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A rather literal translation of the Dutch word verzuiling, pillarisation was a curious social phenomenon that occurred in the Netherlands approximately from the late 19th century to The '60s of the 20th. (It happened in some other places as well, most notably Belgium and Weimar Germany; in yet other places, it is still alive and kicking. However, this article will focus on the Netherlands, as that is where pillarisation was most pronounced).


So what was it?

Pillarisation means that society was divided into a number of political and religious groups, called zuilen ("pillars"), and that there was a considerable degree of segregation between these pillars. Each pillar had its own institutions (schools, newspapers, political parties...) and members of different pillars rarely interacted with each other socially. Members of one pillar usually viewed the other pillars as different kinds of Scary Dogmatic Aliens, although the political leaders got along fine behind the scenes. Depending on which historian you ask, there were three to five pillars in the Netherlands:

  • Catholics: The largest pillar, but still nowhere near a majority. Viewed by the other pillars as gullible "sheep" without much of an individual free will, who followed their "shepherds" (priests, bishops, and ultimately the Vatican) no matter what.
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  • Protestants: The dominant group before pillarisation, who still had considerable influence but not as much as in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were divided into two groups, considered separate pillars by some: hervormden and gereformeerden. Both words mean "reformed" and are impossible to tell apart in any language except Dutch. For the purpose of this discussion, "Moderate Protestants" (the hervormden) and "Orthodox Protestants" (the gereformeerden) will do. Both, especially the latter, were viewed by the other pillars as straitlaced Puritans who wanted to impose their idea of morality on the entire country.
  • Socialists: Usually lumped together in one pillar, the "Socialists" included everyone from Communists to Social Democrats. Of course, there weren't many upper-class people in this pillar. Viewed by the other pillars as dangerous revolutionaries who wanted to do away with everything people held dear (including Christianity, the monarchy, and private property), but many were nominally Catholic or Protestant.
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  • Liberals: Note for readers lacking political education  Not considered a separate pillar by some, due to their small numbers, and by the fact that they were originally an agglomeration of "none of the above" organizations. The Liberals were in many respects the polar opposite of the Socialists: they were more or less aligned with the interests of big business and the upper class, which is why there were hardly any working-class Liberals. Viewed by the other pillars as cynical hedonists who didn't care for morality or religion (though most were nominally Protestant), but all the more for money.

Hmm, weird. Why was it like that?

Because nothing in the world is simple, we need to begin in the 16th century. Up until the middle of the 16th century, the Netherlands (a geographical expression referring to the low-lying, largely Dutch-speaking territories lying along the northwestern frontier of the Holy Roman Empire, including at the time what is now Belgium) was, like all of Western Europe, a Catholic country, and practically all Dutch people were Catholic. However, when the Protestant Reformation happened, Protestantism—and in particular its "Reformed" Calvinist/Presbyterian form—took root in the northern part of the Netherlands, and became dominant there. This, along with a long list of other longstanding grievances the people of the northern Netherlands had with their rulers, led to tension with the ardently-Catholic Spanish Habsburgs, who, as a result of dynastic history, ruled the Netherlands at that time, and in 1568, the Eighty Years War broke out, eventually leading to the seven northernmost provinces—which were also the most Protestant provinces—being recognized as independent in 1648.

The newly independent Netherlands was therefore dominated by Protestants, and particularly by Moderate Protestants. However, they were not the only game in town; large numbers of Dutch people across the country remained true to the Catholic Church, particularly near the southern border with the ten provinces of the Netherlands that did not win their independence from Spain (and were eventually handed off to the Spanish Habsburgs' Austrian cousinsnote ), i.e. Belgium. These Dutch Catholics remained an occasionally-persecuted minority well into the 19th century, and they were consistently denied access to real economic and political power.

By the 19th century, Enlightenment ideals about liberty and equality had spread into society, and the long-suffering Catholics began demanding equal economic, social, and political rights in the Netherlands. They also demanded government funding for Catholic schools on an equal footing with Protestant ones, beginning a decades-long struggle.

