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Pillarisation (from the Dutch: verzuiling) is the vertical separation of citizens into groups by religion and associated political beliefs. These societies were (and in some areas, still are) divided into two or more groups known as pillars (Dutch: zuilen). The best-known examples of this have historically occurred in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Each pillar may have its own social institutions and social organizations. These may include its own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, farmers' associations, banks, stores, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Such segregation means that many people have little or no personal contact with members of other pillars.


The Netherlands had at least three pillars, namely Protestant, Catholic and social-democratic. Pillarisation was originally initiated by Abraham Kuyper and his Christian Democratic and neo-Calvinist (gereformeerd) Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in the late 19th century; it was part of its philosophy of sphere sovereignty.[1][failed verification]

The Catholic pillar had the highest degree of organisation because Catholic clergy promoted the organisation of Catholics in confessional institutions. Yet the conservative Protestant pillar and the Socialist pillar, which mainly consisted of industrial workers, were nearly as tightly knit.[2] The Protestant (hervormd) Christian Historical Union (CHU) (formed in 1908) did not organise a pillar of its own but linked to the Protestant pillar shaped by the ARP.

People who were not associated with one of these pillars, mainly middle- and upper-class latitudinarian Protestants and atheists, arguably set up their own pillar: the liberal or "general" pillar. Ties between general organisations were much weaker than within the other three pillars. Liberals rejected the voluntary segregation of the society, and denied the existence of a "liberal pillar".[2] The political parties usually associated with this group were the Free-minded Democratic League (VDB) and Liberal State Party (LSP). Communists, Humanists, and ultra-orthodox Protestant fundamentalists also set up similar organisations; however, such groups were much smaller.

The development of pillarisation in the Netherlands was favoured by the emancipation of working and lower-middle classes on the one hand, and the execution of elite control on the other hand. The emancipation of the working class led to the establishment of socialist parties, trade unions, media, cooperative shops and collectively organised leisure activities. This "full care" of the socialist movement for its members existed similarly in other European countries. The emancipation of the conservative and often strongly religious lower-middle class fostered the emergence of the Protestant pillar. While the Dutch bourgeoisie was rather liberal and adhered to "enlightened" Protestantism, a large part of the lower-middle class embraced a more orthodox Calvinist theology, as taught by preacher and politician Abraham Kuyper.[2]

In 1866 Kuyper founded the gereformeerd ("reformed") current of Protestantism; it was both more conservative and more popular with ordinary people than the established Protestant churches in the Netherlands. Kuyper's worldview asserted the principle of "sphere sovereignty", rejecting both ecclesiasticism (rule of the Church over all parts of the society) and statist secularism (rule of the state over all parts of the society). He argued that both had their own spheres in which the other was not to interfere. In 1879 he founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party as the political wing of his religious movement and core of the Protestant pillar.

At the same time, new and old elites tried to maintain their control over the newly emancipated social groups. For instance, the Catholic clergy set up confessional unions to prevent Catholic workers from joining socialist unions. One reason behind the formation of Christian parties was to counter the feared rise of left-wing mass parties.[2]

Institutions by pillar[edit]

The following table shows the most important institutions by pillar:

  Protestant Catholic Socialist Liberal
Political party before 1945
  • AB (1904–1926)
  • RKSP (1926–1945)
SDAP (from 1894)
Political parties after 1945
  • KVP (until 1977)
  • CDA (from 1977; ecumenical)
PvdA (from 1945)
Broadcasting organisation
Employers PCW NKW none VNO
De Tijd (1845–1974)
De Volkskrant (since 1919)
Schools "School with bible" (Protestant oriented school), Protestant Education Roman Catholic School Free Schools, Public Schools Public Schools
Hospitals Green/Orange Cross White/Yellow Cross Green Cross
Sport clubs
Recreation (examples) Saturday football, weekend rugby union Sunday football Dancing schools, Sunday football, korfball Folk dancing, weekend rugby union, field hockey, weekend football


After World War II (during which even the Dutch resistance was pillarised) 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 the aim to renew the political system (doorbraak, "breakthrough"). But pillarisation was ingrained in Dutch society, and could not be defeated that easily. In order to force this breakthrough, the socialist Social Democratic Workers' Party, the left-liberal VDB and the Christian-socialist CDU united to form the PvdA, a progressive party, which was open to all people. The new party did not, however, gain enough support under Catholics or Reformed, and the PvdA became encapsulated in the socialist pillar.

