Monday, 4 December 2017

An introduction to Angkor

Angkor is one of the world's biggest archeological treasures. The site contains hundreds of structures, many of which have not been recovered yet. They were built between 800 and 1300 AD and are of impressive size and artistry.

Ta Prohm

Part of the mythical aura that surrounds Angkor stems from its recovery from the jungle. The city was abandoned in the 15th century after the capital had been sacked by a Thai army. Although people used to live there for a long time after and foreigners visited the site in the 16th and 17th century, much of the city was overgrown after centuries.

Ta Keo, rebuilt with Chinese help
From the 1920s French archeologists (Cambodia was a French colony at the time) have started to recover and restore the temples. After the peace process in the 1990s and a listing as a UNESCO world heritage site these works, supported by archeologists from all over the world, have sped up.

The top structure of Pre Rup. An early temple, with lots of bricks
What makes Angkor interesting is that there are structures built over a period of 500 years, and you can see different styles interacting. Those style changes also reflect changes in religion, for example the shift in focus between Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu and later to Buddhism.

Stone surrounded by jungle
On the other hand, all that remains now is stone, surrounded by jungle. That makes it very hard to imagine the living city of a millenium hence, with the stone plastered, painted and covered in copper or gold, the wooden buildings and the surrounding countryside cut by rice paddies and irrigation canals.

And of course the people of the city are missing. Angkor must have had tens if not a hundred thousand inhabitants. Officials and traders from the provinces under Angkorian control must have visited, as well as foreigners. A late 13th century Chinese diplomat has left an account that adds a lot of colour to our understanding of daily life, but it is hard to envision in the present environment.

Water reservoir at Sras Srang

One touch of nuance however. Apart from the temples there remains another element in the landscape: the baray, or water storages. The two largest of them, to the west and east of the city, measure several square kilometers. It is still discussed whether they were built to supply water to the inhabitants and/or irrigation system, or for purely symbolic reasons, but they are still visible and in some cases partially filled to this day.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Back from South East Asia

It's been two and a half fascinating weeks. First ten days travelling through western Thailand in the footsteps of the 100.000 POWs who contributed to the construction of the infamous Burma railway (together with thousands of Japanese and perhaps 200.000 South East Asians). Then five days in Cambodia around the fabled temples of Angkor.

The party of premier Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has effectively ruled Cambodia since 1979

It's been a lot of information to take in, even though much of that was self-inflicted. And as always while travelling, full of impressions that go beyond the immediate subjects of the trip. You can't help to notice that both Thailand and Cambodia have shed much of the essence of democracy despite still maintaining the trappings. Thailand is ruled by a military junta (that isn't very good at listening to the people) and the Cambodian government has just had the major opposition party banned.

Police booth in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Yet life seems to be going on anyway. Military and police presence are light. In Bangkok and Siem Reap the Christmas season has started. Around the royal palace in downtown Bangkok we experienced the perfect storm of tourists, graduation day at university and the last opportunity to visit the ashes of revered former king Bhumibol (the exhibition has since been extended).

Tourist entrance to the inner sanctum of the royal palace, Bangkok

The poverty gap in these countries is still huge between those in the airconditioned zone (including us tourists) and those outside. Yes, I caught a cold.

Christmas decorations are prepared before the luxury mall in Siem Reap (opened in 2016)
And Bangkok is a powerhouse, ever expanding its network of flyover roads and sky trains. I remember that the first skytrain rode between my first two trips in Thailand in 1999 and 2000. Now there are several lines and an underground. Then there were 6.3 million inhabitants, now 9.6 million.

Flyover roads under construction, Bangkok

It was also intense to make this trip. I'm not a group travel person and when you are around 35-40 co travellers, that takes some energy out of me. Most of these people had a direct personal relation to the railway, which for them made it an emotional experience that I could only relate to from a distance. I wouldn't have survived if it had not been for my travel companion Michael. We never ran out of topics to discuss and events to comment on, however silly.

I will be posting a few bits from the Angkor part over the next week, but the Thailand-Burma railway story will arrive after that and in a different format as I have a distant personal stake in it.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Pink Panzer

This is a small side project I did for a friend of mine who recently became a father and called his daughter Mathilda. "Not after the tank, of course," he said. Because he's a tank hugger and we do exchange tank trivia. The mother of his child didn't seem pleased with that, so an evil plan hatched in me...

A few day ago, I giftwrapped it and handed it over to the young father...

