A brief history of the Netherlands

The first recorded instance of humans inhabiting the region we now call the Netherlands dates back almost 370,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived in the area as hunter gatherers before the arrival of modern man around 8000BC. The Iron Age saw a number of Celtic and Germanic tribes dominate the area until the arrival of the Romans in 58BC. Julius Caesar conquered the land during the Gallic Wars and from that moment onwards the territory was ruled by the Romans for the next 450 years.

With the fall of the Western Empire the territory was taken over by a series of Germanic Tribes, the largest and most powerful being the Franks. The Netherlands became a part of the Frankish Empire and then a part of Charlemagne’s Empire.

In the 9th and 10th centuries the relatively undefended coastal towns were raided by the Vikings and parts of the area were occupied. Viking rule came to an end in 885 when the first Count of Holland, Gerolf assumed lordship over Frisia.

From 1000-1432 the county of Holland was a part of the Holy Roman Empire with the Counts of Holland ruling the area. In 1433 what is now the Netherlands and Belgium was united by the Duke of Burgundy. Under Burgundian rule the Dutch began down the road to nationhood. Holland’s trade developed rapidly and the Burgundian ruler’s armies defended Holland’s interests. The naval fleets of Holland frequently defeated the fleets of the Danish Hanseatic League. In the 15th century Amsterdam became the major trading centre in Europe for grain from the Baltic.

In the 1500’s the seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands became a part of the Spanish Empire when Charles the fifth ascended the Habsburg throne. The 1500’s was a time of turmoil for the Dutch as the Protestant Reformations swept across Europe. Protestantism was widely embraced much to the anger of the Catholic Spanish. The Kings attempts to enforce religious persecution against the new wing of Christianity saw the Dutch revolt and triggered the eighty years war for Dutch independence.

During the conflict the Dutch provinces became the most important trading centre in Northern Europe. The war raged for decades under the command of William of Orange the founder of the Dutch Royal family. Eventually the fighting came to an end with the signing of the peace of Westphalia in 1648. The treaty confirmed the independence of the Dutch United Provinces from Spanish and German rule. National identity was mainly formed by the province people came from. Holland was the most important province by far. The republic of the Seven Provinces came to be known as Holland in foreign countries.

The Dutch Golden age saw the Netherlands become the most scientifically advanced and economically wealthy in the whole of Europe and the invention of the sawmill enabled the construction of a vast fleet of trade and war ships.  The Dutch replaced the Spanish and Portuguese as the dominant trading nations and in 1602 the Dutch East India Company was established. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was founded and soon the Netherlands was the owner of a global Empire spanning Asia, Africa and the Americas. Throughout the 1700’s the Dutch fought many wars against its neighbours. Following a disastrous war against Great Britain in 1784 the French occupied the nation. Napoleon reformed the government and French rule remained until his defeat in 1816. Following the French defeat the Netherlands was reformed into the united kingdom of the Netherlands.    The House of Orange-Nassau was elevated to royal status and provided the king. A stronger country on France’s northern border was considered to be an important part of the strategy to keep France’s power in check.

The Dutch chose to remain neutral in the First World War but the nation still suffered from its affects. The Allies and Germans blockaded the country and put great amounts of pressure on the country. Food shortages were common and food riots broke out.

After the war the nation saw a period of change with women winning the right to vote in 1919 and all men in 1917. The Great Depression had a crippling effect on the country and it lasted longer there than many other European countries.  The rise of the Nazis in neighbouring Germany was noticed by the Dutch but they expected that their neutrality would once again be respected in the outbreak of war.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Netherlands once again declared its neutrality. However, on 10 May 1940, the Nazis launched an attack on the Netherlands and Belgium and quickly overran most of the country. Fighting against the Dutch army proved more of a burden than foreseen; the northern attack was stopped dead, the one in the middle came to a grinding halt near the Grebbeberg and many airborne assault troops were killed and taken prisoner in the west of the country. Following heavy bombardment and the killing of civilians forced the Dutch to capitulate after 4 days of heavy fighting. Only the province of Zeeland carried on the fight but that too surrendered after 7 days. The Dutch also lost their overseas territory to a savage Japanese invasion.

The country was eventually liberated by the First Canadian army in 1945 but after the war the Dutch people were battered and traumatized suffering horribly under the Nazi’s occupation. The country’s economy was devastated and entire cities lay in ruins.

Eventually the Dutch recovered and were one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community an organisation that would eventually become today’s European Union. The country’s overseas empire was at an end but the Netherlands became a leading member of the EU.