Pillarisation (Dutch: verzuiling) is the politico-denominational segregation of a society. These societies were (and in some areas, still are) "vertically" divided into several segments or "pillars" (zuilen, singular zuil) according to different religions or ideologies. The best-known examples of this are the Dutch and Belgian ones.

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

Austrian, Iraqi Arab, Israeli, Lebanese, Maltese, Nigerian, Northern Ireland,[1] and Scottish,[2] societies are or were examples of this phenomenon.


The Netherlands had (at least) three pillars: Protestant, Catholic and Social-democratic. Pillarisation was originally initiated by Abraham Kuyper and his neo-Calvinist (gereformeerd) Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in the late 1800s; it was part of their philosophy of sphere sovereignty.[3]

The Catholic pillar had the highest degree of organisation, because Catholic clergy promoted the organization of almost the whole life 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.[4] The Protestant (hervormd) Christian Historical Union (CHU) (formed in 1908) did not organise a pillar of its own but linked itself 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 a lot weaker than within the other three pillars. Liberals actually rejected the voluntary segregation of the society, and denied the existence of a "liberal pillar".[4] 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 Protestants also set up similar organisations; however, such groups were a lot 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 taught by preacher and politician Abraham Kuyper.[4]

In 1866 Kuyper founded the gereformeerd ("reformed") current of Protestantism that 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). Instead 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.[4]

Institutions by pillar

The following table shows the most important institutions by pillar:

  Protestant Catholic Socialist General
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
  • NCSU
  • NSA
  • TvA
  • NKS
  • NSA
  • NASB
  • NRS
  • NCS
  • NSA
Recreation (examples) Saturday football, weekend rugby Sunday football Dancing schools, Sunday football, korfball Folk dancing, weekend rugby, hockey, weekend football


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 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 (during the 1950s). During the 1960s the pillars largely broke down, particularly under political criticism from D66 and the group Nieuw Links (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 (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 in 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 organizations, 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![5]

In both Flanders and Wallonia, societies are pillarised. In Flanders, Catholics were the dominant pillar, while the Socialists dominated in Wallonia. Even though the liberals are stronger in Belgium (particularly in Brussels) than in the Netherlands, they are still relatively weak, owing to their rather small, bourgeois support: liberal trade unions are 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.

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 turnout 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. Political currents, which rose in late 20th century (Vlaams Blok, now Vlaams Belang, Groen!, 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

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 Belgian Labour Party (BWP/POB) Liberal Party
Political parties between 1945 and 1970 Christian Social Party (CVP/PSC) Belgian Socialist Party (BSP/PSB)
Political parties after 1970
  • CVP (until 2001)
  • CD&V (since 2001)
  • PSC (until 2002)
  • CDH (since 2002)
  • SP (until 2001)
  • SP.A (since 2001)
  • 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 Christlichen 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
  • Vooruit (until 1978)
  • Volksgazet (until 1978)
  • De Morgen (since 1978)
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 Universiteit Gent Université de 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 organizations
  • 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
  • Sporta
  • Gym & Dans Vlaanderen
none none
  • AVB (1919–2000)
  • FROS (1976–2000)
  • VASCO (1993–2000)
  • FROS Amateursportconfederatie vzw (since 2000)
none none none none none


Main article: Proporz

The Austrian version of Verzuilling is the long-standing Proporz doctrine (diminutive of Proportionalität, German 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 marginalization 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 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.

At first it was decided that the occupation of federal political positions by either members of the two big parties should be according to the proportionally of the number of seats of each party in the Nationalrat, but soon this policy was repeated as a Länder-level policy; then it was decided that civil service, military, trade unions and even economy and state businesses positions had to be occupied by members of the two big parties, proportionally by the results of their seats in the Nationalrat (if it was a Federal position) or in the Landtag (if it was a Land one). Afterward, this policy reached into membership in every type of association: sport clubs, culture groups, motoring organizations, folk music brotherhoods... converting them in bifurcated ones, divided into two parts (a Catholic and a Social-Democratic), if not two different organizations. Even the public broadcasting ORF was divided between ideological fences (radio station Ö2 and TV channel FS1 were Catholic-oriented, whereas Ö1 and FS2 were the Social-Democratic ones).

This system was popular in the post-war period; however, starting from the 1980s people’s perceptions and opinions changed strongly. The old Proporz system, where basically the SPÖ and the ÖVP would divide everything up between them, was increasingly seen as outdated and even undemocratic. Because both parties always had an absolute majority in parliament, no effective opposition could ever exist. Almost all second Austrian republic governments have been ÖVP-SPÖ Coalitions, which resulted in a situation that some political positions were almost property of each party and occupied by a member of each one, according to the basis of its constituency or any perceived ideological mandate to them. For example, the Minister for Labour and Social Relations was nearly always held by a member of the (SPÖ), while the ÖVP, with traditionally strong support from farmers, took the Ministry which controlled agriculture and forestry.

