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History of the Netherlands

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The Netherlands have been inhabited since the last Ice Age. The most famous remnants from the early age in the Netherlands are the hunebeds (Dutch for dolmens), large stone grave monuments from the neolithic, which can be found in Drenthe.

Roman Era

In the first century BC, the Romans came to the Netherlands. For the majority of the Roman occupation, the boundary of the Roman Empire lay along the Rhine. Romans built the first cities in the Netherlands, most importantly Utrecht, Nijmegen, and Maastricht. The northern part of the Netherlands, outside the Roman Empire, where the Frisians lived (and still do), was also heavily influenced by its strong southern neighbour.

Holy Roman Empire

After the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent period of turmoil, the Netherlands was divided in three parts, the Frisians living by the coast, the Saxons in the east, and the Franks in the south. The Franks managed to overcome their neighbours. Under Charlemagne, a Frankish empire was built, having its heartland in the future Belgium and northern France, and spanning France, Germany, northern Italy, and several other regions. The Frankish empire divided and re-united several times, in the end giving rise to two major powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire in Germany. The Netherlands formed part of the latter.

The Holy Roman Empire, however, did not remain a political unity. Local vassals made their countships and duchies into private kingdoms and felt not much obliged to the emperor, who over large parts of the nation governed only in name. 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, but Friesland and Groningen in the north kept their independence, being governed by the lower nobility. Most of what is now the Netherlands and Belgium was united by the duke of Burgundy.

Struggle for Independence and the Golden Age

Through inheritance, the area became a possession of the Habsburg dynasty under Charles V of Spain in the late 15th century. In the Netherlands, part of the population, inluenced by the Reformation, became Protestants. This was not liked by Charles's son and successor Philip II of Spain, who also was very distant in attitude (never visiting the Low Countries himself), whereas his father had been raised in Ghent,(Belgium) and had become lord of the Netherlands before he became king of Spain. Philips's attempts to enforce religious persecution of the Protestants and his endeavours to centralise government, justice and taxes led to a revolt[?], starting when the seven Dutch provinces united in the Union of Utrecht in 1579, forming the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (also known as the "United Provinces"). William of Orange, a nobleman, took the lead in what is called the Eighty Years' War (1568 - 1648). On May 15, 1648, the Peace of Westphalia confirmed the independence of the United Provinces from Spain.

During the Eighty Years' War the Dutch also started large-scale overseas trade - they hunted whales near Svalbard, traded spices with India and Indonesia, started colonies in Brazil and New Amsterdam (now New York), South Africa, the West Indies. The wealth accumulated from all this trade led to the 17th century being called the golden age (de gouden eeuw) of the Netherlands. As the Netherlands were a republic they were governed by regents, an aristocracy of city-merchants, rather than by a king or by nobility. In principle every city and province had its own government and laws. There was much independence of the various cities and districts, although some of the lands belonging to the republic had provincial official status, such as Brabant and Limburg (Netherlands).

With the independence of the Netherlands, a decline of the wealth of the Dutch set in. In 1650, the stadtholder William II, Prince of Orange died, leaving the nation without a powerful ruler. The following year, England imposed the 1651 Navigation Act, which severely hurt Dutch trade interests. A fight over the Act resulted in the First Anglo-Dutch War, which lasted from 1652 to 1654, ending in the Peace of Westminster[?], 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. While the Dutch were also troubled by French invasions in the Spanish Netherlands[?] - present-day Belgium - the English and Dutch signed a peace treaty: the 1667 Peace of Breda[?], after Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter 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 give control of Suriname to the Dutch. Also, the Navigation Act was loosened.

1672 is known in the Netherlands as the Rampjaar (disaster year). 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 could only just be prevented. In the meantime, a new stadtholder, William III, was appointed. Later, two important politicians during the stadtholderless era, Johan[?] and Cornelis de Witt[?] were brutally murdered in The Hague. With the aid of other German nations, the Dutch succeed in fighting back, leading to a peace with Cologne and Münster in 1674, after England also agreed to peace, in the Second Peace of Westminster[?].

In 1678, peace was made with France, though the Spanish and German allies felt betrayed by the treaty signed in Nijmegen. When the English king James II of England was dethroned, William III was asked to become king of England in 1688.

See also Dutch Golden Age, for an in-depth look at culture and arts in the United Provinces in the 17th century .

French rule

At the end of the 18th century, unrest was growing in the Netherlands. Fights were starting between the Orangists[?], wanting stadtholder William V of Orange to obtain more power, and the patriots, who under influence of the American and French Revolutions wanted a more democratic government. Holland was the first country to salute the American flag, and Britain declared war before the coutry could join a group of neutral countries sworn to mutual assistance. This Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780 - 1784) proved a disaster for the Netherlands, particularly economically. In 1785 there was a democratic ('patriotic') revolt, but the House of Orange called upon their Prussian relatives to put it down. Many patriots fled the country to France.

