Prehistory (before 500 BC)
The prehistory of the region that is now the Netherlands was largely shaped by the sea and rivers, which constantly shifted the low-lying geography. The oldest human (Neanderthal) traces in the Netherlands were found in higher terrain near Maastricht and probably date back to about 250,000 years ago. After the end of the Ice Age, various Palaeolithic groups inhabited the area and about 8,000 Mesolithic tribes settled in Friesland and Drenthe, where the oldest canoe in the world was found. Indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Swifterbant culture are documented from around 5600 BC. They are strongly associated with rivers and open waters and were linked to the Ertebølle culture in southern Scandinavia (5300-4000 BC). In the west, the same tribes may have established hunting camps to hunt game in winter. Between 4800 and 4500 BC, people switched to animal husbandry. Agricultural transformation took place very gradually, between 4300 and 4000 B.C. The agricultural culture of the Funnel Beakers spread from Denmark through northern Germany to the north of the Netherlands and built the dolmens, large stone burial monuments found in Drenthe (built between 4100 and 3200 B.C.). In the southwest, the Vlaardingen culture (c. 2600 BC), an apparently more primitive hunter-gatherer culture, survived into the Neolithic period. Around 2950 BC there was a rapid and smooth transition from the agricultural culture of the Bell Beakers to the pan-European pastoral culture of the Corded Ware Pottery. The Bell Beaker culture, which also occurs in the Netherlands, apparently emerged from the Corded Ware culture.
The finds of copper objects are about trade with other parts of Europe, as this metal is not normally found on Dutch soil. The Bronze Age probably began around 2000 BC and lasted until around 800 BC. The many finds of rare and valuable objects in Drenthe suggest that it was a trading centre in the Bronze Age. Beaker cultures (2700-2100 BC) developed locally into the Bronze Age (2100-1800 BC) culture of barbed wire beakers. In the second millennium BC, the region formed the boundary between the Atlantic and northern horizons, roughly divided by the course of the Rhine. In the north, the Elp culture (c. 1800 BC to 800 BC) was a Bronze Age archaeological culture with low-grade terracotta pottery as a marker. The early phase was characterised by burial mounds (1800-1200 BC) strongly related to contemporary burial mounds in northern Germany and Scandinavia and apparently associated with the Tumulus culture (1600-1200 BC) in central Europe. This phase was followed by a later change with urnfield (cremation) burial customs (1200-800 BC). The southern region was dominated by the Hilversum culture (1800-800 BC), which seems to have inherited its cultural links to Britain from the ancient culture of the barbed-wire cups.
The Iron Age brought a certain prosperity. Iron ore was available throughout the country, including that extracted from the peat bogs in the north, the natural iron balls found in the Veluwe and the red iron ore near the rivers in Brabant. Blacksmiths moved from one small settlement to the next with bronze and iron, making tools as needed, including axes, knives, pens, arrowheads and swords. There is even evidence that Damascene steel swords were made using an advanced forging method that combined the flexibility of iron with the strength of steel. The tomb of King Oss from around 500 BC was found in a burial mound, the largest of its kind in Western Europe, and contained an iron sword inlaid with gold and coral.
The Germanic tribes and the Romans (500 BC – 410 AD)
The deterioration of the climate in Scandinavia around 850 BC, which deteriorated further around 650 BC, may have triggered the migration of the North Germanic tribes. By the time this migration was complete, around 250 BC, some general cultural and linguistic groups had emerged. The Germanic Ingveans from the North Sea inhabited the northern part of the Netherlands. They would later become the Frisians and the first Saxons. A second group, the Weser and Rhine Germanic tribes (or Istvaeons), stretched along the Middle Rhine and the Weser and inhabited the Netherlands south of the major rivers. This group consisted of tribes that would develop into the Salian Franks. The Celtic culture of La Tène (around 450 BC until the Roman conquest) had also spread over a large area, including the southern part of the Netherlands. Some researchers have hypothesised that even a third ethnic identity and language, which was neither Germanic nor Celtic, survived in the Netherlands until the Roman period, the Iron Age culture of the Northwest Block, which was eventually absorbed by the Celts in the south and the Germanic peoples in the east.