Television broadcasting was also pillarised, but everyone watched the same broadcasts nonetheless, since initially only one channel was available in the Netherlands in the 1950s. During the 1960s the pillars largely broke down, particularly under political criticism from D66 and the group Nieuw Links [nl] (New Left) in PvdA. Because of this and of increased mobility, many people could see that people from the other pillars were not that different from themselves. Increased wealth and education made people independent of many of the pillarised institutions, and young people did not want to be associated with these organisations anymore.

In 1973, two main Protestant parties, ARP and CHU, merged with the Catholic KVP to form the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). They first participated in the 1977 general elections. In 1976, the Catholic trade union Nederlands Katholiek Vakverbond [nl] (NKV) started to cooperate with the trade union of the Socialist pillar (NVV), to merge into the Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (FNV) in 1982.

The pillarisation of society has not fully disappeared, and many remnants can still be seen in the 21st century: public television, for instance, is still divided among several organisations, instead of being one organisation. The Netherlands has both public and religious schools, a divide which is also inherited from pillarisation. Moreover, some communities continue to behave as small "pillars" as of 2014, although rather than forming the structure of society (a pillar), this currently moves them outside the mainstream of society. Members of the Reformed Churches (liberated) have their own (primary and secondary) schools, their own national newspaper, and some other organisations, such as a labour union. Members of several pietist Reformed Churches have also founded their own schools, newspaper and political party. Increasingly, Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands are also using the legal possibilities created for the pillarised structure of society, by setting up their own schools.


Apart from having no Protestant pillar, pillarisation in Belgium was very similar to that in Netherlands. There was also no "general" pillar, but a politically well-organised liberal pillar. In 1911, the British sociologist Seebohm Rowntree noted that in Belgium:

There is extraordinarily little social intercourse between Catholics and Liberals, and practically none between Catholics and Socialists. Politics enter into almost every phase of social activity and philanthropic effort, and it is the exception rather than the rule for persons holding different political opinions to co-operate in any other matter. Thus in one town there will be a Catholic, a Liberal and a Socialist trade union, a Catholic, a Liberal and a Socialist thrift society, each catering for similar people, but each confining its attentions to members of its own political party. The separation extends to cafes, gymnasia, choral, temperance, and literary societies; indeed it cuts through life![3]

In both Flanders and Wallonia, societies were pillarised between Catholic and Liberal political denominations which were subsequently joined by a Socialist pillar. Even though the liberals were stronger in Belgium (particularly in Brussels) than in the Netherlands, they were still relatively weak, owing to their rather small, bourgeois support: liberal trade unions were very small. De Tijd, a financial daily, is the newspaper aligned with the liberals, as its readership consists mainly of liberal supporters. However, a Flemish newspaper with historical liberal roots, Het Laatste Nieuws, also exists.[citation needed]

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, which became the most significant divisive factor in the nation. Now every language group has three pillars of its own. The pillar system remained to be the primordial societal dividing force much longer 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. The political movements that appeared in the late 20th century (such as Vlaams Blok, now Vlaams Belang; Groen!; and N-VA) did not attempt to build pillars.

Pillarisation was visible even in everyday social organisations such as musical ensembles, sport clubs, recreational facilities, etc. Weakened in the current situation, many major social organisations (trade unions, cooperatives, etc.) still strictly follow the lines of pillars though.

Institutions by pillar with their ethnic divisions[edit]

The following table is limited to the most important institutions and it shows the current division of everyone by the three ethnic groups.

