At the end of the last Ice Age, the "Low Countries," now called Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were inhabited by scattered hunter-gather groups. 8,000 years later when the Roman Empire was first coming to power, varied Northern European tribes had settled in, including the Celts, Frisians and Saxons.
With little resistance, those Romans eventually conquered the Netherlands; building military outposts and cities, including those at Maastricht and Ultrecht.
Over time, three distinct cultures formed and prospered here: the Franks in the south, the Frisians along the coastlines and the Saxons in the east. By the mid 700's, most of the people were converted to Christianity, and then, the Vikings arrived.
This mostly tranquil expanse of western Europe was first invaded in the early 9th century. The overpowering Vikings removed the accumulated wealth, destroyed some settlements of note, and remained in power until crushed at Ultrecht by a German king in 920. As a result, and beginning with King Otto the Great, German kings held sway here during the 10th and 11th centuries.
Around 1100, coastal swamp lands (all frequently flooded) were being drained and cultivated by the Frisians, farms were developed, towns quickly grew in influence and economic trade groups (leagues) formed.
Repetitive and devastating flooding of the lowlands continued to occur, and over 120,000 people (collectively) drowned in the All Saints Flood (1170), Noordholland Flood (1212), St. Marcellus flood (1219), and the Zuider Zee seawall collapse in year 1287.
Regardless, regional port cities grew powerful, and some became (local) independent empires; nobles and self-appointed rulers converted their own holdings into personal kingdoms, and into that mix (almost predictably) neighbors battled neighbors, wars were fought for land control, and then, a new opportunity presented itself.
With support from local (now tired of bickering) power brokers in the Netherlands, the Flemish Duke of Burgandy (from France), almost by invitation, united all factions; wars were ended and peace and prosperity followed. One of the by-products of that unity was Dutch shipping, as its fleet grew into a consequential force in the 15th century, with Amsterdam the principal port.
Burgundian rule over the "Low Countries" ended in the early 16th century, mostly by conquest. The Habsburg dynasty under Charles V gained control, but in short-order the lengthy struggle for independence surfaced. In 1548, Charles V granted limited autonomy to seventeen provinces of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
When Charles was succeeded by his son, Philip II, the Catholic King of Spain, the new king was outraged by Protestant influence in the "Low Countries," and tried to enforce the brutal Catholic Inquisition policies. Led by Prince William of Orange the locals promptly rebelled, and the resulting Eighty Years' War finally ended in 1648, with the Spanish expelled and independence at hand.
The so-called Golden Age (1580 to 1740) brought great prestige and wealth as the Dutch East India Company sent ships from Amsterdam across the seven seas. A few Asian countries were colonized, as well as islands in the Caribbean (the Netherlands Antilles), and even New York City, calling it New Amsterdam.
With the largest mercantile fleet in Europe, and a now dominant position in European trade, the Netherlands were on a roll. With new-found riches, Amsterdam experienced a cultural renaissance of its own, and flourished into a mecca (or center) of culture.
All good things must come to an end, and as the British Empire expanded its naval power, the Dutch lost their long-held dominance of the sea. The economy soon stagnated, international trade decreased, and at the end of the 18th century, though Amsterdam remained influential, the top dog was now in London.
To make matters worse, the Netherlands publicly recognized America's struggle for independence. Subsequently miffed, Britain declared war and it proved an economic disaster for the provinces. Trouble often follows trouble, and in 1795 the French invaded and Napoleon appointed his brother (Louis) king, and turned the Netherlands into the Kingdom of Holland.
The French occupation of the Netherlands ended in 1813 after Napoleon was defeated, a defeat in which William VI of Orange played a prominent role. He was crowned the first King of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a combination of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. Like many alliances, this one was also short lived as Belgium declared independence in 1830, followed by Luxembourg in 1890.
The Netherlands declared their neutrality during World War I, but in World War II the same approach failed. Germany invaded with very little resistance, Rotterdam was bombed, the royal family fled to the United Kingdom, and the persecution of the Jews began. Over 100,000 were murdered, and one brave, young Jewish girl named Anne Frank would come to personify that terrible time in human history.
In February of 1953, a huge storm caused the collapse of several dikes, and almost 2,000 drowned in the resulting tidal surges. So began the Delta Project, a project that included a huge series of outer sea-dikes, and inner canal and river dikes built to protect this fragile land from disastrous flooding brought on by the constant pressures applied to it by the North Sea.
Today nearly 50% of the land here remains just above sea level. The massive and costly Delta Project and other engineering marvels have to date prevented the North Sea from doing any significant (additional) damage. However, climate change and rising waters could prove daunting to the Netherlands in the future.
In the 1960's and 1970's, social changes in drug policies, environmental issues, euthanasia, religion, same-sex marriages and women's rights propelled the country into a mecca of liberal ideology. The country was a founding member of NATO. It also proudly joined the European Union (EU), and adopted the Euro in 1999.
Always waging war against rising water, there's an old Dutch saying, "God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands." Well, the Dutch have also created a lasting legacy of art, personal determination, and some of the most familiar icons of our modern world.