Those same Enlightenment ideals also led to a small but significant number of Dutch Protestants to question the (Protestant) more-or-less official church, which they gradually but surely abandoned in all but name. These classical-liberal Dutch particularly targeted the role of the Church in providing education, arguing that both the Protestant Establishment and the Catholics were wrong and that the secular Dutch State should be the sole provider of education. Moreover, as the Industrial Revolution rolled along, working-class people of both Catholic and Protestant background began to decide that neither religion's leaders was really addressing their needs, and they began to turn to the newfangled ideology of socialism.

Finally, as the Protestant ruling class was gradually persuaded to grant or even just consider these reforms, a small but significant of conservative (and largely rural) Protestants broke away from the official church and founded their own to protest the supposed decay of the "Godly" order that had previously existed, creating the Orthodox Protestant movement. These groups began to organise themselves: they started political parties to have a say in the running of the country, schools to educate their children in accordance with their own principles, newspapers to tell each other what was happening in the world from their own perspective... The Moderate Protestants reacted by setting up their own organisations as well, and Pillarity Ensued.

How much of an effect did it have on people's lives?

A lot. A giant freaking lot. Much more than you could imagine if you're not familiar with the phenomenon.

For example, suppose you were a boy born around 1900 to Dutch Catholic parents. You would go to a Catholic primary school, and join a Catholic youth club with which you would go on Catholic summer camps. You would go to a Catholic secondary school, as well; if you wanted to take up a sport - say, football - you would join a Catholic football club note . If your parents could afford to send you to university, it would probably be a Catholic one (i.e. Nijmegen or Tilburg), and if it wasn't, you would at least join a Catholic fraternity. Having completed your education and found a job somewhere, you would join a Catholic trade union; if your boss was also a Catholic, he would be a member of a Catholic employers' organisation. You would marry a Catholic girl (there was an old saying, twee geloven op één kussen, daar slaapt de duivel tussen - 'if two faiths are on one pillow, the Devil sleeps between them', expressing the taboo on inter-pillar marriage amongst the religious pillars), read a Catholic newspaper, listen to a Catholic radio stationnote , vote for a Catholic party, buy from Catholic shopkeepers, and visit your Catholic friends. If you ever did something outrageous like listening to a Socialist radio station, buying from a Liberal shopkeeper or voting for a Protestant party, you faced social stigma and isolation.

It was more or less the same in all the other pillars, with one exception: the secular pillars (Socialists and Liberals) didn't have their own schools, instead preferring to send their children to "neutral" schools. They wished for these neutral schools to be the only form of education in the country; the schoolstrijd ("school struggle"), about whether or not the State was to allow, recognise and finance religious education, was a major issue in late-19th- and early-20th-century Dutch politics.

In short, pillarisation, at its worst, took away most choices you had in life, and severely limited your options in the choices it did leave you. On the plus side, it was a way for very different groups to coexist peacefully without one group being worse off than another - and as mentioned, the political leaders got along fine, which was necessary in order to run the country as no one pillar had anything approaching a majority. In less civilised places, these political and religious differences would probably have led to violence.

That doesn't sound fun. So how did it end?

Pillarisation gradually eroded during The '60s. The baby-boom generation, known for their individualism and questioning of authority, didn't like being told how to live their lives by parents, politicians, preachers and teachers. New institutions appeared which had no ties to any pillar, and some of the existing institutions got rid of their ties with one (without changing their names, though). However, the pillars didn't just vanish overnight. For example, it took until The Noughties for traditional, pillarisation-era voter preferences to really wear away, leading to a much more fragmented and dynamic political landscape. And some groups, particularly the really Orthodox Protestants,note  are still rather isolated and inward-looking today.

A rather tragic aftereffect of pillarisation concerns immigration policy. From The '60s to The '90s, politicians still bearing the "pillarised mindset" encouraged immigrants to form their own little societies within the Netherlands, with their own cultural and social institutions - in other words, to set up their own pillars. Needless to say, this didn't help the integration of these people into the larger framework of Dutch society. This segregation-inducing policy at least partly explains the big problems with integration which suddenly surfaced in the early Noughties.