One of the Low Countries, the Netherlands did not have a unified history until the late 15th cent. The region west of the Rhine formed part of the Roman province of Lower Germany and was inhabited by the Batavi; to the east of the Rhine were the Frisians. Nearly the entire area was taken (4th–8th cent.) by the Franks, and with the breakup of the Carolingian empire, most of it passed (9th cent.) to the east Frankish (i.e., German) kingdom and thus to the Holy Roman Empire.
The counts of Holland emerged as the most powerful medieval lords of the region, next to their southern neighbors, the dukes of Brabant and the counts of Flanders. In the 14th and 15th cent., Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, and Brabant passed to the powerful dukes of Burgundy, who controlled virtually all the Low Countries. Though the Dutch towns and ports were slower in economic development than the flourishing commercial and industrial centers of Flanders and Brabant, they began to rival them in the 15th cent. They nearly all belonged to the Hanseatic League and enjoyed vast autonomous privileges.
In 1477, Mary of Burgundy by the Great Privilege restored all the liberties deprived by her predecessors. Her marriage to the Archduke Maximilian (later Emperor Maximilian I) brought the Low Countries into the house of Hapsburg. Emperor Charles V gave them (1555) to his son Philip II of Spain. By that time the northern provinces (i.e., the present Netherlands) had reached economic prosperity.
The inroads of Calvinism were helping to distinguish the Low Countries from Catholic Spain; the nobles, supported by many of the people for economic and religious reasons, demanded greater autonomy for the provinces in addition to the removal of Spanish officials. Philip's attempt, first through Cardinal Granvelle and then through the duke of Alba, to introduce the Spanish Inquisition and reduce the Low Countries to a Spanish province met determined opposition from among all classes of the population—Catholics and Protestants alike.
The struggle for the Low Countries' independence began (1562–66) in Flanders and Brabant. The northern provinces, under the leadership of William the Silent, prince of Orange, succeeded (1572–74) in expelling the Spanish garrisons. The Low Countries united under William in their struggle against Spain in the Pacification of Ghent (1576).
Alessandro Farnese, who in 1578 succeeded John of Austria as Spanish governor, reconquered the southern provinces, which remained in Spanish possession (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish) and were gradually reconverted to Catholicism. The river barriers were crucial in protecting the rebellion and the Protestant religion of the north. The seven northern provinces—Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland, and Groningen—formed (1579) the Union of Utrecht and declared (1581) their independence.
William the Silent, assassinated in 1584, was succeeded as stadtholder (chief of state) by his son, Maurice of Nassau, who was at first guided by Johan van Oldenbarneveldt. An English expedition under Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, to aid the Dutch against Farnese was ineffectual; later Maurice won important successes, and in 1609 a 12-year truce was concluded with Spinola, the Spanish commander.
Fighting with Spain was resumed in the Thirty Years War (1618–48), after which the independence of the United Provinces—as the independent Netherlands was then called—was recognized in the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Spain also ceded North Brabant, with Breda, and part of Limburg, with Maastricht. Still struggling for independence and involved in religious contention between Calvinists and Remonstrants, the Dutch laid the foundation of their commercial and colonial empire.
The Dutch East India Company (see East India Company, Dutch) was founded in 1602, the Dutch West India Company in 1621. The decline of Antwerp under Spanish rule and the right (awarded to the Dutch in the Peace of Westphalia) to control the Scheldt estuary gave supremacy to the Dutch ports, particularly Amsterdam. Dutch merchants traded in every continent (including exclusive privileges in Japan), and captured the major share of the world's carrying trade. The United Provinces opened their doors to religious refugees, notably to Portuguese and Spanish Jews and to French Huguenots, which contributed vastly to the prosperity of 17th-century Holland.
With material wealth came a cultural golden age. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Frans Hals, and others carried Dutch art to its peak. The Univ. of Leiden won world acclaim; the philosophers Descartes and Spinoza and the jurist Grotius were active in the United Provinces.
Prince Frederick Henry, who had succeeded his brother Maurice in 1625 as stadtholder, was in turn succeeded by his son, Prince William II, in 1647. His death in 1650 signaled the opponents of the house of Orange to reassert the rights of the provinces and the States-General. Jan de Witt, the political leader of the estates of Holland, was chosen (1652) grand pensionary and led the Dutch republic for the next 20 years. To prevent Prince William III of Orange (son of William II) from regaining the authority of his father, de Witt by the Eternal Edict (1667) abolished the office of stadtholder in Holland and secured the virtual exclusion of the house of Orange from state affairs.