During the Gallic Wars, the area south of the Oude Rijn and west of the Rhine was conquered by Roman troops under Julius Caesar in 57 BC. Caesar describes two main tribes living in the area of today’s southern Netherlands: the Menapis and the Eburones. The Rhine became Rome’s northern border around AD 12. AD Important cities developed along the Limes Germanicus: Nijmegen and Voorburg. Originally part of Gallia Belgica, the area south of the Limes became part of the Roman province Germania Inferior. The area north of the Rhine, inhabited by the Frisii, remained outside Roman rule (but not their presence and control), while the border tribes Batavi and Cananefates served in the Roman cavalry. The Batavi rose up against the Romans during the Batavian Rebellion of 69 AD, but were eventually defeated. The Batavi then joined with other tribes to form the confederation of Salian Franks, whose identity emerged in the first half of the 3rd century. The Salian Franks appear in Roman texts as allies and enemies. The Salian Franks were forced by the confederation of the East Saxons to cross the Rhine to settle in Roman territory in the fourth century. From their new base in West Flanders and the south-western Netherlands, they raided the English Channel. The Roman troops pacified the region but did not expel the Franks, who remained feared at least until the time of Julian the Apostate (358), when the Salian Franks were allowed to settle in Toxandy as foederati. After the deterioration of climatic conditions and the retreat of the Romans, the Frisii disappeared from the northern Netherlands, probably resettled as laeti on Roman territory around 296. For the next two centuries, the coastal areas remained largely depopulated.
Early Middle Ages (411–1000)
After the collapse of the Roman government in the region, the Franks expanded their territory in many kingdoms. In the 490s, Clovis I conquered and united all these territories in the south of the Netherlands into a single Frankish kingdom and from there continued his conquests in Gaul. In the course of this expansion, the Franks who migrated south eventually adopted the Vulgar Latin of the local population. A growing cultural gap developed with the Franks who remained in their homeland in the north (i.e. the southern Netherlands and Flanders) and continued to speak Old Frankish, which became Old Dutch or Altniederländisch in the 9th century. A Dutch-French language border emerged.
North of the Franks, the climatic conditions on the coast improved and in the Migration Period the abandoned land was resettled, mainly by the Saxons, but also by the Angles, Jutes and the closely related Old Frisians. Many went to England and became Anglo-Saxons, but those who stayed are called Frisians and their language is Frisian, named after the land once inhabited by the Frisians. Frisian was spoken all along the southern North Sea coast and is still the language closest to English among the living languages of continental Europe. In the 7th century, a Frisian kingdom emerged (650-734) ruled by King Aldergisel and King Redbad, with Utrecht as the centre of power, while Dorestad was a thriving trading centre. Between about 600 and 719, the towns were often fought over between the Frisians and the Franks. In 734, at the Battle of Boarn, the Frisians were defeated after a series of wars. With the consent of the Franks, the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord converted the Frisian people to Christianity. He founded the archbishopric of Utrecht and became Bishop of Friesland. However, his successor Boniface was murdered by the Frisians in Dokkum in 754.
The Carolingian-Franconian Empire was modelled on the Roman Empire and controlled large parts of Western Europe. However, from 843 it was divided into three parts – East Francia, Middle Francia and West Francia. Most of what is now the Netherlands belonged to Middle Franconia, which was a weak kingdom and subject to numerous partitions and annexation attempts by its stronger neighbours. It included territories from Friesland in the north to the Kingdom of Italy in the south. When the Middle Kingdom was divided, the lands north of the Alps passed to Lothar II and were successively called Lotharingia. After his death in 869, Lotharingia was divided into Upper and Lower Lotharingia, the latter part including the Netherlands, which technically became part of eastern France in 870, although effectively under the control of the Vikings, who attacked the largely undefended Frisian and Frankish towns on the Frisian coast and along the rivers. Around 850, Lothar I recognised the Viking Rorik of Dorestad as ruler over most of Friesland. Around 879, another Viking, Godfrid, Duke of Friesland, took over the Frisian lands. Viking raids weakened the influence of the French and German lords in the region. Resistance to the Vikings came, if at all, from the local nobles, who gained prestige as a result and laid the foundation for the disintegration of Lower Lotharing into semi-independent states. One of these local nobles was Gerolf of Holland, who took over the rule of Friesland after helping to assassinate Godfrid, and the rule of the Vikings came to an end.
High Middle Ages (1000-1384)
The Holy Roman Empire (the successor state of Eastern France) ruled over large parts of the Netherlands in the 10th and 11th centuries, but was unable to maintain a political unity. Powerful local nobles turned their cities, counties and duchies into private kingdoms with little allegiance to the emperor. Holland, Hainaut, Flanders, Gelderland, Brabant and Utrecht were in an almost continuous state of war or, paradoxically, formed personal unions. The language and culture of most of the inhabitants of the county of Holland was originally Frisian. As Frankish colonisation from Flanders and Brabant progressed, the area quickly became Old Low Frisian (or Old Dutch). The rest of North Frisia (now Friesland and Groningen) retained its independence and had its own institutions (collectively called “Frisian Freedom”) and felt the imposition of the feudal system.
