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Amsterdam - History

Amsterdam History

The oldest archaeological finds in Amsterdam date from Roman times - coins and a few artefacts suggest there were people around, but there's no evidence of human settlement. This isn't surprising, considering the region was a delightful mass of shifting lakes, swamps and soggy peat. Amsterdam's earliest settlers were dam-building 12th-century farming and fisherfolk who tamed the marshlands around the Amstel with ditches and dikes.

The city grew rapidly after 1300 as a key player in trade between the North and Baltic seas and southern Europe. But as the money flowed in, class struggle intensified - the Reformation grew out of a struggle for power between the emerging merchants and the Catholic-sanctioned aristocrats. Calvinism, a form of Protestantism, gripped the hearts and minds of Amsterdam's nouveax riche, with its emphasis on sobriety, hard work and community-based worship. The Calvinists took on the imperial power of Spain's Catholic Philip II, and in 1578 they captured Amsterdam from him. The following year Amsterdam and seven northern provinces declared themselves an independent republic - Holland - led by William of Orange, the forefather of today's royal family.

Amsterdam's Golden Age (1580-1740) kicked off when trading rival Antwerp was taken by the Spanish and its access to the sea restricted. By 1600, Amsterdam's ships dominated seaborne trade and fishing in Europe, extending their horizons through the 17th century as Dutch overseas interests were established. During the 18th century, money gradually overtook trade as the city's biggest industry. Amsterdam's trade and fishing came to a complete halt in the early 19th century when the city was occupied by the French and then blockaded by the British. By the time the French trooped out in 1814, Amsterdam had become a local market town and Britain ruled the seas.

In the 20th century, Amsterdam turned its back on the sea and restyled itself as an industrial centre: rail links were established, steel production thrived and the population expanded. As capital of a neutral Netherlands, Amsterdam managed relatively well in WWI, and the 1920s were boom years, crowned by the Olympic Games hosted in 1928. Unfortunately, the depression of the 1930s hit the city hard, with unemployment peaking at 25%, and tensions rose between socialists, communists and fascists.

The Netherlands tried to stay neutral in WWII, but Germany invaded in May 1940, and for the first time in 400 years the city's population experienced the grim realities of war first-hand. The occupying forces slowly introduced measures against Amsterdam's large Jewish population, often with the complicity of local authorities, and although workers went out on strike in support of their Jewish compatriots in 1941, things had gone too far. Only one in 16 of Amsterdam's Jews survived the war, the highest proportion of Jews murdered anywhere in Western Europe. Throughout the occupation the city's populace had largely knuckled under and tried to make do as best they could, but when the invaders began rounding up Dutch men to work in Germany, a resistance movement, founded by an alliance of Calvinists and communists, began operating. The country's south was liberated by the Allies in 1944, but isolated Amsterdam suffered horribly in the severe winter of 1944-45, and thousands of residents died. The city was finally liberated in May 1945.

Postwar Amsterdam gathered itself quietly until the early 1960s, when people began to question the status quo and Amsterdam became the radical heart of Europe. The Provos kicked it all off, with a series of anarchic street 'happenings', while students and women campaigned for greater rights and hippies started arriving in the 'Magic Centre' of Europe, the city where anything was possible. The riotous squatter movement stopped the demolition of much cheap inner-city housing, the lack of which is a continuing problem, and many residents protested against thoughtless city planning, developing the policy of an inner city where people can live, work and shop. By the early 1980s, consensus had settled in, and with it progressive planning and social policies like the neighbourhood councils, a tolerant approach to drugs, building of affordable housing and legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples.

During the '90s family businesses and small industries were replaced by tertiary-sector professionals and the service industry that sprang up resulted in the inner city becoming a very pleasant melange of pubs, coffee shops, restaurants and hotels. The ethnic makeup of the city changed too, with Surinamese, Moroccans, Turks and Antillians making up 25% of the population, and an influx of higher-income expats thanks to the city's success in attracting foreign business.

Partly as a result of these economic, social and cultural shifts, it seems that money is back in favour in 21st-century Amsterdam and anything is possible - so long as it's 'sensibly' planned and all stakeholders are consulted. The city is a livable place (if you can find anywhere to live) and tourists keep flocking to see what it's all about: Amsterdam is fourth in line for Europe's tourism crown, behind London, Paris and Rome.

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