The history of the Netherlands is closely related to that of the Low Countries; it is not until the 16th century that an independent state roughly corresponding to the present-day country is established. As a consequence, the geographical scope of this article sometimes extends to the southern parts of the Low Countries.
If one takes the oldest signs of human acitivity as a starting point for the history of the Netherlands, then such a history would span a hundred thousand years. However, it is not until the arrival of the Romans, who annexed the southern part of the present-day country, that written sources on its inhabitants become abundant. At the time of the Roman occupation, the country is inhabited by various Germanic tribes, who merged with newcomers from other Germanic tribes during the Völkerwanderung following the fall of the Roman empire. In the medieval period, the Low Countries (roughly present-day Belgium and the Netherlands) consist of various countships, duchies and dioceses belonging to the Holy Roman Empire. These are united into one state under Habsburg rule in the 16th century. The Counter-Reformation following the success of Calvinism in the Netherlands, and the attempts to centralise government, led to a revolt against Philip II of Spain. In 1581, independence is declared, and finally recognized after the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648). The years of the war also mark the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age, a period of great commercial and cultural prosperity roughly spanning the 17th century.
After the French occupation at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the Netherlands started out as a monarchy, governed by the House of Orange. However, strong liberal sentiments could no longer be ignored, and the country became a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch in 1848. It remains so until this day, with a brief interruption during the occupation by Nazi Germany. The Netherlands is now a modern, industrialised nation and a large exporter of agricultural products.
The Netherlands have been inhabited since the last ice age; the oldest remnants that have been found are a hundred thousand years old. During the last ice age, the Netherlands had a tundra climate with very scarce vegetation. The first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers that lived during the last ice age. After the end of the ice age, the area was inhabited by various paleolithic groups. One group even made canoes (Pesse, around 9000 BC) and after that, around 8000 BC, a mesolithic tribe resided near Bergumermeer (Friesland).
Agriculture arrived in the Netherlands somewhere around 5000 BC, by the Linear Pottery Culture (probably Central European farmers) but was only practised on the loess plateau in the very south (South Limburg ). Their knowledge couldn't be used to build farms in the rest of the Netherlands because for a lack of animal domestication and proper tools.
After the first farmers left the Netherlands around 4500 BC, only hunters and gatherers remained, (with a Swifterband settlement around 4300 BC as an exception) like the hunters of the Vlaardingen culture (around 2600 BC).
Later, the first notable remains of Dutch prehistory were erected: the dolmens, large stone grave monuments. They can be found in the province of Drenthe, and were probably built by people of the farming Funnelbeaker culture between 4100 and 3200 BC.
To the west, the same tribes might have built hunting camps to hunt winter game like seals. There is even a little evidence for small settlements in the west.
The first evidence of the use of a wheel dates from about 2400 BC. This could likely have been made by someone, related to the Bellbeaker culture (Klokbeker cultuur). This culture also experimented with copper working, of which some evidence (stone anvils, copper knifes, a copper spearhead) was found on the Veluwe. Each copper finding shows the trade with other "countries", because natural copper cannot be found in the Dutch soil.
The Bronze Age probably started somewhere around 2000 BC. The bronze tools in the grave of "The smith of Wageningen" illustrated their quest for knowledge. (Typical Dutch Bronze Age items)
After this finding, more Bronze Age findings appear, like Epe, Drouwen, etc. The many findings of rare (and therefore valuable) objects like tin beads on a necklace in Drenthe might position Drenthe as the trade center of the Netherlands in the Bronze Age.
The stock of broken bronze objects, meant to recycle (Voorschoten) tells us something about the value of bronze in the Bronze Age, which lasted until about 800 BC. Typology of Dutch Bronze Age axes
Typical Bronze Age objects are: knifes, swords, axes, fibuale, bracelets. etc. Most Bronze Age objects were found in Drenthe. One item shows that merchandisers travelled far: large bronze situalae (buckets). They were manufatured somewhere in eastern France or in Switzerland, to mix whine with water (a Roman / Greek custom).
