Out of averting the inevitable a community was born

March 25, 2020 today. The COVID-19 pandemic is climbing towards its second peak. Uncertainty of how destructive the pandemic is going to be in the long run. How many family members and loved ones will it take? A phenomenon of chaos and destruction that confronts us with the limitations of an engineered world. Some people exclaim it is a punishment of God. Others say it is Nature making us pay for the demolition of the planet. Or, is it the world’s population density and global interconnection? Whatever the origins or underlying (spiritual) reasons, if it is devastating enough it will have an impact on the collective memory and behavior of societies. For the people living along the southern coast of the North Sea, it brings back ancient memories. The millennia-old memory of the fear of water. Even similar notions are being used now, to describe the pandemic: corona waves going through the land.

It has been a while since the people of the West have been confronted with large-scale, life threatening events. For a long time, big natural disasters did not take place, and the threat of another great war is far away since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In historic perspective, this Western comfort is quite recent. Putting the socially traumatizing events of the great wars of the twentieth century aside, natural destructive forces always had a specific impact on the mentality of the people of the southern North Sea coast. From province Zeeland to the region Schleswig. From the city of Bruges to that of Esbjerg.

In this post we first outline the history of fighting the sea, being the mental roots of the coastal dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea. After that, we shall explain what this specific history meant for their psyche and mentality. We make a journey from archaeology and history, to anthropology and psychology. From two and a half millennia ago, to this very day in 2020.

the 2nd Day of the Creation, by Frisian artist M.C. Escher

This post, or maybe more a long-read, builds on the study Nordsee ist Mordsee ‘North Sea is Murder Sea’ (Rieken, 2005) which is, to our knowledge, a first serious attempt to identify the mentality and psyche of the Frisians by combining insights from (depth) psychology with (social) history. For that already it deserves a compliment. It takes courage to study this topic. After the uncomfortable experiences of fascism and national socialism almost a century ago, these types of study had become a touchy subject (see the Annex at the end of this post). Although some of these elements might be typical Frisian, many must also apply, in our opinion, to the other coastal dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea.

These coastal dwellers were at first, in Roman times, the Ampsivarii, the Anglii (the Angles), the Cananefates, the Chauci, the Frisiavones (i.e. Romanized Frisians), the Frisii (the Frisians proper) and the Saxones. During the Early Middle Ages, these were the Frisians and the Saxons (region Dithmarschen and region River Elbe). At present, these are the Dutchmen/Hollanders (region Holland), the Ditmarsians, the Frisians, the Groningers, the Nordfriesen, the Ostfriesen, the Saxons and the Zeelanders/Zeeuwen. Maybe the Westfriezen want to be listed separately from the Dutchmen, but we have not checked that. All (sub)cultures that have in common to live on a dangerous strip of low-lying twilight land.

A history of water fighting

With the start of the inter-glacial period of the Holocene almost 12,000 year ago, temperatures rose. With it the sea level did too. Whilst the North Sea expanded, people retreated toward higher grounds. But ca. 2,600 years ago, people living in what is now the northwest of Germany and the north of the Netherlands, made a stand against the sea: they erected dwelling mounds or house platforms, the so-called terps, and stayed. When Roman soldiers arrived in this wet territory at the beginning of the era, they found the tribes of the Chauci and the Frisii living on these little man-made mounds of clay and especially cow dung. The wider territory existed of low-lying land, of treeless tidal marshlands, of dense wooded peat lands, bog and swamps, of lakes, rivers and streams, of long barrier beaches, islands, inlets and bays. A dynamic and delicate balance of land and water. A gigantic delta, in fact, stretching from the estuary of the River Scheldt to the German Bight. The border between the Phrissioi (Frisii/Frisians) and the Kauchoi (Chauci) was, according to Egyptian Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, written in the second century, the River Ems called the River Amisios then.

