14. Johan de Witt Had an Extremely Bad Last Day
Bad as tempers have gotten in American politics – and one need only look at the news for the latest examples – things have usually, if not always, stayed within reasonable and civilized bounds. Every now and then, tempers might have gotten high enough in the United States for political violence to erupt. Even on a massive scale, such as that time in the 19th century when Americans killed each other by the hundreds of thousands during the Civil War.
Still, bad as tempers have gotten in America, they never got so bad that American soldiers killed the head of government in the street, after which a frenzied mob seized the carcass, mutilated it, then proceeded to cook and eat it. On that, the Dutch have us beat. Notwithstanding the Dutch reputation for orderliness and politeness, there was a time in 1672 when a Dutch mob went wild on their prime minister.
Johan de Witt (1625 – 1672) was a Dutch politician whose main program was to decentralize and shift power from the national government to local ones. He focused so much on his decentralization agenda, however, that he ended up neglecting the Dutch army and navy. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War erupted, the result was a series of military disasters in 1672, so bad that 1672 is known to this day in Dutch history as rampjaar – “the disaster year”.
On August 20th of that year, Johan de Witt, who by then had dominated Dutch politics for twenty years, went to visit his brother Cornelis, who had recently been sentenced to exile. Out of the blue, the brothers were attacked by members of the Hague city militia, who shot them and left them on the street to the tender mercies of a Dutch mob. The mob was neither tender nor merciful. If the de Witts had not already been dead from the soldiers’ bullets, they were quite dead by the time the mob was done stabbing and beating them. The mob then strung up the corpses upside down from a gibbet, disemboweled them, ripped off their genitalia, and roasted and ate chunks of them in a cannibalistic frenzy.