Around the year 1000, the economy began to expand rapidly thanks to various agricultural developments, and higher productivity allowed workers to cultivate more land or become merchants. Cities developed around monasteries and castles, and a mercantile bourgeoisie began to develop in these urban areas, especially in Flanders and later in Brabant. Wealthy towns began to buy certain privileges from the sovereign. In practice, this meant that Bruges and Antwerp became almost completely independent republics in their own right and would later develop into some of the most important cities and ports in Europe.
Around 1100 AD, farmers from Flanders and Utrecht began to drain and cultivate uninhabited marshland in the west of the Netherlands, enabling the creation of the County of Holland as a centre of power. The title of Count of Holland was disputed during the Hook and Cod Wars (in Dutch: Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten) between 1350 and 1490. The cod faction consisted of the most progressive cities, while the hook faction consisted of the conservative nobles. These nobles invited Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy – who was also Count of Flanders – to conquer Holland.
Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands (1384-1581)
Most of the imperial and French fiefdoms in what are now the Netherlands and Belgium were united in a personal union in 1433 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The House of Valois-Bourgogne and its Habsburg heirs ruled the Netherlands from 1384 to 1581. Before the Burgundian union, the Dutch identified themselves by the city they lived in or by their local duchy or county. With the Burgundian period, the road to nationhood began. The new rulers defended the trading interests of the then rapidly developing Netherlands. The fleets of the county of Holland defeated the fleets of the Hanseatic League several times. Amsterdam grew and became Europe’s most important trading port for grain from the Baltic region in the 15th century. Amsterdam distributed grain to the large cities in Belgium, northern France and England. This trade was vital as Holland could no longer produce enough grain to feed itself. Drainage of the land had reduced the peat in the former wetlands to a level too low to sustain drainage.
Under the rule of the Habsburg King Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain, all the fiefdoms of what is now the Netherlands were united into seventeen provinces, which also included most of present-day Belgium, Luxembourg and some adjacent territories in present-day France and Germany. In 1568, the 80-year war between the provinces and their Spanish ruler began. In 1579, the northern half of the seventeen provinces formed the Union of Utrecht, in which they pledged to support each other in defence against the Spanish army. The Union of Utrecht is considered the foundation of the modern Netherlands. In 1581, the northern provinces passed the Act of Abjuration, the Declaration of Independence, by which the provinces officially deposed Philip II of Spain as the ruling monarch in the northern provinces.
The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England sympathised with the struggle of the Dutch against the Spanish and sent an army of 7,600 soldiers to help the Dutch in their war against the Catholic Spanish. The English army under the command of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, was of no real use to the Dutch rebellion. Philip II, the son of Charles V, was not prepared to let them go easily, and the war lasted until 1648, when Spain under King Philip IV finally recognised the independence of the seven north-western provinces in the Peace of Münster. Parts of the southern provinces became de facto colonies of the new Republican-Mercantile Empire.
Dutch Republic (1581-1795)
After the Declaration of Independence, the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, Groningen, Friesland, Utrecht, Overijssel and Gelderland formed a confederation. All these duchies, dominions and counties were autonomous and had their own government, the Provincial States. The States General, the confederal government, was based in The Hague and consisted of representatives from each of the seven provinces. The sparsely populated region of Drenthe was also part of the Republic, although it was not counted as a province. In addition, the Republic had occupied a number of “States General” in Flanders, Brabant and Limburg during the Eighty Years’ War. Their population was predominantly Catholic and these territories had no governmental structure of their own. They served as a buffer zone between the Republic and the southern Netherlands under Spanish control.
During the Dutch Golden Age, which spanned much of the 17th century, the Dutch Empire developed into one of the most important maritime and economic powers. Science, the army and art (especially painting) were among the most respected in the world. In 1650, the Dutch owned 16,000 merchant ships. The Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company established colonies and trading posts around the world, including rule over the northern parts of Taiwan between 1624-62 and 1664-67. Dutch settlement in North America began with the founding of New Amsterdam in the southern part of Manhattan in 1614. In South Africa, the Dutch founded the Cape Colony in 1652. Dutch colonies in South America were founded along the many rivers of the fertile Guyana Plain, including the colony of Suriname (now Suriname). In Asia, the Dutch founded the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the only western settlement in Japan, Dejima.
Many economic historians consider the Netherlands to be the first fully capitalist country in the world. At the beginning of modern Europe, it had the richest trading city (Amsterdam) and the first full-time stock exchange. The ingenuity of traders led to the creation of insurance companies and pension funds, as well as phenomena such as the boom-bust cycle, the world’s first asset inflation bubble, the tulip mania of 1636-1637 and the first bear raid, Isaac the Mayor, who brought prices down by selling shares and then buying them back at a discount. The Republic experienced a general decline at the end of the 18th century, with economic competition from England and long-standing rivalries between the two main factions of Dutch society, the republican Staatsgezinden and the supporters of the city owner, the Prinsgezinden, as the main political groupings.
