When, in about 55 BC , Julius Caesar conquered a large part of the lowlands near the mouths of the Rhine and Meuse (Maas) rivers, this region was populated by Celtic and Germanic tribes. To the north of the Rhine delta, several Germanic tribes had settled, among which the Batavi and the Frisians were the most important. The Batavi served with the Roman legions until they rebelled in AD 70, but even after the revolt was quelled, Batavian soldiers fought for Rome. About 300 years later, successive waves of powerful Germanic tribes, such as the Salic or West Franks, invaded this region, called the Low Countries, and gradually pushed the Frisians back to the east coast of the North Sea, except in the extreme northern section of the mainland where Saxons had settled. By the time of Charlemagne (742–814), the Saxons and Frisians had been completely conquered by the West Franks, and the Frankish language had replaced the languages of the Germanic tribes.
Soon after the death of Charlemagne and the disintegration of his realm, several duchies and counties were founded in the Low Countries by local leaders. With the coming of the Middle Ages, Holland (now the North and South Holland provinces) became the most important region and extended its power and territory under Count Floris V (r.1256–96). The ancient bishopric of Utrecht was another important principality. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, individual cities such as Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Groningen rose to eminence, together with the Duchy of Gelderland. In the 15th century, the dukes of Burgundy acquired, by various means, most of the Low Countries. Upon the extinction of the male line of the Burgundian dynasty and the marriage of Mary of Burgundy and Archduke (later Emperor) Maximilian I in 1477, however, the Austrian house of Habsburg fell heir to the lands.
Mary's son, Philip of Habsburg, married Joanna of Castile, heiress to the Spanish throne, and their son, Charles, became King Charles I of Spain in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519. In 1547, he decreed the formal union of the Netherlands and Austria, and in 1549, the union of the Netherlands and Spain. By the end of his reign in 1555, he was master of the Low Countries. His son, Philip II, concentrated his efforts on the aggrandizement of Spain. To bring the Low Countries under his direct control, he tried to stamp out the rising force of Protestantism and suppressed the political, economic, and religious liberties long cherished by the population. As a result, both Roman Catholics and Protestants rebelled against him under the leadership of William the Silent, prince of Orange, who by marriage had acquired large properties in the Netherlands.
For 10 years, the 17 provinces comprising the Low Countries united in a common revolt. Much of the area was freed in 1577, with William as the acknowledged ruler, but not even his moderation and statesmanship sufficed to keep the northern and southern provinces united. In 1578, the southern region (now Belgium) began to turn against William. In 1579, the northern provinces concluded the Union of Utrecht, in which the province of Holland was the most prominent. The Union, or United Provinces, carried on the fight against Spain, and William was the soul of the resistance until his death by assassination in 1584. William's son Maurice, governor (stadtholder) of the republic from 1584 to 1624, carried on a successful campaign against Spain, but final recognition of Dutch independence by the Spanish government was not obtained until the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Meanwhile, the southern provinces remained loyal to Spain and to the Roman Catholic Church, and were thereafter known as the Spanish Netherlands.
In the 17th century, the United Provinces became the leading commercial and maritime power in the world; its prosperity was nourished by Dutch settlements and colonies in the East Indies, India, South Africa, the West Indies, South America, and elsewhere. The government was oligarchic but based on republican and federative principles. The Dutch were noted for their religious freedom. They welcomed religious refugees— Spanish and Portuguese Jews, French Huguenots, and English Pilgrims.
Arts, sciences, literature, and philosophy flourished alongside trade and banking. At the peak of Dutch power, the Netherlands led several coalitions of European powers to victory over the aggressive France of Louis XIV. William III (r.1672–1702), great-grandson of William the Silent and grandson of the English King Charles I, and his English wife, Mary, were invited by the English Parliament to occupy the British throne in 1688, but they continued to take keen interest in Dutch affairs. The Dutch republic of which William had been governor survived for nearly a century after his death. Its position was continually threatened, however, by intense rivalries among and within the provinces. Four naval wars with Britain from the middle of the 17th century to the end of the 18th also sapped Dutch strength. In 1795, a much-weakened republic was overrun by revolutionary French armies.