  Flemish Catholic Walloon Catholic German Catholic Flemish Socialist Walloon Socialist German Socialist Flemish Liberal Walloon Liberal German Liberal
Political parties before 1945 Catholic Party (until 1936)
Catholic Bloc (since 1936)
Belgian Labour Party (BWP/POB) Liberal Party
Catholic Flemish People's Party (since 1936) Social Catholic Party (since 1936)
Political parties between 1945 and 1970 Christian Social Party (CVP/PSC) Belgian Socialist Party (BSP/PSB)
Political parties after 1970

  • VCP (2007–2014)
  • NCD (2012)

  • MCC (since 1998)
  • CDF (2002–2012)
  • PRL (since 2002 part of MR)
  • MR (since 2002)
Trade unions Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV/CSC) General Federation of Belgian Labour (ABVV/FGTB) General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (ACLVB/CGSLB)
Health insurance Christelijke Mutualiteit Mutualité chrétienne Christliche Krankenkasse Socialistische Mutualiteit Mutualité socialiste Sozialistische Krankenkasse Liberale Mutualiteit Mutualité Libérale Freie Krankenkasse
Hospitals White/Yellow Cross Christian Fund Christian Fund (Center for) Homecare Socialist Fund Socialist Fund Solidarity for the Family Liberal Fund Liberal Fund
Aid agencies Caritas Vlaanderen Caritas en Belgique francophone et germanophone Caritas en Belgique Francophone-Deutschsprachiges Belgien FOS-Socialistische Solidariteit Solidarité Socialiste-FCD Solidariteit-FCD none none none
Newspapers La Libre Belgique Grenz-Echo
none none Le Soir none
Cultural associations Davidsfonds none none Vermeylenfonds none none Willemsfonds none none
Schools Flemish Secretariat for Catholic Education (Catholic Schools), Flemish Association of Catholic Colleges Catholic schools Public schools Public schools Public schools Public schools, non-denominational private schools Public schools, non-denominational private schools Public schools, non-denominational private schools
Major universities Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Université catholique de Louvain none Ghent University University of Liège none Vrije Universiteit Brussel Université libre de Bruxelles none
Other universities none Trans-Universiteit Limburg Faculté Universitaire des Sciences Agronomiques de Gembloux none Erasmus Hogeschool Université de Mons none
Youth organisations
  • FSC
  • GCB
  • Jeunes cdH
  • SGP
  • Les Jeunes Réformateurs
Banks Volksdepositokas Spaarbank Dexia none Bank van De Post Banque de La Poste Bank von der Post Generale Bankmaatschappij Générale de Banque Generale Bank
Sport clubs none none
none none none none none

Proporz in Austria[edit]

The Austrian version of Verzuiling is the long-standing Proporz doctrine (a hypocorism for Proportionalität, German for 'proportionality'). This was first only within the politics of the second Austrian republic, but later degenerated into a neo-corporatist system of patronage and nepotism pervading many aspects of Austrian life. The Proporz was created, developed and promoted by the two mainstream parties, the Catholic Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social-Democratic Socialist Party of Austria (since 1991 Social Democratic Party of Austria, both names with the acronym of SPÖ).

This de facto two-party system collapsed with the elections of 1999, which resulted in the joining of the national-conservative Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), whose political marginalisation and that of its predecessor, the Federation of Independents (VdU), was the main reason for the establishment of the Proporz policy, because of their pro-German, far right and individualist views.

The Proporz system arose out of the need for balanced, consensual governance in the early years of Austria's second republic. At that time, the country was consumed in an effort to rebuild the country after the devastation of World War II. Thus, the doctrine of Proporz is intimately linked to the idea of the grand coalition, in which the major political parties, in the case of post-war Austria the SPÖ and the ÖVP, share in the government.

Like in the Netherlands or in Belgium the main parties have partly to this day, "black" and "red" parallel organizations, e.g. B. at touring clubs (ÖAMTC vs. ARBÖ), factions inside the Austrian Trade Union Federation (FCG vs. FSG vs. Freiheitlichen Arbeitnehmer (FPÖ)) or sports associations (Sportunion vs. ASKÖ).


A similar phenomena existed during the First Italian Republic.

There are multiple trade unions: Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions (CISL) which was close Christian Democracy (DC), Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), close to Italian Communist Party (PCI), General Labour Union, allied to the Italian Social Movement (MSI) and the Italian Labour Union which had ties Italian Republican Party (PRI) and Italian Democratic Socialist Party (PSDI).

