The history of Holland as a country begins with the story of how Holland actually became a country, because up to the 19th century Holland was just a river delta divided into various regions, most of which had their own governments. It was only on 29 March 1814 that the nation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was born, under the rule of the Orange-Nassau family.
- Holland has been a constitutional monarchy since 1814.
- King Willem-Alexander has been the Dutch head of state since 2013.
- Nijmegen and Maastricht are among Holland’s most ancient cities.
- Holland has a true love/hate relationship with water.
In the Middle Ages, long before the Orange-Nassau family became Holland’s monarchs, Holland was divided into a great many counties and dukedoms. Later, the regions of Holland came under the rule of Spanish and Austrian lords. It was not until 1750 that William IV of Orange-Nassau was proclaimed hereditary stadtholder and the Oranges first claimed power.
Since 1814, Holland is a constitutional monarchy; the Kind is the head of state, and together with the ministers forms the government. William I proclaimed himself King of the Netherlands on 16 March 1815 and sought to secure his family’s interests by introducing hereditary kingship. Our current head of state, the latest in a long line of monarchs, is King Willem-Alexander, who assumed the throne in 2013.
The emergence of Holland’s cities
Holland is full of cities with histories that stretch back to ancient times. Holland’s most ancient cities are Maastricht and Nijmegen; Utrecht, Deventer, Middelburg and Stavoren have also been settled since the very early centuries of the common era. All this history can be seen in the architecture and culture of these splendid cities and towns. Amsterdam began its existence around the year 1000 and was first mentioned in recorded history around 1275. It was granted city rights by the bishop of Utrecht, Gwijde van Avesnes, around 1300. Through commercial good fortune, Amsterdam grew into Holland’s largest city; the seventeenth century, known in Holland as the Golden Century, brought enormous wealth, power and culture to Holland, especially Amsterdam. It was in this century that the city got its famous canals.
World War II
Holland has been involved in a variety of wars throughout the centuries, but its most recent war, which has had a tremendous impact, was World War II. For Holland, that war began when the Germans invaded on 10 May 1940. The Dutch army was ill prepared for a modern war, and after the Germans bombed Rotterdam on the 14th of the same month and threatened to destroy several more large cities in the same fashion Holland surrendered on the 15th.
During the ensuing five years of occupation, the Dutch industry was primarily put to work to support the war and supplies became increasingly scarce and increasingly strictly rationed. During the winter of ’44-’45, known as the Hunger Winter to the Dutch, 20,000 people died of hunger.
Persecution of the Jews
The persecution of the Jews also grew increasingly grim as the war wore on. The Germans had set up a ‘Jewish Council’ in the early years of their occupation, announcing that Jews would be safe if they had themselves registered. Their deceit was revealed when the deportations began; ultimately, 100,000 Dutch Jews were put to death in concentration camps. Among them was Anne Frank, the girl who became famous through the diaries she wrote during the occupation.
After the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944, their armies forged towards Holland, and the country was liberated on 5 May 1945.
Holland and water
Holland has been engaged in a love/hate relationship with water for centuries. No wonder, since a quarter of the country is below sea level – as much as 7 metres at the lowest point! That means that the Dutch must always protect themselves against the waters, because no one wants to relive the North Sea Flood of 1953. The Dutch developed great skill at building sturdy dikes, culminating in the Delta Works.
The Dutch also reclaimed much of their land from the sea and from lakes, from as early as the 11th century on, when they built dikes to protect silt deposits along the coast. Starting in the 16th century, the Dutch began to drain lakes using windmills, especially in the province of Noord-Holland. The first known polder, Achtermeer lake to the south of Alkmaar, dates back to 1533. Other famous reclamation projects were the Beemster area (1608-1612) and, later, Flevoland.