‘Moving along’ to the Dutch-German border

A new documentary co-produced and co-starring Simon Richter of the School of Arts & Sciences invites viewers to imagine the day when the Dutch may have to move toward Germany as sea levels rise and how that might happen peacefully and innovatively.

Two people sit in front of the glass doors of a brick building.
Simon Richter (left) chats with Dutch comedian Patrick Nederkoorn in a still from the documentary “A New Peace of Münster.” (Image: Courtesy of Maria Kolossa)

When it comes to the climate crisis and the Netherlands, Simon Richter of the School of Arts & Sciences thinks the Dutch need to consider moving with the flow. The Dutch term “meebewegen” doesn’t have an exact English translation, but it can be read as moving along, moving with water, or retreating inland. It’s one of four strategies the Dutch are examining as a response to rising sea levels, and it’s one that very few truly want to consider.

“That’s really a difficult, almost taboo subject for people in the Netherlands to contemplate, the idea of retreat,” says Richter, who specializes in cultural aspects of adaptation, resilience, and migration in the context of the climate emergency. “The Dutch don’t like to talk about it, but they know that they have to.”

Richter, Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Germanic Studies, embraces examining topics that the Dutch don’t really want to talk about, first with his avatar Poldergeist, Richter’s animated alter-ego who stars in a series of short videos demystifying the Netherlands’ handle on sea-level rise. Now he’s done it again, this time with a new documentary that he co-produced tackling the cultural aspects of a possible managed retreat from the west of the Netherlands to the Dutch-German border.

Titled “A New Peace of Münster,” the documentary highlights a unique research project involving Richter, a Dutch comedian/performer, German and Dutch climate scientists, and residents of neighboring towns along the Dutch-German border. The film, funded in part by an SAS Making a Difference in Global Communities Grant and by Perry World House, will have its Penn premiere on April 9 at Public Trust, a non-profit organization on the Penn campus that fosters learning, creativity, and collaboration. After the screening, Richter will be in conversation with History’s Anne Berg, the Wharton School’s Arthur van Benthem, and Mareike Moraal of The Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The documentary calls itself an invitation to imagine the day when the Dutch may have to “move with the flow”—move with rising sea levels and extreme river discharges; it is also an invitation to start exploring now whether Germany and the Netherlands can make that happen peacefully.

Richter says he has found that policymakers’ capacity to imagine what meebewegen would be like was limited, and most approaches didn’t consider the cultural aspects. That’s where he and comedian/performer Patrick Nederkoorn connected. Nederkoorn, who is Dutch and speaks German, had created a one-man show looking at a possible Dutch retreat to Germany. The Dutch show is called “Hoogtij” (“High Tide”), and his German version of the show translates to “The Orange Menace” (“The Hollanders are Coming”). The color orange has become a symbol of the Netherlands, a nod to the royal family who are members of the House of Orange. 

“He developed this show around the idea that at some point many Dutch people would move toward and across the German border, and he wanted to get out ahead of the game, and start talking to Germans about whether they would welcome him his family and 8 million other Dutch people,” Richter says.

The show was named the best cabaret program of the year by two national Dutch newspapers, De Groene Amsterdammer and Dagblad Trouw.

“I reached out to him because he was, as far as I was concerned, the only other person in the Netherlands who was thinking along the same lines as me, and, happily, he responded,” Richter says. 

During the early part of the pandemic, the two had an initial Zoom conversation. 

“Eventually, we came up with the idea of using his cabaret show as a platform for bringing Dutch people and German people from the border area together to negotiate a new or a second ‘Peace of Münster,’ referring to a 1648 treaty that established the Netherlands as an independent republic after a war with Spain, which had controlled the Netherlands.

They decided to film the events as a way to preserve the moment and use their efforts as a teaching tool, and they reached out to anthropologist and filmmaker Maria Kolossa, who was instantly interested in the project, he says.

The filmmaker follows Richter and Nederkoorn’s efforts, first highlighting an exhibition that Richter curated last year at the University of Münster called “Plan D” where the D stands for Deutschland (Germany). It shows different large-scale concepts and ideas from landscape architects and climate experts on their cross-border visions of what the Netherlands could look like in the future and imagines the processes that could lead to their realization. 

The other component of the documentary looks at workshops that Nederkoorn and Richter organized with three Dutch and three German cities, including Münster. “It’s the birthplace of the Netherlands, in a certain sense,” Richter says. During filming, the city was celebrating the 375th anniversary of the Peace of Münster.

Richter and Nederkoorn organized various groups to meet and negotiate the hypothetical new peace. This included heavy hitters in the Dutch government, as well as mayors, aldermen, students, water boards, farmers, and other concerned citizens across the border region.

“It was modeled on a sort of citizen assembly, with a cross-section of citizens who make decisions or negotiate over tricky issues, but, before they do, they get informed by reliable experts,” Richter says. Among those experts was Richter’s Penn colleague Matthijs Bouw from the Weitzman School of Design, who spoke about the biodiversity crisis.

The new peace they propose in the film is what they refer to as a “prospective” peace because it is a peace that is looking ahead to avoid conflicts between Germans and Dutch people. It also proposes a peace with “the other,” meaning migrants who are already leaving areas in Southern Europe, or who are coming across the Mediterranean, from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The third aspect of this prospective peace is peace with nature, Richter says, looking at the biodiversity crisis. Both in the Netherlands and in Germany, through the use of fertilizers and by keeping land drained, they’re depleting the soil and diminishing biodiversity to threatening levels. 

Richter hopes the documentary raises awareness. “The film has a positive message, both with regard to climate change and with regard to the refugee question. And at a time when climate change is mostly seen through doom-colored glasses and where refugee questions are either avoided or provoke horror or are used for political reasons, this presents an opportunity,” Richter says. The filmmaker’s detour to an idyllic town that is a hybrid Dutch-German community provides a peaceful visual moment that highlights the positive possibilities.

Richter says there are lessons in the film beyond the Netherlands and Germany.

“There will be movement with sea level rise because low-lying cities will become partially uninhabitable whether we’re talking about southern Florida or Jakarta,” Richter says. “We think that this film could be used in settings where climate-induced movement and borders are at play and could model a different way of thinking about it—a more upbeat, positive way of thinking about it.”