Dutch decorations: a new approach to an old tradition

People are given a decoration if they do something outstanding. But what constitutes ‘outstanding’?

The system of Orders and other medals as a whole is known as the honours system. It dates back to 1815, with the foundation of the Military Order of William and the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands. Since then, over a hundred official Orders and medals have been established in the Netherlands.

Everyone is outstanding

Everyone who has received an Order or a medal has done something outstanding. Some have saved a life, others do voluntary work or create work of artistic merit. To become a knight in one of the Dutch Orders means doing something extra special, above and beyond what is normally expected.

Decorations as a matter of course

This used to mean doing something outstanding in your job, for instance an invention or a discovery. The only problem was that people in many jobs – such as civil servants or postal workers – didn’t have the chance to make a discovery. So people believed that it should also be possible to get a medal for doing your job well for a long time. Except it wasn’t clear exactly what ‘doing your job well’ meant. More and more people seemed to be receiving decorations as a matter of course.

Chiefly volunteers

After the Second World War, the honours system came under increasing criticism from both politicians and society at large. More and more people believed that Orders should only be conferred for outstanding achievements. In 1994, after much debate, the House of Representatives decided that people should be awarded an honour only if they have rendered outstanding service to the community. In other words, the system returned to the purpose originally intended in 1815. That is why nowadays it is chiefly people who do voluntary work who receive a royal decoration.