History of vegetarianism in the Netherlands

More than 4,5% of the Dutch population are vegetarians. Not so much compared, for example, with India, where there are 30% of them, but not enough for Europe, where until the 70s of the last century, meat consumption was a universal and unshakable norm. Now, about 750 Dutch people replace a juicy cutlet or fragrant roast daily with a double portion of vegetables, soy products or boring scrambled eggs. Some for health reasons, others for environmental concerns, but the main reason is compassion for animals.

Vegetarian Hocus Pocus

In 1891, the famous Dutch public figure Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846–1919), visiting the city of Groningen on business, looked into a local tavern. The host, flattered by the high visit, offered the guest a glass of his best red wine. To his surprise, Domela politely declined, explaining that he did not drink alcohol. The hospitable innkeeper then decided to please the visitor with a delicious dinner: “Dear Sir! Tell me what you want: a bloody or well-done steak, or maybe a chicken breast or a pork rib? “Thank you very much,” Domela replied, “but I don’t eat meat. Serve me better rye bread with cheese.” The innkeeper, shocked by such a voluntary mortification of the flesh, decided that the wanderer was playing a comedy, or maybe just out of his mind … But he was wrong: his guest was the first known vegetarian in the Netherlands. The biography of Domela Nieuwenhuis is rich in sharp turns. After completing his theology course, he served as a Lutheran pastor for nine years, and in 1879 he left the church, declaring himself an adamant atheist. Perhaps Nieuwenhuys lost his faith due to the cruel blows of fate: at the age of 34 he was already a widower three times, all three young spouses died in childbirth. Fortunately, this evil rock passed his fourth marriage. Domela was one of the founders of the socialist movement in the country, but in 1890 he retired from politics, and later joined anarchism and became a writer. He refused meat because of the firm conviction that in a just society a person has no right to kill animals. None of his friends supported Nieuwenhuis, his idea was considered utterly absurd. Trying to justify him in their own eyes, those around him even came up with their own explanation: he allegedly fasts out of solidarity with poor workers, on whose tables meat appeared only on holidays. In the family circle, the first vegetarian also did not find understanding: relatives began to avoid his house, considering feasts without meat boring and uncomfortable. Brother Adrian angrily declined his invitation to the New Year, refusing to deal with “vegetarian hocus pocus.” And the family doctor even called Domela a criminal: after all, he put the health of his wife and children at risk by imposing his unthinkable diet on them. 

Dangerous weirdos 

Domela Nieuwenhuis did not remain alone for long, gradually he found like-minded people, although at first there were very few of them. On September 30, 1894, on the initiative of the physician Anton Vershor, the Netherlands Vegetarian Union was founded, consisting of 33 members. Ten years later, their number increased to 1000, and ten years later – to 2000. The society met the first opponents of meat by no means friendly, rather even hostile. In May 1899, the Amsterdam newspaper published an article by Dr. Peter Teske, in which he expressed an extremely negative attitude towards vegetarianism: leg. Anything can be expected from people with such delusional ideas: it is possible that they will soon be walking around naked in the streets.” The Hague newspaper “People” also did not get tired of slandering supporters of plant nutrition, but the weaker sex got the most: “This is a special type of woman: one of those who cut their hair short and even apply for participation in elections!” Apparently, tolerance came to the Dutch later, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they were clearly annoyed by those who stood out from the crowd. These included theosophists, anthroposophists, humanists, anarchists, and along with vegetarians. However, in attributing to the latter a special view of the world, the townsfolk and conservatives were not so wrong. The first members of the Union of Vegetarians were followers of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who, at the age of fifty, refused meat, guided by moral principles. His Dutch associates called themselves Tolstoyans (tolstojanen) or anarchist Christians, and their adherence to Tolstoy’s teachings was not limited to the ideology of nutrition. Like our great compatriot, they were convinced that the key to the formation of an ideal society is the improvement of the individual. In addition, they advocated individual freedom, called for the abolition of the death penalty and equal rights for women. But despite such progressive views, their attempt to join the socialist movement ended in failure, and meat became the cause of contention! After all, the socialists promised the workers equality and material security, which included an abundance of meat on the table. And then these fat people appeared from nowhere and threatened to confuse everything! And their calls not to kill animals are absolutely utter nonsense … In general, the first politicized vegetarians had a hard time: even the most progressive compatriots rejected them. 

