Maurice of Nassau
De winnaar die faalde
The victor who failed
Prince Maurice of Nassau is not a favourite of Dutch historians. In 1619, he had Van Oldenbarneveld, Grand Pensionary of the States of Holland, beheaded for allegedly plotting with Spain, a country with which the Netherlands had been locked in a long struggle for freedom. The image of the old state prosecutor on the scaffold was to enter history as a lasting indictment of the unrelenting Maurice.
In Maurice of Nassau, the historian Van Deursen shows how mistaken that picture is. Maurice was anything but a firebrand; he was simply a careful soldier trying to spare his soldiers and his people. The more cunning of the two men was undoubtedly Oldenbarneveld, who ruled over Dutch politics with Machiavellian statesmanship for decades. Van Deursen portrays the fate of these Netherlanders as a relentless tragedy. While they were united, they had their greatest diplomatic and military successes, but once their roads parted, fate gradually and inevitably took its toll. Oldenbarneveld’s ruin also became the downfall of Maurice, the victor who would never triumph again.
As his highly praised study of Graft, a village in the polder, showed earlier, Van Deursen has an unrivalled ability to evoke Dutch life round 1600. In Maurice of Nassau, he again brings an unfamiliar world, in which old ideas clashed with new, tangibly close to the reader. At the time, arguments about fine religious points were matters of life and death, and in the military field, mediaeval codes of honour still held sway, even while scientific ideas were being applied for the first time. Maurice was the first general to study the history of war, to apply mathematical ideas to the planning of his manoeuvres, and to turn his army into a well-drilled machine. That made him famous throughout Europe, the more so when he proved successful in laying siege to the greatly superior Spanish forces.
Through the life of Maurice of Nassau, Van Deursen gives his readers a surprising glimpse of the beginnings of modern warfare, of its practical and economic effects, and of the fervour of Dutch Calvinism. But above all, his is a gripping account of a talented general whose fate was sealed when his collaboration with Oldenbarneveld ended in political and personal catastrophe.