And apparently, it's been appproved.

For those interested, this is a 1/100 Zvezda model of the British A12 Matilda tank.

Of course, my inspiration comes from the legendary Girls und Panzer anime series.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Forgotten colonial war revisited

Ok, just a small step back to one of the books about colonial wars I posted on some time ago. I follow the excellent podcast series New Books in Military History, which has an interesting selection of new material. Some time ago I listened to a comparison of genocide and conquest on the Eastern Front in WWII and the the American West.

What I found interesting is that the author, Westermann, took up this project based on discussions in his classes, where he found the students would naturally compare different forms of genocide. When it comes to genocide, Nazi Germany remains the archetype/Idealtype, although the last decades our historical knowledge of other genocides has widened.

Of course looking at genocide involves a discussion of the definition, but most definitions go farther than just the mass murder of a particular group with the intent of total destruction. Some include the destruction of culture and separate identity.

While it easy to dismiss referring to the Holocaust as a Godwin, in this vase it is actually helpful.

Westermann notes that what happens 'at the sharp end' of policy doesn't necessarily align with what happens at the centre. And while what happens at the sharp end may seem very similar in both cases, Westermann argues that the main difference between the American and the German case is that in the former, the authorities were not bent on genocide and in the latter they were.

It's worth listening to his argument in full.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Summer painting seamlesly devolving into beer and games

This is what I did for our club's Summer Painting Challenge (inspired by Curt's). Ran from late June till halfway September. I set myself 400 points to paint, although I felt 200 would have been more  realistic. In the end I ended up somewhere above 300 points, so setting the goal probably made me more productive than I'd otherwise been. That's a good thing I guess.

This was the main bit: a bunch of 18th century civilians, some scenery and goodies for scenarios and Frostgrave. And a bunch of farm and pack animals for the same purpose.

But I also finished a unit of British light infantry for AWI. This is them still glossy because I didn't get them sprayed with matt varnish before the received their baptism of fire.

Ten wargamers got together in September for a Wargame Beer and Game session, with me hosting Rens and Henny for a practice game of Sharp Practice 2, and seven other guys doing a Big Chain of Command game. Beautiful table!

And a very good dinner was had afterwards.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Return from Crisis II

Apart from the paper, I also brought home some wargaming terrain: I had been looking out for a game mat that I could use for both Frostgrave and Sci Fi (of course I had originally started out for two). I ended up buying a 4'x4' mat from Kraken. I was swayed by the guy from Kraken showing a WH 40K battle report video which used this mat and it looked dead on.

Last year I bought quite a lot of styrofoam stuff to build large stone buildings for Frostgrave. But as I've got two left hands, I have never actually dared building anything without adult supervision. So this year I decided to just buy a bunch of ready made ruins which I can quickly assemble and actually use.

Finally, I also got some Footsore miniatures to round off my Anglo-Saxon army for Hastings. That's part of the annual project from the Dutch Miniature Wargames facebook group, this year themed for the high and late Middle Ages. More about that later.

Ooh! And the guinea pigs!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Return from Crisis I

Yesterday visited the Crisis wargames show in Antwerp. Others have made more extensive reports on the show, so I'll not try to compete. But for me mostly it was a pleasure talking to so many people about their day and future plans.

I had planned to buy the latest edition of the Volley & Bayonet rules set to go with my Napoleonic French and Austrians for the 1809 campaign. Picked up the Marechal d' Empire /General de Division rules from Baccus as well. Now have to decide quickly which one I want to use for a participation game at PolderCon.

The books I bought just show that I can't be trusted to stick to one period. The book on the Iberian theatre of the War of Spanish Succession I bought because I met Nick Dorrell a decade ago in Eastern Europe. We then discussed the WSS (which I have this fascination for) and I sent him some stuff from Dutch sources.

The other WSS book I bought because I'm a sucker for logistics and systems of command and control. And I was intreagued to find that this author had at least read a few Dutch sources. I believe this was the first time Helion & Company visited Crisis. I was glad to shake the hand of Andrew Bamford, whose A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise (and follow up sourcebook) on the British campaign in the Low Countries in 1814 I used when writing on Waterloo. Consider that a recommendation.

And 10th century warfare in Germany just taps into my new found interest in that period. I hope to blog about how that came about. 

