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The Dutch people descend from a colourful range of ancient tribes and proud clans. The Netherlands was first inhabited by Neanderthals hundreds of thousands of years ago, followed by Celtic and Germanic peoples around 1000 BC. Then came the mighty Roman armies who built the first towns and cities south of the Rhine. In the late Middle Ages, after the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent recovery of the economy in western European, the coastal areas of the Low Countries began to flourish, heralding a new era of trade and prosperity.
The river acted as a natural barrier to the civilised Roman Empire and kept out the barbarian Frisian, Batavian and Kaninefaten tribes of the north. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the late Middle Ages, western Europe enjoyed a period of economic recovery and the Low Countries too, began to trade and prosper.
The Birth of the Netherlands
Throughout the turmoil of the Eighty Years’ War, the Low Countries persisted in broadening its commercial horizons by establishing colonies in Brazil, North America, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Taiwan and becoming active in the spice trade in India. The freedom that the individual Dutch regions had until then enjoyed, came to an end in 1579 with the signing of the Union of Utrecht. This treaty effectively created a united Protestant entity that, led by Prince William of Orange, rose up against the Catholic Spanish rulers. This ‘Union’ formally announced its independence in 1581 and in 1609 achieved global recognition as the Republic of Seven United Regions of the Netherlands. And so the modern day Netherlands was born and the new Republic began to benefit from an even greater increase in international trade during a period that was known as the ‘Golden Age’.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands
In the eighteenth century the economic and political stability of the Golden Age ended with bitter fighting between the Patriots and Orangists. The House of Orange eventually triumphed thanks to the support of their Prussian allies, but the Netherlands soon suffered yet another occupation, this time by the Napoleonic Army. When the last of Napoleon’s soldiers were removed from Dutch soil, the Netherlands formed a monarchy to become the Kingdom of the Netherlands, led by King William 1st. The Kingdom shrunk dramatically as Belgium and Luxemburg both achieved independence in 1839 and the Kingdom was unable to retrieve most of its former colonies (except for Indonesia) from the British who had been ‘taking care’ of them during the Napoleonic invasion.
The First World War
Although the Netherlands remained neutral throughout the First World War, the country was able to avoid the ensuing turmoil. As the horrors of war engulfed its neighbours, so the Dutch economy swiftly deteriorated and the country began to experience food shortages, just as it was taking in large numbers of refugees.
Following the war, Dutch society began to fragment and segregate according to political and religious beliefs. Catholics, Protestants, Socialists and Liberals all attended separate schools and clubs, read different newspapers, voted for opposing political parties and were even treated in separate hospitals. At the time the practice was believed to relieve social tension rather than contribute to it and many believed that this ‘verzuling’ as it was known, actually held the country together, particularly in difficult times.
During the 1920’s the Dutch economy bounced back from the stagnating effects of the war and a number of successful, contemporary multinationals were born, many of which survive today.
The Second World War
With the onset of the global financial crisis in the 1930’s, the Dutch economy took another battering. In an attempt to curb the subsequent rise in unemployment, the government introduced a number of highly unpopular austerity measures, whilst at the same time the country began receiving vast numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution in Germany. The Netherlands again attempted to remain neutral, but this time without success. When it was invaded by German forces in 1940, both Queen Wilhemina and the Dutch government decamped to Britain, leaving the Dutch people to the mercy of their German occupiers.
The situation in the Netherlands was bleak, particularly for those Jews who hadn’t managed to flee before the occupation. Many, like Anne Frank, went into hiding, but tragically most ended in the horrific Nazi death camps. By the end of the war the Dutch Jewish population was almost non-existent with a shocking 75 percent unaccounted for. Many Dutch bravely resisted the Nazi occupation, but it wasn’t until 1945 that the country was finally liberated by the Canadian army.
Not long after victory in Europe, the Dutch East Indies started its own battle for independence. The Netherlands initially responded with a brutal crackdown, which they only halted after direct criticism from the US and the United Nations, whose Marshall Plan was providing financial aid for post war reconstruction. As a result, the Dutch East Indies won independence in 1949 and subsequently became known as Indonesia.
This was a turning point for the Netherlands which finally abandoned its policy of neutrality and became an active member of NATO, the United Nations and the European Community, as well as a much respected global business partner. It also joined economic forces with Belgium and Luxemburg to form the Benelux countries and became a highly regarded member of the European Economic Community.
The 1950’s brought a renewed sense of hope and prosperity to the Netherlands, yet many Dutch families were still desperate to escape the acute housing shortage caused by German bombing during the war. Many seized the chance to emigrate to new countries such as the US, Australia and New Zealand, which at the time seemed to promise the possibility of a better future.
The catastrophic flood of 1953 was another historical setback for the Netherlands, but the implementation of the ambitious Delta plan and the subsequent construction of the Aflsuijtdijk not only prevented further disasters, it also put the Dutch firmly at the forefront of modern Flood Management technology.
The swinging sixties inspired a more emancipated and secular society and the rigid segregation of the verzuiling began to disintegrate. The Dutch economy thrived once more and migrant workers from Morocco and Turkey were encouraged to come and find employment. There was a wave of immigration from Suriname too, the final Dutch colony to win its independence in 1975.
Today the Netherlands is an extremely progressive, multi cultural society famous for its culture of tolerance and its international outlook. You only need visit a Dutch supermarket to find a beautiful illustration of this. These days you’ll find other far more exotic Dutch food products, such as nasi goreng paste from Indonesia or peanut satay sauce from Suriname and these appear right at home next to the rows of traditional tins of syrup waffles and typical Dutch liquorice and are every bit as popular.