The Netherlands


Historical accounts of the Netherlands date from the 1st century BC, when Roman forces led by Julius Caesar conquered most of the present area of the country. At the time the region was inhabited by Frisians, a Germanic tribe that lived in the north, and by other Germanic and minor Celtic tribes.

The Roman Era

Before the conquest, the Romans had annexed lands to the southeast extending beyond the Rhine River. They penetrated the Netherlands region mainly to control the several mouths of the Rhine, which were then farther to the north than they are now. Under Roman rule, general peace and prosperity prevailed for more than 250 years. Roman traders entered the area freely, selling products from Italy and Gaul. The Romans built temples, established a number of large farms, and introduced their civilization to the region.

About AD 300 the hold by the Romans began to weaken, and nonindigenous German tribes pushed into the area from the east. The Frisians, in the north, held their ground, but Saxons occupied the eastern part of the region, and the Franks moved into the west and south.

The Middle Ages

The Franks were the most powerful of the invaders. Their lands extended southward into what is now northern France and eastward across the Rhine. Eventually, the Frankish kings subjugated the Frisians and the Saxons and converted them to Christianity. By 800 the entire territory of the Netherlands was part of the realm of Charlemagne. After Charlemagne died, his empire disintegrated, and in 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided the empire into three parts. The Netherlands became part of Lotharingia (Lorraine) and still later, in 925, part of the Holy Roman Empire. At that time a Dutch nation did not exist, and the immediate loyalties of the inhabitants were to local lords. Gradually over the next centuries the whole region came to be called the Low Countries, or Netherlands, including present-day Belgium.

During the 9th and 10th centuries Scandinavian raiders, called Vikings, frequently invaded the coastal areas, sailing far up the rivers in search of loot. The need for a stronger system of defenses against such marauders gradually led to an increase in the power of the local rulers and their vassals, the nobles, who were largely a warrior class. Concurrently, the towns began to grow in importance, as artisans and merchants settled in them and improved their defenses. The gradual development of powerful towns was a notable feature of Dutch history during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, and the area became an important trading center. Under the leadership of wealthy merchants the towns began to challenge the power of the nobles who ruled the countryside. The merchants often supported the regional ruler in his campaigns against unruly vassals, at the same time exacting from him privileges designed to promote commerce and to strengthen the town and the position of the merchant class.

In the early Middle Ages such political entities as the counties of Flanders and Holland, the bishopric of Utrecht, and the duchies of Brabant and Gelderland were established. In the far north, however, the Frisians did not submit to a regional ruler but continued to obey their local headmen. The association of the Netherlands with the Holy Roman Empire remained largely nominal throughout the Middle Ages. Some trade was conducted with German coastal cities to the east, such as Bremen and Hamburg, but the major cultural influence came from France.

The Renaissance

Through marriage, war, and political maneuvering, most of the region comprising the present-day Netherlands—Holland, Utrecht, Noord-Brabant, and Gelderland—came into the hands of the dukes of Burgundy during the 15th and early 16th centuries. By 1519 this area was under the benevolent control of Holy Roman emperor Charles V, of the Spanish branch of the house of Habsburg, who was also king of Spain. In 1555, however, Charles resigned both Spain and the Netherlands to his son, Philip II, who was Spanish by birth and education and had little liking for his northern European territories. His oppressive rule led to the epochal war of independence waged from 1568 to 1648 by the Dutch against Spain, then the most powerful nation in Europe.

The Struggle for Independence

The political disaffection between the Low Countries and Spain coincided with the Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic church, which was the state church of Spain. Calvinism, a Protestant movement, rapidly gained ground during this period; its adherents established in the Low Countries a well-organized church that was prepared to challenge the Roman Catholic church, particularly the Inquisition, a church institution that sought to control heresy. In 1566 riots in which mobs destroyed images in Catholic churches spread across the country. In response, a wrathful Philip sent to the Netherlands Spanish troops commanded by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of Alva. The excessively harsh policies of the duke and of the Inquisition resulted in open revolt in the Low Countries. William I, the Silent, prince of Orange, who was one of the principal noblemen of the region, led the revolt. Initially unsuccessful, the Dutch then concentrated their efforts in the north. After William's naval supporters, called the Sea Beggars, seized the Holland port of Brill (Brielle) in 1572, the rebels took control of most northern towns, which became the bases of the revolt. William tried to maintain the unity of north and south but was unable to hold the north against the brilliant campaigns of reconquest led by a new Spanish commander, Alessandro Farnese.

In 1579 the Union of Utrecht, an anti-Spanish alliance of all northern and some southern territories, was formed. The union signified the final divergence of the northern part of the Low Countries, which later became the Netherlands, from the southern part, which later became Belgium. The Union of Utrecht became the nucleus of the present Dutch nation. In 1581 the Dutch provinces within the Union of Utrecht proclaimed their independence from Spain. Subsequently, the new nation suffered a series of reverses in the war with Spain, sustaining a major loss when William the Silent was assassinated in 1584. By 1585 the Spanish had reconquered practically all the south, including the important port of Antwerp. Eventually, however, the tide of war turned in favor of the Dutch. From 1585 to 1587 English troops were sent overseas to aid the insurgent cause, and in 1588 the English destroyed the great Spanish Armada, a victory that drastically curtailed the ability of Spain to wage war abroad. The seven provinces in the Union of Utrecht were cleared of Spanish troops by 1600.

