The area we now know as the Netherlands has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but it was an inhospitable place to live. Potential invaders, even the Romans, were deterred by the hostile landscape – impenetrable lakes and marshland, crossed by wide rivers – and warlike tribes. Although later nominally part of Charlemagne’s domains (768-814) and the Holy Roman Empire (from 962), its people retained a fierce sense of autonomy nourished by growing prosperity from agriculture and trade.
After periods of Burgundian (1384-1477) and Hapsburg (1482-1556) domination, the Netherlands passed into Spanish hands. In 1568 their oppressive taxation and religious intolerance – the Dutch had embraced Protestantism, their rulers remained resolutely Catholic – sparked a revolt led by William I, Prince of Orange. In 1581 the Dutch declared independence. Although the Eighty Years’ War with Spain continued until 1648, the young Republic flourished. By the mid-seventeenth century it was Europe’s leading maritime power, with income from global trade and a growing overseas empire fuelling a Golden Age of affluence, industry, science and art.
Slow decline set in as other powers challenged Dutch supremacy, and in 1795 the country was easily overrun by Napoleon’s French forces. After his defeat in 1815 the Netherlands became an independent kingdom and, following Belgium’s secession in 1830, underwent a gradual process of constitutional reform into a modern democracy with a reviving economy.
The Netherlands remained neutral in the First World War (1914-1918), but in May 1940 was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The wartime experience – traumas like the deportation and murder of most of the country’s Jewish population, as well as the increasing terror and hardship which culminated in the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945, but also the heroism of the Resistance – is still very much part of the collective memory.
After 1945 the country embarked upon a sustained period of reconstruction and growth. From the 1950s it was an enthusiastic participant in the European project, whilst social upheaval in the 1960s and 70s resulted in measures that made the Netherlands a byword for political consensus, liberalism and tolerance. Today it is one of the world’s wealthiest, most developed and most socially progressive nations.