The history of the Netherlands as an independent nation began in 1568, when the province of Holland led the country in a war for independence against the Spanish empire and in defence of Protestant and economic freedom. Independence was declared in 1581, and in 1648 the nation gained international recognition as the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In 1813, following a period of French occupation, the Netherlands became a unified state and a constitutional monarchy under King Willem I of Orange.
When the Netherlands became a monarchy in 1813, the House of Orange was appointed to rule. Today, the reigning head of state is King Willem-Alexander. Under the Dutch constitution, the monarch has immunity and government ministers are responsible for governing the country, making the monarch’s role essentially ceremonial.
The Netherlands has a population of around 17 million people, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Situated in the northern part of Western Europe, the country is bordered by Belgium, Germany and the North Sea. By car, it takes roughly four hours to drive from north to south. Amsterdam is the capital, and the seat of government is in The Hague.
The western and northern parts of the country are between one and six metres below sea level. The soil is mostly peat and clay, in a landscape dissected by canals, rivers and estuaries. Most of the land is used for farming and grazing. The territories below sea level were once lakes or part of the sea, until pumping stations and mills were used to drain them dry. These stations run continuously to prevent flooding, while coastal areas are protected by natural dunes and man-made dykes. The Flevopolder and the Noordoostpolder are the two polder regions most recently claimed from the sea as part of the country’s neverending struggle against the water. When the province of Zeeland was hit by a disastrous flood in 1953, the Delta Works were built to straighten and strengthen the shoreline with a system of new dykes, dams, sluices and bridges.
The Netherlands has a maritime climate with moderate temperature variations across the four seasons. July and August are on the warm end of the scale with average temperatures between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius. The winter months are colder, with some frost and snow.
Traditionally, the Netherlands is a trading nation and has enjoyed a very strong economy for many centuries. Trade, logistics, agriculture, banking and food have been the strongest drivers of the Dutch economy. The country’s central location gives it prime access to international markets, and the Port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe. The Netherlands is a multicultural society, particularly in the cities. Amsterdam is home to 178 different nationalities and many more ethnicities – more than any other city in the world. This multi-ethnic mix emerged during the twentieth century when many people from the former Dutch colonies in Indonesia, the Moluccas, Surinam and the Dutch Antilles came to live in the Netherlands. In the 1950s and 1960s, southern Europeans, Moroccans and Turks came here to ease the shortage of factory workers. Refugees from all over the world, as well as other groups of immigrants, complete this diverse cultural picture.