Country of the Week: Netherlands

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’re back in the Low Countries to visit the Netherlands. Discover the rich history and culture that makes it one of Europe’s most memorable countries.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Amsterdam
  • Population (2015): 16,919,139 (63rd)
  • Total Area: 41,543 km² (134th)
  • Official National Language: Dutch
  • Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)

Windmills are a common sight in the Dutch countryside


Like most countries in the region, the early days of the Netherlands were characterized by an abundance of different tribes (largely Germanic). And again like most of the countries in the region, the dynamic changed dramatically once the Romans arrived. By 12 AD, Roman forces had conquered all land south of the Rhine. For the next several centuries, the Romans fought against the local tribes in order to consolidate their control.

In the early 5th century however, Roman administration in the region collapsed with the Franks coming in to unify the area. Despite this, there remained a division between the Dutch speaking Franks and nearby Frankish French speakers. In addition, nearby Anglo-Saxons (also known as Frisians, the ones who didn’t sail to England) came into conflict with the local Franks. Eventually the Battle of the Boarn in 734 brought about a Frankish victory – cementing their control over this area of Western Europe.

After a period of unification under Charlemagne, his vast empire was divided into three separate countries – with the Netherlands falling under the relatively weak Middle Francia. The country was further divided and annexed over the years, with numerous powers attempting to bite off bits for themselves. Throw in the threat of Viking raids and you can imagine that the early Middle Ages are not considered a high point of the Netherland’s power.

The turn of the millennia brought about a period of rule under the Holy Roman Emperor – though this too wasn’t meant to last. The late Middle Ages however saw a powerful union between the Burgundians and Hapsburgs consolidate their rule over the country. Prior to this, most of the people living there identified themselves by duchy or county (e.g. County of Holland). This eventually led to the Netherlands falling under the rule of Charles V – Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Resentment soon led to the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) where the provinces fought against the rule of Spain. After decades of conflict (and with the support of England and France), the Netherlands emerged victorious and the Dutch Republic was formed.

This confederation of provinces quickly began to increase in stature – particularly with regards to mercantile enterprises. During the 17th century, the Dutch Empire grew to become one of the preeminent naval and economic powers – building a vast trading empire across the world. They founded colonies in Asia, the Americas (including New Amsterdam – later New York City), Africa, and more. Their growing global trade empire, combined with the creation of the Bank of Amsterdam in 1609 – considered to be the world’s first central bank – and the growing stock market has led many to define the Netherlands as the world’s first truly capitalist country.

After a brief period as a Republic in the late 1700’s, Napoleon Bonaparte declared the Kingdom of Holland in 1806 (effectively a puppet state). Following the end of the French Empire, there remained further domestic problems with the succession of King William I fraught with problems and the slow pace of industrialization. However, wealth from the Dutch East Indies helped to alleviate some stress until the abolition of slavery in 1863 and the rise of competing trade empires.

While the Netherlands was officially neutral in WWI (though the country was blockaded by the British), it was invaded by Germany in WWII. After the land invasion and Rotterdam Blitz led to the surrender of the army, thousands of civilians were sent to concentration camps. It wasn’t until 1944-45 when the country was finally liberated – much of it due to the efforts of the First Canadian Army.

Like the rest of Europe, the Netherlands began the process of decolonisation following the second World War and turned its focus to fostering peace and prosperity with its neighbours. As it stands the Netherlands are an important member of the European Union with close ties to other Western countries, particularly Canada.


One of many canals in Amsterdam


The culture of the Netherlands is very diverse thanks in part to the various duchies and counties that make up the country – as well as large amounts of foreign immigration.

The Dutch Golden Age produced many renowned cultural works. Some of the world’s most revered artists, painters, architects and sculptures hailed from the Netherlands. Notable among them is of course Vincent Van Gogh, who produced near universally recognised works such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Thanks to a history of trend-setting architectural achievements from classical palaces to distinctive canals to neo-gothic cathedrals, today the Netherlands is home to some of Europe’s most photogenic and beautiful cityscapes.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that soccer is the most popular sport in the country. While the national team hasn’t won a World Cup, they have reached the finals three times and recently finished third in 2014. In addition, the domestic league produces strong teams (such as Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV Eindhoven) and talents – though it is not as prestigious as it once was. Field hockey, basketball, and volleyball are also followed and played around the Netherlands.


Stamppot with endive, mashed potatoes, and meatballs – a traditional Dutch dish


As you might guess from a member of the Low Countries, the Netherlands is pretty flat and generally below sea level. In order to stave off flooding, the country uses a complex system of dikes, canals, pumping stations, and polders. As a result, the threat of a rising sea level is taken very seriously in the country.

While a relatively small country, the Netherlands is home to some of Europe’s major cities. Amsterdam is the capital and largest city, and is one of Europe’s most visited metropolises. Rotterdam is a major economic powerhouse and is home to one of the largest and most important cargo ports in the world. There’s also The Hague, which is home to most governmental offices (though it’s not the capital) as well as the International Criminal Court.


Rotterdam Port is one of the most important in the world

Did you know?

  • More bacon comes from the Netherlands than any other country
  • Dutch people are the tallest in the world
  • Raw herring with onions is a popular dish
  • There are three Caribbean islands (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba) that are considered part of the Netherlands. Citizens of these islands are allowed to vote in national elections
  • It is the safest country in the world for cyclists
  • Gin is a Dutch invention
  • French fries should be dipped in mayonnaise
  • About 1000 of the traditional windmills in the country still work
  • Some of the most famous Dutch soccer players (past and present) are Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Johan Cruyff, Edwin van der Sar, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Ruud Gullit

Bikes are a popular and safe way to get around in the Netherlands

Last Word

Like many central European countries, the Netherlands endured a chaotic several centuries. Since then however, the country has been at the forefront of European integration and is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the continent.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.

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