Given how peaceful the Netherlands seems now, it's hard to believe the high drama of its history. Greed, lust and war are prominent in the Dutch story, along with pirates and high-sea adventures. It's the story of land much invaded, whether by armies on land or from the sea. Yet through it all, a society has emerged that has a core belief in human rights, tolerance and perhaps most surprising given the vicissitudes of its existence, consensus.
The first invaders to take note of the locals in today's Netherlands were the Romans, who, under Julius Caesar, conquered a wide region along the Rijn (Rhine) and its tributaries by 59 BC. Celtic and Germanic tribes initially bowed to Caesar's rule and Utrecht became a main outpost of the empire.
As Roman power began to fade, the Franks, a German tribe to the east, began to muscle in. By the end of the 8th century, the Franks had completed their conquest of the Low Countries and began converting the local populace to Christianity, using force whenever necessary. Charlemagne, the first in a long line of Holy Roman emperors, was by far the most successful Frankish king. He built a palace at Nijmegen, but the empire fell apart after his death in 814.
For the next 200 years, Vikings sailed up Dutch rivers to loot and pillage. Local rulers developed their own fortified towns and made up their own government and laws.
Over time, the local lords, who were nominally bound to a German king, began to gain power. When one lord struggled with another for territory, invariably their townsfolk would provide support, but only in return for various freedoms (an equation familiar to any player of sim games today), which were set down in charters. By the beginning of the 12th century, Dutch towns with sea access, such as Deventer and Zwolle, joined the Hanseatic League (a group of powerful trading cities in present-day Germany, including Hamburg and Rostock). Meanwhile, the many minor lords met their match in the dukes of Burgundy, who gradually took over the Low Countries.
Duke Philip the Good, who ruled from 1419 to 1467, showed the towns of the Low Countries who was boss by essentially telling them to stuff their charters. Although this limited the towns' freedom, it also brought a degree of stability to the region that had been missing during the era of squabbling lords. The 15th century ushered in great prosperity for the Low Countries, the first of many such periods. The Dutch became adept at shipbuilding in support of the Hanseatic trade, and merchants thrived by selling luxury items such as tapestries, fashionable clothing and paintings, as well as more mundane commodities such as salted herring and beer.
The Fight for Independence
Philip II of Spain was a staunch Catholic; he'd gained the Low Countries and Spain from his father in 1555 after a period in which control of large swaths of Europe shifted depending on who was marrying who. Conflict with the Low Countries was inevitable; the Protestant reformation had spread throughout the colony, fuelled by the ideas of Erasmus and the actions of Martin Luther. However, before the Spanish arrived, the religious landscape of the Low Countries was quite diverse: Lutherans wielded great influence, but smaller churches had their places too. For instance, the Anabaptists were polygamists and communists, and nudity was promoted as a means of equality among their masses (in the warmer seasons). In the end it was Calvinism that emerged in the Low Countries as the main challenger to the Roman Catholic Church, and to Philip's rule.
A big believer in the Inquisition, Philip went after the Protestants with a vengeance. Matters came to a head in 1566 when the puritanical Calvinists went on a rampage, destroying art and religious icons of Catholic churches. Evidence of this is still readily apparent in the barren interiors of Dutch churches today.
This sent Philip into action. The Duke of Alba was chosen to lead a 10,000-strong army in 1568 to quell the unruly serfs; as the Duke wasn't one to take prisoners, his forces slaughtered thousands, and so began the Dutch War of Independence, which lasted 80 years.
The Prince van Oranje, Willem the Silent (thus named for his refusal to argue over religious issues), was one of the few nobles not to side with Philip, and he led the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. He was hampered by other Dutch nobles content to see which way the political winds blew. In 1572, Willem hired a bunch of English pirates to fight for his cause. Known as the Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars), they sailed up the myriad Dutch rivers and seized towns such as Leiden from the surprised and land-bound Spanish forces.
