My brood and I are traveling to Amsterdam for the holidays. Amsterdam is the same size as Fort Worth, Texas, about 800,000 citizens, and it lies on the same latitude as Saskatchewan province in Canada. Brrr… Amsterdam is famous for canals and cannabis cafes and is considered a most liberal place — free, open and permissive. Just what we need after the last few months living in the land of “make America great again.” The city is also architecturally unique and culturally important to us in the United States. New York City was originally called New Amsterdam.
It is also the land of herring. The Dutch cornered the herring market and this led to an unusual degree of cooperation around water management. Building up dikes and dredging canals were massive communal activities. Herring merchants demanded the local government to get involved. Hence, the canal systems in Amsterdam are often compared to Venice. About 1500, as Michelangelo was working on his David statue, Amsterdam was a lively shipping port and one of the most Catholic cities in Europe.
Amsterdam’s tolerance attracts people with alternative lifestyles, even way back then in the 1500’s. After many wars and much strife including some gruesome beheadings, Calvinist worship was permitted and then in turn the Catholic priests, monks and nuns were brutalized. Between 1500 and 1700, those were dark times in the city’s history with many conflicts, wars and changes in governance.
Rembrandt got his start by painting scenes from the Bible that were highly sought and fairly affordable to homeowners in Amsterdam at the time, particularly women. Rembrandt even painted himself into the compositions. At the Rijksmuseum, we can see not only the largest but also the most representative collection of works spanning his entire career. I look forward to spotting him in these paintings when we visit. We can also tour his historic home and workshop in the heart of Amsterdam. Dutch born painter, Vincent Van Gogh, has many of his masterpieces, including my personal favorites of sunflowers and Wheatfields with Crows, showcased at the Van Gogh Museum. No doubt, I am attracted to these particular pieces due to my Kansas upbringing.
Shipping played a huge role in the economy of Amsterdam and made the city rich in the 1800’s. Shipping companies, like the Dutch East and West India Companies, sought resources by sea from places like Indonesia, West Africa as well colonies around the world including a party that landed in an area that would become New York. Multatuli wrote Max Havelaar in 1860 in protest against colonial policies told through the eyes of a coffee merchant. It was an instant success at the time and quite influential in Dutch literature and politics of the day. I have it downloaded to my Kindle to read during our travels.
These explorations resulted in a large population in Holland who identify themselves as Indisch, Indo-European or for short, Indo. After the Indonesian revolution, hundreds of thousands of these people, who held Dutch passports, were given the choice: renounce Dutch citizenship and become Indonesian or leave the country. Many left Indonesia and settled in the Netherlands. Indisch now means yummy food while eating in Amsterdam including rijsttafel, the Indo version of an Indonesian multicourse feast. I am seeking out such a feast as I don’t care for pickled herring.
The Nazi occupation essentially channeled Amsterdam people into distinct categories. There were the hunted Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables. There were collaborators, who out of either conviction or self-preservation aided the occupiers. There was a small section of society, numbering probably in the tens of thousands who formed active resistance. Most people just tried to protect themselves , their families and their property. Approximately 80,000 Jews were in Amsterdam at the start of the war, an estimated 58,000 were dead by the time it was over, most of them in concentration camps.
The story of Anne Frank and her family weaves in and out of this narrative and provides insight about a surreal world and time that must never be forgotten. Especially as we listen to influential leaders censoring legitimate news outlets as “fake news” sources. We will visit Dam Square where the Canadian forces arrived after the German surrender as well as a visit to the Anne Frank House where she went into hiding and wrote her diary.
Currently, the social welfare system in Amsterdam reflects a real commitment to individual rights with a nod to the understanding that what is good for the whole must be part of the national priority. Amsterdam has found a way to blend economics with social liberalism. And it helps that it is small and according to writer, Russel Shorto, a bit of a “pokey place”. I look forward to a week of poking around and trying my best to be a bit more pokey myself with my dear family in the Venice of the North.
If you want to learn a lot more about the history of Amsterdam, please read Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russel Shorto.