views updated


LOCATION: The Netherlands
POPULATION: 16.6 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholic; Protestant (including the Dutch Reformed Church); small populations of Muslims, Hindus, and Jews


The Netherlands is a small, flat country located on the shores of the North Sea in western Europe. The whole country is often referred to as Holland, although this term is actually the name for certain provinces in the northwestern part of the country. Over many centuries, the Dutch people literally built their nation by shoring up its lowlands against the sea with dikes, dunes, and windmills. Its coastal location has historically made it an important trading center. Through the efforts of the Dutch East India and Dutch West India companies in the 17th century, the Netherlands acquired colonial territories on every continent to become one of the world's most powerful nations.

In the 20th century, the Dutch recovered from the devastation of World War II and helped found the European Community (EC) in 1957. In the 1990s, this institution became the European Union, offering the Netherlands, like its fellow members, new opportunities as part of a single trading bloc with enhanced economic powers. Meanwhile, the nation's lowlands are sinking at the rate of 45 cm (1.5 ft) per century, and the North Sea is rising, meaning that the Dutch will have to continue waging their ongoing struggle against the sea.


The name "Netherlands," meaning "lowlands," derives from the fact that much of the western part of the country is low-lying land (called polders) that has been reclaimed from the sea by dikes and dunes. In addition, windmills, called polder mills, pump excess underground water to keep these areas dry and farmable. Other geographic areas include sand dunes along the western coast and higher land in the eastern and southeastern areas.

Most of the 16.6 million Dutch people belong to the same ethnic group, descended from Frankish, Saxon, and Frisian tribes. A measure of diversity has been added by the arrival of immigrants from the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia and Suriname and foreign workers from Turkey, Morocco, and southern Europe. Throughout history, the Dutch have been known for tolerance of different ethnic and religious groups. They welcomed Jews and Huguenots (French Protestants) in the 16th and 17th century, and played a role in aiding Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in World War II. The most famous of these Jewish refugees was Anne Frank, whose family hid for several years in a secret annex in Amsterdam, aided by their Dutch employees. Tragically, the Franks' hiding place was discovered in the final year of the war, and the whole family except for Anne's father, Otto, died in concentration camps. However, the famous Diary of a Young Girl, kept by Anne during the war years, bears witness to the courage of ordinary Dutch citizens who risked their lives attempting to save this German Jewish family.


Dutch, a Germanic language, is the official language in all 12 provinces of the Netherlands and the language in everyday use everywhere but in Friesland, where ancient Frisian is spoken. Dutch dialects can vary enough to make it difficult for speakers from different regions to understand each other.



Dutch mythology is strongly linked to the sea and characters associated with it, such as mermaids and pirates. There is also a tradition of tales about devils who tempt people with riches in order to gain their souls; one of the popular subjects of these tales is the devil Joost. Many popular Dutch tales, riddles, and rituals were suppressed over time by wealthy burghers promoting high culture in their stead, but some survived as part of the country's Christian traditions. The Dutch Father Christmas (named, like the American Santa Claus, for Saint Nicholas) is called Sinterklaas and has a dark-faced assistant called Black Peter who is said to carry disobedient children to Spain in a sack.


An estimated 31% of the Dutch people are Roman Catholics, while 20% belong to six major Protestant groups, of which the largest is the Dutch Reformed Church. There are smaller populations of Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Approximately 40% of Netherlanders claim no religion. Traditionally, the northern and eastern parts of the country have been Protestant, while the south has been Catholic. Since the mid-19th century, the Dutch have practiced a kind of religious "apartheid" known as verzuiling (in English, "columnizing" or "pillaring"), that mandated the establishment of separate Protestant and Catholic schools, newspapers, political parties, radio stations, and other institutions. This system has weakened somewhat since the 1960s, but it still controls many facets of life in rural areas.


