Amsterdam History – A Thrilling Journey Into the Past

Amsterdam is a really old city. In the year 1 250 the first farmers and fisherman settled in the present city area of Amsterdam. Golden Age, beer, miracles and tulip mania – learn everything about the turbulent city history of Amsterdam.

The city center around 1900

Archaeological findings indicate that even during the Roman period, people lived in today´s city area.

Fight with the swamp

Around 1 250, this area was almost exclusively covered with wet swamps and fenlands. All in all, the area was very difficult to build on. The people had to struggle with poles in order to get some building land on the wet ground.

Amstel + Dam = Amsterdam

Amsterdam owes its name to a dam (formerly referred to as "Dam") at the Amstel (the Amstel is a big river that flows through Amsterdam). So Amsterdam means something like “Dam at the Amstel”.

Dam-Square around 1900

By the way, the "Dam" is still there – right in the center. Today at the site where the dam used to be, there’s a huge square called "Dam".

Beer, Fish and Miracles – From Fishing Village to Metropolis

From now on, the small settlement at the Amstel developed splendidly and became bigger and bigger. The people mainly lived from beer trading and fishing. Also a small harbor was built. In 1275, Amsterdam was first mentioned in a document.

In the next 100 years of the history of Amsterdam, the city had a meteoric rise and became one of the top commercial cities of Europe. Among others, the success had the following reasons:

  • In 1323 the custom laws for beer from Hamburg were lent to Amsterdam
    The town earned a lot with the high customs revenue for the beer from Germany that was very popular back then.
  • In 1345, Amsterdam suddenly became an important pilgrimage city
    According to legend, the "Mirakel van Amsterdam" (also called miracle of the host) took place in this year. Due to the masses of pilgrims the population increased rapidly.
  • In 1969 Amsterdam joined the Hansa
    Back then the Hansa was a very influential German trade and city-association.

With all that success, the negative parts of the city history have to be named as well. Not everything was love, peace and harmony. More about this in the next paragraph.

Flood, Fires & Plague - Bad Times in Amsterdam History

The Black Death – the plague – also didn’t spare Amsterdam. Around 1350 there was a strong onset with thousands of dead people.

Fires also made the lives of the inhabitants of Amsterdam difficult. Back then, most of the houses were log-built and roofed with straw. When a fire started, the houses went up like matches and even smaller fires could quickly turn into a burning inferno.

In 1421 there was one of the most devastating fires. After this catastrophe houses were only allowed to be built of stone. The tragic time of the Middle Ages is reflected in the coat of arms of Amsterdam.

The three crosses in the crest of Amsterdam represent flood, fire and plague

Besides natural disasters and the plague epidemic, there were also social tensions among the inhabitants of Amsterdam. Traders out-of-town rebelled against the aristocracy and the domineering catholic church in that time.

The Golden Age – Tulip Mania and Meteoric Rise

In 1581 the economic miracle started in the Netherlands. The “Golden Age”, how the Dutchman call it, took almost over 100 years (until 1672) – a golden climax in the history of Amsterdam.

Back then, Amsterdam was the center of trading and sea travel. The seamen of Amsterdam sailed into the whole world (e.g. North America, Brazil, Africa) and created the cornerstone for our worldwide trading network we have nowadays.

A family portrait of the second half of the 17th century

The global trading brought unprecedented economic and cultural flowering to the Netherlands.

The most important facts of the golden Age:

  • Unprecedented rise
    A country with not even two Million people, obscure, agricultural production and without own resources becomes the leading global power in the 17th century.
  • Steep profits
    Especially the highly profitable trading with spices made the cash tills ring. Pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon were imported by trading ships from the colonies and sold throughout Europe.
  • Culture from the assembly line
    More than 700 painters painted approximately 70,000 pictures per year. All in all several million paintings were created. This is unique in the world of art. The most well-known artists: Rembrandt and Vermeer.
  • Religious tolerance
    The religious freedom back then attracted writers and scholars who were able to freely publish and teach. So even back then Amsterdam was a multicultural mix.
  • Tulip Mania
    Starting from the second half of the 16th century, tulips became a bestseller. Especially aristocrats and scholars were crazy about the classic flowers. Due to high demand, tulip bulbs became objects of speculation. At the climax of this so called "Tulip Mania" (Dutch name tulpenmanie), you were able to buy a whole house with only two tulip bulbs. The tulip mania is considered the first economic bubble in economic history.
  • Worldwide financial center
    At the climax of the golden Age, Amsterdam was the third biggest city in Europe and had the world’s biggest harbor.

