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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Leeuwarden, European Capital of Exiled Governments

In Germany and in the Netherlands, Frisians are worried about the wave of referenda and separation going through Europe and the world recent years. Quebec, Scotland, Kurdistan, Catalonia, Padania and Ambazonia, just to name a few. The Yazidis and the Rohingya driven from their lands. In the midst of this, the city of Leeuwarden in province Friesland prepared itself for being the European Capital of Culture in 2018. It was an intriguing moment in time for a city of a minority to be the capital. Would they feel obliged to take a stand concerning the world-wide exclamations of self-determination? Would they offer to be the capital of exiled governments?

Frisian nature is to stick with status quo and deny the world has changed. Even when their land partly was washed away during great floods, and only some islands are left, they still call the seabed land. Yes, they have the blinkers on. This also applies for the status quo achieved with the central governments, both in Germany and the Netherlands. An influx of exiled governments or government officials into the Frisian regions would jeopardize things. Of course, improvements with the central governments are still being sought after locally and regionally, but it could have been much worse too.

The fact the Frisian pelotte club (i.e. a paulme game called kaatsen) Moed en Volharding ‘courage and persistence’ from the hamlet Dongjum stepped out of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Kaatsbond ‘royal Dutch pelotte federation’ due to a conflict in October 2017, fired things up already in province Friesland. It is testing the nerves of many Frisians to the max. The Frisians are terrified the Dongjum pelotte incident sets a precedent and causes the collapse of the status quo with the central governments.

Catalan referendum

Therefore, Frisians were very pleased the Landtag of the state Schleswig-Holstein concerning region Nordfriesland, the Landtag of the state Niedersachsen concerning region Ostfriesland, and the Provinciale Staten of province Friesland, did just that. Their regional governments did not comment on the matter of the Catalan referendum and kept quiet. People in the Frisian lands, initially, were also pleased with the European Commission because it refrained from taking a stand as well. Alas, that did not last for long. We come back to this further.

If you are lucky enough to extract an opinion out of a Frisian on the whole issue at all (read our advice in Grassland conversations how to converse with Frisians in the wild), they most likely will question the legalistic approach of capital Madrid. They probably feel it does not help to merely declare the obvious, namely, what is lawful and what is unlawful. People know that already, and that is exactly the issue. Neither does it help to declare a regional government incompetent in matters of self-determination. Neither does it help that a Castile king uses similar and firm language as well. Language, in fact, reminding the Frisians of the Low Countries of the time of the Plakkaat van Verlatinghe ‘plaque of separation’ in the sixteenth century. The Plakkaat was the statement of the united republics of the Low Countries that they chose independency and thus separation from the king of Spain. Indeed, the same Spanish royalty now with Catalonia.

This legalistic approach and the firm language toward the separatists do not contribute to dialogue and the process of finding creative and much needed, brave political solutions. The statement of the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans basically gave no other perspectives as just described, and therefore Timmermans too stressed the legal unlawful situation, stressed the blatant obviousness. This is what the Frisians might whisper:

Can voting itself be unlawful? Should, in a democracy, the act of creation of opinion, not be free by definition?

The images of tough behavior of the Spanish police as spread over the internet and in the media have not helped either, according to many Frisians, albeit much juggling was going on with statistics on the exact number of injured people. It must be said, contrary to Frans Timmermans, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, who guards the rule of law in Europe, did express his concern.

Former leaders of the Frisian Movement like Johann Carl Gittermann (region Ostfriesland), Christian Feddersen, Harro Harring (both region Nordfriesland) and Fedde Schurer (province Friesland) will turn over in their graves if they would hear about it. Netto effect, it probably has pushed more Catalan citizens into the yes-camp of independence.


Kneppelfreed inescapably comes to mind of Frisians living in province Friesland. This incident in province Friesland happened in 1951.

Judge Wolthers in the town of Heerenveen forbade the use of the Frisian language in his court in a certain case. This inspired journalist Fedde Schurer to publish his famous article ‘The Last Man of the Black Heap’. With this, Schurer compared judge Wolters with the Saxon bandits De Zwarte Hoop ‘the Black Heap’ who ransacked province Friesland on behalf of Holland early sixteenth century. Schurer was charged by the prosecutor, and had to appear for trial on Friday November 16, that same year. People started protesting in front of the court in Leeuwarden, at Zaailand square. The demonstration was cracked down in a harsh manner by the police, including the use of batons. Hence this day is remembered as Kneppelfreed ‘Baton Friday’, but also known as the Battle of Zaailand.


