Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

Russell Shorto cherry-picks the most interesting characters and events from his research into the city’s history.

Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City is such an enjoyable book in part because Shorto cherry-picks the most interesting characters and events from his research into the city’s history. Shorto relates these stories in his clear, easy-to-read style creating a successful popular history as well as making a light foray into intellectual history. Although it covers the city’s history in at least cursory fashion from its foundation in 1200 to the present, it is far from comprehensive; there are large gaps especially during the city’s decline in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Shorto also has a thesis to prove: Amsterdam is the most liberal city in the world. He admits that this thesis is difficult to establish. For one, there are vagaries in defining the word “liberal” (liber in Latin means “free”) and it means different, even contradictory, things in different eras (a “Liberal” in the Netherlands is actually an economic liberal, and thus more of a conservative). Any claim to Amsterdam’s being the most “liberal” city in the world relies as much on its role in history as its current status as a medium size city with world-class culture, diversity, and, famously, official tolerance for soft drugs and legal prostitution (the latter actually isn’t so unusual in Western Europe). Shorto confronts the uncertain nature of historical influences (how much “credit” can we really give to Amsterdam for the development of Western freedoms?).

Shorto describes how Amsterdam’s liberal mindset was shaped by its water-logged origins. The harsh situation of the first settlers of Amsterdam, their constant struggle against the sea and the river delta called for collective action in water management: building dikes, windmills, bridges, and importantly, committing to this infrastructure for the long term. Such collective action, so typical of the Dutch mindset, proved in the end to be beneficial to the individual as well. Humble individuals ended up owning real estate that they had wrought from the sea. The early Amsterdam settlers were remote from kingly power. So after they reclaimed the land from the sea, it didn’t belong to a church or king. “It was theirs.” (253) (The statement about the land not belonging to church or king and the “It was theirs” line is repeated nearly verbatim on page 279).

Shorto of course ascribes economic factors as essential conditions for this rise of “individualism.” For example, in 1500 peasants owned 45% of the land in Holland as opposed to 5% in the rest of Europe (44). They were vested owners in their land, and with it came individual freedom of action that was hard to find in other parts of Europe, where peasants were generally bound to the manorial system.

So later on, when Philip II of Spain tried to roll back the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands, one reason that a critical mass of Dutch people supported the revolt was their own vested interest in their country. (Another was that Philip’s plans were so draconian–execution even if you recanted and returned to Catholicism–that many Dutch Protestants were literally fighting for their lives.)


There was nothing inevitable about Amsterdam’s rise to becoming a global economic powerhouse. It got some lucky breaks along the way. The first was the “Miracle of Amsterdam” (1345) when a dying old man took his last communion, vomited it, and the communion host remained whole. The women who were caring for him threw it on a fire, but the wafer did not burn! A miracle was declared and Amsterdam became a place of pilgrimage. Many churches were built and religious tourists came and bought trinkets, not so unlike tourists shopping in the countless souvenir shops one finds in central Amsterdam today. (Shorto omits the fact that another key founding myth of Amsterdam features vomit: reputedly a seasick dog vomited on the spot where early settlers decided to build the first dike, near Nieuwendijk.)

Shorto relates how early technological breakthroughs helped Amsterdam get off the ground. Discoveries in herring preservation (the fish’s liver is a natural preservative) led to the herring bus, a floating herring factory where the herring was packed and preserved on board while the ship stayed at sea. This and other advances eventually enabled the Dutch to dominate the north European market. The herring bus led in turn to a rise in shipbuilding, which became the key infrastructure for Dutch trade and the later colonial empire. Windmills were adapted to become sawmills, so that the Dutch imported German wood and sold finished lumber for export to the English.

The Dutch were also early adapters of the printing press which led to the dissemination of literacy, unorthodox ideas, and the development of the greatest publishing center of early modern Europe. (Shorto avoids the issue of whether a Dutchman really invented the printing press before Gutenberg, as some Dutch scholars have claimed).

The printing press led to an explosion in the dissemination of knowledge. Erasmus of Rotterdam emerged as a key figure in challenging abuses of the church and the asserting the primacy of the individual in interpreting the Bible according to his or her own lights. Erasmus in turn inspired Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. If the essence of Protestantism is that the individual read scripture for oneself (rather than rely solely on Church authority), then Erasmus and Luther each played titanic roles in changing history in favor of the individual (instead of the Church). These ideas found ready reception in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, especially after Calvin’s important refinements.