Downfall in the 18th century

After the unprecedented economic rise in the golden Age, the people of Amsterdam had to watch the slow decay of their city in the 18th century.

The reasons for the downfall were diverse. An important reason was the increasing competition by other colonial countries like England, France and Russia. The fourth maritime war with England (1780 – 1784) weakened the economy – a bitter time in the history of Amsterdam.

In 1795 the Netherlands were eventually concurred by France

When Napoleon imposed the so called Continental System (Economic Blockade of the British Islands), the downfall of Amsterdam was sealed. Until then, Great Britain was one of the most important customers of Dutch products. The blockade was a catastrophe for trading.

After the pull-out of the French people in 1814, Amsterdam was completely poor and only an insignificant market town. The world’s oceans were now ruled by the British.

Second World War – Sad Low Point in the History of Amsterdam

On Mai 10, 1940 the back then still neutral Netherlands were attacked by Germany. Four days later they surrendered.

Back then, most of the Dutch Jews lived in Amsterdam. After a raid against the Jewish population in February 1941, the people of Amsterdam went to the barricades. There were strikes and mass protests. From rich bankers to simple dockers:

Citizens of all conditions campaigned for their fellow Jews

Unfortunately the protests were brutally crushed the very next day. In the following years, public resistance remained weak. The people were afraid and everyone who rebelled had to fear for his life.

A lot of people from Amsterdam hid Jewish citizens

This way, a lot of lives could be saved. – for example the life of Anne Frank, that became famous with the diary that she wrote back then. She was hidden in a rear house of the Prinsengracht (Anne Frank House). Thereby she was taking a big risk – The police of Amsterdam worked closely together with the Nazis. Whoever got caught had to face death penalty.

Despite the selfless commitment of many people from Amsterdam, almost all 100,000 Jews living in Amsterdam were deported and murdered until 1943.

Towards the end of the war, the food became scarce in Amsterdam. The winter of 1944 / 1945 is known in history as “the ‘Dutch famine of 1944 – 1945”. 20,000 people died from the cold and malnutrition.

The Dam Square on Mai 7, 1945 – The people of Amsterdam hid from the bullets of German soldiers

Only shortly after the capitulation of the Nazis on Mai 5, 1945, Amsterdam was freed by the Allies. Even days after the official release, German soldiers shot celebrating people on the Dam-Square – 22 people died.

Tolerance and Diversity – The Modern Amsterdam

After the war, Amsterdam slowly recovered and transformed over the years into an industrial city. Especially the trade with diamonds and shipbuilding, as well as the car and airplane production boosted the economy.

Amsterdam History

Tolerance and diversity are the principles of Amsterdam's modern history

During the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, Amsterdam became the unofficial European capital of hippies. During this time, soft drugs such as marijuana were legalized and squatting was commonplace.

In the 80s, the structure of the population changed. A lot of older people from Amsterdam moved to the countryside and former working-class neighborhoods, like the Jordaan, became “hip” and were mostly populated by younger people.

The relative prosperity and security in the Netherlands always attracted immigrants. First, the immigrants came from the colonies that were occupied by the Netherlands. In the 70s and 80s, foreign workers were recruited for the booming economy.

Even today, immigrants from countries like Morocco, Turkey or Pakistan form a significant part of the population of Amsterdam. Especially the colorful mix of cultures creates the charm of Amsterdam as a multicultural and cosmopolitan city.

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