The state-owned public broadcaster RAI was split between the parties too. Rai 1 was said to be close to DC, Rai 2 was said to be close to PSI and Rai 3 to PCI.

Northern Ireland[edit]

The term "pillarisation" has also been used to describe segregation of the two main ethnoreligious groups in Northern Ireland,[4] especially between the foundation of Northern Ireland (1922) and the end of The Troubles (1969–1998);[5] segregation and pillarisation persist but are declining.[6] A difference in Northern Ireland is that one group (the ProtestantUnionistLoyalist population) enjoyed clear political, economic and social dominance over the other group (the Catholicsnationalistrepublicans).[7] This has been described as pillarisation "without consociationalism."[8][9]

People Protestants Catholics
National identity[8] "British", "Northern Irish" or "Ulster" "Irish" or "Northern Irish"
Religions Church of Ireland
Roman Catholicism
Political persuasions Unionism
Ulster nationalism
Protestant Irish nationalism
Irish nationalism
Irish republicanism
Irish republican socialism
Dissident republican
Political parties Democratic Unionist Party
Ulster Unionist Party
Traditional Unionist Voice
Progressive Unionist Party
Sinn Féin
Social Democratic and Labour Party
Workers' Party
Irish Republican Socialist Party
Nationalist Party (before 1977)
Fraternal organisations Apprentice Boys of Derry
Orange Order
Independent Orange Order
Royal Arch Purple
Royal Black Institution
Grand Lodge of Ireland
Ancient Order of Hibernians
Knights of Saint Columbanus
Unions Ulster Workers' Council Irish Congress of Trade Unions
Languages English, Ulster Scots
British Sign Language, Northern Ireland Sign Language
English and Irish
Irish Sign Language, Northern Ireland Sign Language
Schools[10] Protestant schools, state schools Catholic schools[11]
Universities[12] Queen's University of Belfast
Magee College
Ulster University
Stranmillis University College
Universities in Great Britain
Ulster University
St Mary's University College, Belfast
Universities in the Republic of Ireland
Sports[13][14] Rugby union
Field hockey
Soccer (most clubs)
Gaelic football
Hurling and camogie
Soccer (Cliftonville, Derry City; Belfast Celtic until 1949)
Banks[15] Ulster Bank
Belfast Banking Company (to 1970)
Northern Bank (to 2012)[16][17]
Bank of Ireland
Hibernian Bank (to 1958)
Newspapers Belfast Telegraph
News Letter[18]
Sunday Life
Northern Whig (until 1963)
Protestant Telegraph (1966–82)
The Irish News[19]
An Phoblacht
TV and radio[20] BBC Northern Ireland[21]
BBC Radio Ulster
Pirate radio: Voice of Ulster, Radio Orange, Radio Shankill, Radio Sundown, Radio Free Ulster
RTÉ (Republic of Ireland state broadcaster)
Pirate radio: Radio Free Belfast, Radio Free Derry