Shorto’s chapters on the Dutch golden age are an enjoyable retelling of what he calls “one of history’s classics.” Shorto describes the rise of the Dutch East India Company (VOC is its Dutch acronym) as the first modern corporation (a permanent company with shares for sale to anyone) and its role in reshaping parts of Asia and Africa, even as it enriched Amsterdam. The building of the Amsterdam’s canal belt (grachtengordel) was the largest planned urban expansion in Europe since Roman times (according to Geert Mak). Artists such as Rembrandt flourished, and portraiture for the first time was within the reach of the middle-class (not just aristocrats). Readers familiar with Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches, Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic or Geert Mak’s Amsterdam: A brief life of a city may not find much new here, but Shorto is an exuberant story-teller and his enthusiasm for the period is infectious.

The fact that three of the seminal philosophers of the early modern era–Descartes, Spinoza, and Locke–all wrote and published their important works in Amsterdam is strong evidence that the light of liberty may never have burned as brightly in the world at large without the freedom of expression that Amsterdam allowed in this period. Descartes and Locke both came here and published works that they could not have published in France or England. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, briefly ran his father’s business, and so breathed in its spirit of freedom his whole (short) life. The fact that Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community makes Shorto see him as distinctly modern, the first prominent European to not belong any religious community and thus an individual par excellance. Spinoza’s Tractatus was perceived as such an incendiary challenge to organized church and state that it was banned even in the Netherlands; but it was published, read, and discussed anyway and its influence on the French Enlightenment in the following century was enormous.

In 1672 (the rampjaar or “year of disaster” in Dutch history), England, France and even the Bishop of Münster invaded the Netherlands. Although Amsterdam itself wasn’t invaded, the nation as a whole was weakened at land and sea, and soon after had to face a series of major wars against Louis XIV of France. Shorto winds up his coverage of the Golden Age there, even though other historians point out that while Amsterdam weakened in many ways, it was a slow decline, and the city remained a key financial center well into the 18th century. (And the Netherlands even played a key role in helping to fund the early days of the American revolution. See Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute.) Shorto does offer an entertaining account of William III”s invasion of England, which English historians white-washed into the “Glorious Revolution” partly in order to preserve the notion that England hasn’t been invaded by a foreign power since 1066.

Shorto’s coverage of the eighteenth and nineteenth century is achieved mainly through sketches of some emblematic characters, such as Aletta Jacobs, the first Dutch woman to become a doctor and an early proponent of birth control and Eduard Dekker, the author of the classic anti-colonial novel Max Havelaar. So we see that there is still a tradition of enlightenment in the Netherlands, even during its period of economic senescence.

The twentieth century showed signs of Amsterdam’s resurgence with another massive enlargement of the city and rise of modern infrastructure and social services. But World War II was a dark chapter in the city’s liberal history. For various reasons, such as their concentration in Amsterdam and the usual Dutch efficiency at record-keeping, the survival of Dutch Jews was the lowest percentage of any country in Europe. Amsterdam did hold a general strike as a protest against the Nazi deportment of Jews, which historian Loe De Jong calls the “the first and only antipogrom strike in human history.” (268) But the Dutch carried a heavy conscience against their country’s relative lack of action to resist the deportments (compared to Denmark, for example). Shorto sees World War II as a low-point of Dutch liberalism. The Dutch, or the Amsterdammers, failed to stop the Nazis from shipping off their Jews to the death camps. So liberalism seems to some extent a position of expediency more than pure idealism.

The post-war period brought important changes to Amsterdam and a resurgence in liberalism, facilitated by a rise in affluence as Europe rebuilt. Outspoken champions of what would later by called gay rights, such as designer Benno Premsela, helped “normalize” homosexuality in The Netherlands. The Provo movement was hugely influential in challenging the status quo and created a climate where the first marijuana coffeeshops were legally tolerated in the early 1970s. Provo also highlighted the importance of cycling and helped call for building what would become the greatest cycling infrastructure of any city in the word.


Shorto doesn’t seriously challenge his thesis that liberalism was born in Amsterdam. He writes that if one were to award geographic medals for places that contributed to liberalism, then London, Paris and Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home) would all be candidates (18), but he doesn’t really pursue the claims of these other cities.

He also gives Amsterdam perhaps too much exclusive credit for the growth of capitalism, even while other Dutch towns such as Haarlem, and towns from the southern Netherlands (Brugge, Antwerp, etc.) also played important roles. Nor does he mention the important contributions to early capitalism of Venice or the towns of the Hanseatic League (Hamburg, Lübeck, etc.)

Professional historians will find much of this familiar ground and may find little new in it. Unlike in his The Island at the Center of the World, Shorto here doesn’t do much original archival research; this is too large a subject and so he relies mainly on secondary sources. The source notes also don’t cover quite the origins of all his anecdotes. When Shorto shares the story about a seventeenth century French naval commander who was surprised that a Dutch sea captain swept out his own quarters (while the French commander had a servant to do it), he doesn’t cite his source for this story. (It’s either from The Embarrassment of Riches or Israel’s The Dutch Republic.)

