Today an article about independence day. It is unavoidable I suppose. What shall I write? It is easy to make fun of the way Finns celebrate independence day with that long of dresses passing the president of the republic. How shall I compare this winter's day? With French quatorze juillet (14 july), where tanks and rockets are on the streets? Or with Dutch liberation day (5 may) when the streets are orange, markets everywhere and pop concerts of top rock stars in every major city? I am not sure. Every comparison seems to go awry.
Instead I like to tell you the story about a Dutch man who did a lot for Finnish independence. His name was Willem van der Vlugt.
Willem van der Vlugt came from a wealthy Dutch baptist family. He was born in 1853 in Haarlem. His father was a bank manager and co-manager of the Teyler-Museum. After Willem's law studies at the University of Leiden, he became at the age of 26 (1890) professor of Law Philosophy. In 1902 he became Rector, but he was in this function only a couple of months, because he quickly moved on to become a member of parliament for the liberal party. He belonged to the conservative wing of this party and was against general suffrage (voting rights) and suffrage for women. In 1907 he stopped his membership of parliament citing health reasons and went back to the university. As a professor he was deeply respected because of his knowledge and erudition.
He was deeply moved by the fate of suppressed people like the Boers in South-Africa and the Finns. Especially Mathilde Wrede, the Finnish Florence Nightingale who fought the suffering of Finnish prisoners, made a deep impression on him. He even gave a special lecture about her thoughts on social law. A contradiction, since he did not think the thoughts of Dutch women worth enough to give them suffrage. It is especially strange since Finland gave women already in 1906 suffrage. The first country in Europe to do so.
The special relation between Willem van der Vlugt and Finland started in 1899. He was asked to sign the petition “Pro Finlandia” that circulated among scientists, writers and artists in several European countries. In this petition the czar was asked to employ milder policies in Finland. Subsequently the organizers looked for people who would go to St Petersburg to offer the petition. After a few Dutch candidates refused Willem van der Vlugt offered to go.
Apart from Willem van der Vlugt, the delegation consisted of the French ex-minister of Justice Trarieux, who was the leader of the delegation, professor Brusa from Italy, professor Nordenskjöld from Sweden (A polar explorer who was the first to take the Northern route to the pacific), professor Brögger from Norway, and Dr Norman-Hansen from Denmark. Together they travelled in the summer of 1899 from Berlin to St Petersburg. The czar refused to see them and after a week of waiting the six gentlemen (and van der Vlugt's wife) left the city. They traveled to Finland and every place where the train passed they were greeted by big crowds with flowers and flags which spontaneously started to sing the Finnish national hymn. When they arrived in Helsinki the delegation was invited for a dinner in the park in which hundreds of people took part.
The experience was for the members of the delegation an unforgettable experience. Afterwards professor van der Vlugt took up the Finnish cause for almost 30 years. In close cooperation with the Finnish politician Leo Mechelin he wrote several publications about the Finnish constitutional position. After Mechelin died he wrote an impressive in memoriam. He also wrote in 1921 publications on the conflict between Finland and Sweden about Ahvenmaa (Älands islands).
The Finns appreciated the support of Willem van der Vlugt enormously. In 1921 he and his wife were invited to Finland by the Finnish government. He also spend time with President Stahlberg at Kultaranta. But the greatest honor given to him is that there is portrait of him in the parliament in Helsinki. Willem van der Vlugt died in 1928 on the estate Tongeren that he had inherited through his wife's branch of the family. At the head of the funeral procession two funeral wreaths were carried. One of the Finnish government and one of the Finnish president.
Note: This story has been published in the Dutch language book “Nederlanders in Finland – Kroniek van een ontplooiende relatie”. The writer of this piece is Arnold Pieterse.
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