The rise of the sea level during the Holocene was not a steady process. It still is not. The marine transgression Dunkirk II, a period the sea level rose relatively fast, had a profound impact on the living conditions in the delta of the southern coast of the North Sea. It led to a near population hiatus along much of this coast. Only small pockets of people were left in the fourth century. Think of a few thousand.

From the fifth century, after the transgression, population recovered. Mostly through local migration movements of tribes living along the southern coast more inland already, but this time including tribes from Denmark too, and later supplemented with migrants from southern Scandinavia. And, the by then 1,100-year-old terp culture survived. People continued living on terps and exported this culture into the Saxon regions of the German Bight and of Dithmarschen (and in the High Middle Ages even further north into region Nordfriesland). The dwelling mounds on the flat, barren salt marshes grew bigger and bigger, and became real settlement mounds with diameters of three hundred meters and about four meters high. Frisians also colonized the near empty area of Nordfriesland south of the border of Denmark during the Early Middle Ages. Read our blog post Beacons of Nordfriesland on this colonization process.

After the cultural and economic prosperous period of the Early Middle Ages, the marine transgression Dunkirk III, messed up everything again. The wetlands became even wetter. By then, they were the Frisians who inhabited the coastal zone of the North Sea in Germany and in the Netherlands, from Belgium to Denmark, and the Saxons who inhabited the coastal zone of Dithmarschen; the Ditmarsians. Dunkirk III forced the Ditmarsians and the Frisians to adjust their strategy, if they were to stay. So, they started to build high dikes around 1000.

Around 1300, after three hundred years of hard work, they had completed the biggest earth- and woodwork in European history: the Golden Ring. A massive patchwork of encircling dikes, terps, canals, ditches and sluices. All connected to each other, stretching from the current province Friesland in the Netherlands to Kreis ‘district’ Nordfriesland in Germany, just south of the border with the Danes. A work even compared with the Chinese Wall (Steensen, 1991). With bare hands, the coastal people moved more clay and earth than the sea did, every day, every week, every month, every year. A rat race they were able to keep up. Just a few famous ‘rings’ we mention: the Westfriese Omringdijk (‘Westfrisian Encircling Dike’), the Slachte dike (‘Sliced’ dike) and the Pingjumer Gouden Halsband (‘Pingjum Golden Collar’). The Pingjum Golden Collar is one the oldest dike-systems we know. Most of it is erected in the tenth century already, and has been of service until the end of the ninth century. Almost a millennium.

Die erschreckliche Wasser-Fluth

But the threat of a wild sea, nicknamed Blanke Hans ‘white Hans’ (i.e. named after the white sea foam of a wild sea) among the Nordfriesen, was not gone. Due to further temperature rising, the sea level kept rising in front of their high dikes. And, dikes itself also had a negative effect, because during storm floods water could not flow out anymore over the formerly, vast area of tidal marshland. This in turn caused the mean sea level to rise during great storms with an additional one and a half meter. The water was blocked, and put even more pressure on the dikes. Lastly, just after the Golden Ring was completed, the so-called Little Ice Age started in the fourteenth century. This drop in temperature caused bigger differences between the temperatures of the Arctic Ocean and the European mainland, which in turn led to more heavy storms. Mostly blowing from the west or northwest, hitting the Ditmarsians and the Frisians notably hard.

The climate deterioration during the Little Ice Age, also meant massive crop failures and thus led to an economic recession. Dike-building takes a lot of efforts and is very expensive. Less means available consequently led to deferred maintenance of the Golden Ring. But that was not all. In the period roughly between 1000-1500, massive commercial peat exploitation of the immediate hinterland of the coastal zone had lowered the mainland in the meantime. And, lastly, efficient drainage of the land had a lowering effect on the land as well. All things taken together, the land was there for the taking by the sea. Waiting for disaster. This was just what happened. The inland Southern Sea (Zuyderzee), the Lauwers Inlet, the Jade Bay and the Dollart Bay were created during great storm floods. Above all, most of the land of Nordfriesland was washed away during this time. It went with massive loss of humans, livestock, farms and houses. Not only people were killed during the flood itself, but also secondary casualties due to famine and diseases afterwards.

