on in secret, with authorities becoming more willing to look the other way as time went on, usually in exchange for some money.
Each of the seven major provinces had its own laws and army. Each was ruled by a stadtholder (steward or governor) who was elected by an assembly. The stadtholder made executive appointments and also controlled the provincial armies. In theory, each province’s stadtholder was independent, but in practice the role(s) became hereditary; the leader of the Dutch revolt, Willem of Orange, was the stadtholder of several provinces at the same time, and other members of the house of Orange-Nassau came to dominate the others, backed by a supporting network of patrician families.
This changed in the early 1800s during the French Time (de Franse Tijd), a period in which the Netherlands was politically and militarily dominated by France. An official monarchy was established by Napoleon Bonaparte, who installed his brother, Lodweijk, as King of Holland. After Napeoleon’s defeat in 1813, Lodewijk was replaced by Willem Fredrik, Prince of Orange-Nassau, son of the last stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, who was crowned as King Willem I of the Netherlands.
The king had a lot of power until 1848, when the constitution was re-written to vest power in a system of bicameral parliamentary democracy consisting of a house of representatives (tweede kamer) and a senate (eerste kamer). The issue of religious minorities was solved through what came to be known as pillarisation; essentially, different “spheres” of society became self-sufficient, with their own schools, newspapers, sports clubs, and charity groups. There were Catholic schools, Proestant schools, Socialist schools, and so on. While far less important today, these divisions still exist.
By the time we get to Willem-Alexander, the monarch is no longer vested with any political power. Now he serves as the figurehead of the nation, as its representative on the world stage, responsible for meeting foreign leaders and visiting people around the country. He also signs new laws into power—a mostly ceremonial gesture—and has regular meetings with the government of the day.
From childhood, Willem-Alexander was being prepared for his future role as king. Yet his parents tried to give him some semblance of a normal life. They limited media opportunities to a number of formal occasions throughout the year. It became illegal to photograph the royal family except when they are acting in their public capacity.
At first, they sent Willem-Alexander to a “normal” military academy in Baarn. But life was far from normal. He was escorted everywhere by police and his teachers treated him harshly—though he was admittedly a cheeky kid; at age 9 he told a group of photographers to fuck off (“ze moeten oprotten”).
Because of his bad grades he was sent to a boarding school in England. For the first time, he was no longer hounded by the paparazzi nor surrounded by people who knew who he was. Things seemed to turn around for him. He went on to complete a degree in history at Leiden university. He liked going to parties, which earned him the sobriquet “Prins Pils” (Prince Pilsner). In 1993, a professor of his remarked that the prince was more of a doer than a thinker (een “doe-mens”).
In particular, Willem-Alexander had a fascination with planes. He inherited this interest from his grandfather, a German nobleman called Bernhard van Lippe-Besterfield. Bernhard was a figure of some controversy. In his youth, he had a taste for planes, fast cares, and beautiful women. He had several affairs during his marriage with Queen Julianna. And before they met each other, he was a Hitler sympathiser and a member of the Nazi party.
When war broke out, Bernhard showed no partiality to the land of his birth. He led the palace guards in shooting at the invading German planes. During the monarchy’s exile in England, Bernhard continued to fight Nazi Germany from the cockpit of a Spitfire.
Inheriting something of his grandfather’s lust for adventure, Willem-Alexander put his flying skills to use as a volunteer for a group of vliegende dokters (flying doctors). He would fly these doctors into remote areas of Africa that could not be accessed by car, so they could provide medical care to the locals. After the Dutch government declared that this was too dangerous for a prince, he became a reservist in the Dutch navy. He was honourably discharged in 2013, when the government ruled that the head of state is not allowed to be in the army.
All members of the royal fmaily are bound by the rules of parliament, including the King. He must confer with ministers before giving speeches, going on holiday, or making any kind of public appearance. He must also live up to a certain level of conduct; in 2007 Willem-Alexander tried to build a luxury vacation home in Mozambique, which parliament considered inappropriate—citing the relative poverty of Mozambique—and forced him to sell it.
Members of the royal family must also get parliament’s approval before marrying. In 2003, Willem-Alexander’s little brother Friso married Mabel Smit without seeking permissoin. It was later revealed that the government was holding out because of her connections with the gangster Klaas Bruinsma. By marrying without permission, Smit did not become a member of the royal family, and Friso was disqualified from the line of succession (he was second-in-line to Willem-Alexander). He later died in 2013 after being in a coma for a year, after being trapped under an avalanche during a skiing trip.
Willem-Alexander also had trouble trying to marry his wife, Máxima. They met at a party in Sevilla in 1999. Máxima, an Argentine, is the daughter of Jorge Zorreguieta, who was a minister during the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla. The dictatorship killed tens of thousands of people. Though Jorge Zorreguieta pleaded innocence, Dutch investigators concluded that it was unlikely that he did not know about the killings.
A compromise was reached: Willem-Alexander could marry Máxima, but her father had to maintain some distance from the royal family. He was not allowed to attend the wedding and was also absent during Willem-Alexander’s inauguration. Willem-Alexander later stood-up for his father-in-law in an unscheduled interview, defending his actions under the Videla regime. This infuriated prime minister Wim Kok. Máxima, commenting on the interview, said her husband was “a bit dumb” (“een beetje dom”).
Willem-Alexander’s mother, Queen Beatrix, had an aloof air about her. She brought a certain majesty to the position. Her son, on the other hand, is much more informal; for example, he is not strict about how he is to be addressed in interviews, taking the stance that the interviewer can decide for themself. He can sometimes be seen with his family on the sidelines of big sports events, dressed in orange clothes and cheering on his favourite teams. And he has a sense of humour, quipping, for instance, about how, when he becomes king, he will one day be known as Willem IV: “My whole life I’ve been known as Willem-Alexander. But I am not a number. Willem IV stands next to Bessie 38 in the paddock.”
From his childhood and his public image you get the sense that Willem-Alexander wants to be a more genial, everyman figure: a people’s king (een koning van het volk). God save Prince Pils.
My loose translation. The actual quote is: “Ik heet mijn hele leven al Willem-Alexander. En ik ben geen nummer. Willem de Vierde staat naast Berta 38 in de wei.”