The Kingdom of the Netherlands lies at the W end of the North European Plain, which extends to the Ural Mountains in Russia. The country is largely flat, about 40% being below sea level at high tide. To prevent flooding, dykes have been built to hold back the waves. There are large areas called polders made up of land reclaimed from the sea.
Because of its position on the North Sea, the Netherlands has a temperate climate. Winters are mild, with rain coming from the Atlantic depressions which pass over the country. North Sea storms often batter the coasts. Storm waves have periodically breached the dykes, causing flooding and sometimes loss of life.
From the 4th to 8th century, the Franks ruled the region. In the 10th century, it became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Trade flourished through the Hanseatic League in the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1477, the region passed to the Habsburgs. Philip II's attempt to impose the Inquisition met with fierce resistance. The N Protestant provinces, led by William I (the Silent), declared independence in 1581. The foundation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 marked the beginnings of empire. After the Thirty Years' War, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) recognized the independence of the N and S provinces as the United Provinces. In 1652, Jan de Witt formed a republic. In the remainder of the 17th century the Dutch built up a great overseas empire, especially in South-east Asia. Trading rivalry with England led to the Dutch Wars, and the Treaty of Breda (1667) confirmed Dutch imperial possessions. In 1672, France invaded and de Witt was murdered. The House of Orange regained control under William III (of Orange).
France conquered the Netherlands in 1795 during the French Revolutionary Wars, holding it until 1813. After the fall of Napoleon in 1815 the former United Provinces, Belgium, and Luxembourg united to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands under William I. Belgium broke away in 1830. In 1890 Luxembourg seceded, and Wilhelmina began her long reign. The Netherlands was neutral in World War 1. Germany invaded in May 1940 and Queen Wilhelmina was exiled. Much of the Dutch fleet escaped and served with the Allies. About 75% of the country's Jews were deported to Poland and there murdered. By the end of the war about 270,000 Netherlanders had been killed or had died of starvation or forced labour.
In 1948 the Netherlands formed an economic union called Benelux with Belgium and Luxembourg, and in 1949 it became a member of NATO. Economic recovery was rapid and in 1957 the country became a founder member of the EEC.
In 1949, after much fighting, the Dutch recognized the independence of its largest overseas possession, Indonesia. In 1954 Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles were granted self-government. In 1962, the Dutch handed over Netherlands New Guinea to the United Nations, which handed it over, as Irian Jaya, to Indonesia in 1963. Suriname became fully independent in 1975.
In 1953 waves penetrated the coastal defences in the south-western delta region, flooding about 4.3% of the country, destroying or damaging more than 30,000 houses and killing 1,800 people. Within three weeks, a commission of enquiry had recommended the Delta Plan, a huge project to protect the delta region. Completed in 1986, it involved the construction of massive dams and floodgates that are closed during severe storms.
The Maastricht Treaty, which transformed the EEC into the European Union, was signed in the Dutch city of Maastricht in 1991. Since 1 January 2002 the euro has been the sole currency.
The Netherlands has the world's 14th largest economy and is a highly industrialized country. Manufacturing and commerce are the most valuable activities. Mineral resources include china clay, natural gas, oil and salt. It imports many of the materials needed by its industries. The products are wide-ranging, including aircraft, chemical products, electronic equipment, machinery, textiles and vehicles. In the area south of Rotterdam, the Dutch have constructed a vast port and industrial area, Europoort. Together with Rotterdam's own facilities, the complex is the largest and busiest in the world.
Agriculture employs only 5% of the workforce, but, through the use of scientific techniques, yields are high. The Dutch cut and sell more than 3 billion flowers a year. Dairy farming is the leading farming activity. In the areas above sea level, farming includes both cattle and crops. Major food crops include barley, potatoes, sugar beet and wheat.
41,500 sq km (16,000 sq miles)
Dutch 83%, Indonesian, Turkish, Moroccan and others
Dutch (official), Frisian
Roman Catholic 31%, Protestant 21%, Islam 4%, others
Euro = 100 cents
GDP per capita