After the French Revolution, French republican armies invaded the Netherlands and settled the internal strife in favour of the Patriots, who created the short-lived Batavian Republic. French influence was strong, and Napoleon turned the Netherlands (including a small part of Germany) into the Kingdom of Holland, with his brother Louis Napoleon as king ("Konijn van Olland"). This also did not last very long, because when Napoleon noticed that his brother put the Dutch interests before the French, he made the Netherlands part of the French empire.

The House of Orange in the meantime signed a treaty with Britain in which they gave to that country the Dutch colonies in 'safekeeping' and ordered the colonial governors to surrender to the English. This put an end to most of the Dutch colonial empire. Guyana and Ceylon never returned to Dutch rule. The Cape colony was briefly returned to the Batavian Republic but became definitively British after 1806.

Other colonies, including Indonesia, were returned following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 (there was also an Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824).


See also: Dutch monarchy

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. The country became a monarchy, with the son of the last stadtholder William V, the prince of Orange as king William I. His United Kingdom of the Netherlands originally consisted of what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, but the Belgians 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 Wallony[?], 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. After a war of only a few days, King William had to give in, though he refused to recognise Belgium until 1839.

In 1848, unrest broke out all over Europe. In the Netherlands, little unrest happened, but the effects were large. The liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke was asked by the king to create a new constitution, which basically turned the Netherlands into a democracy.

By the end of the 19th century, when internationally countries were claiming colonies, the Netherlands extended their hold on Indonesia. Max Havelaar[?] by Multatuli[?], the most famous book in the history of Dutch literature, complained about the exploitation by the Dutch of the country and its inhabitants.

20th century

World War I

In World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral, but the army mobilised when war broke out in August 1914. 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. An error in food distribution caused the so-called Aardappeloproer (Potato-rebellion) in Amsterdam in 1917, when civilians plundered a food transport intended for soldiers.

In November 1918 the leader of the Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiders Partij[?] (SDAP, Social-Democratic Labour Party), Jelles Troelstra[?], called for a socialist revolution among the workers, but his plan failed.

World War II

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Netherlands declared their neutrality again. However, on May 10, 1940, Germany launched an attack on the Netherlands and Belgium. The Germans overran most of the country quickly, fighting against a poorly-equipped Dutch army. On May 14, a small number of battlefields was left, among others at Rotterdam. The Germans invited the Dutch to surrender the city, to which no reply came in time. The result was a massive bombardment of Rotterdam, killing about 800 people and destroying large parts of the city, leaving 78,000 homeless. Following the bombardment the Dutch capitulated to the Germans. The royal family had already fled to England. The German civil administration of the Netherlands was headed by Arthur Seyss-Inquart.

Persecution of the Jews, of which about 140,000 lived in the Netherlands at the start of the war, including some 20,000 refugees, started immediately after the invasion. In 1942, a transport camp was erected near Westerbork. Concentration camps were built near Vught and Amersfoort. At the end of the war, only about 20,000 of the 140,000 Dutch Jews remained alive. Among those who died was Anne Frank, who later gained world-wide fame when her diary, written while hiding from the Germans, was found and published.

After the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, they proceeded quickly towards the Dutch border. In September of the same year 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. Most of the Dutch, who thought the liberation had already started - the day the operation started is known as Dolle Dinsdag (Mad Tuesday) - would have to wait until 1945, although the part south of the rivers was liberated at that time.

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 Germany, Germany finally surrendered, signing the surrender to the Dutch at Wageningen.

On January 11, 1942, the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies had started. The Dutch surrendered on March 1, when Japanese troops landed on Java. Dutch citizens were captured and put to work in labour camps. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, after the Americans had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.

After World War II

Immediately after the liberation of the Dutch East Indies from Japan, on August 17, 1945, the colony 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 from the United Nations, and the United States (which threatened to stop Marshall Plan aid), and Indonesian determination lead the Netherlands to accept the new situation. Indonesia formally gained independence on December 27, 1949. Only the western half of New Guinea remained Dutch (until 1961).

Although it was originally expected that the loss of the Indies would lead to an economic downfall, the reverse appeared true, and in the 1950s the Netherlands quickly increased its wealth.

A modern, industrialised nation, the Netherlands is also a large exporter of agricultural products. The country was a founding member of NATO and the EC, and participated in the introduction of the euro in 1999. In recent years the Dutch have often been a driving force behind the unification of European countries in the European Union.

Homosexual marriage (homohuwelijk, or gay marriage) became permitted on 1 April 2001. At that time the Netherlands were the only country where gay marriages were not only allowed, but also considered fully equivalent to heterosexual ones.

see also Netherlands/2000, Netherlands/2001


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