Keeping the Water and Neighbors at Bay

Vulnerable to the sea as well as overland invasion, the Dutch have had to be pragmatic to stay safe.

The geography of the Netherlands is primarily defined by the confluence of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers, giving the small country an extended network of waterways for movement and trade — and strategic depth against invaders.

The Netherlands’ economic and political core of Holland developed around and to the north of this river delta. Today, more than half of the Dutch population lives in the area that includes the country’s four largest cities: Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, a conurbation known as the Randstad.

Where natural waterways were lacking, the Dutch built canals to connect the major cities and their surrounding towns. This helped centrally located Amsterdam develop into an entrepôt for European finance and trade in the seventeenth century; a position that was partially taken over by Rotterdam in the twentieth. The latter remains one of the world’s busiest ports and a major transit point for the transport of bulk goods and liquified natural gas into Germany and Central Europe.

The Netherlands itself is Europe’s second largest producer of natural gas, after Norway, owing to a huge gasfield that was discovered in the northeastern province of Groningen in 1959.

The densely populated west of the Netherlands is largely situated below sea level, necessitating the construction of many levees and seawalls. The Frisian Islands in the north and the islands of Zeeland in the southwest offer some natural protection from the sea but the latter were flooded in 1953 — marking one of the worst natural disasters in Dutch history. The estuaries of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers were subsequently blocked by a system of dams and storm surge barriers known as the Delta Works. The Zuiderzee was closed off from the North Sea, creating the fresh water lake IJsselmeer and a new province, Flevoland.

Land had been reclaimed from the sea starting in the seventeenth century to protect the towns from flooding and create more arable land. The landscape of the whole northwest of the country is dominated by such polders today. The cooperation that was required between residents of the polder and various government agencies that were involved in their construction and maintenance gave its name to the Dutch version of Third Way politics: the polder model.

The need — and desire — for compromise is rooted in the Netherlands’ decentralized administration. Before their secession from Spain in 1581, the cities, nobles and provinces that then formed the Dutch Republic had enjoyed various liberties and privileges which King Philip II took away while centralizing his empire. Spanish attempts at Counter-Reformation in the Netherlands, which had largely taken up Protestantism, fueled popular support for an uprising that would last eighty years.

When Spain recognized Dutch independence as part of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the Low Countries were split along religious lines. The largely Protestant north, which was enjoying its Golden Age as a major trading power and the wealthiest nation in the world, became independent. The predominantly Catholic Southern Netherlands remained part of the Habsburg Empire. They were joined with the north after the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain desired a strong state in the northwest of Europe to block French expansionism.

Northern economic and political domination, its preference for free and maritime trade over industrial development in the south as well as discrimination against Catholics prompted Belgium to revolt and secede in 1830. The Netherlands’ first king, William I, a descent of William of Orange who had led the Dutch uprising against the Spanish, refused to recognize Belgian independence until 1839 when the other European powers did in the Treaty of London. The same treaty committed those powers to Belgian neutrality, Germany’s violation of which in 1914 triggered Britain’s entry into World War I.

Small and relatively defenseless, the Netherlands was a key player in European diplomacy and wars into the eighteenth century, culminating in its brief occupation by France between 1795 and 1813. When diplomacy failed, its only recourse was to withdraw north of the major rivers and flood the areas southeast of Amsterdam to protect the cities of Holland from invasion. This stopped the French in 1672 but not a century later when the “Water Line” froze in winter.

Airplanes and modern artillery rendered the Water Line obsolete, resulting in the Netherlands’ surrender just seven days after the Germans invaded in 1940. Up until then, the country had faced no crises on its borders for more than a century and pursued a foreign policy of neutrality. That radically changed after World War II. The Dutch anchored their diplomacy and security in the transatlantic relationship and safeguarded their access to markets as well as their sovereignty by joining their neighbors in establishing what became the European Union.