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A country on the mouth of the River Rhine which over the centuries has thrived as a naval power, a colonial power, and as an entrepôt for the European continent.


The Netherlands are often referred to as Holland, which in fact forms just one of the country's historic provinces. It has been traditionally marked by a high degree of diversity. In particular, it has generally consisted of almost equal proportions of Roman Catholics and Protestants, with a significant number of agnostics. The Protestants were split between various denominations, the most important of which was the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. This denominational pattern was overlain by strong regional differences (e.g. the Friesians in the north have preserved their own language), which were underlined by stark economic diversity. The sparsely populated north and west of the country remained agricultural. The eastern provinces of north and south Holland became major commercial and industrial centres, through trade with its large colonial empire. They also benefited from Rotterdam's position at the mouth of the Rhine, Europe's most important commercial internal waterway.

As a result of this diversity, Dutch society has displayed a unique blend of traditionalism and progressivism, through the ideal of ‘pillarization’ (verzuiling). According to this idea, each section of the population should be free to pursue its culture without interfering with another culture (‘pillar’) of Dutch society. In this way, certain Protestant or Catholic sections of society remained fiercely conservative, whereas those areas with a heterogeneous immigrant population and social groups less pronounced in their religious views became noted for their openness to new ideas. Their openness became predominant in the second half of the twentieth century, as immigrants from the colonies arrived in large numbers, and as the power of the churches waned in an affluent society. A liberal consensus was achieved in two ways. One was decentralization, which has allowed a large degree of self‐government for the nine provinces. The other was a liberal consensus that each person was free to believe or do as he/she liked, provided it did not adversely affect other members of society. As a result of this, for instance, the country introduced the most liberal drugs laws in Europe, tolerated euthanasia by law from 1994, and lowered the age of consent to 12 in 1995.

The era of the World Wars (1900–45)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the power of the monarchy had been sufficiently weakened to allow parliamentary government. Political life was dominated by social issues, and by the conflict between liberals on the one hand and Catholics and Protestants on the other about the role of the Church in the state, as manifested in the battles about the role of the Church in education. Highly conscious of its vulnerability as a completely flat country dwarfed in size by its aggressive German neighbour, it successfully maintained neutrality in World War I.

After the war, a number of social and political reforms were introduced, such as universal male (1917) and female (1922) suffrage. However, the country did not escape World War II, and was invaded by Germany (10– 14 May 1940). With the help of the Dutch Fascist Nationaal‐Socialistische Beweging (NSB, National Socialist Movement) under Seiss‐Inquart the German SS organized the mass deportation of Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps. While the Dutch government, headed by Queen Wilhelmina I, encouraged resistance from outside, domestic resistance movements formed, even though their task was made particularly difficult by the scant protection and few hiding‐places offered by the flat countryside.


Subjects: History by Period.

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