About five years ago (goodness how time flies) I met a former co-worker for happy hour at a local watering hole. Right after we wrapped things up and were heading towards the exit, she caught sight of a woman having a drink at the bar and reading a book. Curious, my friend asked her what she was reading. When the woman showed her a copy of Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City my former co-worker pointed to me and responded “you need to talk to him because he reads EVERYTHING.” Well, despite what she proudly proclaimed to a complete stranger I don’t read everything, but I do take note of a good book when I see one. Thanks to her, Shorto’s Amsterdam has been on my list to read ever since our little happy hour adventure.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago I found myself in the mood to read something about the Netherlands I could apply towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. In the past I’ve gone with historical novels like David Liss’ The Coffee Trader and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring or nonfiction works such as Timothy Brook’s history book Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, relatively speaking, I haven’t read many books, be they fiction or nonfiction dealing with the Netherlands. Luckily for me, my public library just so happens to have a copy of Shorto’s Amsterdam I could borrow to satisfy my craving for something about the Netherlands.
One tends to think of Amsterdam as a permissive European city filled with marijuana-infused coffee shops, legal prostitution, picturesque canals, art museums and bicycles. As an American expat living and working in Amsterdam, Shorto found that image surprisingly spot-on and wondered why it was so. In search of answers he delved into the city’s past looking for clues. Amsterdam is the fruit of his labors.
According to Shorto, Amsterdam, just like every city, is the way it is because of its past. Centuries ago, the area’s Dutch, in a community effort drained the local marshes and built canals, dams and to create the land on which to build the city. Because this was done communally, the newly created territory could not be claimed by feudal lords. Lacking any hereditary ruling class, the city developed an egalitarian outlook on life. When the winds of Reformation blew across Europe, the anti-authoritarian Dutch of Amsterdam welcome the new religious creeds with open arms. After the ruling Habsburgs of Spain overtaxed the Dutch to pay for their overseas military adventures they revolted. Spain’s response was bloody and heavy handed, even by the standards of the day. (By today’s standards Spain’s General the Duke of Alba would have been charged with war crimes and genocide.) After 80 years the Netherlands achieved independence and left many Dutch, especially in Amsterdam distrustful of dictators and religious authoritarianism.
Over the years, this laissez-faire attitude of tolerance would make the city a haven for religious refugees like English Puritans, Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots. Many of these new residents were highly skilled and educated and thus helped enrich the city and its environs. It produced great thinkers like Spinoza and provided sanctuary to the likes of Locke and Descarte. Thanks to the city’s spirit of freedom and communalism, no wonder Amsterdam gave us the first capitalist joint ventures and stock exchange. (This led to entities like the Dutch East India Company and with it, ironically, dehumanizing imperialism.) At one point its publishing houses produced over a third of Europe’s books.
Amsterdam is more than a history of a city but also a history of ideas, especially the concept of tolerance and how it can shape history. In this respect, it has much in common with Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall. With that in mind Amsterdam gave me a lot to think about. Thank goodness one night my former co-worker asked a total stranger what she was reading.