By 1579, the more Protestant and rebellious provinces in the north formed the Union of Utrecht. This explicitly anti-Spanish alliance became known as the United Provinces, the basis for the Netherlands as we know it today. The southern regions of the Low Countries had always remained Catholic and were much more open to compromise with Spain. They eventually became Belgium.
The battles continued nonetheless until the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which included the proviso that Spain recognise the independence of the United Provinces. This ended the Thirty Years' War.
The Golden Age
Throughout the turmoil of the 15th and 16th centuries, merchant cities, particularly Amsterdam, had managed to keep trade alive. Their skill at business and sailing was so great that, even at the peak of the rebellion, the Spanish had no choice but to use Dutch boats for transporting their grain. With the arrival of peace the cities began to boom. This era of economic prosperity and cultural fruition came to be known as the Golden Age, which produced artistic and architectural masterpieces still loved today.
The wealth of the merchant class supported numerous artists, including Jan Vermeer, Jan Steen, Frans Hals and Rembrandt. It allowed for excesses such as 'tulipmania', and the sciences were not forgotten: Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn's rings and invented the pendulum clock; celebrated philosopher Benedict de Spinoza wrote a brilliant thesis saying that the universe was identical to God; and Frenchman René Descartes, known for his philosophy 'I think, therefore I am', found intellectual freedom in the Netherlands and stayed for two decades.
The Union of Utrecht's promise of religious tolerance led to an amount of religious diversity that was rare in Europe at the time. Calvinism was the official religion of the government, but various other Protestants, Jews and Catholics were allowed to practise their faith. However, in a legacy of the troubles with Spain, Catholics still had to worship in private, leading to the creation of clandestine churches. Many of these unusual buildings have survived to the present day.
Wealth – and the need for more wealth – caused the Dutch to expand their horizons. The merchant fleet known as the Dutch East India Company was formed in 1602 and quickly monopolised key shipping and trade routes east of Africa's Cape of Good Hope and west of South America's Strait of Magellan, making it the largest trading company of the 17th century. It became almost as powerful as a sovereign state, with the ability to raise its own armed forces and establish colonies.
Its sister, the Dutch West India Company, traded with Africa and the Americas and was at the very centre of the American slave trade. Seamen working for both companies 'discovered' (in a very Western sense of the word) or conquered lands including parts of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. While employed by the Dutch East India Company, English explorer Henry Hudson landed on the island of Manhattan in 1609 as he searched for the Northwest Passage, and Dutch settlers named it New Amsterdam.
Not surprisingly, international conflict was never far away. In 1652 the United Provinces went to war with their old friend England, mainly over the increasing strength of the Dutch merchant fleet. Both countries entered a hotchpotch of alliances with Spain, France and Sweden in an effort to gain the upper hand. During one round of treaties, the Dutch agreed to give New Amsterdam to the English (who promptly renamed it New York) in return for Surinam in South America and full control of the Spice Islands in Indonesia.
This outward perspective coupled with the rich lives being enjoyed by the moneyed class at home caused a certain loss of focus. In 1672 the French army marched into the Netherlands and, as the Dutch had devoted most of their resources to the navy, found little resistance on land. During the decades of conflicts that followed, the Dutch could no longer afford their navy and foreign adventures. The English became the masters of the trade routes and keepers of the resulting wealth.
The Dutch managed to hold onto the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia) along with a smattering of spots in the Caribbean. The effectiveness of their rule in the East Indies ebbed and flowed depending on the situation at home. They never approached the intensive colonialism practised by the British. (In Indonesia today it takes real effort to find traces of the Dutch rule or its legacy in most of the country.)
The Dutch East Indies declared itself independent in 1945, and after four years of bitter fighting and negotiations, the independence of Indonesia was recognised at the end of 1949. Surinam also became independent in 1975. In the Caribbean, the Netherlands Antilles disbanded in 2010 but none of the islands severed ties completely.
The Foundation of Today's Netherlands
Wars with France proved the undoing of the Dutch in the 18th century. Shifting allegiances among the Dutch, English, Spanish and various German states did their best to keep the French contained. It was costly and the ties that bound the United Provinces together unravelled, beginning a spiral downwards. The population shrank due to falling fortunes and the dykes fell into a sorry state – there was little money to repair them, and widespread floods swept across the country. The Golden Age was long since over.