From 1609 to 1621 a truce was in effect between the Spanish and the Dutch, but the war subsequently dragged on until 1648, when the Spanish signed the Treaty of Münster, by which the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces was recognized. The republic thus severed all theoretical ties with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire and became one of the great powers on the Continent, a republic in the midst of monarchies.

The Golden Age

In the early 17th century, when eventual Dutch independence was assured, an era of great commercial prosperity opened, as did the so-called Golden Age of Dutch art, with such painters as Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer. By the mid-17th century the Netherlands was the foremost commercial and maritime power of Europe, and Amsterdam was the financial center of the Continent.

Exploration and Colonization

About 1600 a Dutch merchant expedition of three vessels sailed from Amsterdam to Java. This was the first of numerous journeys that left Dutch geographic names scattered over the globe, from Spitsbergen to Cape Horn and from Staten Island to Tasmania. These voyages resulted in the establishment or acquisition of many trading stations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and America.

In 1602 the Dutch parliament granted to the Dutch East India Company a charter that gave it a trading monopoly with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and west of the Strait of Magellan in South America. The charter also conferred many sovereign powers on the company, including the right to wage war and to conclude peace. The West India Company, founded in 1621, established colonies in the West Indies, Brazil, and North America.

The East India Company established itself first in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and later on West Java, where Batavia (modern Jakarta) became the center of the company's enterprises. These enterprises were devoted mostly to trade and to the establishment of trading posts. Their functions generally did not include governing. Subsequently, pressed by the necessity of maintaining peace among the native rulers, the Dutch began to govern the territories (now called Indonesia) in order to maintain trade.

Internal Developments

William the Silent had been succeeded in the position known as stadtholder and as military commander by his son Maurice, who in turn was followed by his brother Frederick Henry. These men governed in conjunction with the States-General, an assembly composed of representatives of each of the seven provinces but usually dominated by the largest and wealthiest province, Holland. The stadtholder's power varied, depending on his personal qualities of leadership, and the office eventually became hereditary in the house of Orange.

Under Maurice, the republic was divided by a religio-political conflict between two factions within the Reformed (Calvinist) church, over predestination. The Arminian, or Remonstrant, cause was championed by Holland under its leader, Jan van Olden Barneveldt; the other provinces and Maurice sided with the Gomarists, or High Calvinists, who prevailed. The dispute ended with Barneveldt's execution for treason in 1619.

Frederick Henry's son, William II of Orange, became involved in a bitter quarrel with the province of Holland, and after his death no stadtholder was appointed in Holland and four other provinces for more than 20 years. William III of Orange, who was stadtholder from 1672 until his death in 1702, was also king of England after 1689.

The Decline of the Dutch Republic

Inevitably, the Dutch and the English, the leading maritime trading nations of the world, came into sharp commercial rivalry and military conflict. The issues between the two countries were contested, but not settled, by the two Anglo-Dutch Wars, the first waged from 1652 to 1654 and the second from 1664 to 1667. As a result of the latter conflict the Dutch lost New Amsterdam in North America but acquired Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). Other wars, costly in lives and money, followed against England and France.

After the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), in which the Dutch were allies of the British against the French, the economic and political power of the Netherlands began to decline. Eventually the Dutch Republic was overshadowed by the expanding power of Great Britain on the sea and France on the land.

When William III died without heirs in 1702, a distant relative of his, John William Friso, successfully claimed the Orange title. In 1747 his son became stadtholder in all seven provinces as William IV.

In the late 18th century a struggle broke out between the party of the house of Orange, which had become conservative, and the Patriot party, which desired democratic reforms. The Orange party enjoyed a brief triumph with the help of an invading Prussian army in 1787, but in 1795 French troops and a force consisting of self-exiled Dutch citizens replaced the republic of the seven United Provinces with the Batavian Republic, which was modeled on the revolutionary French Republic.

The Napoleonic Era and the Union with Belgium

The Batavian Republic survived only until 1806, when Napoleon transformed the country into the kingdom of Holland. In 1810 he incorporated it into the French Empire. While the Dutch were under French rule, the British seized Dutch colonial possessions. After the fall of Napoleon, the independence of the Netherlands was restored in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna. In addition, the territory now comprising Belgium was made part of the kingdom of the Netherlands.

The reunion of the two regions was not a happy one, for they had become widely disparate in political background, tradition, religion, language, and economy. In 1830 the Belgians revolted and established their independence as a sovereign state. A conference in London of the major European powers formulated the conditions of separation in 1831. The stipulations were accepted by the Dutch king under pressure from France and Great Britain. But when they were later revised by the conference in favor of the Belgians, a Dutch army invaded Belgium and routed the opposing forces. The conditions of separation were again revised and were finally accepted by both countries in 1839.