Republic and Kingdom of Batavia (1795-1890)
With the armed support of revolutionary France, the Dutch republicans proclaimed the Batavian Republic on 19 January 1795, modelled on the French Republic, and made the Netherlands a unitary state. The head of state, William V of Orange, had fled to England. But from 1806 to 1810, the Kingdom of Holland was created by Napoleon Bonaparte as a puppet kingdom ruled by his brother Louis Bonaparte to better control the Netherlands. However, King Louis Bonaparte tried to serve Dutch interests rather than those of his brother and was forced to abdicate on 1 July 1810. The Emperor sent an army and the Netherlands were part of the French Empire until the autumn of 1813, when Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Leipzig.
William Frederick, son of the last city ruler, returned to the Netherlands in 1813 and proclaimed himself sovereign prince of the Netherlands. Two years later, the Congress of Vienna added the southern Netherlands to create a strong country on the northern border with France. William Frederick elevated these united Netherlands to a kingdom and proclaimed himself King William I. In addition, William became hereditary Grand Duke of Luxembourg in exchange for his German possessions. However, the southern Netherlands had been culturally separated from the north since 1581 and rebelled. The south gained independence in 1830 under the name Belgium, while the personal union between Luxembourg and the Netherlands broke up in 1890 when William III died without a surviving male heir. The laws of ascendancy prevented his daughter, Queen Wilhelmina, from becoming the next grand duchess.
The Belgian Revolution at home and the Java War in the Dutch East Indies brought the Netherlands to the brink of bankruptcy. However, the cultivation system was introduced in 1830; in the Dutch East Indies, 20% of village land was to be used for state cultivation for export. This policy brought enormous wealth to the Dutch and made the colony self-sufficient. On the other hand, the colonies in the West Indies (Dutch Guiana and Curaçao and dependencies), were heavily dependent on African slaves, of which the Dutch share is estimated at 5-7%, or more than half a million Africans. The Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863. Moreover, the slaves in Suriname were not completely free until 1873, as the law provided for a compulsory 10-year transition. The Dutch were also one of the last European countries to industrialise in the second half of the 19th century.
World Wars and Beyond (1890-present)
The Netherlands was able to remain neutral during the First World War, partly because the import of goods through the Netherlands was vital for Germany’s survival, until the blockade of the British Royal Navy in 1916. This changed during the Second World War, when Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. The Rotterdam Blitz forced the main part of the Dutch army to surrender four days later. During the occupation, more than 100,000 Dutch Jews were rounded up and transported to Nazi death camps, few of whom survived. Dutch workers were conscripted into forced labour in Germany, civilians who resisted were killed in retaliation for attacks on German soldiers, and the country was looted for food. Although thousands of Dutch risked their lives to hide Jews from the Germans, more than 20,000 Dutch fascists joined the Waffen-SS and fought on the Eastern Front. Political collaborators were members of the fascist NSB, the only legal political party in the occupied Netherlands. On 8 December 1941, the Dutch government-in-exile in London declared war on Japan, but could not prevent the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). In 1944-45, the First Canadian Army, which included Canadian, British and Polish troops, was responsible for liberating large parts of the Netherlands. However, shortly after VE Day, the Dutch waged a colonial war against the new Republic of Indonesia.
In 1954, the Charter of the Kingdom of the Netherlands reformed the political structure of the Netherlands in response to international pressure for decolonisation. The Dutch colonies of Suriname and Curaçao, as well as the dependencies and the European country, all became equal countries within the Kingdom. Indonesia had declared independence in August 1945 (recognised in 1949) and therefore never became part of the reformed Kingdom. Suriname followed in 1975. After the war, the Netherlands also left behind an era of neutrality and established closer relations with neighbouring states. The Netherlands was one of the founding members of the Benelux, NATO, Euratom and the European Coal and Steel Community, which later became the EEC (Common Market) and later the European Union.
Government-sponsored emigration efforts to reduce population density caused around 500,000 Dutch people to leave the country after the war. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of great social and cultural change, such as the rapid ontzuiling (literally: depillarisation), a term used to describe the breakdown of previous divisions along political and religious lines. Young people, especially students, rejected traditional mores and pushed for change in areas such as women’s rights, sexuality, disarmament and environmental issues. On 10 October 2010, the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved. Referendums were held on each island to determine their future status. As a result, the islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba (the BES islands) were to be tied more closely to the Netherlands. This led to these three islands being incorporated into the Netherlands as special municipalities when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved. The special municipalities are collectively known as the Caribbean Netherlands.