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The Netherlands was more than a pawn of the French during this period, argues an Oxford and Cambridge student of J. H. Plumb in this broad, profuse, yet tightly organized work; the Dutch strove mightily for independence until finally crushed by Napoleonic designs. Holland's Batavian Republic of 1797, born when the French revolutionary army drove the British, Austrians, and Prussians out of Holland, gave new life to the "Patriot" faction that had been crushed a decade earlier, after which--as Schama documents--the country suffered economic collapse to the point of gruesome epidemics. The spokesmen of a national renaissance had looked toward the American Revolution as the "holy sun" of progress; when the French liberated them, however, there developed "the classic irreconcilability within a revolution of its two primary constituents--freedom and power." Political and intellectual ferment mounted in the Free Corps and reading societies, but disputes multipled over taxation, religion, and minority aspirations. And leadership was thin, except for a few men like Pieter Paulus, who died tragically in 1796 at the age of 42. Finally Napoleon forced a Directorate on the divided country and installed his brother Louis as regent, exacting hundreds of millions of guilders for the empire. Above all, Schama blames French developments for the failure of Dutch nationalism, while limiting his discussion of the British role. But the book gives a powerful sense of civil freedom, educational and legal reforms, and sweeping excitement in the Netherlands between the French grant of "liberty on the points of bayonets" and the Napoleonic clampdown, itself cast in an acute light through Schama's material on the strain of simultaneously promoting modernization and financing continental wars. It is always good news when a traditional subject of footnotes is made into a major, rewarding study; Schama's final judgments will draw challenge, while his demonstration that the spirit of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age survived in revolutionary form is an important (and delightfully written) contribution.
Pub Date: April 1st, 1977
ISBN: 0006861563
Page count: 745pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1977


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