The history of the Netherlands really starts with the arrival of the Romans in 57BC after which they dominated the area for four centuries until being replaced by the Carolingians and Vikings. Along with the new rulers came the arrival of Christianity which was to take a very important part in Dutch history.
Throughout this early period after the Romans, a number of Duchies and Counties arose and local wars intermittently broke out between Brabant, Friesland, Gelre, Holland and Zeeland.
But over the centuries the real enemy, the sea, was tamed through the use of polders and dikes that allowed large tracts of land to be reclaimed.
By 1433 the Duke of Burgundy exercised control over the Dutch speaking areas and the concept of a Dutch nation was born. Eventually Burgundian Netherlands became part of the Hapsburg Empire.
The Eighty Year War or Dutch War of Independence started as a revolt against Philip II of Spain in 1568 and lasted until the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648. The Dutch Republic was born and along with a liberal society with mixed religions of Protestants, Catholics and Jews freely practising their religions.
The following years of intensified trade with Amsterdam at its centre became known as the Dutch Golden Age. Trade flowed across Asia, Africa and the Americas although many areas where the Dutch traded were taken over by the British, Portuguese and Spanish with time. The influence of Dutch presence remains strong in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), Suriname in northern South America, the Netherlands Antilles (in the Caribbean) and the Dutch Cape Colony which led to the Boers in South Africa. New Amsterdam, of course, became the modern New York City in the United States of America.
A war with Great Britain in 1784 and with France damaged trade and Dutch influence across the world started to diminish. By 1806 Napoleon had turned what was now a French dependent state into the Kingdom of Holland, but the collapse of the French Empire in 1815 saw the Netherlands restored as a sovereign nation under the House of Orange and William I of the Netherlands its first monarch.
In 1848 a new constitution was introduced and the Netherlands became a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. During the next few years the Netherlands recognised that it would never be able to stand up to the growing European super-powers, so it chose to take a route of neutrality in the First World War.
At the start of the Second World War Nazi Germany stripped away that neutrality and invaded the Netherlands. When the German advances were stopped in their tracks they bombed Rotterdam to destruction from the air and threatened to do the same to other major cities. The Dutch capitulated and the country was occupied until liberated by the Allies in 1945. Throughout the war Dutch resistance was especially strong against the Nazis.
After the Second World War, in 1953 violent storms saw breaches of the sea defences and this led to the ‘Delta Works’, a series of construction works that protect the land from further flooding. The last of the works was completed in 1997 but the battle with the sea continues.
In 1951 the Netherlands was one of six founding nations of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). This was to lead to the European Economic Community (EEC) and eventually the European Union (EU).
Prior to 1966 Dutch society and its politics could be identified as a series of pillars; this was known as pillarisation (verzuiling in Dutch). Political parties reflected these pillars; the socialist Labour Party (PvdA) included industrial workers, the conservative liberal pillar was reflected in the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the catholic pillar was represented by the Catholic People’s Party (KVP) and the Protestant pillar by two parties, the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP).
After 1966 the emergence of new parties such as the Democrats 66 (D66) who sought to break down pillarisation led to an opening up of society. Whatever happened though the electoral system always led to political parties having to form coalition governments. This in turn led to a reorganization of the political parties with three formerly Christian Democratic parties forming a new party, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA).
In 1994, after a period of 80 years the Christian Democratic parties lost their majority and a new coalition, the so called Purple Coalition was formed between the PvdA, D66 and VVD (Purple symbolising the mix of socialist red and liberal blue). The coalition remained in power until 2002 when it was brought down by the Pim Fortuyn List. Pim Fortuyn was anti-Islam and anti-immigration but not of the right wing. His arguments were persuasive and in the 2002 election his new party won 26 seats. Tragically Pim Fortuyn himself was assassinated just days before the election. The party joined a new government but without their leader they faded quickly, in 2003 they won just eight seats and after that disappeared.
The next few years saw an even distribution of left and right wing parties which made the formation of a coalition government quite difficult. In 2010 the election created another nail-biter and eventually Mark Rutte of the conservative liberal People for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) formed a coalition with the support of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the right wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders.
The new government was supposed to last until 2015, but as so often with Dutch politics it was not to be. The stumbling block was the need to pass an austerity budget as part of the Eurozone crisis of 2011 and 2012. The PVV refused and left the coalition. Rutte and his Cabinet resigned and Queen Beatrix called an election for 12th September 2012. Ironically a few days later the caretaker government of Mark Rutte was able to pass the required austerity budget with the support of three smaller parties, the Democrats 66 (D66), Green Left (GL) and Christian Union (CU).
King Willem-Alexander is Head of State.
The Netherlands has a bicameral States General consisting of the Senate or Upper House of 75 seats where members are indirectly elected by the country’s 12 provincial councils and the House of Representatives or Lower House of 150 seats whose members are directly elected by party list proportional representation.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places the Netherlands at 8th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 83 (where 100 is least corrupt).