Shorto’s interviews with Frieda Menco, a Holocaust survivor who knew Anne Frank as a girl, and Roel van Duijn, founder of the Provo movement, which he incorporates into the narrative as original research, add both an anecdotal quality and fresh material to the narrative.

Passages about Shorto’s own Amsterdam experiences add a personal dimension to the book. Shorto interjects himself into the text perhaps more than usual in a popular history. He has until just recently lived in Amsterdam, and thus has had the opportunity to meet interesting personages from its twentieth century history. He mentions several places where he has lived in Amsterdam (and where he works, at the West Indian Company house), and the people connected to these places, and sees them as emblematic of the city’s history.


This is not a perfect book. The thesis is intriguing, but is hard to prove. In the end, the claim that Amsterdam is the most liberal city in the world doesn’t matter that much. It supplies a theme for the work; it makes for a good (if hyperbolic) meme. Shorto focuses on the times and events that support his thesis or add color to the narrative. While some people or eras are covered in depth, there is relatively little about the long, exhausting wars against Louis XIV, the 18th century in general, the Napoleonic wars, the 19th century in general (though “Multatuli” is covered) or World War I and its effects.

Shorto makes a few strange claims such as: “There is even a case to be made that our modern idea of “home” as an intimate personal space goes back to the Dutch canal houses of this period.” (19) Well, maybe. But farm houses have long been intimate personal spaces devoted to family; and while the Dutch canal houses (for the merchant class) didn’t have the multi-family scale of a manor or a castle, calling these canal houses the origin of the modern concept of “home” seems like an overreaching claim. What is true is that the Dutch middle-class enjoyed an unparalleled rise in their standard of living during the golden age, giving them the ability to afford coffee, tea, sugar, and even portraits in which their own (modest) lives were deemed important enough to be depicted. But surely the Dutch notion of gezelligheid (coziness) has contributed to urban connotations of home.

Shorto also sees the individualism within Dutch society as “seemingly contradictory” (253) to the strong collective tradition in Dutch history. But collectivism and individualism are not really “contradictory”; these are abstractions, and within nearly any society they are both present, but in different measure. They are competing principles, but any enlightened society or philosophical system will find its own balance between the extremes of individuals running amok without collective bonds (as in a libertarian’s fantasy of the U.S., or in an Ayn Rand novel) and larger organizations reducing individuals to utter insignificance (the medieval Church, the absolutist state, the Borg in Star Trek).

When Shorto points out that Amsterdam is a remote place because it lies at the same latitude as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (16), it is totally unconvincing comparison. Amsterdam is close to major river deltas (transportation networks) in Western Europe, so despite its more northerly latitude (compared to, say, Paris), this is a useless statement. London lies at a similar latitude to Amsterdam. Is London remote? From what? Amsterdam was originally remote because it was scarcely habitable. But once the water problem was managed, the city’s location eventually became an asset, helping it to dominate the Baltic trade for example.

When Shorto describes the video of Anne Frank appearing in a home movie from 22 June 1941, he mentions other contemporary events from the war (e.g., the Germans had just conquered Crete), but fails to remind us that this was also the very day that Hitler launched operation Barbarossa, his invasion of Russia (partly in order to capture Jews in the Pale of Settlement). Since it’s the very same day, this might have been a useful (and dramatic) fact to mention.

And not that it matters, but the Mellow Yellow marijuana coffeeshop (which claims to be the first one) is not on Weesperzijde as Shorto writes (301), but on Vijzelstraat.

Dutch readers are likely to have varied reactions to the book, depending on their sensibility. Some might be more skeptical of Shorto’s claims about the unique contribution of Amsterdam. The book tends to treat some of features of Dutch national policy as if Amsterdam, a mere city, were largely (solely?) responsible for them. “But then too, Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. I have been guilty in this book of sometimes seeming to equate the two. Every Dutch person who is from outside the city will be ready to counter the notion.” (281) Indeed.

But these are all quibbles. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City succeeds as a popular introduction to a glorious history. Much as Shorto justly receives credit for drawing more attention to the role of the Dutch in early New York history in his The Island at the Center of the World, now he will draw accolades for emphasizing the role of Amsterdam in the explosion of new ideas in the 17th century that inspired the 18th century philosophes, the Founding Fathers of the U.S., and other philosophers of freedom ever since.

[ See other reviews of Dutch history:
The Island at the Center of the World (also by Russell Shorto);
The Dutch Republic by Jonathan I. Israel;
The First Salute by Barbara Tuchman]

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