De Witt's administration was largely encompassed by the Dutch Wars with England (1652–54, 1664–67), arising out of the first of the English Navigation Acts (1651) and the Dutch-English commercial rivalry. The Treaty of Breda (1667) was advantageous to the Netherlands; it gained trade privileges and had its possession of Suriname recognized. The Netherlands reached the peak of political power when, by forming (1668) the Triple Alliance with Sweden and England, it forced Louis XIV of France to halt the War of Devolution against Spain.
Louis XIV took revenge by starting (1672) the third of the Dutch Wars, in which the French overran the Netherlands. In defense, the Dutch opened their dikes and flooded the country, creating a watery barrier that was virtually impenetrable. De Witt sought to negotiate peace but was murdered (1672) by a mob of Orange followers. The stadtholderate was restored to William III (after 1689 also king of England). The war devastated the provinces, but in the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678–79) the Dutch obtained important concessions from France.
The Netherlands again fought Louis XIV in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688–97) and in the War of the Spanish Succession. On the death (1702) of William III the stadtholderate was again suspended and the States-General resumed control of the government, but in 1747 the republican party lost power, and William IV of Orange became hereditary stadtholder. In the 18th cent. the relative commercial, military, and cultural positions of the United Provinces in Europe declined as those of England and France ascended. The Netherlands sided against England in the American Revolution and as a result lost several colonies at the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (see Paris, Treaty of).
A patriotic movement by J. D. van der Capellen (1741–84) began to popularize the ideas of the Enlightenment; when in the French Revolutionary Wars the French overran (1794–95) the Netherlands, there was much popular approval. William V fled abroad, and the Batavian Republic was set up (1795) under French protection. In 1806, Napoleon I established the Kingdom of Holland and made his brother Louis Bonaparte (see under Bonaparte, family) its first king. Bonaparte was deposed in 1810, and the kingdom was annexed by France, whereby French legal, financial, and educational reforms pervaded the Netherlands.
At the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) the former United Provinces and the former Austrian Netherlands were united under King William I, son of William V of Orange. In 1830, however, the former Austrian provinces (Belgium), whose language, religion, and culture differed from those of the Dutch, rebelled against Dutch rule and declared independence. An agreement between Belgium and the Netherlands was reached only in 1839 (see London Conference). William I was forced to abdicate in 1840 and was succeeded by William II, under whom Jan Thorbecke introduced important constitutional reforms in 1848.
Under William III (1849–90) the Netherlands enjoyed a period of commercial expansion and internal development. The Industrial Revolution progressed rapidly after 1860. Trade unionism grew in the late 19th cent., and considerable national social-welfare legislation was passed. At the same time the country's cultural life flourished, led by the painter Vincent van Gogh, the writer Louis Couperus, and others.
In 1890, Queen Wilhelmina began her reign of almost 60 years. The Netherlands was neutral in World War I. In 1932, a 19-mi (31-km) dam was completed; it enclosed the Zuider Zee and thus created the IJsselmeer, a large freshwater lake. A number of large polders, including the Northeast Polder and Eastern and Southern Flevoland, were later reclaimed from the IJsselmeer.
In World War II, Germany invaded (May, 1940) the Netherlands without warning, crushed Dutch resistance, and wantonly destroyed Rotterdam. The queen and her government fled abroad. German occupation authorities, headed by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, established a reign of terror; underground resistance led to mass executions and deportations. Of the approximately 112,000 Dutch Jews, about 104,000 were deported to Poland by the Germans and exterminated. Allied airborne landings (1944) at Arnhem and Eindhoven liberated Zeeland, North Brabant, and Limburg provinces.
The German collapse in May, 1945, was followed by the immediate return of the queen and the cabinet. The Netherlands became a charter member of the United Nations (1945) and in 1947 joined in a close alliance with Belgium and Luxembourg, which became (1958) the Benelux Economic Union. The country also participated actively in the development of the organizations that came to be the European Union, and in 1949 joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Queen Wilhelmina abdicated (1948) in favor of her daughter, Juliana, who continued to rule with a coalition cabinet dominated by the Catholic and Labor parties. In 1959 a new coalition excluding the Labor party was formed, and similar coalitions primarily held power into the 1970s.