The Development of Parliamentary Democracy

The second half of the 19th century was marked by a liberalization of the Netherlands government under the impact of the revolutions that had swept Europe during the 1840s. The seeds of reform were contained in the new constitution of 1848, which became the foundation of the present democracy. Under its provisions arbitrary personal rule by the monarch was no longer possible. The members of the first chamber of parliament, who had formerly been appointed by the king, were thereafter elected by the provincial states (assemblies). Members of the states and of the second chamber of parliament were chosen by all people paying taxes in excess of a stipulated sum. The almost solidly Roman Catholic southern provinces of Limburg and Noord-Brabant, treated as conquered territories under the republic, had been given equal status with other provinces under the monarchy, but it remained for the constitution of 1848 to remove the religious restrictions against their citizens. Thus a powerful Roman Catholic political party was able to form and to contend with the Liberal group and the emerging conservative Protestant parties. Through the late 19th century, suffrage was gradually extended, and agitation for social reform increased markedly. The rise of a strong Labor party and the organization of workers into labor unions resulted in further social reforms.

Administration of the colonies was also reformed. In Indonesia, the area under Dutch control was increased, burdensome taxation was gradually abandoned, and, after 1877, no financial surpluses from that colony were used for the benefit of the treasury of the Netherlands.

From about 1880 to 1914 the Netherlands enjoyed an era of economic expansion. This period ended during World War I (1914-1918), when, despite remaining militarily neutral, the nation suffered hardship through loss of trade as a result of the Allied blockade of the Continent. The principal postwar problems of the country were economic, and these were aggravated by the depression of the 1930s.

World War II and After

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Netherlands again declared its neutrality, but in 1940 the country was overrun by the Germans, following an aerial bombardment that destroyed the greater part of Rotterdam. Much destruction was also wrought in other parts of the country, not only by the Germans, but also by the Dutch, who opened many dikes as desperate defense measures, and later by the Allies in aerial assaults on German-held positions. The Germans occupied the country until they were ousted during 1944 and 1945.

The years following World War II were marked by intensive efforts to rebuild the country and to restore its trade and industry. In 1945 the Netherlands became a charter member of the United Nations. In 1948 it received funds through the European Recovery Program. The Netherlands joined with Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Luxembourg to form the Brussels Treaty Organization (see Western European Union) in 1948, and was a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. The country joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the European Defense Community Treaty in 1952, and the London-Paris accords in 1955, thus becoming a full-fledged member of the Western European multinational defense establishment. The late 1940s and early 1950s were also a time of rising prices, generally unfavorable trade balances, and governments dominated by the Labor party.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands lost a war against Indonesian nationalists in the East Indies, and in 1949 the Netherlands formally transferred sovereignty in the East Indies (excluding Netherlands New Guinea) to the Indonesian government. Netherlands New Guinea remained under Dutch rule until 1962. Also, in 1954 Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles became equal members of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Economic Problems

The Roman Catholic People's party came to power in 1959 and retained pluralities in the lower house in the elections of 1963 and 1967, but the government coalitions that the party formed in the 1960s proved unstable. Unrest in the Netherlands Antilles beset the government in 1969, and marines were dispatched to assist police in riot control. The inflation of the 1960s continued into the 1970s as a major political problem. Wage and price controls were imposed in 1970, and taxes increased in 1971. In the elections of 1971 the four-party governing coalition lost its majority, and after two months of efforts a coalition headed by the Anti-Revolutionary party formed a government. This cabinet fell in 1972, however, and a caretaker government ruled until May 1973, when Joop den Uyl, leader of the Labor party, was sworn in as prime minister of a five-party coalition. When Suriname attained full independence in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Surinamese immigrants further burdened the Dutch economy.

Recent Developments

In 1977, following parliamentary elections in the spring, the governing coalition of den Uyl fell apart over proposed reforms. A new prime minister, Christian Democrat Andreas van Agt, was sworn in later in the year. In 1980 Princess Beatrix succeeded to the throne on the abdication of her mother, Queen Juliana. Van Agt's cabinet lost its parliamentary majority in May 1981, but he formed a new coalition that lasted from September 1981 to May 1982. Parliamentary elections were held in September 1982, after which van Agt unexpectedly resigned his party leadership. His successor as head of the Christian Democratic party was Ruud Lubbers, who formed a new coalition in November 1982 and remained in power until 1994. During this period the island of Aruba reached an agreement with the government of the Netherlands separating the island from the Netherlands Antilles. In 1993 the Netherlands became the first governmental body to regulate euthanasia, or mercy killing. In the May 1994 elections, the Labor party emerged victorious and assumed control of the Dutch government for the first time since 1977.

In early 1995, the Dutch battled serious flooding. Rivers throughout northwestern Europe overflowed their banks as a result of heavy rainfall and melting snow. The Netherlands declared a state of emergency and about 250,000 people were evacuated. Damages and evacuation expenses were estimated at more than $1 billion.

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