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.
Land and Resources
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.
Physiographic Regions 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. 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 Northeast 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.
Rivers and Lakes
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.
Vegetation and Animal Life
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 Netherlands—Europeans 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.
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.
Education and Cultural Activity 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 centuries—producing such noted and influential painters as Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, and Karel Appel—and lives on today, particularly in Amsterdam, where artists from many countries work. See Baroque Art and Architecture; Dutch Literature; Frisian Literature; Renaissance Art and Architecture.
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.
The Netherlands has played a special role in the European economy for many centuries. Since the 16th century, shipping, fishing, trade, and banking have been leading sectors of the Dutch economy, and trade with the country’s colonial empire was important in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Since the independence of Indonesia in the late 1940s, the Dutch economy has been redirected from colonial trade to that with European nations; a diversified manufacturing base was created as employment in agriculture fell; and the country became a major energy exporter as large deposits of natural gas were discovered. In all these changes the national government played a major role, particularly by its economic planning. The government’s influence is great even though most firms are privately owned, because it distributes nearly half the Dutch national income. Also important in the economic growth of the Netherlands are the activities of a number of large private firms.
In 1993 the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Netherlands was measured at $309.2 billion. Between 1980 and 1992, the country’s GDP in real currency grew at an average yearly rate of 2.2 percent. About 30 percent of GDP is produced by manufacturing, construction, and energy-related activities; agriculture contributed 4 percent, and the service sector was also a major contributor.
Of the approximately 6.6 million employed workers, about 60 percent work in trade and services. One quarter are employed in manufacturing and industry, 11 percent are in business and finance, and 4 percent work in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Approximately one-third belong to labor organizations, the largest of which are the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation and the Christian National Federation of Trade Unions in the Netherlands. The government systematically enters into negotiations between employers and unions in order to secure collective bargaining agreements that are consistent with its economic plans.
Agriculture Despite the small size and dense population of the Netherlands, agriculture is highly productive and a major generator of exports. The export value of meat, flowers, vegetables, butter, cheese, and other dairy products substantially exceeds the value of imported grain, tropical products, and animal fodder. This specialized agriculture occurs mainly on small family farms. Meadows and pastures occupy about 32 percent of the nation’s land area, while 27 percent is devoted to cultivation. Annual crop production in the early 1990s (in metric tons) included potatoes, 7.7 million; sugar beets, 7.5 million; vegetables and fruits, 4.4 million; wheat, 1 million; and other cereals, 323,000. There were 4.8 million cattle, 15 million pigs, and 96 million chickens. The Netherlands became famous for its tulip breeders in the 18th century, and today flowers and bulbs are important exports. The need to increase yields on limited tracts of land has made Dutch farmers heavy users of chemical fertilizers, which can contaminate groundwater. To combat this problem, the government has promoted efforts to reduce pollutants.
Forestry and Fishing
Because little of the Netherlands is covered by forest, timber production is of minor importance. Fishing, however, is a traditional activity that continues to be significant despite the reduction of the stock resulting partly from water pollution in the North Sea. Atlantic horse mackerel, Atlantic herring, European plaice, blue mussel, Atlantic mackerel, common sole, Atlantic cod, blue whiting, and shrimp are leading components of the annual catch, which totaled 443,100 metric tons in the early 1990s.
The Dutch manufacturing sector is highly diversified, and much of it is of recent origin; industrial production was relatively unimportant until after World War II (1939-1945). Heavy industry, such as the manufacture of steel, transportation equipment, and large machinery, is much less important in the Netherlands than in neighboring countries. The rapid post-1945 growth of manufacturing has been led by the chemical and electronics industries. Also important to the manufacturing sector are the production of processed food, beverages, and tobacco products, machinery, transportation equipment (particularly merchant ships), metal products, and printed material.