The Netherlands gave Indonesia independence in 1949, and in 1962 relinquished Netherlands New Guinea (now Papua) to Indonesia. Despite the loss of the eastern empire and the catastrophic floodings in the North Sea storms of 1953, the Dutch economy expanded in the 1950s and 60s. Industry was enlarged significantly. After the 1953 floods, the 25-year Delta Project was begun. As a result of the project, Walcheren and North and South Beveland were joined to the mainland and ceased to be islands.
Considerable controversy surrounded the marriage (1966) of Crown Princess Beatrix to Claus von Amsberg, a former German diplomat who had served in the German army in World War II. In 1967, Princess Beatrix gave birth to a son, Willem-Alexander, the first male heir in line of succession since 1884.
In the early 1970s the Netherlands enjoyed material prosperity and considerable influence in European affairs. The country suffered, however, from a ban on the sale of petroleum imposed by Arab nations in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War of Oct., 1973, in retaliation for the Netherlands' traditional friendship with Israel. The embargo was lifted in mid-1974. Suriname was granted independence in 1975.
In 1980, Queen Juliana was succeeded by Queen Beatrix. In 1981, Prime Minister Van Agt's support for deploying U.S. cruise missiles on Dutch territory caused an intense public outcry. He was defeated in the 1982 elections, and Ruud Lubbers became the next prime minister, primarily through a coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals. The Netherlands population increasingly protested against the presence of foreign armaments on their soil, and in the late 1980s nearly 4 million Dutch citizens signed an antimissile petition.
Lubbers formed his third government in Nov., 1989. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War the Netherlands sent two marine frigates to aid the anti-Iraq coalition forces. In the 1994 elections the Christian Democrats and their coalition partner, the Labor party, lost seats. With some difficulty a new coalition government of left- and right-wing parties was formed and Labor party leader Wim Kok became prime minister. In early 1995 unusually heavy flooding along major rivers necessitated massive evacuations in the country.
Also in 1995, Dutch peacekeepers under UN auspices were overwhelmed by Serb forces in the Bosniak-held town of Srebrenica; the Serbs subsequently massacred Bosnia civilians. Several investigations were launched into the role played by the peacekeepers. An independent investigation that released its report in 2002 said that UN and Dutch political and military officials shared some of the blame for placing peacekeeping forces in an untenable position, and Prime Minister Kok's government resigned to accept responsibility.
In the subsequent election campaign (May, 2002), the right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn, who ran on an anti-immigrant platform, was assassinated, stunning the nation. Voters subsequently veered to the right, giving conservative and rightist parties a majority of the seats in the new parliament. A center-right government, headed by Christian Democrat Jan Peter Balkenende and including Fortuyn's party, was formed in July, but the coalition collapsed in October.
Elections in Jan., 2003, gave the Christian Democrats and Labor nearly the same number of seats (44 and 42, respectively) and resulted in significant losses for the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF). Balkenende remained prime minister, but the new center-right government excluded the LPF. Dutch voters strongly rejected a proposed new constitution for the European Union in 2005; voters appeared to resent a likely loss of Dutch influence under the new charter despite their country's sizable contributions to the EU.
Balkenende's government fell in June, 2006, when one of the member parties withdrew over a government minister's tough handling of a Somali-born Dutch politician's citizenship case. In November, the parliamentary elections resulted in some lost seats for the Christian Democrats as both far-right and far-left parties increased their seats. Although the Christian Democrats nonetheless remained the largest party, neither the governing coalition nor that aligned with Labor secured a majority in parliament. In Feb., 2007, Balkenende formed a new, centrist coalition government that included Labor.
Disagreement over whether to further extend the deployment of Dutch troops with NATO forces in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the government in Feb., 2010, and elections were scheduled for June. The elections were a major defeat for the Christian Democrats, who lost half their seats; the anti-Islamic and Eurosceptic Freedom party won more seats and placed third. The Liberals won, but secured only one more seat than Labor, and politically the new parliament was very fragmented. In October the Liberals and Christian Democrats agreed to form a minority conservative coalition government with the support of the Freedom party. Liberal Mark Rutte became prime minister. In Apr., 2012, the government collapsed after it could not get Freedom party support to pass an austerity budget; the budget ultimately was passed with the support of other parties. In the September elections, the Liberals and Labor won the largest blocs of seats, and subsequently formed a coalition government with Rutte as prime minister. Queen Beatrix abdicated in Mar., 2013; King Willem-Alexander succeeded her.