After the brief Napoleonic interlude, the great powers of Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) set up a new kingdom of the Netherlands, composed of the former United Provinces and the former Spanish or Austrian Netherlands, and installed a prince of the house of Orange as King William I. In 1830, a revolt by the southern provinces resulted in the establishment of the kingdom of Belgium. Thereafter, the much-reduced kingdom was mainly concerned with domestic problems, such as the school conflict over secular versus religious instruction, social problems stemming from the industrialization of the country, and electoral reforms.
In foreign affairs, relations with Belgium were gradually improved after a decade of war and tension following Belgian independence, and Dutch claims to the principality of Luxembourg ended with the death of William III in 1890.
Foreign policies based on neutrality successfully met their test in World War I, and neutrality was preserved until the German war machine overran the country during World War II. Queen Wilhelmina (r.1890–1948) refused to surrender to the Germans, and instead fled to Britain with other officials of her government. Although Dutch resistance lasted only five days, destruction was widespread; nearly the whole of downtown Rotterdam was wiped out, and the cities of Arnhem and Nijmegen suffered great damage. In addition, Dutch factory equipment was carried away to Germany, bridges and railroads were blown up or removed, cattle were stolen, and part of the land was flooded. The Dutch withstood severe repressions until their liberation by Allied forces in May 1945. Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948 and was succeeded by her daughter, Juliana (r.1948–80).
The East Indies, most of which had been under Dutch rule for over 300 years, were occupied by Japanese forces in 1942. In 1945, a group of Indonesians proclaimed an independent republic and resisted Dutch reoccupation. After four years of hostilities and following UN intervention, the Netherlands recognized the independence of Indonesia in December 1949. Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), controlled by the Netherlands since 1815, became an independent nation on 25 November 1975. This Dutch colonial legacy was the root cause of several violent outbreaks during the late 1970s, as a group of South Moluccans, a few of the 40,000 Moluccans living in the Netherlands, used terrorism on Dutch soil to dramatize their demand for the independence of the South Molucca Islands from Indonesia. The Netherlands Antilles and Aruba continue to be dependent areas.
Reform of the social security system was the major political issue in the 1990s, along with efforts to reduce public spending. Years of administrative tinkering with the social security system has reduced the number of claimants, increased labor force participation, and generated a central government budget surplus of 1% of GDP in 2000. The budget surplus prompted heated cabinet discussions as the Labor Party wished to use the extra money for redistribution while the neo-liberal conservatives hoped to lower tax rates. Buyant growth rates of more than 3% in the period 1996–2001 brought down the official unemployment level to 2.7%. However, the global economic downturn that began in 2001 was one cause of the Netherlands' shrinking economy in late 2002 and early 2003. The government also passed a number of radical social measures that received parliamentary approval in recent years including conditions for administering euthanasia, legalization of prostitution, legalization of gay marriages, and laws banning discrimination.
The Netherlands joined the Economic and Monetary Union and strongly supports an independent European central bank, low inflation, and stable currency. It hosted two different intergovernmental conferences of the European Union and chaired the finalization of the Treaty of European Union (Maastricht Treaty) in 1991 and the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997.
In May 2002, Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigration leader of his own political party, was assassinated by a single gunman. His party, List Pim Fortuyn, came in second in the 15 May 2002 parliamentary elections. The conservative Christian Democrats, led by Jan Peter Balkenende, came in first, and Balkenende became prime minister of a center-right coalition government. In October, Balkenende's government collapsed following disagreements within the List Pim Fortuyn Party. Elections were held on 22 January 2003, and the Christian Democrats narrowly defeated the Labor Party in the Second Chamber. After 125 days, a coalition government was formed comprising the Christian Democrats, the free-market liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, and the socially liberal Democrats.
The Netherlands gave political support to the military action taken by the United States and United Kingdom against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003.
Queen Juliana abdicated in 1980 in favor of her daughter, Beatrix. In 1966, Beatrix had married Claus von Amsberg, a German diplomat, whose title remained that of Prince of the Netherlands when Beatrix became Queen. Their firstborn son, Prince Willem-Alexander, is presumptive heir to the throne. Beatrix and Claus von Amsberg had two other sons, Johan Friso and Constantijn, before Prince Claus's death in 2002.