The Iron Age brings fortune to the Netherlands, because iron ore can be found in the North ("moeras ijzererts") as well as in the center (natural "balls" with iron in them, at the Veluwe) as well as in the South (red iron ore near the rivers in Brabant).
Now, the smiths can travel from small settlement to settlement with bronze, as well as iron. Now they fabricate tools on-demand, like axes, knifes, pins, arrowheads, swords, etc.
There is even evidence of the use of "damast-forging"; an advanced way to forge metal (swords) with both advantages of flexible iron and the strength of steel.
The wealth of the Netherlands in the Iron Age can be shown via the "King's grave in Oss" (about 500 BC). There, a true king was buried with some extraordinary objects: an iron sword with an inlay of gold and coral. He was buried in the largest grave mount of Western Europe, which was 52 m. wide!
At the time of the Roman arrival, the Netherlands were inhabited by various Germanic tribes who had settled there around 600 BC, such as the Tubanti , the Canninefates, the Frisians and the Batavii. In later nationalistic views, the Batavii were sometimes regarded as the "true" forefathers of the Dutch.
In the 1st century BC
, the Romans
conquerered the southern part of the Netherlands, where they built the first cities and created the Roman province
of Germania Inferior
. For most of the area of Roman occupation in the Netherlands, the boundary of the Roman Empire lay along the Rhine
. Romans built the first cities in the Netherlands. The most important of these were Utrecht
, and Maastricht
. The northern part of the Netherlands, which was outside the Roman Empire and where the Frisians
lived (and still do), was also heavily influenced by its strong southern neighbour. The Romans also introduced writing.
The relationship with the orginal inhabitants was on the whole quite good; some Batavians even served in the Roman cavalry. However, this could not prevent the Batavian rebellion of 69 AD, a very successful revolt under the leadership of Batavian Gaius Julius Civilis. 40 castellae were burnt down because the Romans violated the rights of the Batavian leaders by taking young Batavians as their slaves.
Other Roman soldiers (like those in Xanten and the auxillary troups of Batavians and Caninefatae from the legions of Vitellius) joint the revolt, which even split the northern part of the Roman army!
April 70 C.E., Vespasianus sent a few legions to stop the revolt. Their commander, Petilius Cerialis, eventually defeated the Batavians and started negotiations with Julius Civilis on his home ground, somewhere between the Waal and the Maas near Noviomagus (Nijmegen) or -as the Batavians probably called it- Batavodurum.
(Source: "Historiae" by Tacitus, 1st century C.E.).
Translation into Dutch by the Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen
The Roman civilisation in the area was eventually overrun in the mass migration of Germanic peoples (later known as the Völkerwanderung).
Holy Roman Empire
The newcomers merged with the original inhabitants to create three peoples in the Low Countries: the Frisians along the coast, the Saxons in the east and the Franks in the south. The Franks became Christians after their king Clovis I converted in 496. There was much enmity between the Franks in the south and the Frisians and Saxons in the north, who remained solidly heathen. Anglo-Saxon missionaries such as Willibrord and Boniface were somewhat successful in introducing the Christian faith; however, Boniface was killed by Frisians in Dokkum (754).
Eventually, the Franks managed under Charlemagne to conquer and convert their northern neighbours. Charlemagne went on to create a Frankish empire having its heartland in what is today Belgium and northern France, and spanning France, Germany, northern Italy and much of Western Europe. The Frankish empire divided and re-united several times, in the end giving rise to France in the west and the Holy Roman Empire in the east. Many of the Lowland provinces became part of the latter; although Flanders and a few others became part of France.
From 800 AD to 1000 AD, the Low Countries also suffered considerably from Viking raids (one of which destroyed the wealthy city of Dorestad). Resistance to the Vikings, if any, came from local nobles, who gained in stature as a result.
Around 1000 AD there were several agricultural developments (described sometimes as an agricultural revolution) that resulted in an increase in production, especially food production. The economy started to develop at a fast pace, and higher productivity meant that workers were available to develop more land or to become tradesmen. Guilds were established and markets developed as production exceeded local needs. Also, the introduction of currency made trading a much easier affair than it had been before. Existing towns grew and new towns sprang into existence around monasteries and castles, and a mercantile middle class began to develop in these urban areas.