For a third time in history the people of the southern coast of the North Sea had to make up their minds: should I stay, or should I go? They decided to clash, and choose the first option. They stayed. The Phoenix confronted the Waterwolf. Firstly, the waterfront dwellers invested in better and higher dikes. A proven good defensive strategy. We are still familiar with the phrase Wer nicht will deichen, muß weichen ‘who does not want to dike, has to give way’. In Low-Saxon speech of province Groningen in the Netherlands the phrase is Dei nait wil diek’n mout wiek’n or in Oostfreesk or Platt speech of region Ostfriesland De nich will dieken, de mutt wieken. An illustrative saga exists in Ostfriesland about Häuptling Tidde Winnengha who refused to built dikes. Great floods followed and many villages of the region Reiderland, i.e. south of the Dollart Bay area, were swallowed by the sea. Other sagas even speak of little children being offered and immured inside dikes and sluices if somehow these would not hold the water.

Etymology of dikeThe word dijk in Middle Dutch means both ‘dike’ as ‘pool’ or ‘waterhole’. Old Frisian dik means ‘dam’ and Old English dic means both ‘dam’ as ‘ditch’ or ‘canal’. Compare modern English ditch and dike, but also Middle High German tich meaning ‘pond’. From all this, the basic meaning is ‘to dig’, which could be digging a ditch or canal, and with that a raised dam. In modern Mid Frisian dyk means both ‘dike’ as ‘road’, since roads used to be on top of dikes.

Secondly, the coastal dwellers started to use a more brutal strategy, namely retaking land from the sea. At the end of the Middle Ages, bit by bit inlets, bays and inland seas were reclaimed. It was around 1500, when also large scale projects were launched to reclaim land from the sea. Big chunks at a time. The former seabed ‘t Bildt in province Friesland was the first modern, organized and very rationally planned polder in European history. The UNESCO-listed Beemster Polder in province Noord Holland soon followed. The offensive strategy culminated with the sealing-off of the Zuiderzee ‘Southern Sea’ from the North Sea, in combination with the massive reclaimed lands called polders in Dutch: Wieringermeer Polder, Noordoost Polder and Flevo Polder. The latter is even the largest polder in the world. Casually, by shutting off the Zuiderzee, the biggest sweet water lake of Europe was created as well: Lake IJssel (IJsselmeer). Furthermore, everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast poor mud workers were building slender dams of thin brushwood to break the sea and speed up sedimentation. These black ants started their daily labor when the tide was out, and paused when the tide came in. With these dams tidal marshland was created, after which it was incorporated to the mainland with a new dike, a new ring. The photo-genetic remains of their works can be seen everywhere still in the Wadden Sea.

great flood of 1962

The Second World War threw a spanner in the works. Besides dikes being blast at the Walcheren, De Beemster and Wieringermeer Polder during the war, and the inundation by the Nazi army of the northeast of province Groningen between the towns of Delfzijl and Harkstede, maintenance of dikes had been poor during and after the war in Germany and in the Netherlands all this time. In February 1953 during a great storm flood, the dikes of province Zeeland broke. The most recent great disaster, is the flood of February 1962 that flooded most of northwest Germany, including the city of Hamburg. Both in Germany and the Netherlands dikes were strengthened, and massive storm surge barriers were built.

Especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the believe in a make-able and engineer-able world was at its peak. At the same time the downside became clear: a nature that was heavily polluted with the River Rhine being the horrific symbol of it. A river where once salmon came to spawn. An almost dead river with fish covered with ulcers, used by the European industries as their private sewer. The believe in the make-able world slowly started to crack. The upcoming environmental concerns meant also the end of the massive land reclamation in the mid ‘70s. The tidal marshlands and the Wadden Sea were more and more appreciated for their environmental value, than for their economic value. And, as a side remark, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the tidal marshlands are considered being part of the defensive system too, since they break the energy of the waves before these hit the dikes.

