An enemy invasion, panic everywhere, a gruesome massacre. The year 1672 is a disaster year for the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The people are helpless, the government helpless and the country helpless. Emotions run high, conspiracy theories and fake news are in great demand. Scapegoats are soon found. In the Disaster Year exhibition, the Hague Historical Museum makes visitors think. How do we view this 350 years later? Was it really a unique year or do we still react the same to disaster today? A comparison with crisis year 2020, the year in which corona emerged, shows many similarities, such as threats, protests, hesitant leaders, conspiracy theorists and great divisions.
In January 1672, there doesn't seem to be a speck in the air. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands has grown from a small Protestant state into a maritime superpower. And all this under the leadership of an ordinary citizen: Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland. Yet the republic is on the eve of major changes. A young Prince William III is eager to become stadtholder and there is a threat of war with England and France. The regents led by De Witt prefer to arrange their affairs themselves, without an Orange. But Prince William, when the threat of war becomes more and more apparent, is appointed captain-general of the neglected land army. When the war actually breaks out in April, the call of the people to appoint the prince as commander and stadtholder of Holland gets louder and louder. In today's age, social media would explode, but 350 years ago a veritable pamphlet war broke out. The people mainly sided with the prince. The appointment as captain-general was no longer enough: Prince William III had to become stadtholder, just like his great-grandfather, Willem de Zwijger, the Father of the Fatherland.
Murder at the Prison Gate
While the French offensive stalls on the waterline, the domestic pamphlet war rages on. All setbacks are blamed on the regents, especially the De Witt brothers. Had not Johan neglected the land army, pushed back money and squandered the country to France? The wildest rumors are believed and many people believe that only an Orange can save the country. At the beginning of July, Johan de Witt can no longer prevent the prince from being named stadtholder. However, this does not put an end to the smear campaign. A deluge of printed facts, fables, plots and rumors culminate in a horrific massacre at Prison Gate. Were Johan and his brother Cornelis victims of character assassination and fake news on August 20?
Of all time
On the day of the massacre, Gaspar Fagel, right-hand man of William III, is appointed as the new Grand Pensionary. The prince has already been stadholder for a month. The war is simmering and will continue for another four years. By that time Willem is firmly in the saddle and in 1688 he even becomes king of England. So for Willem personally, 1672 was not such a disaster year; much changed for the better for him. He saw an opportunity and seized it. But disasters are of all times and all places. What do we learn from it? How do we prepare for it? Sometimes we are taken by surprise or we do not realize that the misery started a long time ago. Consider, for example, climate change. The Disaster Year exhibition not only establishes a link with 2020, but also challenges you to think about the future. What disasters are ahead? What are we afraid of? What measures can we take?
Johan de Witt tweets
In the run-up to this exhibition, the great statesman Johan de Witt has been temporarily revived on Twitter. Through the account @johandewitt1672, the year can be followed through his eyes, from the start of (another) trade war with England to his untimely death. His followers and opponents also have their say on Twitter. For in 1672, too, the truth was 'just an opinion'. As a follower you will be sucked into a confusing maelstrom of historical facts and fake news. What can you still believe? This is a very topical issue right now.