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Pillarisation (verzuiling in Dutch, pilarisation in French) is a term used to describe the denominational segregation of Dutch and Belgian society. These societies were (and in some areas, still are) "vertically" divided in several smaller segments or "pillars" (zuilen, singular: zuil) according to different religions or ideologies.

These pillars all had their own social institutions: their own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, banks, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Some companies even hired only personnel of a specific religion or ideology. This led to a situation where many people had no personal contact with people from another pillar.

Austrian, Northern Irish, Israeli and Maltese societies were or are other examples of this phenomenon.

Situation in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands there were (at least) three pillars: Protestant, Catholic and Social-democratic. Almost all Catholics were part of the Catholic pillar. Orthodox and conservative Protestants joined the Protestant pillar, while more latitudinarian Protestants, Jews, and atheists either joined the Socialist pillar or were pillarless. The Protestant party Christian Historical Union did not organise a pillar of its own but linked itself to the Protestant pillar shaped by the Anti Revolutionary Party. Pillarisation was originally initiated by the Anti Revolutionary Party, who based it on their philosophy of sphere sovereignty. People in the Socialist pillar were mainly working class. People who were not associated with one of these pillars, mainly middle and upper class latitudinarian Protestants and atheists set up their own pillar: the general pillar. Ties between general organisations were much less strong. The political parties usually associated with this pillar were the liberal Free-minded Democratic League (VDB) and Liberal State Party (LSP), although these parties opposed pillarisation. Communists and ultra-orthodox Protestants also set up similar organisations; however, such groups were much smaller.

The following table shows the most important institutions per pillar:

  Protestant Catholic Social-democratic Liberal
Political Party before 1945 ARP (gereformeerd);
CHU (hervormd)
RKSP SDAP VDB (left-liberal);
LSP (right-liberal)
Political Parties after 1945 ARP and CHU KVP PvdA VVD (conservative liberal);
D66 (social liberal)
broadcasting organisation NCRV (Dutch Christian Radio Association);
VPRO (Liberal Protestant Radio Broadcasting Organisation)
KRO (Catholic Radio Broadcasting Organisation)
VARA (Association of Workers' Radio Amateurs)
AVRO (General United Radio Broadcasting Organisation)
Unions CNV (Christian National Union) NKV (Dutch Catholic Union) NVV (Dutch Alliance of Unions) ANWV (General Dutch Workers' Unions)
Employers PCW NKW none VNO
Newspapers Trouw Volkskrant Het Vrije Volk NRC Handelsblad
Schools School with the Bible Roman Catholic School Free Schools, Public Schools Public Schools
Universities Vrije Universiteit Catholic University State-sponsored universities State-sponsored universities
Hospitals Green/Orange Cross White/Yellow Cross Green Cross Green Cross
Recreation (examples) Saturday football Sunday football Folk dancing; Sunday football Dancing Schools

After World War II liberals and socialists, but also Protestants and Catholics began to doubt the pillarised system. They founded a unity movement, the People's Movement Nederlandse Volksbeweging. Progressives of all pillars (including the Catholic resistance movement Christofoor) were united in this. They wanted a breakthrough (doorbraak) of the political system. But pillarisation was ingrained in Dutch society, and could not be defeated that easily. Even the People's Movement suffered from this, it was associated with the socialistic party, SDAP, and its ideology was socialism combined with democratic principles. Only the left liberal VDB and the minor Protestant CDU joined the SDAP to form a new political party: the Labour Party, Partij van de Arbeid in 1946.

During the 1960s these pillars, particularly under political criticism from D66 and the group Nieuw Links (New Left) in PvdA, largely broke down. For example, VPRO moved towards the general pillar in years. Television was also pillarised, but in its early years (the 1950s) it had only one station, which meant that everyone watched the same broadcasts. Young people did not want to be associated with these organisations. Because of this and increased mobility many people saw that people from the other pillar weren't that different. Increased wealth and education made people independent of many of these institutions. From 1973, ARP and CHU of the Protestant pillar united with Catholic KVP in CDA, they first entered in elections in 1977. From 1976, the Catholic trade union NKV cooperated with NVV of the Socialist pillar to merge into the FNV in 1982.

By the 21st century, pillarisation has disappeared but many remnants can be seen: public television for instance is divided over several pillarised organisations, instead of being one organisation, as is the education system split between public and religious schools. Nevertheless, there are small pillars that still exist today. Usually, members of the Reformed Churches (liberated) have their own schools, a university, their own national newspaper, and several organizations such as a Labor Union, psychiatric hospitals, et cetera. "Parallel society" founded by Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands is also sometimes conceived as a contemporary vestige of pillarisation.

Situation in Belgium

Pillarisation in Belgium was very similar, although there wasn't a Protestant pillar. Also there was no "general" pillar but a politically well-organised liberal pillar. In both Flanders and Wallonia societies are pillarised. In Flanders Catholics were the dominant pillar, in Wallonia the Socialists. Even though the liberals are stronger in Belgium (particularly in Brussels), than in the Netherlands, they are still relatively weak, due to their rather small, bourgeois support: liberal trade unions are very small. De Tijd, a financial daily, is the paper aligned with the liberals. This is due to only its readers, not editorial policies. However, a Flemish newspaper with historical liberal roots, Het Laatste Nieuws also exists.

Denominational (many Catholic and a few Jewish) schools receive some public money, although not parity of funding as in the Netherlands, so that tuition is almost completely free. Belgian universities charge more or less the same, relatively low tuition fees.

As a consequence of the language struggle in the latter half of the twentieth century, the pillars split over the language issue that became the most significant divisive factor in the nation. Now every language group has three pillars of its own. The pillar system was the primordial societal divide much longer in Belgium than it was in the Netherlands. Only near the end of the Cold War did it begin to lose importance, at least at the individual level, and to this day it continues to influence Belgian society. For example, even the 1999 - 2003 "Rainbow Coalition" of Guy Verhofstadt was often rendered with the terms of pillarisation. It should be noted that political currents which rose in late 20th century (AGaLev, the Arab European League (AEL) and the Vlaams Blok), did not attempt to build pillars.

Pillarisation was visible even in the everyday social organisations such as musical ensembles, sport clubs, recreational facilities, etc. Although weakened in the contemporary situation, many major social organisations (trade unions, cooperatives, etc.) still strictly follow the lines of pillars. The following table is limited to the most important institutions.

  Flemish Catholic Walloon Catholic Flemish Socialist Walloon Socialist Flemish Liberal Walloon Liberal
Political Parties before 1945 Catholic Party Catholic Party Belgian Labour Party Belgian Labour Party PVV/PRL PVV/PRL
Political Parties between 1945 and 1970 CVP/PSC CVP/PSC BSP/PSB BSP/PSB PVV/PRL PVV/PRL
Political Parties between 1970 and 1995 CVP PSC SP PS PVV PRL
Political Parties after 1995 CD&V CDh SP.a PS VLD MR
Newspapers De Standaard La Libre Belgique De Morgen none Het Laatste Nieuws, De Tijd Le Soir
Cultural Associations Davidsfonds none Vermeylenfonds none Willemsfonds none
Schools Catholic Schools Catholic Schools Public Schools Public Schools Public Schools and non-denominational private schools Public Schools and non-denominational private schools
Example Universities Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Université catholique de Louvain Ghent University University of Liège Vrije Universiteit Brussel Université Libre de Bruxelles


  • Christophe de Voogd: "Histoire des Pays-Bas des origines à nos jours", Fayard, Paris, 2004


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