Legal holidays include New Year's Day, the Queen's birthday (April 30), Memorial Day (May 4)/Liberation of the Netherlands (May 5), and the Christmas holidays. In addition, many Dutch people observe the other standard holidays of the Christian calendar. The Dutch are great celebrators of birthdays. On their birthdays, the Dutch stay in bed late and family
members come into the bedroom singing "Lang Zal Hij Leven" ("Long May He Live"—for females, "Lang Zal Zij Leven"). Gifts are presented, and the festivities continue at school or work, and, in the evening, with a party for family and friends. The Queen's birthday is considered an especially important occasion, marked by flag displays, parades, and girls wearing orange ribbons in their hair in honor of the royal family, the House of Orange. The Memorial Day holiday in the spring has two contrasting parts. At eight o'clock on the evening of May 4, people throughout the country stop whatever they are doing to remember the Dutch war dead and pray for peace. The next day, May 5, is a time of festivals and celebrations.


The Netherlands is a modern, industrialized, traditionally Christian country. Hence, many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals, such as baptism, first Communion, confirmation, and marriage. Religious minorities observe their own rituals. In addition, a student's progress through the education system is marked by many families with graduation parties.


On the whole, the Dutch are a reserved people who do not speak readily to strangers. Public interaction, usually marked by close eye contact, is direct but formal. (Close friends, however, do greet each other with a kiss on the cheek.) Restraint and moderation can be seen in many aspects of Dutch life, from cars (medium-sized and -priced) to clothing (casual and unostentatious). The primary Dutch focus is on the family and on being gezellig thuis, or "cozy at home."

Popular Dutch sayings include:

"You'll face the wind" (Je krijgt de wind van voren)- comparable to the American phrase "face the music"

"I'll row with the oars I have" (Ik roei met de riemen ik heb)-i.e., I'll make the best of the situation

"God's mills grind slowly" (Gods molens malen lang-zaam)


Traditionally, the Dutch have striven to make their homes gezellig, which means "homey" or "cozy." They favor knick-knacks such as colorful tiles and blue-and-white Delft porcelain. Most homes have colorful flower gardens in front, typically featuring the tulip, the Dutch national flower. With the nation's high population density, Dutch cities suffer from overcrowding and housing shortages. Many of the tall, gabled traditional houses in cities like Amsterdam have been divided into apartments. One popular response to the scarcity of dwellings is living in a houseboat, generally a converted barge. By 2008 there were approximately 2,400 such boats anchored on the canals in the center of Amsterdam.

The Dutch receive modern, high-quality health care. While most health-care facilities are privately operated, costs are covered by a national health insurance system. In 2008 the average life expectancy was 79.25years, and the major causes of death were heart disease, cancer, and traffic accidents. Privately funded home nursing is provided for children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Home birth has always been popular in the Netherlands; the government finances a 16-month training program for midwives, who assist doctors with delivery and provide postnatal care for mother and infant.

The Netherlands has an extensive network of highways. Dutch cities and suburbs have good public transportation, although a major expansion is slated for completion by the year 2010 in order to reduce pollution. Bicycles are a favorite form of transportation, and the country has about 9,920 km (6,200 mi) of bicycle paths. A state-owned railway system links most Dutch cities and also offers daily express service to cities in Belgium and France. Rotterdam, in the heart of one of Europe's major industrial centers, is one of the busiest ports in the world.


The Dutch place great value on family life. A traditional Dutch saying is "Your own hearth is worth gold" (Eigen haard is goud waard). The nuclear family-called the gezin-has traditionally been at the center of Dutch life, especially since the 19th century. Since World War II, there has been an increase in the incidence of unmarried people living together, and the divorce rate has risen as well. The Dutch tend to have small families and to lavish care and attention on their children. The concept of deftig, or respectability, is important to the Dutch family and is related to an age-old custom known as schmeren. At sundown, the Dutch traditionally leave their curtains open with the lights on low, leaving themselves visible to neighbors or passersby behind their large front windows. This practice is often interpreted as a symbolic attempt to show their neighbors that all is deftig within, although some have attributed it to the desire to check up on what is going on outside, or even as a thrifty way to make use of all available daylight.