The crusades were popular in the Low Countries and drew many to fight in the Holy Land. The Crusades also had the effect of increasing commerce, which in turn had an influence on the rise of the cities (especially in Flanders and Brabant). The cities, growing in wealth and power, bought certain privileges from the sovereign, such as a city charter granting the city the right to govern itself and to pass laws. In practice, this meant that the wealthiest cities became quasi-independent republics in their own right. Brugge (in the 14th century), and later Antwerp were among the most important cities and ports in Europe.
The Holy Roman Empire was not able to maintain political unity. Local rulers turned their counties and duchies into private kingdoms and felt little sense of obligation to the emperor who governed over large parts of the nation in name only. Large parts of what now comprise the Netherlands were governed by the Count of Holland, the Duke of Gelre, the Duke of Brabant and the Bishop of Utrecht. Friesland and Groningen in the north maintained their independence and were governed by the lower nobility. The various feudal states were in a state of almost continual war, especially Utrecht and Holland.
Most of what is now the Netherlands and Belgium was eventually united by the Duke of Burgundy in 1433.
Struggle for independence and the Golden Age
Eighty Years' War
- For details, see the main Eighty Years' War article.
Flag of the revolt — orange, white, blue
Through inheritance and conquest, all of the Low Countries became possessions of the Habsburg dynasty under Charles V in the 16th century, who united them into one state. However, in 1548, eight years before his abdication from the throne, Emperor Charles V granted the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands status as an entity separate from both the Empire and from France. This Pragmatic Sanction of 1548 was not full independence, but it allowed significant autonomy.
Charles was succeeded by his son Philip II of Spain. Unlike his father, who had been raised in Ghent (Belgium), Philip had little personal attachment to the Low Countries (where he had only stayed for four years), and thus was perceived as detached by the local nobility. A devout Catholic, Philip was appalled by the success of the Reformation in the Low Countries, which had led to an increasing number of Calvinists. His attempts to enforce religious persecution of the Protestants and his endeavours to centralise government, justice and taxes made him unpopular and led to a revolt. The Dutch fought for independence from Spain, leading to the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648). Seven rebellious provinces united in the Union of Utrecht in 1579 and formed the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (also known as the "United Provinces").
William of Orange, the nobleman from whom every Dutch monarch is descended (including the present Queen), led the Dutch during the first part of the war. The very first years were a success for the Spanish troops. They recaptured Antwerp and other Flemish and Dutch cities. However, subsequent sieges in Holland were countered by the Dutch, and the developments in the following part of the war largely favoured the Republic. It recaptured most of the territory in the Netherlands (but not in Flanders, leading to the historical split between The Netherlands and Flanders). The Peace of Westphalia, signed on January 30, 1648, confirmed the independence of the United Provinces from Spain.
- For details on the social and cultural history of the Golden Age, see the Dutch Golden Age article.
During the Eighty Years' War the Dutch also started large-scale overseas trade: they hunted whales near Svalbard, traded spices with India and Indonesia (via the Dutch East India Company, the first company to issue shares) and started colonies in Brazil, New Amsterdam (now New York), South Africa and the West Indies. This Calvinist nation prospered. It flourished culturally and economically, creating what historian Simon Schama has called an "embarrassment of riches". Speculation in the tulip trade led to a first stockmarket crash in 1637, but the economic crisis was soon overcome. Due to these developments the 17th century is often called the Golden Age (de gouden eeuw) of the Netherlands. As the Netherlands was a republic, it was largely governed by an aristocracy of city-merchants called the regents (regenten), rather than by a king. Every city and province had its own government and laws, and a large degree of autonomy. After attempts to find a competent sovereign proved unsuccessful, it was decided that sovereignty would be vested in the various provincial Estates (Staten), the governing bodies of the provinces. The Estates-General (Staten-Generaal), with its representatives from all the provinces, would decide on matters important to the Republic as a whole. However, at the head of each province was the stadtholder of that province, a position held by a descendant of the House of Orange. Usually the stadtholdership of several provinces was held by a single man.