Note: Yup, it's been too quiet up here. And I stand reprimanded for that. As last year, I will try to do better. However, I haven't figured out how to do that, yet, without spending a lot of time. Which has been the reason why I dropped out before. It's okay to spend half an hour once every few days, but I have found that blogging takes more time if you want to do it well. But let's give it a shot.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Symmetry on the western front in WWII

The bazooka vs panzer book whetted my appetite for some more WWII western front stuff (I still have that 20mm US army miniatures hanging around), so I picked up this new Osprey pitting German and US armoured infantry against each other.

There didn’t seem to be much difference between the Panzergrenadier and armoured infantryman when it comes to equipment and armoured fighting vehicle. There were some differences in replacement policy but those went for the armies as a whole and didn’t affect tactical and operational employment. Zaloga refers to a German preference for attacking mounted in their AFVs, but that is not what happens in the examples, so we don’t have any idea how that plays out.

Armoured divisions on both sides suffered when defending because they had a smaller infantry complement than an infantry division. And while the Americans had the luxury of being on the strategic offensive and thus only having to defend occasionally, the German army by the end of the war had to plug gaps with whatever came to hand, thus putting the armoured divisions at a disadvantage.

Apart from an offensive or defensive stance the determining factor in the outcome of this match up was that the Americans had much more stuff and were better at coordinating them. So while the Germans even struggled to get artillery support for their attacks, the Americans could pour artillery on enemy attacks, supplemented with air attacks when the weather was good.

My main problem with the book is that the combat narratives, and especially the last one, are not that clear and are badly supported by the maps. Especially in the last case it is hard to figure where the combat is taking place to St Vith and other places which are constantly referred to in the text. To sum up: I lost interest at some point.

Looking back it wasn’t written in the stars that the last four books I read would all be from the Combat and similar Duel series, but that’s how it played out. I’ve warmed to these series but my impression has been confirmed that the best of these are the ones that pit different styles of warfare against each other. With the armoured infantrymen and the World War I askaris, there is a less interesting dynamic than between Apache vs US cavalry and bazooka vs tank.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Asymmetry on the western front in WWII

After a couple of colonial contests, I was happy to shift to World War Two. I had been intreagued by the match up between the bazooka and German close defense systems for tanks.

Steven Zaloga is an authority on tank warfare, and his knowledge on this subject does not disappoint. The dynamic interaction between antitank tactics and close defense is explained well, debunking some myths on German mesh side armour. And there were some weirdly interesting solutions suggested, like the Vorsatz P.

It was all rather marginal though, as infantry weapons were responsible for only a small amount of tank losses, with tanks, aircraft and artillery doing the most damage. The main impact may have rather been to give infantry the idea that they wouldn’t have to face tanks empty handed. Also the bazooka was used far more often to take out enemy strong points than to fight tanks.

Zaloga then delves into one example where tanks and infantry were pretty evenly matched, during the Ardennes offensive in December 1944. As this fight took place in favourable circumstances for the infantry, with limited vision due to fog and houses, the infantry was able to get close to the tanks and on their weak side and rear armour.

Sadly, lacking in the account is the perspective of the German tankers and their attempts at close defense here. All in all the technical/tactical account of the start didn’t mesh too well with the combat narrative.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

And yet another forgotten colonial war

Even when I was young, we didn’t play Cowboys & Indians any more and Westerns have declined as a movie theme. But despite the relative neglect, the Indian wars remain a fascinating colonial conflict.

By the time the U.S. army took on the Apache tribes in the middle of the 19th century, the issue was no longer in doubt. The demographic and industrial weight of the US totally overshadowed that of the hunting and farming Apache who number in the tens of thousands.

This was a war of relatively small battles, neither side bringing more than several hundred combatants to the fight. However, each Apache killed had long term consequences for the survival of his tribe, while there was a steady flow of new recruits for the cavalry.  At the same time, expanding settlement reduced the hunting grounds on which the Apache depended, thus forcing them into raiding.

Nevertheless, the struggle was a long and bitter one, which could only be brought to an end by employing Apache versus Apache. This although the cavalry itself made significant strides in its counter guerilla capabilities. Equipment and tactics were adapted to the climate and Apache warrior society.

Likewise the Apache adapted to the western world, improving their weaponry, and finding ways to sabotage telegraph communications. They also used their superior knowledge of the terrain to move and live undetected.

The only way to really get at them was to use scouts from rival tribes. There was little sense of common cause between these tribes and for many warriors the opportunity to stick to their warrior lifestyle, plus a gun and free meals, was too good to be missed.

