Netherlands, also known unofficially as Holland, constitutional monarchy of northwestern Europe, bordered on the north and west by the North Sea, on the east by Germany, and on the south by Belgium. With Belgium and Luxembourg, the Netherlands forms the Low, or Benelux, Countries. The Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, islands in the Caribbean, are part of the Netherlands. The European portion of the Netherlands has a total area of 41,526 sq km (16,033 sq mi), of which 33,939 sq km (13,104 sq mi) is land surface. The country's capital and largest city is Amsterdam.
In the late 16th century a Dutch revolt against the authority of the king of Spain, at the time ruler of what now constitutes the Low Countries, succeeded in the northern provinces, which later became the Netherlands. The Dutch Republic, officially established in 1648, fell in 1795 when the armies of Revolutionary France imposed a pro-French government. In 1810, France annexed the Netherlands, but with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 to 1815, the present Dutch state, officially called the Kingdom of the Netherlands, came into being. Originally Belgium was part of this new kingdom, but it seceded in 1830 and formed an independent country. The present boundaries of the Netherlands are essentially those established after the secession of Belgium, although they are similar to the borders of the Dutch Republic.
The Netherlands, as its name suggests, is a low-lying country. About half of the country's landmass lies below sea level. This amount would increase should the polar ice caps melt and slowly raise the level of the sea due to global warming. Much of the western part, situated below sea level, is covered with clay and peat soils interspersed with canals, rivers, and arms of the sea. Farther to the east the land lies slightly above sea level and is flat to gently rolling. The elevation rarely exceeds 50 m (164 ft). Most of the land is devoted to agriculture; only small areas of forest and heath remain.
The North Sea coastline of the Netherlands consists mostly of dunes. In the southwest are gaps in the dunes formed by river mouths, creating a delta of islands and waterways. In the north, the dunes were broken through by the sea, thereby creating the West Frisian Islands and behind them a tidal sea called the Waddenzee. Adjacent to the narrow strip of dunes is an area lying below sea level that is protected by dikes and kept dry by continuous mechanical pumping. The former Zuider Zee, a large arm of the sea, is being reclaimed (purple areas on map). A dike separating it from the sea was completed in 1932, when work was begun to drain about 225,000 hectares (about 556,000 acres) to form reclaimed land known as polders, such as Flevoland and the North East Polder. About three-quarters of the area had been reclaimed by the early 1980s. The remaining freshwater lake is called the IJsselmeer.
On February 1, 1953, the spring tide severely flooded the delta region in the southwest and about 1800 people died. The Delta Plan, launched in 1958 and completed in 1986, was implemented to prevent such flooding. Under the plan, the Dutch shortened the coastline by about 700 km (about 435 mi); developed a system of dikes; and built dams, bridges, locks, and a major canal. The dikes created freshwater lakes and joined some islands.
Most of the eastern half of the Netherlands consists of low-lying land covered by sandy soil deposited by glaciers and rivers. Hilly country (the foothills of the Ardennes) and loam soils are found only in the southern part of Limburg Province. Vaalserberg (321 m/1053 ft), the nation's highest point, is in this area.
The major rivers of the Netherlands are the Rhine, flowing from Germany, and its several arms, such as the Waal and Lek rivers; and the Maas (a branch of the Meuse) and the Schelde (Escaut), flowing from Belgium. These rivers and their arms form the delta with its many islands. Together with numerous canals, the rivers give ships access to the interior of Europe.
In the northern and western portions of the Netherlands are many small lakes. Nearly all the larger natural lakes have been pumped dry, but the delta redevelopment program and the reclamation of the Zuider Zee have created numerous new freshwater lakes, the largest being the IJsselmeer.
The Netherlands shares the temperate maritime climate common to much of northern and western Europe. The average temperature range in Vlissingen in the coastal region is 1° to 5° C (34° to 41° F) in January and 14° to 21° C (57° to 69° F) in July. In De Bilt, in the densely populated central region of the country, the average range is -1° to 4° C (31° to 40° F) in January and 13° to 22° C (55° to 72° F) in July. Annual precipitation averages 690 mm (27 in) in Vlissingen and 770 mm (30 in) in De Bilt. Cloudless days are uncommon, as is prolonged frost. Because the Netherlands has few natural barriers, such as high mountains, the climate varies little from region to region.
The natural landscape of the Netherlands has been altered by humans in many ways over the centuries. Because land is scarce and fully exploited, areas of natural vegetation are not extensive. The tall grasses of the dunes and the heather of the heaths continue to provide habitats for rabbits, but larger wildlife, such as deer, have disappeared except in parks. The remnants of oak, beech, ash, and pine forests are carefully managed. Land reclamation projects have created new habitats for many species of migratory birds.
The Netherlands was long thought to be poor in mineral resources. Peat, used as fuel, was dug in several regions, and southern Limburg Province was known to contain coal deposits. Salt also was produced. In the 1950s and 1960s great natural-gas reserves were discovered in Groningen Province. Smaller deposits of crude petroleum are located in the northeastern and western parts of the country.
The natural environment of the Netherlands is vulnerable to pollution and destruction. A number of national parks and nature preserves have been established to preserve portions of the natural landscape. The Netherlands is active in international efforts to clean the waters of the Rhine River, and some citizens seek to prevent land reclamation and the building of dikes in an effort to preserve natural environments.