A tight community of freeborn Republicans

Although the floods of 1953 and 1962 have not been forgotten yet, it normally takes three generations to forget traumatizing events. Let’s see what our children will remember of these disasters when they have grown up. You will probably know the answer already. If not, put your tablet aside for a moment and ask them. Yeah, you knew.

The history of fear of water outlined above is one full of battle, misery and loss. We estimated before the total number of lost lives at the Wadden Sea coast around half a million. Generation after generation after generation. Their whole world has revolved around water and the deep fear of it. This has shaped the identity of the people and their collective memory. And although the threat of the sea faded into the background the last few decades thanks to the, short-lived, believe in an engineer-able world, the debate about global warming due to human activity has re-activated this fear. Not only among the Ditmarsians and the Frisians, but worldwide this time. Sea levels could be driven to colossal heights. Think of the Hollywood movies The Perfect Storm twenty years ago and Waterworld of 1995, and the Dutch drama series Als de dijken breken (The Swell) of 2016.

So, we are almost out of malleable-world rehab. Good! It is a start. Unfortunately, we have not come into terms with this new situation yet. We still seem to look for a new opium or, in the language of the coastal dwellers, a beacon to cling to. Because, if we cannot control nature, what will be then the consequence? Letting the Grim Reaper freely haunt our cities, our streets and our bedrooms? Or, should we smear blood of a Passover lamb on our doorposts so we won’t be struck down, as we can read in Exodus? Like the doorpost of the featured image of this blog post? The corona lockdown avant la lettre. Parallels with today’s ‘sudden’, endemic fears are there. It is confusing.

But the coastal dwellers of northern Germany and the Netherlands already explained in the ‘70s, before the anthropocene climate change debate had started, that the force of the sea is not fully tamable. They just knéw this. Their collective memory and roots told them so. As said, traumatizing events, in general, take three generation to forget. The Frisians, however, remember traumatizing events for six centuries. That is very unique when you speak of collective memories of a society. It was the town of Rungholt that disappeared overnight into the sea during the great storm flood of 1362. This was the Second Saint-Marcellus’ Flood, also known as the Grote Mandrenke ‘Great Drowning of Men’. Estimations are at least 25,000 people died. The Nordfriesen still told this story in the twentieth century, of which everyone had thought it was a mere legend. A myth. Until after the Second World War archaeological and historical research revealed the town of Rungholt, indeed had existed, it was washed away ánd even on the spot people said the town was located. Not exactly the forgiving type those Frisians, but quite an achievement. Must be baffling for anthropologists.

region Nordfriesland, Deutschland, island Hallig Hooge bei Sturm, 2004. © Hans Silvester / Agentur Focus.

Till this very day, if you tell a Nordfries that she or he lives on a beautiful island, you might get as response it is not an island at all. It is land. Do not be confused. Do not be alarmed either. She or he is not suffering from hallucinations. Only, confirming it is an island, a Frisian would be admitting his defeat against the sea, and that all the great loss of lives and land for many generations have been for nothing. It also shows, the Frisians are experts in repressing tragic events without ever forgetting them. Thus be careful to marry a Frisian.

Mackerel in Ditches – Little anecdotes, but fitting within the tradition of the coastal peoples’ memories, are that the author during his childhood was explained how the sea used to appear the one time on the western side of the Slachte dike and the other time on the eastern side of this dike. But also, that people were told by their parents that mackerel, from open sea, swam in the sweet water ditches of polders as an omen of a severe storm at hand while the sun was still shining.