Especially since the Belfast Agreement (1998), efforts have been made to break down segregation. "Cross-community" political parties such as the Alliance Party, Green Party and People Before Profit exist, and a growing number of people who identify and vote as "other,"[22][23] rather than for "Catholic" or "Protestant" identities, as well as growing numbers of atheists;[24] but elections are often derided as a "sectarian head-count," with growing Protestant anxiety over the possibility of a Catholic majority.[25][26] Historically, other non-sectarian political parties also operated, most notably the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Halsey Wood Jr., Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper's Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (2013).
  2. ^ a b c d Van Zanden, Jan L. (1998), The Economic History of the Netherlands 1914-1995: A small open economy in the 'long' twentieth century, Routledge, p. 10
  3. ^ Seebohm Rowntree's Land and Labour, Lessons from Belgium (1911), quoted in Cliff, Tony (Spring 1961). "Belgium: Strike to Revolution?". International Socialism. 1 (4): 10–7. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  4. ^ Newey, Glen (28 February 2024). "A Brief History of a Broken Country".
  5. ^ "A brief history of strife". The Economist.
  6. ^ Andeweg, Rudy B.; Irwin, Galen A.; Louwerse, Tom (August 27, 2020). Governance and Politics of the Netherlands. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781352010398 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Darby, John; Darby, John P. (December 9, 1976). Conflict in Northern Ireland: The Development of a Polarised Community. Gill and Macmillan. ISBN 9780064915809 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ a b Catterall, Peter; Kaiser, Wolfram; Walton-Jordan, Ulrike (May 12, 2014). Reforming the Constitution: Debates in Twentieth-Century Britain. Routledge. ISBN 9781135305628 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ Consociationalism, Pillarization and Conflict-management in the Low Countries. Boom. December 9, 1984. ISBN 9789060095607 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ "Ben Lowry: Protestant numbers have fallen because they were early to secularism". www.newsletter.co.uk. September 24, 2022.
  11. ^ "Are Catholic Schools worth keeping in Northern Ireland?". The Irish News. June 10, 2021.
  12. ^ "CCRU: Majority Minority Review No. 1: Education and Religion in Northern Ireland, Section 8". cain.ulster.ac.uk.
  13. ^ Darby, John (1978). "Northern Ireland: Bonds and Breaks in Education". British Journal of Educational Studies. 26 (3): 215–223. doi:10.2307/3120731. JSTOR 3120731 – via JSTOR.
  14. ^ MacKenna, Ewan (March 30, 2013). "Billy's boys still cast long shadow". Irish Examiner.
  15. ^ Kenny, Mary (January 23, 2017). "Change is great - as long as it means I don't have to switch my bank account". Belfast Telegraph.
  16. ^ "The Vacuum: A Life In Banking - Interview with David Keith by Richard West". www.thevacuum.org.uk.
  17. ^ Benn, James R. (September 1, 2009). Evil for Evil. Soho Press. ISBN 9781569477021 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ "CAIN: Issues: Sectarianism: Brewer, John D. 'Northern Ireland: 1921-1998'". cain.ulster.ac.uk.
  19. ^ Campbell, Jim (October 9, 1985). "Northern Ireland: Shoot the Journalist". Index on Censorship. 14 (5): 2–3. doi:10.1080/03064228508533941. S2CID 143822975.
  20. ^ "The BBC and national identity in Britain, 1922-53 | Reviews in History". reviews.history.ac.uk.
  21. ^ "Northern Protestants. Part two. Dunseith's Talkback listeners". Belfasttelegraph.co.uk – via www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk.
  22. ^ "The rise of the 'others': 20 years after devolution, a new middle ground in Northern Irish politics?". Centre on Constitutional Change.
  23. ^ "Rise of the 'others' and not Sinn Féin the real story of Northern politics". The Irish Times.
  24. ^ "Northern Ireland's atheists: 'We're a sizeable section of the population'". The Irish Times.
  25. ^ "The 'sectarian headcount'". The 'sectarian headcount' | 8 | Religion, Identity and Politics in Nor. Routledge. 2006. doi:10.4324/9781315244709-8/sectarian-headcount-claire-mitchell (inactive 31 January 2024). ISBN 978-1-315-24470-9. {{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help)CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2024 (link)
  26. ^ "Counting Catholics is not sectarian head-counting but countering the original sectarian headcount". www.newsletter.co.uk. March 30, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Deschouwer, Kris (2001), "Freezing pillars and frozen cleavages: Party systems and voting alignments in consociational democracies", Party Systems and Voter Alignments Revisited, Routledge, pp. 205–221
  • Lijphart, Arend (1968), Verzuiling, pacificatie en kentering in de Nederlandse politiek (Pillarization, pacification and change in Dutch politics) (in Dutch), Amsterdam: De Bussy, retrieved 19 May 2023. Classical study on pillarisation in the Netherlands.
  • Post, Harry (1989), Pillarization: An Analysis of Dutch and Belgian Society, Avebury
  • van Schendelen, M. P. C. M. (1984), Consociationalism, pillarization and conflict-management in the Low Countries, Boom
  • Christophe de Voogd: "Histoire des Pays-Bas des origines à nos jours", Fayard, Paris, 2004