For 18,000 years, human beings inhabited the land that is now called the Netherlands. Archeologists have discovered crude stone weapons and tools as proof. These early people did not settle in one place however, but continually moved around in search of food and shelter. Evidence of the first settled tribes can still be seen along the eastern border with Germany, where these people heaped up huge piles of large rocks as memorials to the dead. These memorials, known as ‘Hunnebedden,’ date back 4,000 years.
Other remnants of the past, that date back 2,500 years, can be seen in the province of Friesland. There, tremendous mounds of earth and clay, called ‘terpen’ stand out in the Frisian landscape. The Frisians built these islands in an attempt to deal with the North Sea. Other tribes, including Celtic people from central Europe and Germanic tribes from northern Europe, settled in the Netherlands. The Frisian, Celtic, and Germanic tribes each had their own appearance, customs, dialects, and way of life.
The Roman period
In the 1st century BC, the Romans, whose empire was expanding throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region, overpowered the Netherlands. The people of the Low Countries were no match for the massive, well-organized army of Julius Caesar. Around 50 BC the Romans conquered the areas that consist today of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The conquest was a mixed blessing for the Dutch. Although the people no longer had their independence, the Roman invaders taught them how to build highways, towns, and more effective dikes.
All was not peaceful under Roman rule, however, and the Dutch revolted from time to time. These uprisings were unsuccessful until the Roman Empire began to crumble. A Germanic people called the Franks drove out the Romans in the early 5th century AD and laid claim to a kingdom that included the present-day countries of the Netherlands, Belgium, France and part of Germany.
The Middle Ages
After the Roman period, the Franks ruled the Netherlands, but not all of the Netherlands. The independent and determined Frisians refused to accept the rule of the invading Frank tribes, until the end of the 8th century when the Frankish emperor Charlemagne conquered the Frisians. After the death of Charlemagne, the Frankish kingdom weakened. In the middle of the 9th century, the kingdom was divided in three parts. The Dutch faced tremendous difficulties at that point - not only had they lost their independence, but they continued to struggle against the sea. To make matters worse, they faced a new threat: the Vikings. Vikings were Scandinavian seafarers who plundered and terrorized the coasts of northern and western Europe. For 200 years, the Dutch were subject to vicious, unpredictable raids by these fierce Norwegians and Danes.
During the 10th century, a number of feudal semi-autonomous vassal states, owing allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire, emerged as the rulers of the Low Countries. A vassal is a subordinate or person who holds land from a feudal lord, receiving protection in return for allegiance. In the same period, the size of the Netherlands grew, as new polders were claimed from the sea. In the 1200s, the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague were built in these new polders. The Dutch continued to be ruled by outsiders in the years that followed. From the 1300s to the 1500s, the dukes of Burgundy from France ruled the Netherlands, along with what would become Luxembourg and Belgium. This period was known as the Burgundian Dynasty.
At the end of the 15th century, following the marriage of Philip the Bold’s daughter and heir, Mary of Burgundy, to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, the Burgundian possessions became part of the Austrian Habsburg reign. Eventually it became under Spanish control.
In the first decades of the 1500s, a German priest and theologian named Martin Luther began to criticize the Roman Catholic Church. His teachings led to a split in Christianity and the growth of Protestantism. Lutheranism and Calvinism became the two main branches of Protestantism. Calvinism attracted many believers in the northern part of the Low Countries, where the Netherlands is located.
During this period, Charles V ruled over the Netherlands as well as a vast empire of European countries. Although the Dutch came under Spanish rule, Charles V was seen as a decent and fair ruler, one whose wisdom and moderation eased religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants.
In 1566, Charles V abdicated and his son Philips II became ruler of the kingdom. Philips II, a devout catholic, tried to stop the foothold the Protestant Reformation had made in the Low Countries. Philips resorted to intimidation and violence to limit religious freedom. He installed a military force, led by the Duke of Alba in the Low Countries, ordered Protestants to be put to death, and stripped away the rights of those who would not agree with him.
