Dutch Jewry before 10 May 1940
In what other country can one enjoy such complete freedom, where else can one go to sleep without fear? ( Descartes)
No German should be asked to live under the same roof with Jews . . . We must expel them from our houses and living areas. ( Das Schwarze Korps, 24 November 1938)
The Netherlands is situated at the mouth of one of Europe's most important waterways, the river Rhine. This means it holds a very strategic position, from an economic as well as from a cultural point of view. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces -- as The Netherlands (i.e. Low Countries) was called before they became a unitary state under the House of Orange in 18151 -- owed its wealth mainly to this favourable geographical position. The country was in the middle of the economically and culturally most powerful countries of Western Europe: Great Britain, France and the several German states.
Due to this strategic position, trade was as inevitable as it was profitable. In the seventeenth century the Republic was the richest nation of Europe. Dutch merchantmen voyaged to all corners of the earth. Amsterdam was not only the staple market for grain, but also for tropical products. At the local stock exchange shares of the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) and Dutch West India Company (W.I.C.) were bought and sold.
The 'Golden Age' was primarily due to the Republic's flourishing trade with its rich colonies, controlled by powerful companies. The greatest of these was the V.O.C., which exercised sovereign rights throughout the whole of the Indonesian archipelago. Its main source of income was the profitable trade in spices with the vast island-empire in the East, the present Indonesia. The most important slave trader between Africa and the American continent, the W.I.C. concentrated its efforts on the Americas, where the Dutch founded New Amsterdam. It was renamed New York in 1667 after it was exchanged with the English for Dutch Guyana, now Surinam. Until long into the eighteenth century, the Republic would be the most powerful colonial nation, while Amsterdam remained the financial centre of Europe with the oldest stock exchange of the world.
To use this favourable position optimally, it was essential for the Dutc elite to speak English, German and French. This was necessary, if only to prevent a small country like Holland being reduced to nothing more than a satellite. The Dutch have performed this balancing act between their mighty neighbours successfully for many centuries.