Politically, the United Provinces were as unstable as the dykes. A series of struggles between the House of Oranje and its democratic opponents led to a civil war in 1785. The situation reached a nadir when Napoleon renamed it the Kingdom of Holland and installed his brother, Louis Bonaparte, as king in 1806. Napoleon's failed Russian invasion allowed the Dutch to establish a monarchy. Prince Willem VI landed at Scheveningen in 1813 and was named prince sovereign of the Netherlands; the following year he was crowned King Willem I, beginning a monarchy that continues to this day.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands – the Netherlands in the north and proto-Belgium in the south – was formed in 1815. However, the marriage was doomed from the start. The partners had little in common, including their dominant religions (Calvinist and Catholic), languages (Dutch and French) and favoured way of making money (trade and manufacturing). Matters weren't helped by Willem, who generally sided with his fellow northerners.
In 1830 the southern states revolted, and nine years later Willem was forced to let the south go. In return for recognition of Belgium, Willem secured the return of the eastern part of Limburg, ending Maastricht’s nine years as a West Berlin–style isolated Dutch exclave. In a nice historical twist, Willem abdicated one year later so that he could marry – surprise! – a Belgian Catholic. It's not known if he ever spoke French at home.
His son, King Willem II, granted a new and more liberal constitution to the people of the Netherlands in 1848. This included a number of democratic ideals and even made the monarchy the servant of the elected government. This document remains the foundation of the Dutch government in the present day. Its role on the world stage long over, the Netherlands played only a small part in European affairs and concentrated on liberalism at home. It stayed out of WWI, but profited by trading with both sides.
In the 1920s, growing affluence of the middle class fuelled a desire for more liberalism. The Netherlands embarked on innovative social programs that targeted poverty, the rights of women and children, and education. Rotterdam became one of Europe's most important ports, and the massive scheme to reclaim the Zuiderzee was launched in 1932.
The Dutch tried to remain neutral during WWII, but in May 1940 the Germans invaded. The advancing Nazis levelled much of central Rotterdam in a raid designed to force the Dutch to surrender. They obliged.
Queen Wilhelmina issued a proclamation of 'flaming protest' to the nation and escaped with her family to England. The monarch, who had been key in maintaining Dutch neutrality in WWI, now found herself in a much different situation and made encouraging broadcasts to her subjects back home via the BBC and Radio Orange. The Germans put Dutch industry and farms to work for war purposes and there was much deprivation. Dutch resistance was primarily passive and only gained any kind of momentum when thousands of Dutch men were taken to Germany and forced to work in Nazi factories. A far worse fate awaited the country's Jews.
The 'Winter of Hunger' of 1944–45 was a desperate time in the Netherlands. The British-led Operation Market Garden had been a huge disaster and the Allies abandoned all efforts to liberate the Dutch. The Germans stripped the country of much of its food and resources, and mass starvation ensued. Many people were reduced to eating tulip bulbs for subsistence. Canadian troops finally liberated the country in May 1945.
After the war, the Netherlands was shattered both economically and spiritually. War trials ensued in which 66,000 were convicted of collaborating with the Nazis (with 900 receiving the death penalty). Yet the number of collaborators was much higher, and scores – such as the party or parties who ratted out Anne Frank and her family – never saw justice. In contrast, many Dutch people risked everything to help Jews during the war.
Prosperity & Stability
The Dutch set about getting their house in order after the material and mental privations of WWII. During the 1950s a prosperous country began to re-emerge. After disastrous flooding in Zeeland and the south in 1953, a four-decades-long campaign began to literally reshape the land and keep the sea forever at bay.