In everyday life, the Dutch wear typical modern Western-style clothing for both formal and casual occasions, although people who work outdoors may still wear the wooden shoes (klompen) popularly associated with the Dutch. Due to the efforts of animal rights activists, fur coats have become unpopular. Traditional folk costumes vary from region to region, but most feature baggy black pants and wide-brimmed hats for men and full black dresses with embroidered bodices and lace bonnets for women. The popular image of the Dutch people often includes a woman wearing wooden shoes and the white cap of the Volendam region with its high peak and wing-like folds at the sides. Traditional costumes may still be seen in Volendam and Marken, where they are a tourist attraction.


Dutch food is wholesome and simply prepared, often with butter but not thick sauces or strong spices (although the spicier Indonesian rijsttafel dishes have gained popularity in recent years). Seafood is widely eaten, especially herring, which are traditionally lifted by the tail and dropped head first into one's upturned mouth. Dairy products are a dietary staple, and the Dutch are known worldwide for their cheeses, the most popular being Gouda, which is round and flat, and Edam, which is shaped like a ball. Many desserts come with whipped cream, and popular beverages include tea, coffee, beer, and Jenever, a Dutch gin made from juniper berries.

The Dutch breakfast is generally a cold meal of sliced bread, meat, and cheese. This is followed by a modest midday meal, also cold, and a large dinner, served at about 6 PM, which typically includes soup and a main dish containing meat and vegetables. Popular snacks include french fries—patat frites— often served with mayonnaise or ketchup, and waffles, smothered in whipped cream or caramel sauce.


The Dutch are a well-educated people with virtually no illiteracy. Schooling is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 16. At the age of 12, students take an exam which tracks them into either general, pre-university, or vocational school, although it is generally possible to change schools at a later time. At the age of 16, school certificate exams are taken in a variety of subjects. Students in the pre-university, or gymnasium, track can advance automatically to a university at the age of 18, while others must take an exam. Higher education is offered at nine universities and four technical institutes. The oldest university, which is at Leiden, dates back to 1575.


The 17th century was the golden age of Dutch painting, marked by the work of such masters as Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Vermeer, and Jacob van Ruisdael. Supported by the rich burghers and merchants of the upper middle class, these works are known for their depiction of everyday scenes showing middle-class life. The great 19th-century painter Vincent van
Gogh was born and lived most of his life in the Netherlands before moving to Arles, France, two years before his death in 1890. The 20th-century De Stijl movement, which advocated simplicity, is represented in the works of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. The Netherlands was home to two great philosophers, Desiderius Erasmus in the 15th century and Baruch Spinoza in the 17th. The 19th-century novel Max Have-laar, by Edouard Douwes Dekker, caused a public outcry over Dutch treatment of the people in its colonies and led to eventual government reforms. In music, the Renaissance composers Jan Sweelinck and Jacob Obrecht were renowned throughout Europe. Twenty-first century Dutch popular music has African and Middle Eastern influences.


The Dutch economy expanded from World War II until economic growth slowed in 1973 due to rising world oil prices. Over the next decade unemployment skyrocketed from 3% to 17%. In 2007 it stood at 4.1% of the work force. The main industry of the 20th century was the production of petrochemicals. Agriculture, which accounts for only 3% of workers, is still an important part of the national economy, with many Dutch specializing in dairy farming and flower-growing. Industrial activity in the 2000s is predominantly in food processing, chemicals, petroleum refining, and electrical machinery. Many people in the Netherlands go into the family business, eventually taking it over from the older generation. Foreign workers, who first entered the country in large numbers in the 1960s, perform low-paying, unskilled work.


At least 4 million people belong to sports clubs. The largest is the Royal Netherlands Football (i.e., soccer) Association, which claims about a million members. The Dutch won the European soccer championship in 1988. Other popular sports are tennis, swimming, and hockey.


