An Incomplete, Hardly Scientific And Highly Selective Short History Of The Netherlands

Whenever you dive into a new culture, you start noticing differences. Visiting Missouri might thus be described as the attempt to be a cannonball in American culture. To understand a country and its culture, history is all important. Whereas American culture so often seems rooted in a struggle for freedom and the idea to start from scratch; Dutch history, too, could bring forth a view on the culture of The Netherlands. Describing important historical events from my home country can perhaps clarify the culture differences this blog revolves around. Of course, I’m no historian, so this short history is not pretending to be complete, even though the entertaining goal is attained through facts, rather than my own opinion. Where further information could be interesting, I have provided links to wikipedia pages. The one on the bottom is not to be skipped, though. This is the story about a people that are known for their tolerance, their cooperative and exploring nature and the fact that they liked their country so much, they made more of it. As the saying goes: God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.

Even though archeological findings indicate human activities emerged around 2,500 B.C., the interesting part of history starts with the Roman Empire – as always. Even though The Netherlands were seen as a useless swamp, some cities still show remains from Caesar’s friends (my university uses ‘Lugduno Batava’ in its seal; the Latin description of the city of Leiden). After the Romans left, small communities start to develop and stay quiet for over a thousand years. Around the 12th century, these communities start coordinating the maintenance of the dams and dikes they had built to keep their feet dry. Some scholars still believe this necessity-based regulation still shapes today’s cooperating-government model (I just forgot which ones, so there’s no reference here). What is sure, however, is how this local coordinating can be seen as typically Dutch. As a Belgian girl once told me, the Dutch ‘have quite a fetish to regulate everything and then talk about it for hours, until everyone will agree’.

polder molen dijk holland

Say all you want, Belgians, but it keeps our feet dry.

Things get really interesting around the 1550’s. Protestantism catches on in Europe and the local communities have developed into several provinces (Holland being the most important one), who work together as a republic. When the Spanish king wants to raise taxes and force Catholicism through the rebellious Dutch throats, they pull off a classic puberty move: they shut the door, mock in their room and do exactly the opposite of what they were told. In practice, they rise up against the Spanish, even when their cities are besieged for months, and announce Protestantism to be the official religion, while allowing other religions to quietly exist. This draws the attention of the Pilgrim Fathers and other groups in search of freedom.

They called it freedom, but this is clearly a picture of the siege of Leiden.

They called it freedom, but this is clearly a picture of the siege of Leiden.

While William of Orange (and his offspring, after he’s murdered) fights off the Spanish, the rest of the country starts developing rapidly. As they are acquainted with water, the Dutch have a superior fleet that swiftly discovers the whole world. The Dutch East India Company and the Dutch East India Company introduce new trading mechanisms throughout the world, including globalization and stock exchange. Their trade and colonial business expand the economical range of the republic to the east coast of North and South America, Australia, India, Japan, Indonesia and South Africa, some of which are official colonies, up until WWII. At the homeland, cultural live really flourishes, resulting in memorable names such as painters Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and early scientists Huygens and Leeuwenhoek.


An overview of the Dutch Empire, as provided by wikipedia

By the time the United States had announced its independence, difficulties arose among the Dutch. Internal quarrels combined with the imperial forces of Napoleon lead to both occupation by the French and later the start of Dutch monarchy when sovereignty is gained back. Being occupied is never fun, but at least the French gave us the metrical system; a blessing that’s hard to measure, even with those wonderful standardized indicators. After 15 years of renewed independence, the Belgians decided to go their own way and should still regret that decision. The last constitutional change occurs in 1848, when the current Dutch constitution is written. Even with all its colonies, the superiority that was evident in earlier ages never comes back.

While WWI skips The Netherlands, Germany doesn’t care much for its neutrality when May 1940 comes around. The barely equipped Dutch soldiers fight for all their worth, but nostalgic defense tactics like flooding the battlefield prove useless against paratroopers and the rigorous bombing of Rotterdam. German occupation lasts from 1940 to 1945. After WWII, the world as we know it takes shape. In the Dutch case, you can take this quite literally, as a new province is added after drying the land in the middle. Alongside with increasingly rapid economical growth, the sexual and social revolutions take place. This, again, is where Dutch tolerance regains its name and its current reputation. In hindsight, the years 1970-2000 are years without major problems and of flourishing. The murder of an upcoming populist politician in May 2002, even when just an incident in the bigger picture, is generally marked as the moment where the country lost its innocence and joins the Western world in all its problems and new millennium struggles.

This is nowaday's shape of The Netherlands. The highlighted area is our newest province.

This is nowaday’s shape of The Netherlands. The highlighted area is our newest province.

As I said, Dutch history could perhaps provide a deeper view on culture. I think this is still the case. Some of the characteristics I have highlighted above match cultural expressions. There is a pride amongst Dutch, comparing the relative small size of the country with the big role it has played in the Western world. Between people, businesses and all sorts of stakeholders, there is a constant need to cooperate, compromise and talk things out. Labor strikes are very rare, as are huge demonstrations. Trade and globalization are still ever present in Dutch thinking and economy, as is their stubbornness demonstrated in the straight-forward way they communicate. More on Dutch culture can be found here in bullet points on wikipedia (while reading it, I agreed with all points, all the while finding it hard to believe these points are that noteworthy).

Drawing from personal experience or the bullet point list, what strikes you most about Dutch culture?


A video clip that recently became popular and explains both the difference between Holland and The Netherlands and today’s constitutional organization:

The Dutch national anthem:


7 thoughts on “An Incomplete, Hardly Scientific And Highly Selective Short History Of The Netherlands

  1. Pingback: Transitional Life: I Guess This Is Goodbye Then | visitingmissouri

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