Dutch history at a glance

During the late Middle Ages the Low Countries were in the borderline of Burgundy and Habsburg spheres of influence. There was, however, strong opposition towards the great powers in the provinces, which wanted to protect its distinctive features from outside influence. The Dutch fought for independence from the Habsburgs, leading to the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648). Seven rebellious provinces then united in the Union of Utrecht in 1579 and formed the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (also known as the "United Provinces"), an alliance of all northern and some southern territories.

The 17th century is known as the Dutch Golden Age as the nation flourished both culturally and economically. The country's grand fleet gave them a virtual monopoly of the carrying trade around the world. English and French attacks on the economic hegemony of the Republics brought the Golden Age to an end by the early 18th century. In 1795, after the French Revolution, the French army invaded and occupied the Netherlands. The French encountered little united resistance due to conflicts and unrest among the provinces known as "the Batavian revolution". French rule ended in 1815 and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was established at the Congress of Vienna. The kingdom included both the former Dutch Republic in the north (present-day Netherlands) and the southern provinces (present-day Belgium), whereas a personal union between the Netherlands and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg remained until 1890. By 1830 the Belgian discontent with the union caused a revolt and the southern provinces broke away from the kingdom. The North refused to recognise Belgium until 1839. Following widespread European unrest in 1948 king William II was persuaded to agree to liberal and democratic reform and in 1849, the constitution was re-written thus making the Netherlands a constitutional democracy.

The Netherlands remained neutral throughout World War I, notwithstanding pressure from both Britain and Germany to enter the war. While once again declaring neutrality in World War II, the country was unable to stay out of the conflict. In May 1940, Nazi-German troops crossed the borders and initiated a period of occupation. During the following five years more than 75 percent of the Jewish community in the Netherlands was sent to German concentration camps and exterminated. The policy of neutrality was left in favour of NATO membership in 1949, and in 1953 the Netherlands became one of the founding states of the European Economic Community (EEC).

Notwithstanding economic hardship, the immediate post-war years were marked by public unity and idealism. In the pre- and inter-war periods, however, the society had become increasingly divided along three, main ideological lines: Protestantism, Catholicism and socialism. The so-called 'pillars' had their own political parties, trade unions, schools, social clubs, print media, broadcasting organizations and so forth. The 'pillarization' (verzuiling ) was characterized as a culture of 'Living-Apart-Together' and was seen as a tool of minority management in a plural society. At the end of World War II, steps were taken to 'de-pillarize' the Dutch society. While first unsuccessful, the system started to erode in the 1960s because of economic growth and the resulting emergence of the welfare state, individualization and secularization of society. The development from a vertical to a horizontal class society was reinforced by the influx of foreign labour.

All post-war administrations have been formed by various coalitions between the several ‘confessional’ Catholic and Protestant and ‘progressive’ Socialist and Liberal parties. In order to counterweight the secular trends in Dutch society, three religious parties in 1977 united in a Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA): the protestant Anti Revolutionary Party (ARP), Christian-Historical Union (CHU) and the Catholic People's Party (KVP). The union was consolidated into a federal party three years later. Following a general election in 1977 a centre-right coalition government was formed between the CDA and the right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).  The same coalition was re-entered in 1982 (after a short-lived centre-left coalition had broken down), and confirmed in the 1986 elections.

Politics in the new era

The general election of 1989 changed the favourable situation for VVD and produced a centre-left coalition between CDA and the Labour Party (PvdA). Following the May 1994 general election CDA was excluded from the Council of Ministers for the first time since 1917. The PvdA, which had focused its election manifesto on unemployment and reductions in social welfare, became the party with the largest representation in the Chamber and a three-party coalition agreement was entered between PvdA, VVD and D66 (Democraten ’66). Wim Kok, leader of the Labour Party (PvdA), thus became prime minister in 1994 and earned a second term four years later. In 2002, Kok’s government resigned amid criticism of its role in the Balkans where a group of about 100 Dutch peacekeepers had failed to stop the massacre of thousands of Muslims by Bosnian Serb troops.

During the national election campaign in 2002 Pim Fortuyn, a controversial, charismatic politician advocating against immigration under his own party (List Pim Fortuyn, LPF) was assassinated. In spite of Fortuyn's death LPF continued its election campaign and finished with the second most seats after the CDA, led by Jan Peter Balkenende. The Christian Democrats successfully formed a centre-right coalition with LPF and the VVD, thus making Balkenende the new prime minister. Less than three months later, in October 2002, the coalition collapsed. LPF was awash with factionalism and personal acrimony and the LPF’s coalition partners refused to co-operate further with the party. The Government thus resigned on 16 October, after just 87 days in power. The CDA managed to hang on in the next election in 2003, and Balkenende remained prime minister as head of another centre-right coalition formed with VVD and D66.

The murder in November 2004 of Theo van Gogh, who had made a controversial film about Islamic culture, raised concerns regarding the threat to the Netherlands’ liberalism and tolerance presented by the country’s failure to assimilate ethnic minorities. In June 2006, Balkenende’s coalition again disintegrated in a disagreement over immigration policy. New elections were held in November and proved relatively successful for the governing CDA which lost only three seats. The formation talks led to the installation of a new coalition government this time comprising CDA, PvdA, and Christian Union. Balkenende thus became the prime minister of his fouth cabinet.  

In June 2005, 61.6 per cent of Dutch voters voiced their opposition to the European Constitution. The project for a continental body of law was practically abandoned after the rejection of voters in the Netherlands and France.


Recent History (The Netherlands), in Europa World online. London, Routledge.

Heidar, K. and Berntzen E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.