The Dutch enjoy many forms of outdoor recreation. Fishing is extremely popular, as are boating, sailing, and camping. Throughout the country, bicycles are used for recreational outings and races, as well as transportation. Winter sports include skating, curling, ice boating, wind-assisted skating (performed wearing a kite-like triangular sail on one's back), and many kinds of races and endurance tests. As many as 16,000 people compete in the 200-km (124-mi) Elfstedentocht skating race over frozen canals connecting 11 towns in Friesland. (However, in many years temperatures do not drop low enough for this event to be held.) Another traditional sport popular in Friesland is fierljeppen, a form of pole-vaulting.


Traditional Dutch crafts include pottery, tile work, glassware, and silver. The famous Delft pottery has been produced in the city of that name since 1653. Plates, vases, pitchers, and a multitude of other decorative pieces are still made by workers who enter the trade at ages 16 or 17 and receive eight years of training. Over a thousand different types of objects are produced, and no two pieces are the same. The designs were originally copied from fine Chinese porcelain that entered Holland during the 17th century.


The generous Dutch program of social benefits has been abused by a multitude of persons claiming sickness or disability: in the early 1990s one-fourth of Amsterdam's population was living on welfare. Absenteeism at work is also a problem. Overcrowding in the cities has resulted in the illegal occupation of buildings by squatters. The position of Amsterdam as one of Europe's main entry points for illegal drugs has led to a drug problem, which the government has addressed with strong anti-drug laws. However, the number of addicts using hard drugs in the Netherlands is low compared with the rest of Europe and considerably lower than that in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Dutch rates of drug use are lower than US rates in every category.


Progress on women's rights issues has been realized in the Netherlands in the last 50 years. In the mid-20th century, women still needed their husbands' consent to enter into employment contracts. The percentage of women in the labor force jumped from 22% in 1960 to 56% in 2006; just 10% of women leave the workforce after having their first child. The Netherlands has a goal of having 65% of all women working at least 12 hours per week by 2010. Still much remains to be done to fully achieve gender equality in government and society. A Law on Child Care entered into force in January 2005. The Netherlands has invested considerably in child-care facilities. There were 200,000 child-care facilities in 2007 and all schools were required to provide child care from 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Child care has been made affordable for all income groups. Parents pay no more than one-third of child care costs. Working parents are entitled to parental leave and tax breaks during that leave.

The Netherlands is also taking steps to combat domestic violence, sexual violence, honor-related violence, and human trafficking. Prostitution in the Netherlands is legal. Eighty percent of women working as prostitutes are foreigners, and 20% are of Dutch origin. The Dutch Parliament, citizens, and Dutch non-governmental organizations broadly support the legalization of brothels. The government asserts that that policy protects sex workers, with the government having more control over the sex industry and combating human trafficking. Local authorities can issue work permits for brothels and can thus control safety, health, and working conditions.

The Netherlands is known for its liberal policies on gay rights. The public widely supports tolerance and equal rights for homosexuals, although conservative Christians and Muslim immigrants tend to be more conservative in their beliefs about gender and sexual norms. The 1993 Equal Rights Law prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orienta-tion. In 1998 the Dutch parliament granted same-sex couples domestic partnership benefits and in 2001 the government legalized same-sex marriages. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to do so. A 2006 European Union member poll showed the Dutch to be the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage at 82%.


Bennett, A. Linda, ed. Encyclopedia of World Cultures (Europe). Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Translated by B.M. Mooyaart. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, ed. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.

Goodfriend, Joyce D., et al, eds. Going Dutch: the Dutch Presence in America, 1609-2009. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2008.

Hubbard, Monica M. and Beverly Baer, ed. Cities of the World: Europe and the Middle East. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Kristensen, Preben, and Fiona Cameron. We Live in the Netherlands. New York: Bookwright Press, 1986.

Moore, Bob, and Henk van Nierop, eds. Twentieth-Century Mass Society in Britain and the Netherlands. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: Western Europeans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Netherlands in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1991.

State, Paul F. Brief History of the Netherlands. New York: Facts On File Inc., 2008.

van Stegeren, Theo. The Land and People of the Netherlands. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

—revised by J. Hobby