The Dutch were pushed to the brink. Having suffered through more than 1,500 years of foreign domination, they were determined to resist religious persecution by a Spanish king. In 1568, the disagreements erupted into a rebellion known as the Dutch Revolt (De Opstand). William the Silent, prince of Orange, led the Dutch rebellion. The son of a rich German count, William had inherited a great amount of land in the Netherlands, as well as the principality of Orange in the south of France. At an early age, William had become a favorite member of the court of Charles V. He was admired for being a good listener, one who would keep his ears open and speak only after careful thought. Thus, he became known as William the Silent. In 1566, William openly proclaimed his Calvinist faith and left the Netherlands for Germany. His goal was to build an army and return to rescue the Netherlands from its oppressor.
On January 23, 1579, the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands and several small cities in the south signed the Union of Utrecht. The Union of Utrecht created a federation, which sent representatives to an assembly, called the States General. The predominantly catholic southern provinces formed the Union of Arras and declared their loyalty to Philips II.
Two years later, in 1581, the Low Countries declared their independence from Spain in the Act of Abandonment, but the act was only a reality in the northern provinces. William of Orange became the first stadholder (magistrate) of the United Provinces.
In 1584, a catholic assassin in Delft killed William of Orange.
THE GOLDEN AGE
The 1600s were known as the Golden Age for the Netherlands. For more than 100 years, this tiny nation in northwestern Europe dominated the world both economically and culturally. In 1602, the Dutch government chartered the East India Trade Company (VOC), a powerful trading enterprise and one of the world’s first joint-stock companies.
Henry Hudson, an Englishman, was hired by the VOC in 1609. His mission was to find a northern route to the Orient. As a result of bad weather, he turned southward and explored the American coast landing in Albany, New York. The Dutch claimed what are today the states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut and named it New Netherland. They built a town named New Amsterdam on what today is the island of Manhattan. It was later renamed New York.
Back in the Netherlands, the Dutch statesman, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and William’s sons, signed an uneasy peace with Spain in 1609. Fighting resumed after 1621 until 1648, when Spain finally recognized the provinces’ independence. Thus, came an end to a war which is often referred to as the Eighties Years’ War.
The Golden Age produced a profusion of great painters, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jan Steen and many others. It was also a time of great scientific and philosophical achievements in the Netherlands, like Van Leeuwenhoek's exploration of the microscopic world.
During the 18th century, the Netherlands experienced a long period of decline and the country was embroiled in several wars, mostly involving England and France, as the nations fought for supremacy on the sea. Gradually, the Netherlands declined in importance, as the economic and colonial power of England and France grew.
The end of the republic came in 1795 when Dutch rebels, unhappy with their leader William V, formed the Batavian Republic with the help of revolutionary France.
In reality, the Netherlands became a French protectorate. In 1806, Napoleon became the emperor of France and declared his brother, Louis Bonaparte, king of the Netherlands. Louis abdicated in 1810 and the Netherlands became part of the French Empire.
In 1815, William I brought together the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1830, Belgium declared its independence and Luxembourg in 1867.
During the reign of William II, the statesman Thorbecke brought about a transformation in government that remains in place today. A constitution was written that called for the legislative duties of government to be placed in the hands of an elected body, the States General. The monarch would act as the head of the state. This type of government is called a constitutional monarchy.
At the end of the 19th century, Queen Wilhelmina succeeded King William II (1890). She was crowned at the age of 10 and because of her young age, her mother ruled for 8 years until Wilhelmina turned 18. The Netherlands remained neutral during World War I (1914-1918). The war years weakened the Dutch economy, which was further damaged during the worldwide Depression of the 1930s.
In May 1940, Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands. As a result, neutrality was not an option for the Netherlands during World War II. Within one week the Nazis controlled the country. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government went into exile in England. The whole country suffered terribly throughout the war. Cities were severely damaged by bombings, and starvation afflicted much of the population. The Netherlands was finally freed when Germany was defeated in 1945 and the Dutch prepared to rebuild. They received economic aid from the United States as part of the Marshall plan. As a result, the Netherlands became a powerful industrial nation and a participant in European as well as worldwide economic and political affairs. As such, the Netherlands is one of the original members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Queen Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948, in favor of her daughter Juliana, after a reign of 50 years. Just five years later, one of the Netherlands’ greatest tragedies took place. The flood of 1953 stunned the nation. That year, the government began construction of the Delta Project to seal off the southwestern part of the country from the North Sea.
In 1980, Queen Beatrix succeeded Queen Juliana.
To date, the Netherlands remains a politically stable country that plays an important role in the world’s politics and economy.