The history of the Netherlands spans its glory days as a 17th century wealthy seafaring empire to its time as a colonial powerhouse and its present status as one of the most liberal nations in the world. The Dutch Masters of the 17th and 19th centuries like Vincent van Gogh put them on the art map, while architecture in the country is picturesque and distinctive, the most easily recognized by the merchant homes lining Amsterdam’s canals.
The Netherlands has long been known as a low-lying country with a testing relationship with the North Sea, making it a difficult area to live in for its early Celtic and Germanic occupants. While mounds and moats suggest evidence of constant flooding in the ancient communities, the many wetlands, rivers and wooded areas made it a very difficult land to cross and conquer, keeping would-be invaders at bay. It wasn’t until about the 1st century BC that the Roman Empire finally conquered what is now known as the Netherlands, immediately making a key military port in Nijmegen. Roman rule lasted for some 300 years, until the Franks invaded from Germany, taking advantage of the weakened state. Afterwards, Christianity was introduced and the country was under the control of the empire of Charlemagne.
After the fall of the Charlemagne Empire in 814 AD, the Netherlands was divided into many smaller states which were run by counts and dukes in the Middle Ages, helping the area to become one of the richest in Europe for agriculture and commerce. As wealth grew, the main ports became key European trading hubs with Asia and Africa.
The country’s dukes and counts soon began to battle for power, clashing over land ownership. In 1555, Charles of the Habsburg dynasty stepped in to control of the country to his son, Philip II, the king of Spain. As the new royal family was Catholic and the majority of the Dutch were not, friction ensued and whole communities refused to pay taxe. Unrest grew, finally sending the country into an 80-year war, resulting in the Dutch independence from Spain. However, despite its new freedom, the Netherlands was suffering from a lack of identity and unity, and was soon under the rule of the Austrian throne of the Habsburgs.
The Dutch spirit for travel and discovery remained, and the Netherlands continued to explore and navigate new routes around the globe, coming into significant land. By the middle of the 17th century, the Netherlands had one of the world's most powerful seafaring communities and was fast becoming the financial center of Europe. By the 18th century central Europe was home to several large empires from France, Russia, Austria and Prussia, while the seas were dominated by the British, causing the Dutch to lose their status, leaving the Netherlands to become a place of liberation and free-thinking. By the end of the 18th century and the Napoleonic era, the Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed, which included parts of Belgium and Luxemburg.
However, the Belgium provinces soon revolted and fought for their own independence, as did Luxemburg later that century after the death of the Dutch King William III. Through the latter part of the 19th century the Netherlands again gained a reputation as a liberal and modern state, and during WWII the country remained neutral.
Despite not picking sides, the Netherlands was invaded and occupied by Germany for much of WWII and the country suffered as Nazi Germany attempted to force the Netherlands to become a Third Reich country, much to the despair of the people and royal family. The Netherlands flourished after the end of the war, experiencing periods of steady and rapid growth to become the well-developed, wealthy country it is today.
There are few communities more laidback or down-to-earth than the Dutch. Arrogance and pretention rarely go down well in the Netherlands, whereas high spirits, friendship and family are things to be proud of. The Dutch also have a reputation of being economically saavy and prefer to save money rather than indulge on unnecessary consumerism. Despite the country’s lavish buildings and architecture, extravagance is not always celebrated, often seen as being wasteful and inconsiderate. Instead, the people of the Netherlands are more interested in art, music and international affairs, which is evident by their daily discussions of global issues.
The Netherlands is known as one of the most secular countries in Europe and it’s believed that around 40 percent of Dutch people have no religion. About 30 percent of the population are Roman Catholic and below five percent are practicing Muslims. Despite it once being the dominant faith in the Netherlands, now only an estimated 20 percent of the people are Protestant, and the number of churches has considerably dwindled over the past two centuries.