McLachlan does an excellent job using first hand accounts from both sides to illustrate the challenges that both sides faced and how the social-political dynamics of the Apache and white settler society made conflict inevitable. The narrative flows well, the analysis is crisp and the illustrations fit the narrative. Probably the best Osprey book that I’ve read on ‘non-western‘ armies.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Another forgotten colonial war

Got a bit frustrated with my lack of reading lately and so decided to take on some lighter stuff, and Ospreys have proven excellent in that regard. Easy to pick up and lay down on the commute.

First off was King’s African Rifles vs Schutztruppe, continuing the theme of forgotten colonial wars. Not a middle of the military history road subject. First of all it deals with an African side show in World War I, when troops from British colonies tried to conquer the German colonies. And secondly, it prominently features the African soldiers fighting the war.

And compared to most Osprey books, there is more information on the non-western protagonists. It is made clear that in the British units, with fewer white NCOs, more responsibility devolved on the black NCOs especially when the (always white) officers became casualties.

And the author very cautiously treads the subject whether having more European NCOs was better for battlefield performance. There are even a few passages from the memoires of black participants.

On the other hand, in the operational narrative, the perspective of the black soldiers fades into the background. The prime actors there are the natural environment dictating the tactical and strategic decisions made by white officers. And you can still wonder how the askaris felt about fighting a colonial war.

On all the other elements the book score above average. It does a good job of explaining the challenges of bush warfare in southeastern Africa and the differences in British and German policies towards war in Africa. Also, the operational narrative is clear and highlights the most important factors which are brought together in the final analysis. Special kudos for the illustrations, which are very well integrated into the narrative, reinforcing it with examples.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Forgotten colonial wars don't go away

This is a very nice book on a forgotten colonial war that the Netherlands started without good reason and only ended with the arrival of a new colonial power, Japan, in 1942.*

From the first unsuccessful invasion in 1873, through the bitter decades of guerilla warfare to the anticlimax in 1942, Dutch colonial administrators and military struggled to bring an end to the costly occupation of a region that just would not submit, even when all hope seemed gone.

As the Dutch brought more power to bear, the resistance dwindled from a full fledged army defending the sultanate to desperate attacks on individual soldiers and bureaucrats. And as the Dutch sent their columns deeper into the hinterland, all of Aceh was marked with destroyed villages and hasty graves for freedom fighters and their pursuers.

The coming of the Japanese didn’t improve the lives of the inhabitants of Aceh, nor did their struggle end with Indonesian independence. And even though peace has reigned since almost a decade, Aceh is still a poor and neglected part of Indonesia.

Stolwijk, who lived in Aceh for 18 months between 2009 and 2015, gives a sympathetic view of a society trying to overcome the painful present, while keeping alive the ghosts from the past. His anecdotes of interactions with former guerillas and collaborators, students and officials (who seem genuinely pleased that somebody takes an interest in the history of their building or train line) both provide comic relief and perspective.

*full disclosure: I’ve played a few games of football with the author and I think he’s a nice guy.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Nazi women and Nazi Wives

Fascinating book. Most of the women in this book were highly dedicated to Hitler and his ideas. Magda Goebbels married the 'next best'. They paid a high price for their dedication after the war: destitution, imprisonment, even life.* Yet, several of them defended the Third Reich onto their dying bed.

The book gives a peek behind the scenes of the Nazi party. The stories of Geli Raubal, Hitler's favourite niece, and Carin Göring, the Swedish aristocrat that left her husband for Hermann, provide insight to the workings and social sphere of Hitler's entourage in the Kampfzeit, ie before the Nazis came to power.

It shows that the Nazis were human. Göring was a true romantic, whilst Goebbels was an adulterer with a penchant for adoration and self doubt. Even Hitler felt a moral obligation to take care of Eva Braun after suicide attempts, and although he ordered her to stay out of sight when foreign dignitaries visited the Berghof.

None of these women held any personal power. Women were considered unfit for the political sphere in Nazi ideology. Despite the huge services rendered for the party by benefactresses in the Kampfzeit, their opinions counted for little. Even the staunch Nazi organiser Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, in charge of the party (and later state) women's organisations, never actually got to talk to Hitler.

So all influence these women had was through their men. Whilst Emmy Göring and Henriette von Schirach slowly faded into the background as the influence of their husbands waned, Eva Braun slowly increased her hold on Hitler's private life.