Another aspect of the Frisians is that their sense of identity, of being a community, is strong. It was (and is) a people scattered over islands, islets, peninsulas, separated by seas, lakes and rivers. Today, even over countries. The number of dialects was enormous. Even on one ‘island’ completely different dialects of Frisian were and are spoken, Often hardly understandable for each other. There are 10,000 speakers of North-Frisian-speech left and within Kreis Nordfriesland there are fifteen, strongly different dialects spoken. Almost, every village its own dialect.

Some argue that an own language is the core of a culture, of a people (De Vries, 2019). Without an own language, no own identity. However, with this opinion the fact is ignored that many nations speak English but do not feel English. The same goes for Arab, Chinese, French, Spanish, et cetera. If the Flemings hear about his statement, De Vries might fear for his life. For the Frisians a common language is not a decisive characteristic either. The Ostfriesen and most of the Nordfriesen do not speak Frisian anymore for centuries already, but generally still carry (also) Frisian as identity. In fact, the bigger picture is that most Frisians do not speak (proper) Frisian at all. Interestingly, the few thousand Ostfriesen who still do speak East-Frisian, i.e. the geographically isolated Saterland-Frisians in Ostfriesland, for long were not regarded as Frisians by the Ostfriesen, who speak Platt or German. Reason: they were Catholic, whilst the Ostfriesen were Protestant. Say cheese.

That the concept of community is still alive, was illustrated in province Friesland in 2018. That year the city of Leeuwarden was the cultural capital of Europe and had chosen Iepen Mienskip ‘open community’ as their central theme. Also, the fact that the inhabitants of province Friesland belong to one of the most happiest people of the world, despite being relatively economically backward, might have to do with this strong(er) sense of identity and community.

Despite the seemingly geographical fragmentation, working together in the fight against water was the vital connection. To maintain the Golden Ring that connected them. Language, for example, was less important for being a community. Working together was.

The territory was also impenetrable for foreign powers to conquer, and at the same time it was fertile and connected to the world via seaways and river gateways. This made it possible for the Ditmarsians and the Frisians to do without central authorities, without feudal lords during most of the Middle Ages. Basically, every individual, every farmer was free. Every extended family had its own terp and its own private church built on it. The density of medieval churches at the Wadden Sea coast is even the greatest on earth. A truly republican spirit and self-reliant society. Countless very small free-farmer republics, that were loosely united under collaboration of the league of the Seven Sealands. The Ditmarsians and the Frisians even founded a treaty to work together in the High Middle Ages, the treaty of the Upstalsboom. Here the people ruled in disputes, discussed matters of cooperation and above all chose new laws. This, choosing their own laws which were considered the highest and most sacred authority, was the core of the republican freedom

This republican organization formed by the Seven Sealands was unique for Europe, except for Switzerland where a similar development had taken place. The republican mishmash also meant that cooperation to ward off the threat of the sea and of external powers, had to be organized bottom up. Cooperation was not imposed top down. And, for centuries they had been successful in doing that. In Frisia the myth of being free, as a person and as a community, was dominant for many centuries. Only in the Late Middle Ages the lord-free society of the Sealands came creaking and shrieking to a halt. Dithmarschen and Frisia had been subdued by foreign powers, finally.

This myth of the freedom extended to the Frisians by Charlemagne himself, was still very much alive in the nineteenth century.

“Unseren Vorfahren hat der Kaiser Karl der Grosse zum Lohne für ihre Redlichkeit und Tapferkeit ihre Privilegien gegeben, und von ihm stammen unsere Freiheiten her.”

an islands Nordfries, 1849

Even today, being ‘Frisian and free’ is still a phrase that resonates in all the regions of former Frisia. “Lever dood as slaav” ‘rather dead than slave’ and “eala frya Fresena” ‘stand up free Frisians’, are the phrases still being used in different language variations. The symbol of the national farmers protests in the Netherlands this year, is the Frisian flag, including for farmers from other provinces. Farmers of province Noord Holland even drove their tractors over the thirty kilometers long Afsluitdijk ‘Enclosure Dam’ to province Friesland to hand over the Dutch flag, and to receive the Frisian flag. A change of allegiance. In the southern province Brabant, farmers hoisted the Frisian flag in front of the town hall in the city of Den Bosch. The flip-side, by the way, of the medieval independent, republican society was that the outer world stigmatized the Ditmarsians and the Frisians as unsophisticated, stupid farmers. Not anymore, of course…

