Under the Holy Roman Emperor (and King of Spain) Charles V, there was a 17-province area called the Netherlands that included most of present-day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France and Germany. The Eighty Years’ War between the provinces and Spain began in 1568; in 1648 Spanish king Philip IV recognized Dutch independence in the Treaty of Münster. The 17th and 18th centuries were a Dutch Golden Age; the Dutch United provinces became a leading seafaring and commercial power, with settlements and colonies around the world, including Asia, South America, West Africa and South Africa. After a 20-year French occupation, a Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed in 1815 under King William I. In 1830 Belgium seceded and formed a separate kingdom. During the 19th century the Netherlands was slow to industrialize, mostly due to the complexities of modernizing its system of waterways and windmills.

The Netherlands remained neutral in World War I, but suffered invasion and occupation by Germany in World War II. The government continued to function in exile in England. The Allies attempted to liberate the Netherlands but the Nazis confiscated so much food and livestock that there was a deathly famine in 1944. German forces held out until the Nazi surrender of May 1945 that ended the war, which took place in the Netherlands at Wageningen.

Since the War ended, the Dutch economy has prospered. The Netherlands are part of the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) union formed under various names in the 20th century, and was a founding member of NATO and the EEC (now the EU). A modern, industrialized nation, the Netherlands is still a large exporter of agricultural products—largely processed mechanically. Near Amsterdam is the Hague, third largest city in the Netherlands, known as the world’s legal capital because it hosts four international courts including the International Court of Justice.

The Netherlands has been home to some of the world’s finest painters, including Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen and more modern artists such as van Gogh, Mondrian, Escher and de Kooning. The Netherlands also produced philosophers such as Erasmus and Spinoza, and all of Descartes’ major work was done there. Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, discovered Saturn’s moon Titan and also invented the pendulum clock. The country’s best-known writer is probably the late Anne Frank, whose posthumously published diary has been translated from the Dutch into more than 50 languages. The country is especially known for its beautiful tulips, originally imported from Turkey in the Persian Empire (the name “tulip” is etymologically related to the word for “turban”). In the 17th century demand for the bulbs generated what is thought to have been the first international mania, with prices being bid up to outlandish levels.