Zwarte Hoop - The Black Heap was a Hapsburg army that fought in Friesland in the beginning of sixteenth century. It was an mercenary army paid by the State of Holland. The states of Friesland and of Holland were engaged in a war for centuries already. Thus Fedde Schurer, in fact, compared the judge with foreign domination. By the way, as counter reaction to the Black Heap’s atrocities, the Frisian farmer Pier Donia, alias Greate Pier, founded his own Black Heap of Arum. This alternative Black Heap became a big army and, in turn, committed countless cruelties as well. The Hapsburg Black Heap itself turned out to be a boomerang and sacked the flourishing city of Alkmaar in the year 1515 whilst, in the words of none other than philosopher and humanist Erasmus, “this band had been fighting for us against the Frisians only recently!” To Erasmus we say: c’est la guerre!


The whole Kneppelfreed incident led to the so-called ‘Frisian Issue’. Distinctively dressed ministers, three in total, descended from their offices in stylish The Hague to discuss the matter locally. And, of course, important and earnest committees were being set up too. It led to a, though slowly and hesitant, change of approach of the central government towards the rights of the Frisian minority, including its language. The Frisians may now use their language both in court proceedings as well as in contact with their administrations. Since this year (2017), the Frisian language may be used in contacts with the tax administration too. The sudden oath in Frisian language by a Member of Parliament during the inauguration of the new king of the Netherlands in 2013, caused just a little bit of turmoil. From a strict legal point of view, this was an unlawful deed but it did not cause an unpleasant public debate afterwards. At least the new king used no tough language like his colleague in Madrid does. In fact, he did not address the matter at all.

So, with Catalonia in the back of our minds, the use of Frisian language in court was formally unlawful in 1951 but unjust too, as it turned out. Meanwhile, the use of Frisian has become just ánd lawful. What did not work back then in the Netherlands, was to look at the issue from a strict legal point of view. And, on top of that, enforcing it with batons. Brave political solutions were needed instead.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of a democracy is that the majority gives minorities within its territory the unlimited freedom to separate at will. But because of mutual positive involvement and self-interest, minorities do not feel the need to do so. See here the discrepancy between the former First Vice-President’s statement and a democratic European Union filled with minorities. Promoting rights and culture of minorities in Europe is therefore also important. It is not without reason the European Charter for Regional or Minorities Languages was signed in 1992. Unfortunate, only in 2016, the Council of Europe still needed to be very critical towards the Netherlands’ Government for the fact the position of the Frisian language had deteriorated. Some Frisians whisper too that they would like to see the European Commission makes a statement also on these matters ánd with a firmness similar to that concerning the Catalan referendum. If you say A you cannot escape from saying B.

The city of Leeuwarden was struggling with all this. It should not become one big mess in the city. Above anything else, the event Leeuwarden-Fryslân 2018 (LF2018), being the European Capital of Culture, had to be a happy occasion. And it was. The motto was well and wisely chosen, even before the turmoil began at the Costa Brava. The motto of LF2018 was:

Strength by opposites. To be one single open community. More idealistic, more diverse and more powerful. Revolution Frisian Style.

Note 1 – The president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, had to flee from Spain in 2017 and tried to find asylum somewhere in Europe. The king of Spain and all authorities that are loyal to him, are still trying to prosecute Puigdemont for declaring independence of Catalonia on 27 October 2017 on the charges of rebellion. He fled to Belgium, Germany and Sardinia, Italy.

Note 2 – Frans Timmermans considered the Catalan referendum as unlawful, and the violence used by the police to crack down the protests, as proportional force needed to defend the rule of law, to defend the legal state. Furthermore, the whole issue was a matter of internal politics and no business for the EU, according to Timmermans.

Note 3 – In our post The thing is… we have made 5 recommendations have the institutions of western democracies can be strengthened.

Recommended music

D.O.A., Smash The State (2012)

Further reading

Boomsma, P.R., Kneppelfreed. Gevecht om de taal met wapenstok en waterkanon (1998)

Liemburg, J., Fedde Schurer, in Fryske ‘trochbrekker’ (2018)

Steensen, T., Nordfriesland. Menschen von A-Z (2020)

Wainwright, H., Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy (2003)

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