The industrial structure of the Netherlands is closely related to the country’s sources of energy. For centuries the Dutch relied heavily on windmills and peat for energy. As these became outmoded, coal increased in importance. Deposits in Limburg Province supplied a part of Dutch needs, but most coal was imported. Petroleum and natural gas became increasingly important after World War II; these fuels also were imported, and the port of Rotterdam became a leading center for receiving and refining petroleum. In the 1950s and 1960s the Dutch discovered large reserves of natural gas in Groningen Province. Production rose rapidly, permitting the last domestic coal mines to be closed in 1973 and making the Netherlands a major exporter of natural gas. In the early 1990s the annual output of crude petroleum was 19.5 million barrels, and of natural gas, 82 billion cu m (2.9 trillion cu ft), making the Netherlands the world’s fifth largest producer. Installed electricity-generating capacity was 22.2 million kilowatts; the output of electricity totaled 63.5 billion kilowatt-hours.
Currency and Banking
The Dutch currency unit is the guilder, or gulden (1.71 guilders equal U.S. $1; 1996). It is issued and regulated by De Nederlandsche Bank (1814), the Dutch central bank. The exchange rate of the guilder is closely tied to that of other major Western European currencies, particularly the German mark. Amsterdam is the leading center of Dutch banking and insurance and the home of the country’s principal stock exchange. The international commodity exchange for petroleum operates in Rotterdam.
The Dutch economy is extremely open to world trade. Much of the flow of goods into its ports is intended for transshipment to other countries, mainly other members of the European Union. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the value of Dutch exports generally exceeded that of its imports; in 1992, for example, the country’s imports cost about $130.3 billion, and its exports earned about $139 billion. Leading exports are basic manufactures; food products, chiefly fruit and vegetables, dairy products and eggs, and meat; machinery; chemicals and chemical products, including organic chemicals and plastics; transportation equipment; petroleum products; and natural gas. Major imports are machinery; basic manufactured items, principally paper goods, textiles, and metals; food and live animals; chemicals; transportation equipment; and petroleum and petroleum products. Fellow members of the European Union account for the majority of Dutch imports and exports. Germany is the most important single trading partner, accounting for more than 27 percent of Dutch trade. Other leading purchasers of exports are Belgium and Luxembourg, France, Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Spain. Principal sources for imports in addition to Germany are Belgium and Luxembourg, Great Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Japan. Natural-gas exports have helped increase Dutch foreign exchange earnings, as has the influx of tourists. More than 3.9 million foreigners visit the Netherlands every year, attracted by its sandy beaches, by boating on its rivers and lakes, and by historical sites and cultural activities. The Dutch are themselves fond of traveling, however, and they generally spend at least twice as much money abroad as foreigners spend in the Netherlands.
Transportation Because the Dutch economy is internationally oriented, good transportation facilities have long been essential to its prosperity. Rotterdam is one of the world’s leading seaports, and Amsterdam also is a major port. Both ports owe their importance to canals and rivers that provide easy access to the sea as well as to the interior of Europe.
The New Waterway links Rotterdam to the North Sea, which is connected to Amsterdam by the North Sea Channel. Dutch canals and rivers navigable by vessels of more than 1000 gross registered tons have a total length of about 2398 km (about 1490 mi) and reach almost every part of the country. The Dutch oceangoing merchant fleet comprised 2.8 million gross registered tons in the early 1990s, and some 5500 Dutch commercial vessels plied inland waterways.
The government-owned railroad network of some 2753 km (some 1711 mi) of operated track, about 72 percent of which is electrified, densely covers the Netherlands and provides frequent passenger train service. Barge competition prevents the railroads from being major freight carriers.
About 2118 km (about 1316 mi) of limited-access highways and numerous bridges, tunnels, and ferries help to speed the flow of Dutch motor-vehicle traffic. The number of automobiles in the early 1990s was 5.8 million, or nearly one for every three inhabitants. Bicycles are an important means of local travel, and many roads have separate bicycle lanes.
The busiest international airport of the Netherlands is Schiphol, near Amsterdam, and smaller airports serve Groningen, Maastricht, Rotterdam, and other cities. Domestic air travel is of little importance. Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) is the country’s leading air carrier.