Following the recognition of the independence of the Netherlands, a decline in the wealth of the Dutch set in. In 1650, the stadtholder William II, Prince of Orange died, leaving the nation without a powerful ruler. Since the conception of the Republic, there had been an ongoing struggle for power between the regents and the House of Orange, whose supporters, or Orangists , were mainly to be found among the common people. For now, the dispute was decided in favour of the regents: there would be no new stadtholder (in Holland) for 22 years to come. In the year 1651, England imposed the 1651 Navigation Act, which severely hurt Dutch trade interests. An incident at sea concerning the Act resulted in the First Anglo-Dutch War, which lasted from 1652 to 1654, ending in the Treaty of Westminster (1654), by which the Navigation Act remained in effect.
The Second Anglo-Dutch War began in 1665 when the English declared war — they had already attacked Dutch settlements in the New Netherlands. Because the Dutch were also troubled by French invasions in the Spanish Netherlands, the English and Dutch signed a peace treaty, the 1667 Treaty of Breda, but not before Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter had destroyed a large part of the English fleet on the Thames. It was agreed that the English would keep the Dutch possesions in North America (the area around current New York City), while they would give control of Surinam to the Dutch. Also, the restrictions in the Navigation Act were loosened.
1672 is known in the Netherlands as the "Disastrous Year" (Rampjaar). England declared war on the Republic, (the Third Anglo-Dutch War), followed by France, Münster and Cologne, which had all signed alliances against the Republic. France, Cologne and Münster invaded the Republic, while an English attempt to land on the Dutch shore could only just be prevented. In the meantime, a new stadtholder, William III, was appointed. With the aid of friendly German nations, the Dutch succeeded in fighting back Cologne and Münster, after which the peace was signed with both of them, and England as well, in 1674 (Second Treaty of Westminster (1674)). In 1678, peace was made with France, although the Spanish and German allies felt betrayed by the treaty signed in Nijmegen.
In the course of the Glorious Revolution, William III, landed in England at the request of notable English citizens, and dethroned James II of England.
At the end of the 18th century, there was growing unrest in the Netherlands. There was conflict between the Orangists , who wanted stadtholder William V of Orange to hold more power, and the 'Patriots', who under the influence of the American and French Revolutions wanted a more democratic form of government. The opening shot of this abortive 'Batavian' revolution might be considered the manifesto published by Robert Jasper Van der Capellen , the founder of the 'Patriots' in 1781: Aan het Volk van Nederland (To the people of the Netherlands). After the Netherlands became the first nation to recognize American independence, the British declared war. This Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) proved a disaster for the Netherlands, particularly economically. Its peace treaty, according to Fernand Braudel "sounded the knell of Dutch greatness." (Braudel 1984 p. 273). In 1785 there was a rebellion by the Patriots, an armed insurrection by local militias determined to defend municipal democracies in certain Dutch towns. "Seen as a whole this revolution is a string of violent and confused events, accidents, speeches, rumours, bitter enmities and armed confrontations." says Braudel, who sees it as a forerunner of the French Revolution, with the constant slogan "vrijheit". But the House of Orange, backed by British policy, called upon their Prussian relatives to suppress it. The Orangist reaction was severe: no one dared appear in public without an orange cockade and there were lynchings, the old burgomasters were replaced and a small unpaid Prussian army was billeted in the Netherlands supporting themselves with looting and extortion, Many Patriots fled the country to Brabant or France, perhaps 40,000 in all.
Batavian Republic and French rule
- For more detailed discussions, see the Batavian Republic and the Kingdom of Holland.
