Interview. With Dutch voters heading to the polls today, we spoke with novelist Herman Koch about the rise of the far-right and whether the Netherlands is still as tolerant as it seemed.

Despite Wilders, ‘we are still an open and progressive society’

Among the major Dutch writers of recent years, Herman Koch is also known to international audiences through highly successful novels such as The Dinner, Summer House with Swimming Pool, Odessa Star and Dear Mr. M., in which he exposed the hypocrisy and anger smoldering under the ashes of a society long considered among the most open and welcoming of Europe. But today the racist right is set to become the main protagonist in Wednesday’s general election.

In your latest novel, Dear Mr. M., two characters reflect on the fact that Dutch society is becoming increasingly attracted to the ideas of the extreme right. Will the elections go well?

In fact, the Dutch have always been proud of their tolerant viewpoint, and these people are today still in the majority. The problem is that this same tolerance in moments of difficulty or disorientation when things go wrong can end up appearing as a kind of luxury. So, yes, I believe that the extreme right will come out ahead in many parts of the country, although, in the absence of political allies, will fortunately not be able to come to power.

The dialogue of the book also captures the idea of the limits of tolerance, which seems to have been based on a long sense of superiority over other cultures. Is that correct?

In some ways, yes. For too long we congratulated ourselves on our tolerance, but only because it made us feel better: In reality things have always been more complex. The majority of Europeans and Westerners have always felt superior to immigrants. We have always been more intolerant than we like to admit. It’s just that previously [the intolerance] wasn’t there on the political market for those wishing to take advantage of it.

In novels such as The Dinner and Odessa Star, you criticized the bourgeois hypocrisy through the transgressions of your characters. How do you assess the fact that radical criticism of political correctness, behind which lurks the new racism, often finds support among those seeking out irreverent acts to violate taboos?

I fear that political correctness has run its course. Many now say they are fed up with the fact that the public debate is monopolized by a few, and they claim they’re doing their part in the struggle for power. From this point of view, the assertion of someone like Donald Trump has done us a favor in some ways: It clarified the mentality of part of the population, which took off its mask to show what they really think and that they identify themselves with positions like his. And this is both in America and in the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe.

The leader of the Dutch extreme right, Geert Wilders, is a provocative character. He’s more the star of the show, not surprisingly a big hit on Twitter, than a politician. What made him so popular?

First of all, understand that the success of Wilders should not be underestimated, in the sense that he is a very clever and ironic person who is easily put down in public debates. But, above all, his strength lies in putting together different elements that make it difficult to label him ideologically, at least at first glance. In social terms, for example, his defense of the welfare program appears even further to the left than the the Dutch Socialist Party, which was formed by Maoists. And he is one of the politicians who most strenuously defended the rights of homosexuals. On the other hand, on Islam and immigrants his positions are similar to those of Donald Trump.

In The Dinner, you put forward a very precise criticism of Dutch politics. Are the traditional parties, the center-right and the center-left, most responsible for the rise of the far right?

No doubt. They saw the danger and did nothing, repeating that their voters were the majority and that they were “reasonable people.” Meanwhile, the population was becoming increasingly angry. When [Wilders] saw that this sentiment was not understood and that they did nothing to offer answers, he found new leaders to offer the appropriate consensus. Many people feel they were not taken seriously by the old politicians, and so they turn to people like Wilders.

You come from a socialist family and grew up in an open country. When viewed from outside, the Netherlands today looks very different from that of a more progressive time. Is there anything that the rest of Europe hasn’t understood about the transformations in your country?

I would like to reassure everyone: We are still an open and progressive society, just that there is a growing part of the Dutch electorate that’s beginning to think differently. The point is that thanks to our open and tolerant culture, we must try to also respect them, listen to their malaise and not be deaf to them. And above all, if we want to avoid a real precipitation, we must stop acting as if they did not exist.

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