The Grain Republic

This week my wife and I spent a few days in the province of Groningen. From our hotel near the Martini church we explored parts of the province. Yesterday we drove around in a region that had remained virtually unknown to us: Oldambt in the far northeast of our country. Among the principal places in this relatively sparsely populated and economically challenged area are Winschoten, Zuidbroek, Heiligerlee, Scheemda, Beerta and Finsterwolde. But for the most part, this region consists of extensive farmland.

Some twenty years ago the Dutch author Frank Westerman was inspired by this region for his beautiful book The Grain Republic. Anyone who doesn’t know this writer yet, has missed something. For me his book De Stikvallei (literally: the valley where the people choked) was very special. In August 1986 a village on the shore of the volcanic lake Nyos in the African country of Cameroon was struck by a mysterious disaster. Toxic fumes killed all 1800 inhabitants of the village, and the same fate struck almost all animals in and around the village. At the time, we lived in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, a few hundred kilometres from the disaster area, and in the days and weeks that followed, the wildest rumours about the cause of this calamity spread around. Westerman traveled to the area and went in search of the stories that were circulating among the people. It resulted in a fascinating book

But as we drove along narrow roads through the Oldambt-area, between vast fields of wheat and other kinds of grain, my thoughts went to Westerman’s book The Grain Republic. In this book he describes the turbulent agricultural developments in this region during the previous century and the socio-political history of that time. The name of Sicco Mansholt keeps popping up in Westerman’s account.. He comes from this region, and he would eventually become the famous architect of the agricultural policies of the European Union.

What particularly struck me in The Grain Republic was the enormous contrast between the wealthy farm owners and the deplorable state of their workers. The clay in this region was much more fertile than the sandy ground and peatlands in other parts of the province. The farmers in the clay areas produced far more grain than they needed for their own consumption and that brought them lots of money, especially in times when grain prices rose sharply. This created a class of wealthy farm owners who enjoyed great financial prosperity, while their workers did not share in that prosperity in any way. On the contrary, they hardly earned enough to stay alive.

This in itself would be bad enough and represents a sad example of inhumanity. But what made it much worse was that these rich farmers were generally very religious people. On Sundays they sat with their families in church in the prominent benches near the pulpit and near the places of the elders. Is it any wonder that there was a gradual, large-scale abandonment of the church? The laborers no longer wanted to look at the hypocritical faces of their bosses who treated them so inhumanely.

Nowhere else in the Netherlands did strident socialism and communism gain as much support as in ‘the grain republic’. The area around Beerta, Finsterwolde and Bad Nieuweschans was often referred to as ‘the red triangle.’ In local elections towards the end of the twentieth century, the Communist Party of the Netherlands sometimes managed to win no less than thirty percent of all votes. In 1982 the municipality of Beerta even got a communist mayor!

It is not far-fetched to assume that the radical political choice of a large number of people was directly linked to their aversion against the way the establishment was full of pious words but showed no pious deeds. They saw how religious doctrine and Christian practice had become completely separated from each other. With the sad result that many turned their backs on the church and the Christian faith. And let’s face it: something like this did not only happen in East Groningen, but it keeps repeating itself in many places and in many circles: people (and especially young people) give up when they see that faith does not translate into compassion and moral conduct!