Is there a lesson in these stories?

* That's not saying it wasn't just or deserved or both.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

British Invasion

A colleague of mine gave me this interesting little book. When he read my Waterloo book he revealed that he’d done a documentary in 2011 on the recovery of the bones of a British soldier in the Dutch dunes near Groote Keeten.

The soldier had died on the 27th of August 1799, during the landing of a British invasion force on the Dutch coast. The intention was to raise the Dutch  against their French allies and for the previous sovereign, Stadtholder William V of Orange. When the French had conquered the Dutch Republic in 1795 they installed a satellite government of Dutch revolutionaries.

Although the British invasion force managed to gain the Dutch fleet base (and fleet) at Den Helder and the city of Alkmaar, they were unable to make more headway towards Amsterdam, even after being reinforced by a Russian expeditionary force. Neither had Orangist sympathisers made much of a showing. Late in the year, the British and Russians reembarked, leaving little trace.

The discovery of the remains of the British soldier lead to an archeological dig at the site. The book describes the research, based on the finds at the site linked to historical evidence.

There’s the estimates of length and age based on the skeleton, the analysis of the wood and metals of a musket, some cloth and buttons which all go some way to identifying it as the remains of a soldier of the Coldstream Guards.

A more precise identification was not possible, although based on letters and official records, the search could be narrowed down to a handful of individuals who had died on the 27th of August.

In 2012 the remains were returned to the Coldstream Guards for interment in Britain.

Friday, 27 January 2017

From the Congo to Nova Zembla. A small step

I referred to this beautiful book last Sunday. A year's worth of a German geographical magazine.

Not only is is 145 years old, it has the most beautiful maps. The publisher, Justus Perthes from the German city of Gotha, had a golden reputation for its map making. I also have an atlas of the classical world from these guys. Stunning work.

Not only does it have a piece on Livingstone's research into the origins of the Nile, it also has a lot of stuff on a polar exhibition to Nova Zembla. And this is where a legendary chapter in Dutch history comes to pass. Because what the polar expedition found was an old hut, known in Dutch as Het Behouden Huys, in which a group of Dutch sailors survived an arctic winter.

Here's the 1872 map, showing the location of the hut near the lowest cape on the eastern coast.

In 1596 an expedition led by captains Barentsz (yes, the sea is named after him) and Heemskerck tried to find a way to the East Indies by the north cape. It was hoped that in this way, the Spanish and Portuguese, who claimed the Indian Ocean and the Pacific as their monopolies, could be avoided.

The expedition failed, getting stuck in the polar ice. But the account of their survival during the polar winter, including fights with bears, was widely read and still forms one of the seminal elements of Dutch pride in their Golden Age. The magazine included a couple of classic prints out of the account.

With the north route proven to be unusable, Dutch traders forced more resources into breaking into the Indian Ocean, which lead to the foundation of the Dutch East India Company and a colonial empire that lasted for almost 350 years.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Lovely sculptures

Went to a great exhibition on sculpture this Saturday, charting its development from the mid 19th century till today. The main theme was how sculpture broke free from copying classical and renaissance artists, to new forms and themes. Very well done.

Ecce Puer (See the child) by Medardo Rosso, 1906.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1937. Wonderfully 3D effect done with canvas

Beatifully stylised Bird Swallowing A Fish by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1914.

This piece, Der Rächer by Ernst Barlach from October 1914 is a good reminder that Germans at that time didn't see themselves as evil invaders but as righteous avengers. The avenger is holding a saex, an ancient Germanic sword type. I feel there's an uncanny resemblance between the face and that of then Emperor Wilhelm II.

Barlach's enthusiasm for the war quickly wore off on the front and he returned as a pacifist. His post war work includes many commemorative signs at war cemeteries. His work was later labeled as Entartete Kunst by the Nazis. Just like Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her son in the Great War. This is her Turm der Mutter from 1937.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Wow. Just wow

I told you two weeks ago, that my Secret Satan had been very kind and scarily knowledgeable about my wishes. The third package arrived a week ago, but since I wasn't home I had to pick it up at a post office. To which I only came around yesterday.

After all the goodness that had been my share already, I was surprised at the size of the package, although the weight was bearable.Arriving home I left it to unpack my groceries and the set upon the box with a knife.