As voters’ frustration with the old system grew, the FPÖ under the young and dynamic party chairman Jörg Haider (who as Governor of Carinthia, revoked Proporz policies in the Land) was able to ride the wave of discontent and win votes in every parliamentary election. The FPÖ had its core support with the right wing, but was increasingly able to attract voters from the conservative ÖVP and even made inroads with traditional SPÖ voters who grew fed up with the grand coalitions and the old Proporz system.

A diversified media and the possibilities of modern information technology also hold the government to higher standards of transparency and accountability. Above all, there has been a sea change in the public's attitude to the practice and its willingness to confront it, getting the opportunity to cancel.

Austrian institutions by pillar

  Social-democratic Catholic
Political party before 1945 SDAPÖ (1888–1945) CS (1893–1945)
Political parties after 1945 SPÖ (from 1945) ÖVP (from 1945)
Radio station Ö1 Ö2
TV channel FS2 (since 1991: ORF2; since 2011: ORF zwei) FS1 (since 1991: ORF1; since 2011: ORF eins)
Alpine clubs Friends of Nature Austrian Alpine Club
Automobile clubs ARBÖ ÖAMTC
Unions FSG FCG
Student society AKS Schülerunion
University unions VSStÖ AG
Student fraternities VSM MKV
Cultural associations Bund Sozialdemokratischer Akademikerinnen und Akademiker, Intellektueller, Künstlerinnen und Künstler Österreichischer Cartellverband
Employers SWV ÖWB
Tennants associations MVÖ MB
Private University SFU KTU
Children aid agencies Kinderfreunde Österreich, Rote Falken Österreich Dreikönigsaktion, Kolpingwerk Österreich
Sport associations ASKÖ SPORTUNION
Youth associations SJÖ JVP
Pensioner associations PVÖ ÖSB
Recreation (examples) Soccer Football Skiing

Malta: institutions by pillar

  Pro-Italian Self-determinationist
Political parties before independence
Political party after independence Partit Nazzjonalista Partit Laburista Malti (from 2008: Partit Laburista)
Trade unions MGCU (from 1978: UHM) GWU
Holdings Media.Link Communications Rainbow Productions Limited (from 1990: ONE Productions Ltd)
Radio station Radio 101 Super One Radio (from 1997: One Radio)
TV channel NET Television One
Daily Newspapers In-Nazzjon L-Orizzont
Sunday newspapers
  • Il-Mument
  • Lehen is Sewwa
  • It-Torca
  • KullHadd
Friday newspapers Il-Mument Il-Helsien (from 1992: Kullħadd)
Tabloids Il-Gens L-Alternativa
Web newspapers maltarightnow.com Maltastar.com (from 2007: One Media)
Travel agencies Associations of Returned Migrants One Travel
Mobile phone companies Maltacom p.l.c. (since 2007 GO Mobile) Mobisle Communications Ltd (since 2007 Redtouch Fone)
Hospitals Saint James Hospital Group Government Healthcare Service
Cultural associations Maltese Heritage Foundation Strickland Foundation
Schools Catholic schools Public schools
Youth organizations MZPN FZL
University unions SDM GM

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has been described as a divided community ever since its partition from the rest of Ireland in 1921. The pillarisation here is therefore between the nationalists who want Northern Ireland to be united with the rest of Ireland and the unionists who want to remain a part of the UK. In the late 1960s nationalists essentially believed unionists had a better pillar and therefore civil right protests began, eventually leading to 30 years of conflict known as the Troubles. The unionist monopoly over jobs in the shipyard was a significant factor to these protests. Today almost a century on from Ireland's partition, urban communities in the north are still very much segregated. Within these communities there is a zealous passion to maintain either a Catholic or Protestant identity and therefore this causes communities so avoid any forms of culture that are not associated with their own. For example, most state (Protestant/unionist) schools do not teach Irish as it is considered a foreign language, while most Catholic/nationalist schools do not play cricket as it is considered a remnant of British colonialism.[6]

Institutions by pillar

  Unionist Nationalist
Political Parties
Churches Roman Catholic
Cultural events The Twelfth St. Patrick's Day
Schools "Controlled" (state) schools Catholic ("maintained") schools
Sports Cricket, rugby Gaelic football, hurling
Languages Ulster Scots Irish

See also


  1. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2004/apr/14/northernireland.societyhousing
  2. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12484352.Only_in_Scottish_schools_is_there_this_kind_of_segregation/
  3. John Halsey Wood Jr., Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper's Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (2013).
  4. 1 2 3 4 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
  5. 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.
  6. Hainsworth, ed. by Paul (1998). Divided society : ethnic minorities and racism in Northern Ireland (1. publ. ed.). London [u.a.]: Pluto Press. ISBN 0745311962. Retrieved 15 November 2015.

Further reading

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