Against this background it is less surprising that, after the French Revolution, when Napoleon invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1795, the French encountered so little united resistance. William V of Orange fled to England. The Patriots proclaimed the short-lived Batavian Republic, but government was soon returned to stabler and more experienced hands. In 1806 Napoleon restyled the Netherlands (along with a small part of what is now Germany) into the Kingdom of Holland, with his brother Louis (Lodewijk) Bonaparte as king. This too was short-lived, however. Napoleon incorporated the Netherlands into the French empire after his brother put Dutch interests ahead of those of the French. The French occupation of the Netherlands ended in 1813 after Napoleon was defeated, a defeat in which William V of Orange played a prominent role.
During the Napoleonic occupation, the House of Orange signed a treaty with the English in which it gave to that country the Dutch colonies in 'safekeeping' and ordered the colonial governors to surrender to the British. This put an end to much of the Dutch colonial empire. Guyana and Ceylon never returned to Dutch rule. The Cape Colony, which had changed hands several times, remained British after 1806. Other colonies, including what is today Indonesia, were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. Ten years later there was another treaty - the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.
- For details on the Dutch monarchy, see the Dutch monarchy article.
After the Napoleonic era the Netherlands were put back on the map of Europe. The country had always been part of the precarious balance of power that had kept France in check. Particularly the Russian tsar wanted the Netherlands to resume this role and wanted the colonies to be returned. A compromise was struck with Britain at the Congress of Vienna, whereby only Indonesia was returned, but the North and South of the Netherlands reunited. In 1815 the country became a monarchy, with the son of the last stadtholder, William V, the Prince of Orange as king William I. William's United Kingdom of the Netherlands originally consisted of what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, but the French-speaking Belgian ruling minority soon began feeling like second-class citizens. The primary factors that contributed to this feeling were religious (the predominantly Catholic South versus the mostly Protestant North), economic (the South was industrialising, the North had always been a merchants' nation) and linguistic (the French-speaking South was not just Wallonia, but also extended to the French-speaking bourgeoisie in the Flemish cities). In 1830 the situation exploded, the Belgians revolted and declared independence from the North. King William sent an army in 1831, but it was forced to retreat after a few days when the French army was mobilised. The North refused to recognise Belgium until 1839.
In 1848 unrest broke out all over Europe. Although there were no major events in the Netherlands, these foreign developments persuaded king William II to agree to liberal and democratic reform. That same year the liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke was asked by the king to rewrite the constitution, turning the Netherlands into a constitutional monarchy. The new document was proclaimed valid on November 3 of that year. It severely limited the king's powers (making the cabinet accountable only to an elected parliament), and it protected civil liberties.
By the end of the 19th century, in the New Imperialism wave of colonization, the Netherlands extended their hold on Indonesia. In 1860 Multatuli wrote Max Havelaar, the most famous book in the history of Dutch literature, criticizing the exploitation of the country and its inhabitants by the Dutch.
- For details, see the main History of the Netherlands: modern history (1900-present) article
Although its army mobilised when World War I broke out in August 1914, the Netherlands remained a neutral country. The German invasion of Belgium that same year led to a large flow of refugees from that country (about 1 million). The country being surrounded by states at war, and with the North Sea unsafe for civilian ships to sail on, food became scarce; food was now distributed using coupons. With the end of the war in 1918, the situation returned to normalcy.
Although both houses of the Dutch parliament were elected by the people, only men with high incomes were eligible for voting. This situation lasted until 1918, when pressure from socialist movements had resulted in elections in which all men were allowed to vote. From 1922 onward, women could vote as well.
The worldwide Great Depression of 1929 and the early 1930s had crippling effects on the Dutch economy, effects which lasted longer than they did in most European countries. The depression lead to large unemployment and poverty, as well as increasing social unrest. The rise of Nazism in Germany did not go unnoticed in the Netherlands, and there was growing concern over the possibility of armed conflict.
World War II
- For details, see the main Netherlands in World War II article.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Netherlands declared their neutrality again. However, on May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany launched an attack on the Netherlands and Belgium and overran most of the country quickly, fighting against a poorly-equipped Dutch army. By May 14, fighting was only occurring in a few isolated locations. However, on that very day, the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam, the second largest city of the Netherlands, killing about 800 people and destroying large parts of the city, leaving 78,000 homeless. Following the bombardment and German threats of the same for Utrecht, the Netherlands capitulated on May 15 (except the province of Zeeland). The royal family and some military forces fled to Britain.