The psyche of the coastal people

Different from other peoples, the Frisians did not indicate time by referring to past great battles of war as was common practice. No, they referred to another great storm flood that had happened before. When in 1717 Frisia was hit by the Christmas Flood, killing an estimated 14,000 people, people still knew about a former great flood, the All Saints’ Flood of 1570 that killed an estimated 20,000 people. Many sagas and myths even go back to earlier times, and speak of a coastline that lay much more to the west. Which we know now, is correct. We have already mentioned above the case of the town of Rungholt, preserved in the collective memory of the Frisians for a staggering six centuries. But, also memories of sea inlets like the Dollart Bay, created after a great storm, that could not be closed again are being recalled for long. Or, the loss of island Bosch. This repetitive destruction, repetitive loss of life, livestock, houses and -indeed- of fertile land, has been traumatizing and shaped the psyche and mentality of the coastal dwellers. How could it not? To get a glimpse of the loss of land and islands, read our blog post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one, or 7, wait 12, what? 16 in total… No, 19!

great flood of 1962

One might ask why in heaven’s name people continued to live at this low-lying, volatile waterfront of the North Sea. At the un-shielded, barren tidal marshland. Even without quite crucial resources like stone, wood and sweet water available? Two reasons. The first reason is, that its salt marshes offered exceptional fertile pastures for livestock, especially cattle and sheep. The peat lands a bit more inland, furthermore offered turf and salt. Besides these highly valuable resources, a big delta like this one is a great hub for trade. Connected with the wider world via sea and via the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine, Ems, Weser, Jade, Elbe, Eider and Vidå, to name only the biggest and most important ones. The delta is a crossroad. The skills you need to have is knowing how to survive in this dynamic territory and how to sail. And you need ships, of course. This is how the Frisians became the central brokers of Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages. Even in the seventeenth century they were known as the freighters of Europe for the massive ship trade on the Baltic Sea and the coasts of northern France, eastern Britain and Norway. In other words, there were many benefits. The second reason is unrealistic optimism. From the empirical psychology we known most people tend to perceive risks concerning personal health less than for others. The illusion of control.

A deeper meaning of the landscape and psyche of the coastal dwellers is, that they were physically and mentally literally living on the border of chaos and structure. “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden” (Freud, 1933). The border is even defined very clearly: the dike. Behind the dike is the inner world of order, culture and structure. It is protected. Before the dike is chaos, is nature. The sea and it is destructive capacity. The inner world is their conscious (Ich) and the outer world their unconscious (Es). A Frisian legend has it that heathen King Radbod will ride his horse over the salt marshes when it storms with thunder. You go to the top of the dike, look over the marshland and wait for this spectacle of fear and destruction. With building dikes, the coastal dwellers tried to control the chaos by incorporating it into the mainland. In fact, to culture nature. Each time pushing the boundary toward the sea with a new encircling dike. Bringing Ich towards Es, as much as possible. Very appropriate Sigmund Freud added in this respect:

“Es ist Kulturarbeit wie die Trockenlegung der Zuydersee”

Sigmund Freud

Not without coincidence the English word ‘landscape’ derives from the Dutch word Iandschap. Expressing land being cultivated, ordered by human’s hand. It has a positive connotation. It is where nature and culture are in harmony.

In this mental model a great storm flood during which the Golden Ring breaks, is like a psychosis of someone suffering from a borderline personality disorder. Contours and structures disappear. Land turns into sea, chaos and destruction is everywhere. The landscape is destroyed. In other words, the Finistère. It is traumatizing. And, for the new kids on the block who find this difficult to grasp, think of The Wall in the series Game of Thrones. When in season 7 The Wall comes crashing down and the White Walkers and the undead enter civilization. Feel it? Well, that wall or icy dike separated chaos from order too.