Slowly but surely 

Members of the Netherlands Association of Vegetarians did not despair and showed enviable perseverance. They offered their support to vegetarian workers, called (though unsuccessfully) to introduce plant-based nutrition in prisons and the army. On their initiative, in 1898, the first vegetarian restaurant was opened in The Hague, then several more appeared, but almost all quickly went bankrupt. Giving lectures and publishing pamphlets, brochures and culinary collections, the members of the Union diligently promoted their humane and healthy diet. But their arguments were rarely taken seriously: the reverence for meat and neglect for vegetables were too strong. 

This view changed after the First World War, when it became clear that the tropical disease beriberi was caused by a lack of vitamins. Vegetables, especially in raw form, gradually became firmly established in the diet, vegetarianism began to arouse increasing interest and gradually become fashionable. The Second World War put an end to this: during the occupation period there was no time for experiments, and after the liberation, meat was especially valued: Dutch doctors claimed that the proteins and iron contained in it were necessary to restore health and strength after the hungry winter of 1944-1945. The few vegetarians of the first post-war decades mainly belonged to the supporters of the anthroposophical doctrine, which includes the idea of ​​plant nutrition. There were also loners who did not eat meat as a sign of support for the starving peoples of Africa. 

About animals thought only by the 70s. The beginning was laid by the biologist Gerrit Van Putten, who devoted himself to the study of the behavior of livestock. The results surprised everyone: it turned out that cows, goats, sheep, chickens and others, who until then were considered only elements of agricultural production, can think, feel and suffer. Van Putten was particularly struck by the intelligence of pigs, which proved to be no less than that of dogs. In 1972, the biologist founded a demonstration farm: a kind of exhibition demonstrating the conditions in which the unfortunate cattle and birds are kept. In the same year, opponents of the bioindustry united in the Tasty Beast Society, which opposed cramped, dirty pens and cages, poor food, and painful methods of killing “younger farm dwellers.” Many of these activists and sympathizers became vegetarians. Realizing that in the end, all cattle – in whatever conditions they were kept – ended up in the slaughterhouse, they did not want to remain passive participants in this process of destruction. Such people were no longer considered originals and extravagances, they began to be treated with respect. And then they stopped allocating at all: vegetarianism became commonplace.

Dystrophics or centenarians?

In 1848, the Dutch physician Jacob Jan Pennink wrote: “A dinner without meat is like a house without a foundation.” In the 19th century, doctors unanimously argued that eating meat is a guarantee of health, and, accordingly, a necessary condition for maintaining a healthy nation. No wonder the British, famous beefsteak lovers, were then considered the most powerful people in the world! The activists of the Netherlands Vegetarian Union needed to show a lot of ingenuity to shake this well-established doctrine. Realizing that direct statements would only cause distrust, they approached the matter cautiously. The magazine Vegetarian Bulletin published stories about how people suffered, got sick and even died after eating spoiled meat, which, by the way, looked and tasted quite fresh … Switching to plant foods eliminated such a risk, and also prevented the emergence of many dangerous ailments, prolonged life, and sometimes even contributed to the miraculous healing of the hopelessly ill. The most fanatical meat haters claimed that it was not completely digested, its particles left to rot in the stomach, causing thirst, blues, and even aggression. They said that switching to a plant-based diet would reduce crime and perhaps even lead to universal peace on Earth! What these arguments were based on remains unknown. 

Meanwhile, the benefits or harms of a vegetarian diet were increasingly occupied by Dutch doctors, a number of studies were conducted on this topic. At the beginning of the 20th century, doubts about the need for meat in our diet were first voiced in the scientific press. More than a hundred years have passed since then, and science has practically no doubt about the benefits of giving up meat. Vegetarians have been shown to be less likely to suffer from obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. However, weak voices are still heard, assuring us that without entrecote, broth and chicken leg, we will inevitably wither away. But the debate about health is a separate issue. 


The Dutch Vegetarian Union still exists today, it still opposes the bioindustry and advocates the benefits of plant-based nutrition. However, he does not play a significant role in the public life of the country, while there are more and more vegetarians in the Netherlands: over the past ten years, their number has doubled. Among them there are some kind of extreme people: veganists who exclude any products of animal origin from their diet: eggs, milk, honey and much more. There are also quite extreme ones: they try to be content with fruits and nuts, believing that plants also cannot be killed.

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whose ideas inspired the first Dutch animal rights activists, repeatedly expressed the hope that by the end of the twentieth century, all people would give up meat. The hope of the writer, however, has not yet been fully realized. But maybe it’s just a matter of time, and meat will really gradually disappear from our tables? It is difficult to believe in this: the tradition is too strong. But on the other hand, who knows? Life is often unpredictable, and vegetarianism in Europe is a relatively young phenomenon. Perhaps he still has a long way to go!

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