In addition to the many dozens of regional and local newspapers, the Netherlands has several nationally distributed newspapers, each tending to be associated with a particular political or social position. For example, the NRC-Handelsblad (published in Rotterdam) is liberal and nonsectarian, the Volkskrant (Amsterdam) has Roman Catholic ties, Trouw (Amsterdam) is close to the Reformed church, and Het Vrije Volk (Rotterdam) is linked to the Socialist Party. The daily with the largest circulation is the independent Telegraaf of Amsterdam. Under the Media Act of 1988, two national organizations coordinate radio and television broadcasting: an independent consortium provides production facilities, while a firm representing both government and the private sector transmits general-interest programming. Most programs are produced by nonprofit associations that are given funds raised by taxing radio and television owners and are allocated air time according to the number of members they have. The major producers include VARA (socialist), NCRV (Protestant), KRO (Roman Catholic), and AVRO and TROS (both nonsectarian). The country has many smaller producers, making Dutch radio and television pluralistic. In the early 1990s some 12 million radios were in use and 5.6 million television sets were licensed.
The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. It is governed under an 1814 constitution, as amended.
The head of state of the Netherlands is the hereditary monarch, who has had little power in running the government since the constitution was revised in 1848. The principal executive official of the country is the prime minister, who is appointed by the monarch and heads a cabinet that is responsible to the parliament, called the States-General.
The States-General consists of a First Chamber, composed of 75 members elected to terms of four years by the provincial legislatures, and a Second Chamber, made up of 150 members popularly elected to terms of up to four years under a system of proportional representation. Either or both chambers may be dissolved by the monarch on condition that new elections be held within 40 days. The Second Chamber is by far the more important of the two; the First Chamber has little more than a rarely exercised veto power over the legislative process.
The judicial system of the Netherlands includes four main levels of courts. The highest tribunal is the High Court of the Netherlands, which sits in The Hague. Other major judicial bodies are courts of appeal, district courts of justice, and canton courts. All Dutch judges are appointed for life by the monarch.
The Netherlands is made up of 12 provinces—Drenthe, Flevoland, Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, Limburg, Noord-Brabant, Noord-Holland, Overijssel, Zuid-Holland, Utrecht, and Zeeland. The political identity of each province can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Today each is governed by a commissioner appointed by the monarch and a popularly elected legislature (Provincial States). The country is further divided into nearly 650 municipalities, ranging from the largest city to the smallest village. Each is governed by a popularly elected council and a burgemeester (mayor) appointed by the government. These lower levels of government have only limited taxing power and depend on the central government for most of their finances. The Netherlands has universal suffrage for all citizens beginning at age 18.
The Netherlands uses systems of proportional representation in electing municipal, provincial, and national assemblies. This allows even small political parties to win representation. In the 1994 Second Chamber elections, for example, 12 parties won seats. On the national level, the Netherlands has always been governed by coalitions of parties, the formation of which has often proved difficult.
In the early 1990s, the largest parties were the Christian Democratic Appeal, a moderate group; the Labor Party, a socialist organization; the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, a liberal, business-oriented party; and Democrats 66, a relatively new party seeking greater direct citizens’ participation in the political system. Of the many smaller parties, most are extremely liberal or extremely conservative.
The Dutch government administers one of Europe’s most comprehensive welfare states. Taxes and social security premiums together give the government command over nearly half the national income. Much of this revenue is spent on education, health, employment stimulation, and social welfare. To reduce a growing budget deficit, however, the government has trimmed social services in recent years. Participation in the health insurance system is compulsory for everyone earning less than a certain wage (about 70 percent of the population). The Dutch are also protected by unemployment benefits; sick pay; a guaranteed income for those physically unable to work; pensions for widows, orphans, and the elderly; minimum-wage regulations; and family allowances.
The military defense of the Netherlands is secured by the participation of its army, navy, and air force in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). All males must serve nine months in the armed forces. In 1993 conscripts made up almost half the 74,600 members of the Dutch armed forces.
The Netherlands has long advocated European integration and international cooperation. Consequently, it joined the Council of Europe in 1949; the European Community (now called the European Union) in 1957; the Benelux Economic Union, which links the country with Belgium and Luxembourg, in 1960; and other European organizations. It is also a charter member of the United Nations and is a major contributor to programs furthering the economic development of poor countries. The Netherlands is also a founding member of both NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
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.
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 Bourgogne 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 (see Dutch 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.
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.
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.
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.