According to the psychoanalysis, Ich and Es should be brought together as much as possible, knowing it will never be fully achieved. As said, the coastal people already warned in an early stage, before the global warming debate, that the sea will never be fully controllable. Indeed, in the meantime new water management approaches are being developed and implemented that accept and embrace the dynamics of the water. Both sweet and salt. Instead of the classic reflex of resisting it. Concepts that give water more space again. The mighty River Rhine, once straightened and channeled between high dikes, is now being released from its straitjacket where possible. At the same time, research is being carried out to adjust coastal agriculture to the inevitable more saline environment in the future.

When, as described above, in the mid ‘70s the environment movement brought a justifiable halt to the activity of reclaiming land from the sea, most inhabitants of the provinces Friesland and Groningen just did not get it, and were upset. How can you give up good land to the water? Your eternal enemy? Why should you stop trying to take back land from the sea, what the sea had taken from you before in the first place? Even recently in province Zeeland these emotions re-surfaced. In 2012 an unprecedented conflict rose between Belgium and the Netherlands because the latter refused to fulfill its part of a bilateral treaty namely, to give the Hedwige Polder back to the sea, i.e. the River East-Scheldt estuary. It hit the ancient nerves of the fear of water.

What we can make out of this all, is that the coastal dweller is very sensitive to order, chaos and to water.

Then water itself. Its meaning is ambivalent. In the biblical vision water has two faces. On the one hand water is to wash one’s feet, to be baptized with, and the Bible speaks of a river that went out of Eden. On the other hand, earth deliberately was brought back to a watery chaos after mankind had turned corrupt and violent. Only Noah and some animals could survive in his Ark. Incidentally, Noah’s grandson Friso, son of the first king Sem, happened to be the ancestor of the tribe of the Frisians. According to legend, that is.

The fact a great storm flood was a punishment of God, shaped the minds of the coastal people too over the last thousand years or so. Think of the incalculable Frisian sagas concerning drowned or sunken cities or villages like Bense, Rungholt, Weene, Esonstad, Westeel, Torum and many more, often have as theme the citizens were filthy rich and flouted God and his commandments, and for that they were punished. In a way, ‘punishment’ gave meaning for people after a catastrophe had happened again. Until the great flood of 1953 in province Zeeland, called the Watersnoodramp ‘flood disaster’, great storm floods always received the name of the Catholic Saint of the Day. For there must be a reason, an explanation for such evil to befall men.

Whether or not it is an imaginary vengeful God, or an imaginary disgruntled Nature that punishes mankind for their wrongdoing by sending the pandemic COVID-19 into the world, accepting retribution is a way for people to comprehend and deal with deadly and uncontrollable catastrophes. Pointlessness is even harder to accept. Ora et labora. That is also an explanation why the story of Moby-Dick has rooted in our collective memory too, for already 170 years. The white whale that kills captain Ahab at high sea, but not after giving the one-legged captain three clear warnings to give it up. Note that the author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, is of Dutch and thus of ‘watery’ descent, and infected with the antique psyche of the southern North Sea coast as well.

But more importantly and above everything else, repetitive natural catastrophes forged a tight, self-reliant community, together with a strong collective memory.

averting the inevitable


Bernd Rieken took in his book Nordsee ist Mordsee the mentality theory a deep step further. He explains that in the psychology the primary object of love is the mother, and that mother and water are similar, exchangeable. Out of water one is born. It nourishes, gives protection, connection and harmony. With that also comes the wish to merge with the mother or return to the water. Especially, if someone is in a state of crisis. A poem of Philip Booth illustrates this feeling.