The same social upheavals that swept the world in the 1960s were also felt in the Netherlands. Students, labour groups, hippies and more took to the streets in protest. Among the more colourful were a group that came to be known as the Provos. Amsterdam became the magisch centrum (magic centre) of Europe. Hippies flocked to Amsterdam during the 1960s and '70s; a housing shortage saw speculators leaving buildings empty and squatting became widespread. The Dutch authorities turned Vondelpark into a temporary open-air dormitory.
Tolerance towards drug use and gay rights also emerged at the time. The country's drug policy grew out of practical considerations, when Amsterdam's flower-power-era influx made the policing of drug laws impracticable. Official government policy became supportive of same-sex relationships and in 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality.
Economically the Netherlands prospered more with each passing decade, allowing a largely drama-free middle-class society to be the norm by the late 1980s.
All governments since 1945 have been coalitions, with parties mainly differing over economic policies. However, coalitions shift constantly based on the political climate, and in recent years there have been winds of change. Tension between different political colours and creeds had never been a problem in the Netherlands, until the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh stirred emotions and struck fear into the hearts of some.
In 2006 the government passed a controversial immigration law requiring newcomers to have competency in Dutch language and culture before they could get a residency permit.
Among the qualities the Netherlands is best known for is its tolerance. Yet this idea of 'you don't bother me and I won't bother you' seemed under threat in 2010 when the Dutch demonstrated a clear shift to the right. The coalition government formed that year included Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, a far-right movement with a tough stance on foreigners living in – or immigrating to – the Netherlands.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte made a number of proposals that were a sharp break from previous centrist Dutch policies. They weakened environmental regulations, slashed arts and culture funding, and passed what was thought to be a near-death sentence for the country's marijuana-selling coffeeshops. The formerly bedrock Dutch commitment to the European Union was openly debated.
But by the time an early election was called for in September 2012, it seemed that the Dutch political needle was heading back to the middle. Wilders' party went from 24 to 15 seats in the Dutch parliament and Rutte's centre-right Liberal Party had to break bread with the left-leaning Labour Party (led by a former Greenpeace activist) to finally form – after 49 days of negotiation – a coalition government. Rutte returned as prime minister.
In 2016 Wilders was convicted by a Dutch court for incitement against Moroccans, but received no sentence. The case arose from a pledge he'd made in 2014 to reduce the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands.
In recent times, the Netherlands has assisted refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria. In 2015 the Dutch government pledged to receive 7000 of Europe's 120,000 asylum seekers over a two-year period, housing them in temporary tented refugee camps and former prisons.
The Legacy of Theo & Pim
If the 2004 assassination of Theo van Gogh rocked the Netherlands, it was the assassination of Pim Fortuyn two years earlier that gave the initial push.
The political career of Fortuyn (pronounced fore-town) lasted a mere five months, yet his impact on the Netherlands has proved indelible. His campaign for parliament in 2002 is best remembered for his speeches on immigration: particularly that the Netherlands was 'full' and that immigrants should not be allowed to stay without learning the language or integrating.
Just days before the general election in May 2002, Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal-rights activist in Hilversum, some 20km from Amsterdam. Fortuyn's political party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), had a number of members elected to parliament and was included in the next coalition, but without the figurehead Fortuyn it faded away by 2007.
Enter Theo van Gogh, a film-maker and provocateur who made a short film claiming that Koranic verses could be interpreted as justifying violence against women. The film was a collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim-born woman who had emigrated from Somalia to escape an arranged marriage and eventually became a member of parliament in the Netherlands.
The film aired on Dutch TV in 2004, and Van Gogh was killed as he was cycling down an Amsterdam street. A letter threatening the nation, politicians and Hirsi Ali in particular, was impaled on a knife stuck in Van Gogh's chest. The killing was all the more shocking to locals because the 27-year-old killer, of Moroccan descent, was born and raised in Amsterdam. He proclaimed that he was acting in defence of Islam and would do the same thing again if given the chance (he was sentenced to life imprisonment). Hirsi Ali moved to the US and became a popular figure with American conservatives.
Meanwhile politicians on the far right such as Geert Wilders have tried to trade on the legacy of Fortuyn and Van Gogh by stoking anti-Islamic feelings.