The packing foam was familiar, but what it uncovered was frankly breathtaking. First, up popped an expansion for Blood Rage, so my thought was that the all-knowing Satan had picked up my interest in the game and wanted to tease me. Colour my surprise as more expansions followed, and finally, the basic game.

That had me stunned, because this was shaping up as no ordinary gift and I had no clue why Satan would have reason to reward me so richly.

Still unbelieving I tried to make sure that there was nothing else hidden in the box before I stashed it away. And colour my surprise several shades deeper as another package turned up, carrying Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG plus an extra adventure, as well as the rule book for Congo, a miniatures game by the same people that brought us Muskets & Tomahawks and Saga.

Satan is keenly aware of my interest in slavery and will have noticed when I expressed my doubts about playing a game with slave traders and which depicts the opening up of the Congo to the merciless exploitation of its people by the Belgian king Leopold as described in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read the book last summer on the train to London, as Satan seems to recollect.

Also, I have recently been gifted with a copy from a German geographical magazine from 1872, with an account of Livingstone's research into the origins of the Nile. It has me salivating. Satan must be roaring with laughter putting this ethical dilemma before me.

And I hadn't even reach the bottom yet. Satan's final revenge. After all he goodness, there was this...

Yes, that is Knizia's Modern Art. A game which I revile and abhor. So much so that I had given it away having never played it. Okay, so I won a game recently; that doesn't make me like it! Apparently there's no getting rid of this steaming turd of a game. Perhaps giving it away is being too nice. Maybe stronger measures are called for...

There are no words to express my appreciation to Satan for going the length he did to spy on me to bring me such a generous package. I am absolutely overwhelmed by it.

Friday, 20 January 2017

How not to write a history of slavery

Rarely have I been so disappointed in a historian that I held in high regard as by Jeremy Black’s Slavery. A New Global History. There are probably very few untruths in this book, but there is a glaring imbalance.

There are markets and goods, there is military technology and repression. Slavery was more harsh in the Carolinas than in the Chesapeake Bay. But beyond the abstractions that Black uses, you’ll be hard pressed to find out what life would have been like for a slave or a slaver or a freed slave living in a slave society: the daily routines, housing conditions, punishments, or slave markets.

Also the agency of the slaves in ending slavery is dismissed in a few sentences as ‘evidence ... is limited’. But since this is a major theory in the study of slavery, you might expect a serious discussion. As would be warranted by the rest of half century of research and debate on slavery that Black mostly ignores.

The imbalance is especially striking when the book is full of not that relevant detail on imperial and colonial history, and on the abolition debate in Great Britain and its role in the following decades. To the point where becomes self-congratulatory.

Alright, there are some redeeming features. This book has a more global perspective than most, looking beyond the early modern Caribbean. What it basically underwrites is that slavery was part and parcel of most societies up to the 19th century and its sudden retreat in that century is something worth noting.

But essentially this is a White Englishman’s History of Slavers that might have been written in the 1960s. Black should have known his limits and stuck to military history.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dutch Democracy Is Not In Crisis.

First a note to my English readers: by exception this post is partly in Dutch. A translation is provided below.

Niet vaak dat je zo enthousiast wordt van een boek over politiek. Misschien komt dat vooral omdat het boek nauw aansluit bij wat ik zelf al dacht (goh!?), maar omdat auteur Tom van der Meer ook hoogleraar politicologie is, heeft dat wat meer gewicht.

In Niet De Kiezer Is Gek betoogt hij dat de kiezer sinds zij bevrijd is uit de ketenen van de verzuiling niet wispelturig is geworden, maar wel elke verkiezing kiest uit verschillende partijen die dicht bij haar eigen opvattingen staan. En dat levert een Tweede Kamer op die goed in staat is nieuwe politieke stromingen een platform te geven. De democratie functioneert dus eigenlijk prima.

Waar het probleem zit, is bij het landsbestuur. De politiek heeft zich aan de ene kant niet aangepast aan het veranderende politieke landschap, en weerspiegelt aan de andere kant dat veranderde landschap onvoldoende.

De wens om elke regeerperiode te starten met een uit twee of drie partijen bestaande kamermeerderheid met een dichtgetimmerd regeerakkoord wordt steeds lastiger te vervullen. En het verdelen van banen op basis van regeringsdeelname wordt ondermijnd door dalend partijlidmaatschap en een kleiner aandeel van de bestuurspartijen in het totaal.