Lie back daughter, let your head

be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

Gently, and I will hold you. Spread

your arms wide, lie out on the stream

and look high at the gulls. A dead-

man’s float is face down. You will dive

and swim soon enough where this tidewater

ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe

me, when you tire on the long thrash

to your island, lie up, and survive.

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

Philip Booth

According to Rieken this is what the fascism movement offered the people: to merge into the greater whole. A concept very much in line with the mentality of the coastal people. That is the reason why the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) received more than average support from the Frisians, again, according to Rieken. The paradox that most ‘freien Friesen‘ in Germany supported in the years 1932 and 1933 the enemy of freedom, the NSDAP (Steensen, 2020).

To our opinion, extending the individual need to merge with the mother/water for security, which is a well-known theory, to an identical need of a collective, is a big step too far. Furthermore, if you look at the Frisians living in the Netherlands before and during the war, there was little support for the fascism movement. The Dutch equivalent of the NSDAP, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB) secured only one seat in the regional parliament Provinciale Staten of Friesland in 1935. In 1939 the number of seats dropped to zero again. Despite specific interest of Seys Inquart and Heinrich Himmler, aka Reichsheini, for the Frisians supposedly being a pure arian race, the Friese Beweging ‘Frisian movement’ did not took much interest either. Reichsführer Himmler even visited province Friesland. However, the two organizations forming the Friese Beweging díd start a cooperation with the fascist Fryske Folkspartij in the so-called driemanschap ‘triumvirate’. But this cooperation went awry soon. The FFP, by the way, only had about thirty members.

Everything taken together, for us reason to think the difference in support for fascism between the Frisians in Germany and those in the Netherlands had other causes and cannot be explained with the psycho-analytical explanation of ‘Frisians wanting to return to their water, to return to their mama’. We must dig deeper. Maybe the modern history of Nordfriesland of being yo-yoed between the realms of Denmark, Hapsburg and Prussia, and the emty promises made by these empires to the Nordfriesen for more autonomy, might have had something to do with it.

Music suggestion:

Further reading:

  • Deen, M., De Wadden. Een geschiedenis (2013)
  • Delfstra, T., Allerheiligenvloed 1570. Ramp voor Oostdongeradeel? (2020)
  • Huisman, K., Penjumer Halsbân (1994)
  • Jensen, L., Floods as shapers of Dutch cultural identity: media, theories and practices (2021)
  • Kok, A., Randland. Portret van de Friese en Groningse kuststrook (2001)
  • Loveluck, C. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600–1000 (2006)
  • Melville, H., Moby-Dick or The Whale (1851)
  • Mingren, W., Startling Similarity between Hindu Flood Legend of Manu and the Biblical Account of Noah (2015)
  • Nijmeijer, B., En God voor ons allen. In het buitenland bezoeken we al die kerken terwijl ze thuis aan je voeten liggen (2020)
  • Penning, Y., Stormvloed. De spectaculaire ondergang van het waddeneiland Bosch in het begin van de 80-jarige oorlog (2007)
  • Post, J., Zoden aan de dijk. Dijken rondom en overal / Diken by ‘t soad. Seadden oan de dyk. De waterstaat voor 1500 in Friesland opnieuw bekeken, met uitlopen tot 1600 en 1700, aan de hand van onderzoeken, opgravingen en toevallige ontdekkingen (2020).
  • Rieken, B., Nordsee ist Mordsee. Sturmfluten und ihre Bedeutung für die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Friesen (2005)
  • Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)
  • Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
  • Steensen, T., Die Friesen. Menschen am Meer (2020)
  • Vriend, E., Eens ging de zee hier tekeer (2020)
  • Vries, O., Friezen en Fascisten (year unknown)
  • Vries, de A., De Brykfryske Mienskip. Lêzing hâlden foar de Jongfryske Mienskip, Oerterp, 1 November 2019, blog Seedyksterfeartfisk 2019
  • Winsemius, P., Het koningsvaandel. Reis door het verleden van Friesland (2014)

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