Persecution of Jews, of which about 140,000 lived in the Netherlands at the beginning of the war, started shortly after the invasion. At the end of the war, only 20,000 Jews were still alive. Anne Frank, who later gained world-wide fame when her diary, written in the Achterhuis, while hiding from the Nazis, was found and published, died shortly before the liberation of her camp on May 5, 1945.
Japanese forces invaded the Dutch East Indies on January 11, 1942. The Dutch surrendered on March 8, after Japanese troops landed on Java. Dutch citizens were captured and put to work in labour camps. However, many Dutch ships and military personnel managed to reach Australia, from where they were able to fight against the Japanese.
In Europe, after the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, they proceeded quickly towards the Dutch border. On September 17 a daring operation, Operation Market Garden, was staged to make a quick incursion into the southern Netherlands and capture bridges across the three main rivers. The bridge at Arnhem, across the Rhine, could however not be captured. The part south of the rivers was liberated in the period September - November 1944. However, for most of the country people would have to wait until May 1945. The winter 1944–1945 was very harsh, and many Dutch starved, giving the winter the name Hongerwinter (Hunger winter). On May 5, 1945, following Allied victories in Nazi Germany, Nazi Germany finally surrendered, signing the surrender to the Dutch at Wageningen.
, the former Dutch East Indies
, had been a very valuable resource, and the Dutch feared its independence would lead to an economic downfall.
Two days after the surrender of Japan, most of the Dutch East Indies declared its independence as Indonesia. A confusing phase followed, known as the Indonesian National Revolution, with the Netherlands recognising the new country on the one hand, while fighting the Indonesian nationalists in two wars, or "police actions". Increasing international pressure led the Netherlands to eventually accept the new situation. Indonesia formally gained independence on December 27, 1949. Part of the former Dutch East Indies, namely the western part of New Guinea, remained under Dutch control until 1961.
Although it was originally expected that the loss of the Indies would lead to an economic downfall, the reverse proved to be true, and in the 1950s and 60s the Dutch economy experienced a near unprecedented growth. In fact, the demand for labor was so strong, that immigration was actively encouraged, first from Italy and Spain; then later on, in larger numbers, from Turkey and Morocco. Combined with the immigration from (former) colonies like Indonesia, Surinam and Netherlands Antilles, this meant that the Netherlands were becoming a multicultural country.
The 60s and 70s were a time of great social and cultural changes. Such as rapid ontzuiling (literally: depillarization), a term that describes the decay of the old divisions along class and religious lines (which had lead to things like separate education and separate tv broadcasts for catholics, protestants, socialists and liberals). Youths, and students in particular, rejected the traditional morale, and pushed for change in matters like women's rights, sexuality and environmental issues. Today, the Netherlands is regarded as a very liberal country, considering its drugs policy and its legalisation of euthanasia. Same-sex marriage became permitted on 1 April 2001.
In 1952 the Netherlands were among the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, which would over time evolve into the European Union. A modern, industrialised nation, the Netherlands is also a large exporter of agricultural products. The country was a founding member of NATO and participated in the introduction of the euro in 1999. In recent years the Dutch have often been a driving force behind the integration of European countries in the European Union.
On 6 May 2002, the murder on Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing populist calling for a very strict policy on immigration, shocked the country. His party became a major political force after the elections, significantly changing the political landscape. However, infighting within the party caused them to lose much of their following in elections the next year. Another political murder took place on 2 November 2004, when film director and publicist Theo van Gogh was assassinated by a Dutch-Moroccan youth with radical islamitic beliefs. This sparked debate on the existence of radical Islam in the Netherlands, and on immigration and integration (or lack thereof) as well.
See also: Netherlands/2000, Netherlands/2001
Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1984.
- Israel, Jonathan , The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806
Schama, Simon, The Embarassment of Riches
Last updated: 05-20-2005 04:07:53