The great majority of inhabitants of the Netherlands are Dutch. They are mainly descended from Franks, Frisians, and Saxons. Most residents of Friesland Province are Frisian, a distinct cultural group with its own language. Fearing overpopulation, the government encouraged Dutch emigration after World War II (1939-1945), and some 500,000 people left. But an even larger number of people entered the NetherlandsEuropeans and Asians from the former Netherlands Indies dependency (now part of Indonesia); industrial workers from Turkey, Morocco, and other Mediterranean countries; and, more recently, residents of Suriname, also a former Dutch dependency, and the Netherlands Antilles. Consequently, the country's population, particularly in the large cities, now includes several ethnic minorities.
According to a 1995 estimate, the Netherlands has a population of about 15,499,000. The overall population density is about 373 persons per sq km (about 967 per sq mi), making the Netherlands one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The nation is heavily urbanized, with about 89 percent of the population living in urban areas. The largest cities are Amsterdam (population, 1993 estimate, 719,856), the country's capital; Rotterdam (596,023), one of the world's leading seaports; The Hague (444,661), the nation's seat of government; and Utrecht (234,170), a manufacturing hub. Sixteen other cities had between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Many of these cities are concentrated in the western provinces of Noord-Holland (North Holland), Zuid-Holland (South Holland), and Utrecht, comprising the large urban region called Randstad Holland.
The official language of the Netherlands is Dutch, which is spoken throughout the country. In the province of Friesland, however, a large percentage of the population speaks another Germanic language, Frisian, as its first language. See: Dutch Language; Frisian Language.
Roman Catholics constitute about 33 percent and Protestants 23 percent of the Dutch population. About 3 percent are adherents of Islam, and the country also has a small Jewish community. About 39 percent of the people do not belong to a religious body. The Roman Catholics are concentrated in the southern part of the country. The Protestants are divided among several denominations, the largest being the Dutch Reformed church. The Netherlands has no official religion, but the Reformed church has had a close association with the Dutch state since the founding of the Dutch Republic. All the country's monarchs have been members of the Reformed church.
The organization of cultural activity and social life in the Netherlands began to change significantly in the 1960s. Until then, most facets of Dutch life were organized systematically in what are called pillars, or groups. In education, politics, the communications media, medicine, the trade unions, and other segments of Dutch life, institutions were specifically Protestant, Roman Catholic, or public (nondenominational) and were represented on committees at all levels of government. As the country underwent change, socialist and liberal nonsectarian pillars joined the denominational pillars, and some institutions became independent of the pillar system. By the 1980s most people had become less firmly attached to a specific pillar.
From the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Netherlands has enjoyed a high level of basic education and comparatively high literacy rates. In the 19th century efforts were made to systematize education and to secure adequate financing for schools. As the state became more deeply involved in education, a dispute arose concerning the fate of nonpublic, mainly church-related, schools. The so-called school struggle became a major political issue and was not fully settled until 1917, when a constitutional amendment guaranteed equal, tax-paid financial support for both public and nonpublic schools. Today, about one-third of the elementary and secondary schools are public, and about two-thirds are nonpublic, mainly Roman Catholic or Protestant. School attendance is compulsory for children aged 5 through 16 years. Pupils attend a primary school for six years and then enter one of several types of secondary schools, which offer training for entering a university or other advanced institution or for pursuing a vocation. Instruction is in Dutch, except in Friesland, where classes are also taught in Frisian. In the early 1990s about 1.4 million pupils attended primary schools, about 673,600 students were enrolled in general secondary schools, and 505,300 attended vocational secondary schools.
The number of students enrolled in institutions of higher education increased dramatically in the 1960s, and by the early 1990s some 180,000 students attended colleges and universities and 204,400 were engaged in third-level non-university training. Major institutions include the University of Amsterdam (1632) and the state universities of Groningen (1614), Leiden (1575), and Utrecht (1636). The Netherlands has several technical universities and schools of fine arts.
The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus had wide influence in the 16th century, and the country's cultural life as a whole achieved an international reputation in the 17th century, which is often called its Golden Age. Among the influential Dutch figures of that time were the jurist Hugo Grotius, the scientists Christiaan Huygens and Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the cartographers Willem Janszoon Blaeu and Jodocus Hondius, the writers Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft and Joost van den Vondel, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and numerous theologians. In addition, foreigners lived in Holland to enjoy its tolerant atmosphere, the most famous being the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes and the English philosopher John Locke. Well-known figures of the Golden Age include the great 17th-century Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan Steen. The Dutch artistic tradition continued to be vigorous in more recent centuriesproducing such noted and influential painters as Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, and Karel Appeland lives on today, particularly in Amsterdam, where artists from many countries work.
The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam has an international reputation, and another major Dutch symphony orchestra is in Rotterdam. The main libraries of the Netherlands are those of the State University of Leiden and the University of Amsterdam and the Royal Library in The Hague. In addition, the country has many public libraries. Of the country's numerous museums the most famous are those displaying the work of Dutch painters. These include the Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt-Huis Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum, all in Amsterdam; the Royal Picture Gallery (Mauritshuis), in The Hague; the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum, in Rotterdam; and the Kröller-Müller National Museum, in Hoge Veluwe National Park in Otterlo.