Alle voorgestelde alternatieven voor veranderingen voor het kiesstelsel zijn voor Van der Meer dus sowieso al niet echt nodig, maar dreigen in veel gevallen zelfs het probleem te verergeren. Kiesdrempels betekenen minder democratie, niet meer. Loterijen vallen ten prooi aan de groep die nu al het meest politiek geëngageerd is. 

De opdracht is dus vooral aan de politici in Den Haag: profileer jezelf weer op de inhoud en accepteer minderheidsregeringen. Dat laatste is de afgelopen vier jaar in zekere zin al aardig gelukt.

Ben ik dan helemaal gelukkig met dit boek? Nee, toch niet. Voor het door Van der Meer geconstateerde probleem van de banenverdeling langs partijpolitieke lijnen heeft hij zelf geen echte oplossing.

En eerlijk gezegd zie ik partijen dat niet zo snel opgeven aangezien dat een belangrijke reden is voor personen is om lid van een politieke partij te worden/blijven. Zolang partijen geen manier weten te vinden om kiezers weer op andere manieren structureel aan zich te binden zie ik dat niet zo snel veranderen.

Ook denk ik dat de Haagse politiek ook de kans moet krijgen om te veranderen en niet door journalisten en publieke opinie moet worden afgestraft als het weigert de waan van de dag te volgen. Van der Meer had die rol best meer mogen benadrukken.

English version

It’s not often that you get excited by a book about politics. This could perhaps be a result of the book aligning closely with my own views on the subject (surprise!), but also because the author is a professor in Political Studies, which carries a bit more weight than my opinion.

In It’s Not The Voter That Is Mad, Tom van der Meer argues that the voter, since she became unshackeled from pillarisation*, hasn’t become more fickle, but now chooses from a number of political parties to which she feels close. That results in a parliament that is very apt at including new political movements. Democracy, therefore,  is functioning quite well.

The problem on the other hand, lies with government. Dutch governmental politics hasn’t adapted to the changing political landscape and doesn’t reflect those changes enough.

The ideal of starting each cabinet with a parliamentary majority in two or three political parties with a fixed policy programme (called the Regeerakkoord) has become harder to achieve with the shrinking of the main parties. And the division of jobs in strategic positions between the major parties is undermined by falling party membership and the shrinking  share of the old main parties in the total vote.

The suggested alternatives for changes in the electoral system are not really necessary according to Van der Meer, but also run a high risk of only making the problem worse. Electoral barriers make the system less democratic, not more. And systems based on lotteries tend to fall in the hands of those that are already most politically engaged.

So the message of this book is mostly addressed to the national politicians: bring ideology back again. Also accept minority governments, like the Netherlands have effectively had in the last couple of years.

So am I completely happy with this book? No. Van der Meer doesn’t really offer an alternative to the practice of dividing key jobs among members of the ruling parties.

And to be honest, I don’t see that happening too soon. It is a major reason for people to become and remain a member. Certainly won’t happen as long as parties haven’t figured out how to structurally attract people by other means.

Press and public opinion will also have to give politicians the opportunity to break away from the news cycle. As far as I am concerned Van der Meer could have stressed those roles more.

* Pillarisation is the typically 19th/20th century Dutch practice of social, economical and political organisation along religious and ideological lines: ie separate football clubs, unions and parties for Catholics, Protestant sect #1 through #X, Liberals, Social Democrats. This social organisation was broken up in the 1970s and 1980s though some of it remains to this day.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Some good gaming going on

Ok, so I won a game, but that is not the most important in life. It's gaming with friends and that's been good lately.

The Christmas Offensive with the Friday night game group brought up Imperial Settlers, Conan and Scythe, finished off with some Coup. The Geer's slowly seasoned salmon for lunch.

And then dinner and drinks afterwards. Joyous!  

The end of year trip to the North brought a couple of games of Port Royal, Love Letter and Adel Verplicht (Hoity Toity) with the Died and Van Z. I love Adel Verplicht, it's got everything: especially the interaction between auctions, exhibitions, thieves and detectives.

Early January saw two games of Euphrates & Tigris with The Geer and The Died, in which I sucked. Luckily The Geer's excellent cooking made up for all that.

And apart from the victorious experience, last Friday also saw a return to Westeros, with the Game of Thrones boardgame. I managed to set up an advantageous springboard for success later in the game as the Martells, but was too far off to keep the Starks from clinching a sudden death victory making it all hypothetical.